Sir Bani Yas Island: Desert Island Discovery

A desert safari on Sir Bani Yas Island in the United Arad Emirates
A desert safari on Sir Bani Yas Island in the United Arad Emirates

Sir Bani Yas Island: a safari in Arabia

By Andrea Bailey

The author escapes to Sir Bani Yas Island leaving behind the desert heat and skyscrapers of Dubai.

“We’re not going to make it,” I muttered under my breath as I watched my fuel level dip precariously to almost zero. What a horrid way to start our holiday should our family car sputter and stop on the highway with desert on either side.

And then it appears. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes… a blue falcon mascot of the ADNOC fuel station appears from the desert sands much to our relief!

And so it was with no dearth of excitement that our stay-cation began. We’ve lived in the UAE for almost nine years and like other expats have made countless trips to the malls and souks of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

A Green Haven

Up until a few years ago if you were to ask any expat or local Emirati about a wildlife reserve in the UAE, you would have them scratching their heads in bewilderment. This has changed thanks to the tireless efforts of the people at TDIC (Tourist Development and Investment Company).

Sir Bani Yas Island was the much-loved retreat of the late Sheikh Zayed, founding father of the UAE. His passion was to create a green haven for animals given the harsh desert climate. The area around the island is a no-fishing zone and so there is more sea life here than around Abu Dhabi’s coastal areas.


We began our journey from Dubai and headed southwest to the wilderness of Al Gharbia region. Our stop was to be Jebel Dhanna, a jetty from where we would catch our ferry to the island.

A four-hour drive from Dubai (or two hours from Abu Dhabi), a few minutes on the TDIC ferry and a short bus ride later, we found ourselves at the plush doorstep of the Desert Island Resort and Spa on Sir Bani Yas Island. It was only at the resort that we were told the particular highway (E11) that we had taken was notorious for its lack of fuel stops.

Sir Bani Yas Island is the largest of eight natural islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi in the western region of Al Gharbia. The breeding and conservation program of Sir Bani Yas is the evidence of Sheikh Zayed’s love for the island’s natural habitat and the heritage of its people.

Forty wind turbines are planned for the island.
Forty wind turbines are planned for the island.

Responsible Tourism

The island is home to several critically endangered animals like the Arabian Oryx, sea turtles, sand gazelles, blackbuck antelope and Urial sheep. TDIC strives to combine responsible tourism with sustainability.

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To emphasize this, a wind turbine, the first of its kind in the Middle East was set up in 2004 to generate 850 kilowatts per hour of electricity. There are plans to install at least forty more wind turbines around the island in the near future.

The Desert Island Resort is managed by the Anantara group and blends seamlessly into its surroundings mirroring the color of the neighboring hills. Mangroves coat the nearby lagoon with a sheet of deep green. It feels untainted and unsullied by the outside world. Quite different from the Dubai cityscape that we call home.

Early the next morning a cream-colored safari jeep stood at the doorway ready to drive us into the wildlife reserve. Our safari guide Sonika has been at Desert Islands for over a year now and loves all aspects of her outdoor work.

A Cheetah Sighting

Oryx on Sir Bani Yas Island in the United Arad Emirates
Oryx on Sir Bani Yas Island in the United Arad Emirates

In this arid and dusty Arabian landscape lies a beauty that is as subtle as it is raw. Every now and again a patch of green breaks the monopoly of the orange and brown hilly terrain.

Sprightly sand gazelles ran about, kicking up dust while a blackbuck sat on the warm ground, his wonderfully twisted antlers glinting in the sunlight.

Crunching and spitting up gravel with her wheels, our jeep rumbled alongside a group of cowlike eland. Eland can jump eight feet from a standing position if startled or provoked.

Sonika’s radio buzzed and crackled to life with news of a cheetah sighting and we dashed in the hope of sighting it.

Cheetahs are excellent at camouflage and the safety of the wildlife park ensures their survival. Bred in captivity and released into the wild, the three resident cheetahs are successful hunters thriving under the watchful eyes of the TDIC.

Oryx on the move
Oryx on the move

A Distinctive Odor

And while the cheetah gave us the slip that morning, the giraffes were not going anywhere in a hurry. The distinct odor of their enclosure drifted across to our jeep prompting my three-year-old to ask me, “Mama what’s that smell?”

Guests can try their skills on the archery range.
Guests can try their skills on the archery range.

Sonika explained to her that these were the reticulated breed of giraffes and were generally peaceful animals. A lone giraffe, an old male, snorted at us in disdain and Sonika mentioned that he had been separated from his group on account of his cantankerous behavior with the ladies.

Leaving behind the world of the hunter and the hunted, the park gates closed and we drove past quiet olive groves. A hot summer sun climbed into the sky burning down on Sir Bani Yas Island as we left the reserve and made our way back to the resort.

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Things to be aware of:

Do be mindful of nature and the animals in particular. Loud noises, provoking the animals or feeding them is not permitted.

Fishing is not permitted anywhere near Sir Bani Yas Island.

A decent dress code should be maintained on the island as in the rest of mainland UAE.

Where to stay:

Desert Resort and Spa by Anantara: Voted as one of the Condé Nast 100 HOT LIST of 2010 resorts, this luxurious resort and spa offers all the creature comforts with large rooms and suites as well as beach villas, five unique dining experiences, a tranquil spa and an inviting pool.

Why go?

For each guest who visits the resort, a mangrove sapling is planted.
For each guest who visits the resort, a mangrove sapling is planted.

Go for a taste of Arabian wildlife and for an unforgettable desert experience

In keeping with their eco-sensitive approach to tourism, TDIC plants a mangrove sapling for every guest of Desert Island Resort and Spa. So by visiting the island, you do your part towards the ‘Greening of the Desert’ program.

Other activities:

Snorkeling and Kayaking – Several reefs are available for snorkeling and good swimmers are encouraged to try it out.

Kayaking – TDIC provides the sea and the bay for this activity. Basic training and equipment are provided.

Archery – Both beginners and experts are given an opportunity to try the archery range.

Mountain Biking – If rugged terrain and panoramic views are right up your alley, try the mountain biking experience.

Nature and Wildlife Walks – A guide will walk you through all the history and geography of the island and its wildlife on this activity.

How to get there:

From Dubai: Follow E11 straight down from Dubai, past Abu Dhabi, Mirfa and Tarif in the direction of Liwa Oasis. At Jebel Dhanna take the turn towards the jetty for Desert Islands/ Sir Bani Yas Island.

TDIC operates an hourly ferry service between the island and the mainland.

From Abu Dhabi: Sir Bani Yas Island is located approximately 170 kms from the city of Abu Dhabi.

Andea Bailey and her trusty motobike
Andea Bailey and her trusty motobike



Andrea Bailey is a freelance travel writer based in Dubai.