Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Weekend Excursion from Dubai . . . FALCONS AND OTHER ARABIAN BIRDS OF PREY - The Banyan Tree Al Wadi Resort, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE

The sun has not yet peaked over the desert dune outside our villa.  A soft, cool breeze is the only thing interrupting the quiet, predawn calm. Roger is still asleep, but I am up determined to photograph the elusive animals that are said to roam the nature preserve that is our private villa’s “back yard.” 


After almost an hour, my only sightings are small birds that appear just as light begins to crest the ridge.  As the early morning sun lifts higher, the sounds of the desert softly rise and larger birds present themselves.  We have been promised sightings of gazelles and the arabian oryx. I wonder if they will appear.




There, out of the corner of my eye, I see coming around the corner of our privacy wall, a small gazelle sidling up to the ghaf trees that encircle our infinity pool. I stand very still so as not to alarm this beautiful, fragile-looking creature. The gazelle takes its time munching on the trees; my camera is ready!

Just as another gazelle appears, I hear Roger stirring so I whisper, “Quick Roger, come see!” This pair of gazelles slowly follows each other in a delicate dance from tree to tree. They are so close we can almost reach out and pet them. 

For the next hour, Roger and I savor this surreal scene as we snuggle on our patio lounge chair. What a beautiful way to start the day - at peace with the world in a tranquil natural setting, appreciating God’s creatures, and each other.
The gazelles are a pleasant surprise, but what we have really come to Ras Al Khaimah for are the falcons, the Arabian hunters – a justly described desert weapon.  The falcon, “saqr” in Arabic, is a grand and regal creature admired for its beauty, endurance, patience and strength. 
Saker Falcon
For centuries this iconic bird of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been an invaluable hunting companion of the Bedouins. Because of the limited food supply of dates, milk and bread, the acquisition of a falcon played an important part in the Bedouins’ daily struggle to survive in the harsh desert. A hunting bird of prey enabled the owner to add a bit of protein to the family's dinner table. 
Today, falconry has become a major sport in Arabia. These highly prized birds are bought and sold for thousands of dollars.
Determined to have an “up close and personal” falcon experience, Roger and I are excited to find The Falconry Mews at the Banyan Tree Al Wadi Resort in the desert of Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven Emirates of the UAE.  This Centre is dedicated to the breeding, training, rehabilitation and conservation of birds of prey. Falcon expert “Saqar” Jannes Kruger, who hails from South Africa, gives us an excellent introductory, hands-on-experience with these magnificent birds.

Muffin, a femal Lanner
and Rednape hybrid
Inside a simple, concrete structure are more than a dozen birds of prey being cared for and trained by Jannes and his staff. Jannes meticulously introduces us to each bird explaining important bits of information about their natures and peculiarities. Each bird resides in their own cubicle perched on a stand and secured by a pair of jesses,” nylon tethers attached to a swiveled leash to allow the bird a certain freedom of movement.       
   
La Senza, a Gyr and Rednap hybrid
The characteristics of birds of prey are interesting. Females are always larger than males, and because of this, are preferred for hunting.  The saker falcon is well suited for desert hawking. The peregrine falcon is the fastest known bird, capable of diving at about 240 miles per hour. Two female peregrines, Shaheens in Arabic, are on site.

Gyrfalcons are the largest falcons
“Birds of prey do NOT enjoy physical contact and cuddles. They are fiercely independent creatures, and their relationship with their handler is exclusively based on food. Eagles are the exception – they adopt their handler as their mate and become a loyal hunting companion for up to 40 years.” instructs Jannes.

Classroom studies over, we go outside to meet the birds with whom we will interact.

Harris Hawk
Sharing the outside training area are a golden eagle, a harris hawk and two indigenous desert eagle owls. Jannes must first put on the eagle and the hawk an “al burqu,” a hood-like piece of decorated leather placed over the head and eyes. 

Bffs Katie & Google, a Desert Owl
Because birds of prey have such acute eyesight, covering their eyes serves to calm them and put them in a restful state. In this case, it also prevents the eagle and falcon from watching Jannes’ interaction with the owls which would definitely lead to a jealous spat! 

