Just before dawn, the Hajar Mountains, about 20 miles east across the Arabian Desert, began to emerge from the darkness. I shifted my position in the wicker gondola and watched, rapt, as the sun peeked above the silhouetted limestone range. In the east, the sky glowed orange and crimson, and the light illuminated a sea of saltbushes, sweet grass and wind-rippled dunes. Beside me, the pilot, Mike Schaefer, a big, balding German with a salt-and-pepper goatee and black-framed glasses, turned to his co-pilot, Robertas Komza, a skinny Lithuanian new to desert flying, and ordered him to take us higher.
Mr. Komza depressed a lever on a gas valve, sending a fearsome jet of propane-fueled flame into the 130-foot-tall hot-air balloon. “Head up to 4,000 feet, then we’ll let the falcon fly a bit,” said Mr. Schaefer, gesturing to a large hooded bird with white- and charcoal-barred feathers, resting on the gloved arm of his colleague, Dylan Freeman.
We were drifting over the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, an 87-square-mile former camel farm purchased by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, in 1997. Since then, the fenced-in wilderness, a part of the Arabian Desert, has served as a protected habitat for a variety of indigenous mammals — hedgehogs, shrews, gazelles, Arabian hares and at least three species of bats — and a getaway spot for tourists and locals overwhelmed by the skyscraper-dominated megalopolis of Dubai, the most populous of seven city-states that comprise the United Arab Emirates.
For the past year, the reserve has also been the locale for a remarkable new venture thatcombines hot-air ballooning with an introduction to falconry, the Arab world’s most ancient and venerated sport. In the cool of the morning, passengers soar high over the desert joined by a captive-bred bird and its trainer. The hourlong experience provides an intimate look at how these raptors — which can soar to 8,000 feet and plunge after their prey at 150 miles per hour — fly and hunt at high altitudes.
I’ve always been leery of hot-air balloons, an unease that ramped up considerably in February 2013, after a fiery balloon accident in Luxor, Egypt, resulted in the death of 19 tourists.
But on a recent trip to Dubai to research a nonfiction book that unfolds in the falconry world, I was seeking an opportunity to closely observe the raptors in flight, and so I suppressed my fears and signed up for an outing (prices vary, depending on group size; I paid about $325). The project, I reassured myself, came with a top pedigree: Sheikh Butti Bin Juma al-Maktoum, the brother-in-law of the ruler of Dubai, and an ardent conservationist and falconer, initiated it in early 2016, and brought together the staffs of two of his popular touristic enterprises to make it happen. Royal Shaheen Events, co-founded by the South African falconer Peter Bergh and the Zimbabwean falcon breeder Howard Waller, runs luxury falconry demonstrations by Land Cruiser in the desert. The other, Balloon Adventures Dubai,co-founded by the Hungarian ballooning expert Peter Kollar, has been flying tourists over Dubai since 2005.
The first chicks designated for the project were hatched in May 2016 at Sheikh Butti’s breeding center in Scotland, and then taken by Land Cruiser for training in Umbria, Italy, where Mr. Kollar runs a ballooning company during the summer. “We had no idea how they would react to the basket and to the burning jets. But we were surprised by how quickly they learned,” Mr. Kollar told me. “The falcons look at the basket as their nest, and they’re trained to return to it. They were very young, and they didn’t even pay any attention to the fire.”
At 3:30 on an October morning, a van picked me up at the Dubai Marina and shuttled me down the empty highway for an hour to Sheikh Butti’s sprawling property near the Desert Conservation Reserve. Staffers were still inflating the balloon in the darkness; a thick jet of propane-fed flame filled the huge nylon sack with an eerie orange glow. Mr. Freeman, a stocky and bearded Zimbabwean, stood off to the side, stroking the feathers of his 17-month-old bird, Bomber. Bomber, he said, was a mix of gyrfalcon, a highly prized, nonmigratory species often found north of the Arctic Circle, and the more common saker falcon, a migratory species that crosses the Arabian Peninsula every winter. Arab falconers trapped them here until Dubai banned capturing birds from the wild in the 1970s. The saker bloodline, he said, “helps Bomber deal with the desert heat.”
