Soaring over sand

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Peaks like softly whipped cream, tinged red by oxidised iron, the sand dunes of the Empty Quarter frame the silhouette of the misbehaving peregrine falcon.

His master is calling him “hut, hut, hut”, waving the houbara wing bait overhead and slapping it to the sand. But this falcon is his own boss, and he will start the demonstration when he is good and ready.

We see him rise, skimming past his trainer and the elusive bait, so close to us we feel the wind off his feathers ruffle our hair. He comes in again and again, whipping past the sand and showing the speed of a revered hunter. The peregrine falcon has been clocked diving at 389km/h.

Post demonstration the falcons are rewarded with a meaty snack before the hood is replaced over the eyes and the trainer lovingly gives the bird’s face and feet a cooling water spray.

Today’s falconry demonstration in Rub’Al Khali, or Empty Quarter, is a nod to Bedouin heritage, where less than 100 years ago nomadic tribes captured falcons migrating through the Arabian Peninsula, training them as personal hunters as they had done for thousands of years.

Nowadays falconry is a much-loved sport and a cultural symbol of the United Arab Emirates. Falcons are treated royally and cost from $3500 to $350,000.

Teamed with the falcon to create the perfect hunting team is the saluki.

The saluki is one of the oldest breeds of dog in the world. It is depicted in hieroglyphics within Egypt’s tombs and pyramids. Greyhound in shape but with webbing on the feet for better traction in the sand, the saluki can run up to 75km/h. Speed, combined with intelligence and stamina, it is the perfect partner for the skill of the falcon. The falcon spots the prey but it is the saluki that captures and returns it alive for its owner.

Our demonstrators today are four-year-old brothers Antar and Sarab. We see the tiny dots of them streaking towards us, racing towards the dancing cloth bait.

I am staying at Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort nestled within the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world. Otherworldly dunes of yellow, pink and red. Untouched, the ripples of sand and soft peaks throw shadows.

This is where the opening scenes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was filmed. The producers obviously also taken by this evocative landscape.

The resort’s trowel-marked sand walls and Arabic architecture of a desert fortress spread across the dunes. It’s absolute luxury but a world away from the bling associated with the UAE.

To build the resort, including the separate royal pavilion where discrete guests (including the Abu Dhabi royal family) stay, took just 22 months with 5000 workers a day.

It’s peaceful here, too. The only sounds are the birds that flock to this oasis. The finch, it turns out, is the Emirati seagull at breakfast.

At the lagoon-style pool, I keep peeking over the edge expecting to see the ocean. But every time it’s those majestic dunes.

To truly experience it, I climb one. A 25-minute slog through the soft sand, following the dune ridges. The reward is heavenly — setting sun one side, the twinkling lights of the resort the other.

On the morning of my final day at Qasr Al Sarab a fog covers the desert, shrouding the dunes in the dawn. The stillness and beauty perfectly sums up this astonishing sanctuary in the dunes.

Qasr Al Sarab Duration: 03m 28s Seven West Travel Club

Fact File


Angie Tomlinson was a guest of Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism and Etihad Airways.


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