Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 April 2020

Mangroves, mountains and Mleiha: The great outdoors is alive and well in the UAE

There are plenty of opportunities to connect with nature here – you just need to make the effort

The deserts of the UAE present plenty of opportunities to go camping with family and friends. Getty
The deserts of the UAE present plenty of opportunities to go camping with family and friends. Getty

One of the misconceptions about the UAE is that it has “no nature” – as if it were a purely urban environment existing in a vacuum. This is basically because the UAE does not have the kind of nature people are used to. There are no rolling green fields or lush woodlands to please the northern-­hemisphere-trained eye. For many, nature equals greenery, yet the UAE’s dramatic deserts and jagged mountainscapes are also the “great oudoors”. In actual fact, the UAE’s relatively small urban centres are flanked on all sides by some truly multifaceted terrain.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke up at 5.30am on a Friday and drove to Ras Al Khaimah from my home in Dubai to take part in K9 Friends’ annual Human and K9 Ultimate Challenge. This rare opportunity to take my pooches hiking in the wadis of the UAE, along a safe, monitored route in the company of other like-­minded dog lovers, was well worth the early start and 90-­minute drive.

I stopped at a petrol station on the way and was reminded that there’s a whole breed of UAE residents for whom these weekend excursions into the country’s “wilds” are a regular occurrence – people with their cars jam-packed full of camping gear, or with quad bikes at the ready, stocking up on firewood and other barbecue essentials.

I was happy to join their ranks, even if only for a little while, and it got me thinking about why I so rarely venture into their midst. Apart from the odd timid foray into the desert on an often ill-­fated camping trip, or an impromptu drive around Al Qudra lakes, I seldom take the opportunity to go out and immerse myself in the UAE’s great outdoors. Have I, too, subconsciously fallen prey to the mistaken belief that there’s “no nature” in the UAE, and stopped making the effort to go out and refute those claims?

The UAE's wadis are waiting to be explored. Courtesy Sarah Maisey
The UAE's wadis are waiting to be explored. Courtesy Sarah Maisey

Once we got to Ras Al Khaimah, our hike took us between rocky mountains that rose in dramatic jagged walls around us; we climbed up scree-covered mounds and passed through rock-strewn paths; skipped over barely there pools and had an impromptu picnic on boulders dotting the bedrock. Recent rains had covered the entire area in a blanket of green and the air was cool against our faces. The dogs, needless to say, were in their element and it was a welcome reminder that there is plenty of nature in the UAE – you simply have to make the effort to go out and find it.

From the towering sand dunes to be found as soon as you stray from any main road and the craggy mountainscape of Jebel Jais, to the countless wadis (particularly welcoming at this time of year) and the mangroves of Abu Dhabi, to the natural wetlands at Ras Al Khor and even the man-made lakes of Al Qudra, there are countless opportunities to connect with nature. You simply have to be open-minded to the idea that nature here comes in forms that may not be immediately familiar.

Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi has just opened. Wam
Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi has just opened. Wam

So before the weather heats up and heading outdoors becomes infinitely more challenging, I’m going to make a point of exploring some more of the UAE’s natural assets. I’ll start by heading back to that wadi in Ras Al Khaimah, but this time I’ll take a group of friends and stay the night. I’ll also make a point of visiting the new boardwalk at Abu Dhabi’s Jubail Mangrove Park, which opened last month and allows visitors to explore the one million-square-metre natural reserve from a unique vantage point.

Hopefully, I’ll also finally get around to doing a bit of flamingo spotting at Ras Al Khor – something I’ve been meaning to do since I got to the UAE about 12 years ago – and maybe head to Mleiha in Sharjah to enjoy a new camping experience at the historic site that includes a visit to the Mleiha Archaeological Museum, followed by an overnight stay in the desert, a spot of stargazing and a guided sunrise trek the next morning. Then I’ll be well and truly ready with a rebuttal the next time anyone claims there’s “no nature” in the UAE.

Updated: February 20, 2020 02:28 PM

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