Adam McCulloch www.theaustralian.com.au
THERE are wings beneath my feet. As I stand at the edge of the observation tower on top of the world’s tallest building, the dazzling needle-shaped Burj Khalifa, a bird soars far below.
Almost 828m below, Dubai’s construction frenzy may be rapidly crystallising the sands of the Arabian Desert into skyscrapers but, paradoxically, the city is also home to an abundant population of birdlife.
While Dubai has no natural lakes or rivers, the grounds of the resorts and country clubs of the world’s most futuristic city are so lush they double as five-star outdoor aviaries.
According to my notes, the cream-coloured courser can be found idly foraging around the Ghantoot Polo Club, whereas the pintail snipe prefers the Emirates Golf Club. The hooded wheatear is in residence at the Mercure Hotel while Hume’s wheatear is set on the Hatta Fort Hotel. The Egyptian nightjar, bimaculated lark and the chestnut-bellied sandgrouse can all be found drinking at
Al Wathba Camel Racetrack. Clearly, our feathered friends are on to something.
Keen to gain more insight into Dubai’s small avian miracle, I arrange to meet Pratha Sawaradekar, a guide from tour company Arabian Adventures. He hails from India and is enthusiastic to show me his adopted city. Sawaradekar greets me in front of the Dubai Fountain, a water feature so vast gardeners navigate it by boat. “Dubai has as much water as oil,” he explains, ushering me into the cool of a waiting van.
“The oil powers massive desalination plants to make fresh water for the city. It’s all recycled; the larger the city grows, the more grey water there is for gardens.”
Sawaradekar points towards an undulating dune of manicured lawn, where waterbirds are preening themselves under the liberal spray of the sprinkler. “They love the golf course,” he says wryly.
When we reach the gold souk it is not the heavenly light of the 24-carat window displays that lures me in. Instead, I’m captivated by the work of a portrait painter nearby. His paintings depict powerful men dressed in flowing white djellabas, each surrounded by their most prized possessions. Some hold the reins of a stallion, others a pair of racing hounds, but every one has a falcon on his arm. A hunting bird, it seems, is the original Rolex.
For centuries, during the cool autumn months, Bedouin would trap falcons as they followed the flyways of smaller birds migrating south to Africa. These birds of passage have been stopping over in Dubai long before the first wandering nomad picked the first date at the oasis. The urge to migrate is impressively powerful, even in cage-raised birds that have never known the lift of a desert thermal. This migratory restlessness cannot be bred out: Germans refer to it as zugunruhe.
To capitalise on this age-old migration, the Bedouin would train falcons to hunt and share in their spoils. Come spring, the birds of prey were released to follow their quarry north. Falconry is almost the same today, Sawaradekar tells me; the only difference is that falcons are tagged, recorded, fed, exercised and given a thorough physical before being released. Dubai’s status-conscious consumers are taking to falconry like never before and wild birds are in high demand: happily for the falcons, this means they’re vigorously protected.
Sawaradekar and I push our way through peak-hour traffic to Jumeirah, a newly formed canal neighbourhood carved from the foreshore like the moat of an oversized sandcastle. “Dubai is so green, some birds get confused,” Sawaradekar says. “They think they have already reached Africa. Sometimes they stay. Then, after a couple of weeks they get restless, the urge drives them south.”
In Jumeirah, the misting of the garden beds takes the sting from the sun. We stroll around the marina and through the labyrinth of Venetian-style canals where restaurants attempt an impression of aged patina. For my money, it’s all a bit too theme-park perfect and has none of Europe’s genuine historic charm.
But, judging by the twittering emanating from the newly planted palms and verdant undergrowth, the birds don’t care one bit.
The following day, I decide to turn my back on my pampered feathered friends, so easily spotted from my hotel window. I board a flat-bottomed dhow and head up Dubai Creek, the saltwater inlet that divides the new from the old town. The river bank is packed with hulking cargo dhows, painted in mismatched shades of jaunty pastels. They are piled high with motorcycles, fridges, DVD players and all manner of contraband from Iran. Many sink on the treacherous journey and many will sink on the journey home.
After a while the creek narrows and the buildings take on the blight of industry. The creek oozes with brackish water and boggy earth. Before the building boom this land was loved only by factory owners and flamingos. In the
ensuing environmental tussle, the flamingos won, a rare victory in the ongoing global battle between wildlife and development.
The impressively green-minded Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum declared Ras Al Khor a conservation zone, fenced it off and built three birding hides. I sequester myself in the cool shade of one and watch as at least 100 preposterously pink greater flamingos use their hooked beaks to trawl for shrimp.
Dubai’s birds are not all uniquely adapted to urban life: some prefer the desert. On my last day I take a daytrip to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve to stay at Al Maha Desert Resort. As we leave the city, the manicured median strips give way to a scrubby verge of tortured dusty trees. Al Maha was once an oasis but the shifting sands and the fog of memory wiped it from the map.
It was rediscovered by a falconer who moved a stone and watched incredulously as water burbled thickly from the ground. The place functioned as a camel farm for many years until the sheik bought the land that is now Al Maha and turned the surrounding desert into the country’s first national park.
As I check into my tent, the local finches seem less interested in exploring the original oasis down the hill than making use of my plunge pool. They run sorties across the surface, collecting water and insects, and protest noisily from the bushes when I deign to get in the water.
At sunset I take a camel ride to a nearby dune. My camel driver may look a picture of Bedouin splendour, but it turns out he’s not local but from Afghanistan. He works seven days a week for three weeks before returning with his earnings to his wife and family. As we ride he explains that, for the first time this year, the eastern imperial eagle has been discovered in the park, exciting news for Dubai conservationists. In Europe this majestic bird is virtually extinct.
I head to bed early and listen to the small sounds of the desert cooling down. The next morning, driving back into town in the powdery light of dawn, Dubai’s building sites are already abuzz with workers. Many more are walking the highway preparing for their day. In the unrelenting heat of the Arabian desert the work seems impossibly hard, their journey impossibly long.
They come for the work and to feed their families.
But, like the birds, when eventually their zugunruhe kicks in, they return home.