Abu Dhabi is home to the world's fastest rollercoaster. Formula Rossa at Ferrari World, near the Yas Marina F1 circuit, pulls your face every which way and whips your hair into dreadlocks as it blasts around a track at 240km/h. Yet this is nowhere near the fastest thing in Abu Dhabi.
Falconry, an age-old tradition in the Gulf, is alive and well in the United Arab Emirates capital. Peregrine falcons, one of the species used in the multimillion-dollar sport along with gyr and saker falcons and various hybrids, can reach 390km/h as they dive for their prey.
It's one thing to see these prized birds in action or even perched on a handler's glove. It's quite another to see what goes on behind the scenes to keep these highly trained hunters – some of which are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – in tip-top condition. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital offers a glimpse into this rarefied world, thanks to a program of public tours.
The hospital feels like it's in the middle of the desert (in fact, it's just six kilometres from the airport). As we're ushered inside, the first sight that stops us in our tracks is the beige waiting room, fitted with rows of low perches. Falcons are sitting quietly on the perches, tethered by a fine cord connected to a ring on their leg that's fitted when they're a juvenile, a sure sign that it's a captive-bred bird. Their eyes are covered with decorative leather hoods called burqas (a selection are available for sale at the end of the tour).
Around the edges of the room are sofas for the birds' handlers, who don't seem the least bit fazed that they're being snapped by a bunch of tourists. One child wanders over to an Emirati man lounging around with a falcon sitting on his gloved arm to have a closer look. Who can blame the kid? This beats the zoo any day.
The birds are here for treatment from the hospital vets or perhaps just a little routine maintenance. They could be booked in for the avian version of a pedicure or maybe they need a missing wing feather replaced. As hospital guide Fahad Al Badi explains, air rushing through the gap where a feather should be can make it hard for these precision hunters to maintain balance during high-speed dives.
The hospital, which opened in 1999, treats about 11,200 birds a year. In 2007, it started conducting public tours. Visitors are ushered into the treatment area to see a pedicure conducted on an anaesthetised bird, and past the ICU room where more serious cases are treated. The complex also includes a museum dedicated to falconry and a free-flight aviary. At the end of the tour visitors can slip a glove on to pose with a falcon for a photo.
Al Badi says the birds are trained not to be startled by human voices – handlers will bring the falcon everywhere, even to the family breakfast table, so they become accustomed to people. Al Badi also shows us a falcon passport (Abu Dhabi-based Etihad is one of the airlines that allow falcons in the main cabin).
The hospital's vets, along with police forensic officers, also run compulsory falcon doping tests at official falconry competitions. This testing is supported by the Abu Dhabi Falconers' Club, which maintains a presence on alternate Saturdays at Qasr Al Muwaiji – a fort that's part of the World Heritage-listed Al Ain site in the desert near the border with Oman. We meet two pioneering members. Ayesha Al Mansoori and Angelique Engels lead the club's ladies section that was established in 2016. Al Mansoori showed an affinity with birds from a young age. At four, she told her father she wanted to be a falconer. A falcon was too heavy for her little arm so instead he bought her a tiny owl that she trained to eat from her hand.
Engels moved from South Africa to the UAE three years ago. "We train women of all nationalities – local and expat – on how to become falconers," she says. "This is the first time in the history of the Gulf that there's a dedicated section in falconry for women, which is pretty cool. The ladies section has its own set of falcons – at the moment we have 12 falcons. We have hybrids, we have pures [purebreds] and we have different stages – adults, juveniles and older ones.
"We have falcons that just do 100-metre sprints, falcons we fly hand to hand and so on because all the ladies who join us want to learn different things. Some ladies want to go hunting, some want to participate in the competitions and some would just like to know how to take care of falcons. We're just like this whole sisterhood of ladies – and falcons bring us together."
The most common misconception about the birds, says Engels, is that people think falcons might hurt them. "A lot of people do think if they hold them or fly them, the birds might attach themselves to their face or bite them and so on but that's not the case at all," she says. "They still stay wild but they're food-motivated – they fly back to me because I have food." She feeds the birds one of their favourite snacks: fresh home-bred quail.
The club's men, including 40 sheikhs, have been "extremely supportive", says Engels, in offering to lend the women falcons and equipment. "They're pretty excited for the ladies section because falconry is so much a part of the heritage of the UAE," she says. "Men always partook in falcons and falcon racing and hunting but, when they went away, their wives or their daughters would then take care of their falcons. There's a long history of women in falconry but it's never been revealed.
"If an Emirati man takes part in the competitions and knows his daughter is capable of doing this as well but thinks there's nowhere for her to participate, well, now there is. We've opened the floodgates."
Etihad Airways flies between Abu Dhabi and Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (and Perth until October 1, 2018). Take a taxi or book a driver to visit the Falcon Hospital, six kilometres from the airport. See etihad.com
The hospital's two-hour public tours take place Sunday to Thursday at 10am and 2pm, with Saturday morning tours available only from October 1 to May 31. During Ramadan, there are no afternoon tours. Tours cost AED170 for those aged 10 and above and AED60 for kids aged five to nine. See visitabudhabi.ae
To find out more about the Abu Dhabi Falconers' Club and when members are at Qasr Al Muwaiji near Al Ain, see efcad.ae
Anyone staying on Yas Island can catch a free shuttle to the Ferrari World theme park. Admission starts from AED265.50 (for earlybird online bookings). See ferrariworldabudhabi.com
The futuristic Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi hotel, near the airport, is built across the Formula 1 Yas Marina Circuit and is near Ferrari World. See viceroyhotelsandresorts.com
Katrina Lobley was a guest of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism and Etihad Airways.