UAE National Day
Aaron Noah M.
Location: Al Lisaili, UAE

Flags were everywhere.  Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi were full of color, officially decorated with the “Spirit of the Union” logos commemorating the country’s  40th birthday.  There was no shortage of possible events to attend on the day, and many folks spent the previous week preparing for them by garnishing their vehicles (cars, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, you name it) with the UAE colors and images of important sheikhs.

I considered covering the frantic activities in Dubai, but then I remembered what the holiday has been like in the past: crowded streets, wild cars with people hanging out of open windows, constant honking, stereos blasting, and teenagers spraying string confetti at anyone within range.  If lesser anniversaries induced this much racket, I imagined the 40th National Day celebration to be pure mayhem.

No thanks.  I opted for a more peaceful experience instead.  Gulf Vantage contributor Samah joined me on a trek away from the noisy celebrations of the city and into the dunes.  To honor a country born from the desert, this made more sense.

We started the day with a leisurely drive to the Wadi Al Faya area, a red sand dune expanse under the shadow of Fossil Rock (Jebel Maleihah).  We soon discovered that we were not the only people out for an urban escape.  Groups of tents covered the landscape, with families lounging in camp chairs, huddled around bbq pits.  Children ran free over the sands and larger “kids” roamed the distant dunes on quad bikes and motorcycles.

At first I was pleased to see so many families out enjoying the wildlife, but then I spotted the hideous piles of garbage scattered around each campsite.  I was shocked.  The entire wadi was littered with bottles, plastic bags, cans, and fast food containers.  Camels had gathered up around some of the rubbish piles, blissfully munching on the man-made junk.  And where there wasn’t garbage, the desert sand was scarred with hundreds of tire tracks, and the once quiet valley now hummed with motorized activity.

No matter how many times I witness scenes like this it still amazes me that so many people make the effort to go see the beauty of the desert and then to do their best to destroy it.

It seemed that the city had followed us, so we left Wadi Al Faya and sought out more secluded areas.  We stopped once near the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve which was, thankfully, in much better condition than the habitat just north of there.  We snapped a few photos of gazelle and oryx and then continued on.

A day out with the falcon

A day out with the falcon

Near sunset we found ourselves poking around the gravel plains and tan dunes near Al Lisaili.  While tracking some more oryx we stumbled upon a small group of Emirate men training their falcons.  When we stopped to take pictures from afar, once of the guys waved and beckoned us to have a closer look.

I’ve seen falcons in the wild and I’ve seen trained falcons used to pose for pictures at tourist traps, but this was something more interesting: locals, out in the desert, training these birds of prey to hunt, just like their Bedouin ancestors have done for centuries.  This was a unique cultural opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.

A hooded falcon on a Wakir

A hooded falcon on a Wakir

After greeting the group, they let us check out the falcon stands (called “Wakir”) and the birds perched on top of them.  Falcons (“Saqr” in Arabic) that were not in training rested on wooden or metal platforms and all of the birds were hooded.  These animals have extremely acute eyesight, so the hoods are used to tame them and help them adjust to their surrounding gradually.

Once the hood is off, it’s all business; the falcon immediately scans the area for prey.  One man, the designated hunter (“Saqqar”), prepared a bird to hunt by moving it from a Wakir to his gloved hand.  Another man stood some 50 meters away with a fishing pole attached to a rope with a freshly killed pigeon at the end of it, which he began to swing around in circles above his head.

Nothing happened until a verbal command was given by the Saqqar, and then the falcon took flight like a fighter jet and quickly moved into position above the target.  While the dead pigeon was being swung around, the falcon made repeated dives until it finally seized the prey firmly.  As a reward for the catch, it was allowed to have pigeon dinner.

I was happy enough to watch this amazing display, but then the locals also let me hold one of the birds and let this grinning writer get some touristy snapshots (“Look ma, I’m holding a falcon!”).  The falcons are striking animals up close, and when the hood was taken off my bird, he looked me up and down like I might be the next target.  And indeed, while they were removing the falcon from my glove, one of its sharp talons just barely grazed my arm and drew blood.  I would hate to be on the receiving end of a full strike!

Fishing for falcons

Fishing for falcons

My battle scar was a small reminder on how effective falcons can be for hunting.  Today they are primarily used for sport, but just a couple of generations ago these Emirates would have been training the falcons to provide food.  Popular prey included various birds and hares, but falcons have also been known to bring down larger animals such as gazelle.

We thanked our guests, moved on into the desert looking for other critters, and as the sun finally set we did spot a couple of oryx and a gazelle, but for me this didn’t seem as exciting as the falcons earlier.  That was the highlight of the day, and a fitting way to experience the UAE’s 40th birthday.