Wednesday, January 29, 2014

DAY NINETY ONE - The Eastern Mangrove Lagoon of Abu Dhabi

It was during my second day in the United Arab Emirates that I first glimpsed the mangrove lagoon. Cathy Harborow, the NYU Abu Dhabi Manager of Community Support, was taking me on a whirlwind tour of the city. After visiting the Grand Mosque our car sped up Salam Street on the eastern-most edge of the island city of Abu Dhabi, and as far as the eye could see were mangroves. I could not have been more surprised. Date palms I expected, and lots of sand, but mangroves? No.

Seeing my look, Cathy told me I was looking at the Eastern Mangrove Lagoon. And then she added the magic words, "you can go kayaking out there". I immediately started a mental list of Things I Want to Do While in Abu Dhabi, and first on that list was "Kayak in the Eastern Mangroves". 

I've lived in the Northeastern U.S. all my life, so mangroves are a novelty for me. The first time I saw them was only a few years ago when I went to Naples, FL, with my friend Susan for her Birthday Getaway. The hotel where we stayed had a lovely boardwalk that wound its way through a mangrove forest on the way to the beach. The second time I saw them was a half a year later when Doug and I went to Key West for vacation. We booked a half-day cruise which included paddling in a clear plastic kayak through mangrove islands. I found it exotic and fascinating. 

On the Florida Keys kayak trip Doug and I shared a kayak, and he steered. Yes, this is me trying to untangle ourselves from the mangroves. Need I say more?

When it came time to come up with ideas for Jeff's Christmas visit, I immediately thought this would be the perfect occasion to go on that kayaking trip in the Eastern Mangrove Lagoon. My goal for Jeff's visit was to have him experience the entire region: the cities and the countryside, the wide open deserts of the interior, and the shore and wetlands along the Arabian Gulf coast. 

I did some investigating and booked a 2-1/2 hour eco-tour with Noukhada Adventure Company because I liked the idea that all of us could learn about mangroves and their unique role in the ecosystem while having a nice paddle. When I called they gave me the option of single-seat kayaks or two-seaters. I said we'd all like our own kayak, please (see photo above). 

You've heard me whine about how challenging it is to find places in this country, especially if they're a bit off the beaten path. Well, this was another one of those challenges. The launch point, as best I could tell from the directions and map on the website, was off a highway on an unmarked dirt road. Doug's smartphone said it was an 18 minute trip. I said "Uh huh" and had the cab pick us up an hour before the launch time. 

The cabbie was confused, and who could blame him?  We drove down the highway and then doubled back over an overpass per the website instructions, but we saw no dirt road - just a LOT of construction and very large machines and workers. I could see the mangroves through the dust, but where, where where was the launch point? I tried calling Noukhada, but I went right into voicemail. So we retraced our route, and throwing caution to the wind we pulled up into that construction site. The cabbie gamely bounced through potholes and headed in the general direction of the lagoon. 

We rounded some bushes, and there it was. A few SUV's were pulled up to the shore with boat trailers hitched behind. A young woman sat on a folding chair at a card table, looking over what I assumed was a sign-up list. Several very tanned and very fit young men in sporty sunglasses were handing out life preservers to the dozen or so people milling about. As our taxi disappeared down the dirt track in a cloud of dust I vaguely wondered how we were going to get home again, but for the moment I was just happy to have found the place. 

Doug cleverly brought along a plastic bag so he could stow his cellphone, money, etc. We also brought along jackets because it was a cool morning, but the paddling kept us warm enough that we didn't need them. 

I will confess to enhancing the color of this photo a little bit, but truly the waters in Abu Dhabi are turquoise. I just love the glimpse of the city skyline in the distance and the clouds reflecting in the lagoon. 

Kayaks were pulled up along this small rocky beach. It took a little bit of doing to clamber down the slippery boulders to get to them. 

Our naturalist guide was an Aussie, and I think he must have been the owner of Noukhada Adventure Company. As he climbed nimbly into his kayak, a lab bounded over the rocks, jumped onto the bow and took what was clearly his place. We were all introduced to Edison. Then we paddled out into the lagoon for several minutes, putting distance between ourselves and the noise of the highway.