Roger and I cautiously follow Jannes into the owls’ cage and greet Google and Yahoo, the two desert eagle owls who are a bit reticent and appear not to be in the mood for company.  Jannes coaches them out with treats, and Roger and I enjoy handling and feeding these dignified feathered hunters. Their lack of aggression builds our confidence as we prepare to handle the bigger birds.
Janess leads us to the edge of the desert where the demonstration arena is set. He brings Marley, a saker falcon. The burqu is removed and Marley looks around his surroundings shaking his head and settling his feathers.
Jannes explains, “Falcons need to mentally and physically prepare themselves for flight by shaking their feathers, bobbing their heads to signal interest, and losing some weight by performing toilet duties.”
Marley
Trained falcons have tracking devises strapped to their backs that allows trainers to locate the birds should they “drift” off.  As hundreds of thousands of US dollars are paid for these hunters, it sounds like a good security measure.
Jannes walks further out into the desert and presents Marley to the desert wind currents.  He soars on the first gust of air, gliding regally above the desert floor and - oops – over the next dune. He seems to have gone out of sight!  A perplexed Jannes runs to the top of the nearest dune trying to keep the falcon in sight.
To bring him back, he presents a lure called the “tilwah.” This is a long rope with a leather tasseled pouch on the end that is swung in a circular motion to entice the falcon to attack. The tilwah is used to retrieve the bird because the falcon’s talons are so sharp and it flies at such a high speed that landing on the trainer's arm, even with the a protective glove, would be very painful.
After several attempts, Marley swoops down with great force preparing to sink his talons into the bait.  Just as quickly, Jannes swings the tilwah so that the bird misses his “prey” and must circle back for another try. Not wishing to repeat last week’s episode of chasing the falcon for three hours, Jannes craftily brings the falcon in and rewards him with a treat of quail meat that is quickly devoured – bones, feathers and all.  
Selma
The second act is the harris hawk whose name is Selma.
“Harris hawks hunt in groups of two to six. This is believed to be an adaptation to the desert climate. A small group flies ahead and scouts, then another group member flies ahead and scouts, and this continues until prey is bagged and shared. In another technique, all the hawks spread around the prey and one individual flushes it.” says Jannes.
Raising his arm to the wind and giving it a little flick, Jannes gives Selma her freedom. She promptly, much to Jannes’ chagrin, flies into the nearest tree. “Hawks are the laziest of the birds of prey and would rather 'perch' than fly,” explains Jannes. Coached out of the tree with a morsel of quail meat, he settles back on Jannes’ gloved arm.
Roger and I each take our turn with Selma, and now feeling quite accomplished, we eagerly accept Jannes’ invitation to take on the big bird, Kazakh, so named because he comes from Kazakhstan. Jannes brings out the eagle, secures him with tethers on his gloved hand and removes his burqu. Happy to be part of the environment again, Kazakh looks around taking in all he can see with his enormous and sensitive eyes.
Roger and Kazakh do
some male bonding!
Roger dons the “manqalah,” a long glove of dense material that protects his arm from the deadly sharp talons. Jannes warily encourages Kizakh to sit on Roger’s arm – remember this truly is a deadly weapon – which surprisingly Kizakh does in an agreeable manner. Holding his arm high, Roger takes a cautious look at his new buddy.
Turning towards the breeze, Roger raises his arm to give the bird a feel of the wind, and Kizakh takes off to land on his perch on the other side of the demonstration arena. 
Now for the return!  Jannes turns his back to Kizan and takes a morsel of quail meat out of his “al mukhat,” the canvas bag that holds the treats. He places the raw meat in Roger’s gloved hand and moves out of the way while Roger presents the morsel to Kizakh. It takes no prodding for the eagle to fly dead-on to claim his snack on Roger’s outstretched arm. I guess this tells you that the one who “holds the meat” wins!    “Actually, all we are to a bird of prey is a source of food.  Take that away and he is gone!” Jannes explains.
Later that day at the resort’s waterhole, we see the much anticipated arabian oryx and some more gazelles partaking of the pleasures of the on-site oasis.  The arabian oryx is truly a poignant sight since by 1972 it was hunted to extinction. Only through the efforts of late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the Abu Dhabi Environmental Agency, has this majestic animal been reintroduced to the UAE. Both the Arabian gazelle and oryx are currently protected species and live on reserves such as the one we are visiting.
Al Rimal Delux Pool Suite
 
(Picture courtesy of Banyan Tree web site
)
Banyan Tree Al Wadi Desert Resort is a beautiful and tranquil setting if you are looking for privacy and total relaxation. Found in the serene Wadi Khadeja, this remote location is a dedicated nature reserve that is home to local desert wildlife and vegetation. The grounds are landscaped with the indigenous evergreen ghaf trees and, while definitely desolate as deserts are, hold a serenity that is majestic.
“Tinged with terracotta hues of scorched desert” our Al Rimal Deluxe Pool Villa simply takes our breath away. Beautiful dark wood lattice screens separate the living areas. The overly spacious bathroom is stocked with every luxury amenity you can imagine. The soaring ceiling over the king size bed is a delightful surprise.  The crowning glory is our personal infinity pool overlooking the serene desert nature reserve.  Nothing like taking a late night swim with the man you love. 
Postscript . . .
Falconry Course - Our 3-hour session with the birds of prey was wonderful and just enough to perk our interest in these magnificent hunters. Jannes also offers a two-day course that result in your certification in falconry. Wish we had time to do that!     

Banyan Tree Beach Resort Villa (picture courtesy of Banyan Tree web site)

Banyan Tree Beach Club - We were so enamored by the Al Wadi Desert Resort that a few weeks later  we spent our 6th wedding anniversary weekend at the Banyan Tree Resort Beach Club on the Arabian Gulf. Located on its own little island, the small, very-private resort features villas with a private beachfront and private pool. Glorious! The staff is so attentive that they welcomed us with a sweet wedding anniversary surprise. When we married 6 years ago, we made a promise to stay on a perpetual honeymoon. Roger always keeps his promises.  P.S. Here are some summer promotions just put out by Banyan Tree
Happy Wedding Anniversary  

4 comments:

  1. Hi Katie,
    As always, you've managed to transport me right into the desert with you and Roger. I could actually feel the weight of the eagle. What a beautiful place and another amazing adventure.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Anne

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  2. I love The Banyan Tree and someone told me it had closed.I'm so happy to hear it hasn't. Such a tranquil place. I have the exact same photo over the pool from what looks like the same villa! Must try out the beach version!

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  3. Wondrful Katie, great post and great photos, and looks like you had a great time, too. I love the 'new eyes' with which you are looking!

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