Tag Archives: wildlife

A Desert Paradise

UAE, desert horse rideOne of the best ways to experience the UAE and the beauty of the desert is to partake in one of the nation’s passions: horseriding. That is exactly what two of my friends and colleagues from the clinic and I did on Friday, with each of us keen to find ourselves back in the saddle after variable periods of time away from horses. For me, the last time I was in the saddle was last year when my parents visited and mum and I went out on a ‘desert’ ride out of the Arabian Ranches Polo club, an experience which although fast and fun was also a little disappointing in as much as the ‘desert’ we experienced was effectively a large building site, with the city in clear view. Claire had ridden extensively in the desert whilst growing up in Saudi Arabia and Adri has also ridden a lot back in South Africa. Which was a good thing as our chosen venue of Al Maha resort, an hour’s drive out of Dubai towards Al Ain, stipulated that riders needed to have at least 3 years worth of experience in the saddle.

Oryx
Oryx feeding within the reserve

The drive up, despite being early, was worth it as we arrived at the gates to the reserve – all a little bit Jurassic Park on first impressions – as the sun was just starting to rise, revealing the true raw beauty of the dunes, with their varying shades of yellow owing to the recent rain, and the intermittently dotted trees and bushes. Many assume that the desert is empty and boring, with nothing but sand to see, but the truth is anything but. From the moment we arrived we appreciated abundant wildlife from small antelope to birds, to the majestic Oryx, a large group of which we were able to get very close to, including their rather foal-like cute little babies.

Al Maha ResortThe Al Maha resort itself is hidden away in the dunes about 9km from the main gate and just suddenly pops out of nowhere as you find yourself driving along the dirt road wondering whether in fact you have maybe made an incorrect turn. We drove past individual chalets skillfully hidden amongst the desert sands, up the pristine main drive to the reception lodge, with the tasteful vibes of a safari hunting lodge, except without the hunting trophies. The immediate impression of the place was one of calm and peace, and the view from the balcony was nothing short of breathtaking. Below us and extending as far as the eye could see was the desert, with a small oasis in the foreground and angular, undulating dunes meeting an expansive sky, with the sun casting the most fantastic shadows and creating a fascinating array of textures and subtle hues of light browns, yellows and greens as the Arabian desert was revealed to us.

The riding partyWe were met by our guide, a young English horseman by the name of Laurence, who had previously been employed as a guide in Namibia and who clearly had a passion for horses. Half-chaps donned it was into the resort 4WD we jumped for the short journey out to the stables, where we picked up hats before being introduced to our steeds. My horse was a lovely bay who was slow and steady on the walk but who clearly enjoyed competition when it came to the question of racing, as I discovered on more than one occasion.

Our ride took us in roughly a large loop, through desert paths and over dunes, and it wasn’t long before we were picking up speed for the first of our ‘extended canters.’ All of the horses we were riding had formerly been endurance athletes and were used to running at speed over the sand. My horse, as previously mentioned, was super competitive and when he quickly built up speed to nose in front of our guide’s stunning grey steed, you could almost feel the gear shift in both horses as an unspoken “right. You’re on!” was exchanged. It is not until you’re back in the saddle that you remember what incredibly exhilarating fun it is to move at speed powdered by literal horse power.

The second stretch of speed saw me, at one point, lose my right stirrup and it took some concentrated effort on my part to remain firmly saddled whilst attempting to place my foot back in, all whilst continuing to pick up speed. We eventually stopped near the top of a small hill and as Laurence arrived it became clear that they had been calling for me to stop earlier, a request that I had to confess I had not heard, explaining the stirrup issue. I was somewhat pleased, however, to be told that to external onlookers I had apparently appeared very much in control and it had been assumed that I was simply choosing to ignore the calls to stop on account of clearly enjoying things so much. How appearances can be deceiving!

We stopped – or rather attempted – to stop for a photo opportunity atop one of the dunes en route back to base and in spite of the horses clearly not being overly cool with the idea of standing still posing Laurence did manage to snap a half decent shot, all whilst being buffeted by his own horse.

Following our return to the stables and subsequently the main lodge, we availed ourselves of a fantastically relaxed breakfast out on the balcony, overlooking the desert, and reviewed the highlights of the ride. Although all of us agreed that we would have preferred for the trip to have lasted longer – an hour and a half felt too short – the stiff backs that we all experienced over the following days suggested that the time was, in fact, optimal!

Anyone looking for a fun, active way to really connect with the wildlife and true desert of the UAE, whilst still getting to enjoy a five star hospitality experience will certainly find a riding session at Al Maha right up their street. We all agreed that very morning that we wanted to return, perhaps even spending a whole day and taking advantage of the many other leisure activities on offer, including archery. Well recommended!

At the time of writing the 1.5 hour desert hack cost 200AED each, with all required equipment provided. Breakfast was 160AED, with the view being worth the price alone. More information can be found at Al Maha’s website.

Sand, Hooves & Speed from Chris Queen on Vimeo.