Nineteen passengers — Chinese, Scandinavian, French and me — gathered around Mr. Schaefer, who gave a safety briefing, fitted us with harnesses and carabiners, divided us into two groups and hustled us into a partitioned wicker basket. Four propane tanks fitted with four burners allowed Mr. Komza to adjust the air temperature inside the balloon while aloft. With the air heated to 100 degrees, we soared over the desert as the luminescent red glow on the horizon signaled the imminent dawn.
At 4,000 feet, Mr. Freeman removed the hood from Bomber. The raptor swiveled his white mottled head and took a measure of his surroundings. “You can see how big his eyes are, so he can spot his prey,” the trainer said.
The bird flapped his pointed wings and rose from Mr. Freeman’s glove. He climbed another 20feet and circled the balloon three times, dipping and rising on the desert thermals. He swooped close to a Chinese tourist whose bag of potato chips stuck out from the pocket of his hoodie, then abruptly veered away. Mr. Freeman waved a chunk of quail. “Hey, hey, hey,” he shouted. Bomber rose, dove, and then alighted on Mr. Freeman’s glove. As he gobbled the bloody morsel, he spread his wings, fanned his tail and arched his body over the food — an instinct known as mantling, protecting the prey from other predators.
Mr. Freeman fed him another chunk. “He eats 10 percent of his body weight in three minutes,” he said. “That’s like me eating 18 pounds of steak in the same amount of time.”
It was only a couple of generations ago — when Dubai was a sleepy fishing port bordered by a vast swath of desert — that trained falcons like Bomber could eat their fill in the wild, Mr. Freeman said. The Arabian Desert abounded with the houbara bustard, a migratory, partridge-like fowl found in arid habitats across Asia and northern Africa. But the sheikhs hunted the birds to near-extinction on the Arabian Peninsula, obliging them to organize lavish houbara-hunting trips overseas.
In 2002, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai,launched the sport of falcon racing in an effort to keep some semblance of the tradition alive in Dubai, and the sport has proved immensely popular, spreading to Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile a houbara-breeding program launched by Sheikh Mohammed has introduced the birds to private hunting grounds in Dubai, where wealthy falconry enthusiasts can bag a few a year at high prices. “It’s been so effective that there’s a surplus,” Mr. Freeman told me. “They release the extra bustards into the Desert Conservation Reserve.”
Despite the comeback of the falcon’s traditional prey, Mr. Freeman doubted that falconry would ever be fully revived in the Emirates.“The sheikhs really still want to go abroad to hunt,” Mr. Freeman told me, explaining that it was a purer and more challenging experience. “A released bustard might have been let go two years ago, but it doesn’t have the stamina of a bird that has migrated a couple of thousand miles.”
After Bomber’s show, Mr. Schaefer, the German pilot, directed Mr. Komza to tug on a dangling blue cord known as a “vent line” that rotated the balloon and allowed some air to escape. (The adjacent red line, he explained, collapsed the balloon irreversibly and was to be used only for emergency landings. “We have a nice saying,” he told me. “If you pull red you are dead.”)
We clipped our carabiners to a safety line as the balloon descended to a few hundred feet, and sailed toward a date palm plantation owned by Sheikh Butti. “As we prepare for landing, you never know where you will end up,” Mr. Schaefer, said, grinning. The balloon grazed a high hedge and then headed for a sweep of cream-colored dunes.
Mr. Schaefer barked instructions to the Lithuanian. The gondola hit the dunes hard, bounced twice, then rolled on its side. For one moment, I was terrified that the basket would flip over, but then it came to rest at a 90-degree angle. I unhooked my carabiner and scrambled onto a dune. A convoy of Land Rovers was parked nearby, ready to whisk us off to the sheikh’s desert compound for a breakfast of poached eggs, fruit, smoked salmon, toast and Arabic coffee.
As I stepped into the vehicle, I paused to admire Bomber one final time. The raptor, now hooded, was perched serenely on Mr. Freeman’s glove, looking none the worse for his wild ride.
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