I found this photo on the web. The sprawling and cushy Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa is in the middle of the shot, with the mangroves on one side, and the highway and city on the other. Our launch point was out of frame to the left of the shot, but this gives you a sense of how close the mangroves are to the city. The launch point was located in a place where the waters open up and the mangroves are not so packed together as you see here. 

Once we rounded the first large clump of mangroves the skyline disappeared, and it was like we were in another world. The only sound was the dipping of paddles and the gentle swoosh of kayaks cutting through the water. Our guide stopped or or slowed down periodically to point out features of the lagoon. 

Photo courtesy of the web. The water was very shallow amongst the mangroves. If you pushed your paddle down you could easily touch bottom. We glided in and out of winding Mangrove "lanes", ducking under the occasional overhanging branches. 

We learned that the Arabian Gulf has one of the highest salt contents in the world because it has a relatively small opening out to the ocean (Straits of Hormuz), it is on the shallow side, and the high heat causes lots of evaporation. As a result there is only one species of mangrove growing in this area, the Grey Mangrove. Unlike the mangroves I saw in Florida, this species is relatively short and shrubby. 

The development of the past few decades - building construction and dredging - resulted in the natural mangrove lagoons being decimated in many areas. Fortunately the value of the mangroves has now been realized, and steps are being taken to not only preserve the lagoons that exist, but to replenish and expand them. Abu Dhabi has a long-range and very comprehensive plan (which I need to read up on and learn more about) called Abu Dhabi 2030. This plan includes establishing five national parks, the first of which is the newly designated Eastern Mangrove Lagoon National Park.

Twice during our kayak adventure, we pulled up on dry land for a little lecture and walk about. Our guide pointed out the roots of the mangroves which push UP out of the ground, rather then digging into the sand, so they can reach air and breathe. I was particularly fascinated to learn that mangroves remove the salt from the water and  "spit" it out through their leaves. 

In this new National Park the mangroves are supposed to be protected, and fishing is prohibited. As our guide lectured us (see photo above) a government patrol boat, the first of several, roared by, sending a damaging wake into the mangroves. He paused and noted dryly that this happens all the time. He said the day before he'd even come upon one of the government boats pulled into a quiet cove so the crew could fish! So while the government and biologists recognize the importance of the mangrove lagoons, clearly there is still much education that needs to be done, not only with the public, but perhaps first with the people hired to patrol and protect them. 

After 2 hours we headed back to the launch point, and as far as I was concerned it was the perfect time. My arms were beginning to give out, and I fantasized briefly how nice it would be to lean back in my kayak and be towed to shore. 

Doug, Jeff and I turned in our life vests, thanked the guide and assessed the situation. The kayaks were the kind where you sit on top of the boat, rather than tucked into it. As a result the water had dripped (poured, really) off the paddles and squarely onto our legs. We were all soaked from the butt down and did not have a change of clothes. Not that it mattered since there was no place to change. 

As we watched our fellow kayakers go off in their cars, Doug looked at me and said, "Now what?", and Jeff's eyes and expression echoed that very excellent question. "We walk", I replied, because really, what was our option?  

We headed toward the highway, dodging giant dump trucks and bulldozers, and turned in the direction of the Anantara Resort. I recalled it being not all that far away, and I reasoned that since taxis pull into resorts all the time, we could easily catch one there. 

The traffic roared by at our elbows at highway speeds as we trudged in the sun. Well, I thought optimistically, at least our pants will dry out. But they didn't. They just got caked with dust. The resort looked further away than memory served me, and we were running out of anywhere to walk. We could see construction fencing up ahead.  When we came upon a large patch of sandy dirt adjacent to the road, Doug, who was pretty disgusted and a little bit desperate at this point, turned and faced the oncoming traffic and raised his arm. Miraculously a cabbie saw him, pulled over and picked us up. 

Once safely home, showered, and dressed in clean, dry clothes, we looked back on the morning and gave it a unanimous thumbs up. Like me, Jeff had not anticipated coming to a desert country and having an Adventure like this, and he loved it. 

Just thinking back on that day has me smiling from ear to ear!

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