South African Safari

A month volunteering at a vet project in Limpopo, South Africa

Russ Fleming in South AfricaRussell Kelaart

Firstly, I would like to encourage everyone reading this to take a gap year.  There were various reasons for me taking a gap year, primarily to gain more work experience in preparation for veterinary medicine applications to university.  It is my goal to become a wildlife vet in African conservation, and undertaking work experience in this field has been extremely beneficial.  It has enabled me to participate in the work that I would be doing as a vet, it was able to make contacts there, and I have learnt a great deal not only about the work but also South Africa and life in general.  I also made some amazing friends.  Having paid for the entire trip myself and for a short time living on my own out there I have gained that much more independence.

“It was the best month of my life.”

I travelled with a company called the African Conservation Experience.  They support select conservation projects by sending volunteers, and volunteers pay them indirectly via ACE.

My project is listed under Phola Veterinary Experience and is located at a small frontier town called Alldays in Limpopo province.  80% of our time was spent the vet Dr. Dup Du Plessis who runs the recently built clinic in the town.  Nearly all of this time was spent out in the field on game farms, the rest of the time (generally weekends) was spent at the local game farm were we slept in tents out in the bush where the night sky was always dark enough to see the Milky Way.

With the vet day to day operations consisted largely of animal capture.  We would draw up a dart for the animal, then dart it, follow it until it went down, get it on a stretcher if we had to move it, and then wake it up.  Depending on the circumstance this entire process could take anything from 7 minutes to half an hour.  When using anaesthetics such as etorphine, animals lose their ability to regulate their temperature so it was of paramount importance that we got the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible when most days it was nearly 35*C.  We soon became an efficient team in the process of game capture.

At our first capture Dup said “We don’t go around bushes, we go through bushes.”  At first I thought he was joking but in that kind of environment there is not the time or space for anything between 6 and 18 people to walk around a Winter Thorn Bush or the aptly named “Stay a while” thorn bush.  Dragging a male Waterbuck 100m to the transport “bakkie” through dense scrub can be interesting to say the least.  At times we were aided by “pangas” or machetes, other times we just ploughed through.

A bakkie is a pick-up truck, in which we travelled everywhere.  Getting to drive a Toyota Hilux through the African bush at night on my own was an experience I will never forget!  Given that there was often not enough space in the cab extra passengers rode on the back everywhere.  And depending on who was driving you could sometimes find yourself temporarily suspended in the air over a particularly rough track.

Generally we were safety conscious and took all the precautions we could, but you can never really fully predict animals.  Having worked with lions, rhinos and crocodiles most people are surprised to hear that I would consider the most dangerous animal there the buffalo.  One day we darted 38 to draw bloods to test for Bovine Tuberculosis.  Nervous creatures at the best of times they were becoming increasingly skittish as we removed completed individuals out of the temporary holding pen and back onto the reserve via a partition through the pen.  After a buffalo had gone down the rest of the herd would be moved into the other half of the pen by the tractor and the owner’s bakkie.  It was a huge operation, but was running smoothly.

One went down near the corner.  Needing a new needle and shoulder to draw blood for samples I was to go and get them – they were outside the pen the other side of the gate.  The small remainder of the herd had been driven to the other side so thinking we were alone the owner, Jaque, and I went to open the gate in the corner.  Reaching the gate Dup screams.  Turning, we face a buffalo cow that has been separated from her calf.  We are cornered.  She charges.  Jaque grabs her horns to push her out of the corner, having none of it she easily flicks him back tearing a huge whole across his shirt.   For some reason she suddenly turns around and runs off.  With Jaque on the floor against the wall I am assuming the worst but he shouts to get up on the fence.  Somehow he follows, just before the buffalo returns to have another go, eyeing us above her on the fence.  The rest of the team manage to get her out.  Unbelievably, Jaque is asking if I am OK!  I reply yes then tentatively ask him if he is.  I cannot believe he is still breathing, let alone climbing the 4m fence.  By some extraordinary stroke of luck he is largely unscathed with only a substantial bruise.

After, as the adrenaline rush hits I can only laugh.  I laugh with the workers as they ask me what I saw in that corner. With a wry smile Dup says “It’s funny now,” then shakes his head in disbelief.  He seems more relieved than I.  Later he tells the anecdote of how the same situation occurred but where the gate was locked and he watched another vet have his heart and rib cage gored out by a buffalo.  Over the next few weeks he reminds me every now and then about how lucky I was, and how I probably don’t fully appreciate what peril I was actually in.  It is funny how an incident that lasted no longer than 5 seconds stays with you.

“Some people would say it’s strange that I can’t imagine anything better than doing this for the rest of my life.”

LionessDespite the large amounts of exhilarating buffalo work the real highlight of my trip was getting to work with a lioness.  Due to a land dispute on a huge game farm she was being kept in temporary accommodation with her ‘husband’ and her son.  In such a limited abode any family pride structure had broken down and being the little one she was on the receiving end of frequent altercations.  She was limping badly, but more worryingly her right ear was torn and badly infected.  We darted her then others in 4x4s drove the male lions as far away as they could within the confines of this camp.  Monitoring vitals is crucial, as it’s the first indicator that something’s going wrong.

Listening to her heartbeat was an experience I will never forget.