Dubai: Queen of the desert

By Toni Mason

Toni Mason loses her heart to a graceful hunter.
Dubai, that's one for the memory banks - the place where a bird stole my heart.
Dubai, that's one for the memory banks - the place where a bird stole my heart.

At first Summer is just a speck in the sky, then with a startlingly close flutter of wings and a snap of her beak, she's hurtling past us to try and grab the lure.

I've been delighted by the desert, taking snaps of oryx and camels, but nothing prepared me for my close encounter with a peregrine falcon.

One of the highlights of my trip to Dubai came about as part of a tour from Arabian Adventures.

An offshoot of Emirates Airlines, the company collects groups from the many hotels and resorts in Dubai and whisks them a short one-hour drive into the desert.

The driver, Faisal, proves to be a never-ending font of information about Dubai and the rest of the Emirates.

Along the way, he points out various landmarks, including the glittering point of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

Faisal is explaining Dubai's mission to pack as many "-ests" (biggest, largest, fastest) into its 4000-odd sq km.

We are disconsolate when he nonchalantly mentions we will miss out on the opening of Marvel World, the first part of the world's biggest indoor amusement park.

And I am frankly disbelieving when he explains that the need to put an end to child exploitation prompted the development of robot camel jockeys (seriously, it's a thing).

Our four-wheel-drive finally moves into the special desert conservation area set aside by Emirates for these tours and we are instructed to "hold on tight" before lurching across the dunes in a series of stomach-churning swoops.

After a brief pause to sink our toes into the sand and a photo opportunity leaping high above the dunes we disembark the vehicles for an encounter with a camel caravan.

The short ride to a campsite where carpets have been laid atop the dunes and a henna artist daubs our arms with pretty patterns is enough to give a glimpse into the life of the Bedouin, the Middle East's nomadic tribes.

But it's after a glass of champagne and some local delicacies have been consumed that the real treat of the day arrives - the hooded falcon, her claws gripping her trainer's heavy leather glove.

The South African trainer displays Summer's superior flying and hunting skills, swinging his meat-loaded lure high in the sky and twitching it away at the very last moment before she can sink her claws into it.

Finally he allows her to grab it and feed herself before re-hooding her and offering us a chance to take her on our own wrists.

I don't hesitate, although we're warned not to get too close "in case you wind up with a new facial piercing," Summer's trainer jokes.

She's surprisingly light but even more beautiful close up and seemingly oblivious to my cooing and admiration.

Dubai, that's one for the memory banks - the place where a bird stole my heart.

Arabian Adventures' Sundowner Dune Dinner Safari starts at about $150pp.



Emirates has four daily services from Auckland to Dubai, with Economy Class return fares starting from $2348, all inclusive.

- NZ Herald

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