By G. Allison Hedges, ASLA Landscape Architect
Due to the concerted efforts, vision and personal touches of the former president and late founding father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the masterpiece of Sir Bani Yas Island has materialized into quite the unique destination.
Anyone keen on experiencing a truly sustainable environment needs to make their next travel destination Sir Bani Yas Island. Here the very essence of sustainability is experienced with integrity and employed in its purest form. Visitors will sense a genuine passion on the part of the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) staff to maintain sustainability on all levels. TDIC works in collaboration with Masdar Institute to develop renewable energy strategies for Abu Dhabi.
Recently our family visited Sir Bani Yas and I was so inspired by the focus on the preservation of natural resources that I felt sharing this experience would be beneficial for other environmentally conscious professionals. The TDIC staff’s focus is on the preservation of indigenous resources as well as employing programs and initiatives that sustain the islands unique ecology.
Sir Bani Yas is the largest and most developed of the eight Desert Islands. The other seven are: Delma Island and six Discovery Islands (sandy outcrops nearby). These eight Desert Islands are referred to as “Jozor Al Sahra’a” in Arabic. From Abu Dhabi city travel 2.5 hours on highway E11 towards the Western Region of Abu Dhabi into the Liwa Desert to an area known as Al Gharbia where you will reach the port at Jabel Dhanna. Accommodations at the Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara can be booked through www.desertislands.com under “Places to stay”.
Upon your arrival at Jabel Dhanna you’ll begin to experience the uniqueness of Sir Bani Yas Island. Visitors are not allowed to drive their private cars onto the island and are required to park their cars under the “shaded canopy car park”. Visitors are then welcomed at the fully-serviced arrival terminal reception building located on Jabel Dhanna. Here visitors can relax before embarking on a 20 minute boat transfer (8 km off the coast) to the island during which time dolphins may be sited.
As you approach Sir Bani Yas Island’s port, located on the southeast side of the island, you’ll notice the sea planes also available as alternate transportation. More flight information is available at the website above under “Location” and “Fly to Desert Islands”. For those who’ve arrived by boat transfer to the island, again be prepared for yet another unique initiative employed which is the world’s first “Zero-Emission Electric Bus”. Sir Bani Yas has two such carbon footprint friendly buses operating on the island. The ride is quite smooth as each bus is aerodynamically designed with a curved body and seamless windows while the interior incorporates white leather seating.
While visitors are peacefully transported via Electric Buses to their resort destination another very unique feature is spotted in the distance. The utilization of wind as an alternative energy solution is in operation by one of the Middle East’s largest wind turbines. This initiative is expanded from the late Sheikh Zayed’s eco-philosophy. The wind turbine stands 65 meters high, has three rotor blades each with a 52 meter wing span producing 850 kilowatts of power per hour (enough power for 30 – 40 households). Yorg, our TDIC tour guide, mentioned that “the wind turbine powers about 2% of the islands’ electricity”.
Upon arrival at the five star Desert Island Resort & Spa, managed by Thai operator Anantara, you’ll notice that this resort is situated between the northern coast and the mangrove lined lagoon. The resort blends well into its environment incorporating indigenous plant material into the landscape design. Some of the trees that can be seen are the Umbrella Thorn Acacia, Ghaf, Gum Arabic, Frankincense, Toothbrush, Grey Mangrove and Christ’s thorn Tree. Due to the resilience of these desert tolerant plants the island has become a more hospitable environment attracting animals and migratory birds.
One of the most impressive initiatives of the late Sheikh Zayed is the “Greening the Desert” program. This has lead to the planting of several million plants and trees on Sir Bani Yas. One such tree that is seen in abundance is the species Avicennia Marina (Gray Mangrove). The Gray Mangrove is seen occurring naturally along coastal areas and islands. Mangroves naturally protect the coast from erosion, while creating a protected breeding area for fish and enhance the water by removing carbon dioxide. Because of the benefits of the Mangrove tree, the staff is committed to the planting of one Mangrove tree for every visitor to the island. The Mangrove nursery is brazenly displayed along the lagoon at the entrance of the Resort as a reminder for all visitors that the TDIC staff is serious about contributing to a sustainable environment.
Another highly unique attraction on the eastern sided of the island is an ongoing archeological excavation of an early Christian monastery. This is the only early Christian site in the UAE and dates to between 50 and 350 AD. Likely Sir Bani Yas was selected as their location due to the trade route and the Gulf pearling industry. Christians in this area were referred to as “Nestorians” or followers of “The Church of the East”. Several artifacts that have been excavated include: the foundations of an eastern gate facing the sea, a sanctuary and altar, a chapel, a cupboard, small store rooms, kitchens, monk’s cells, a portable plaque depicting a cross, and a northern chapel called “A House of Prayer” (Beth Slutho). It is believed, that due to the coming of Islam in the previous century, the site was abandoned by the last few monks in 750 AD.
Centrally located in the heart of Sir Bani Yas is an area devoted to the Arabian Wildlife Park which covers about 50 percent of the island. The 4100 hectare area is dedicated to the breeding and rehabilitation of over 10,000 animals. Some of the indigenous species that can be seen are: Sand Gazelles, Blackbuck Antelope, Urial Sheep, Barbary Sheep and Arabian Oryx. Visitors can take TDIC guided driving or biking tours through the Wildlife Park. Other indigenous species of wild birds that can be seen are: eagles, birds of prey and falcons. Due to migration, other non-indigenous species have made the island their permanent home such as: flamingos, cormorants and grey herons.
The goal of the Arabian Wildlife Park is to develop and work with the expansion in four phases: First, relocate the animals back to the mainland (this is the Wildlife Reserve in the Liwa Desert); Second, separate the indigenous and non-indigenous wildlife; Third, introduce predators such as the Cheetah and the Hyenas (this creates a more authentic environment while maintaining population); and Fourth, the ongoing release of animals from the Wildlife Park back to the Abu Dhabi mainland (Liwa Desert) while reintroducing new Arabian species into the Park.
Visitors will be delighted to know that there are a plethora of activities available once checked into the Desert Island Resort Hotel. These include: Nature and Wildlife Park Drives, Walks or Mountain Biking where an abundance of animals are seen as if on a safari, Archery for all skill levels at a range, Sailing lessons or for hire, Charter Cruises on a catamaran, Kayaking thru the bird sanctuaries or mangrove areas, Snorkeling along the eastern coast to see sea turtles and colorful fish.
We found that there was not enough time to experience all that Sir Bani Yas Island had to offer and therefore we look forward to our next trip. Future Developments such as: The Equestrian facility, the Al Yamm Lodge to be nestled in the mangrove forests, the Al Sahel Lodge to be located in the Wildlife Park, the Conference Centre and the Water Sports Centre are all scheduled to be completed in late 2011.
Many thanks go to both the conscientious TDIC staff at Sir Bani Yas Island and the Public Relations staff member, Shadi Moazami, with Hill and Knowlton in Abu Dhabi. Their help and advice has been a great benefit and enhancement in the writing of this article.