Taking in another huge mouthful of cold salt water, I plunged in to the water, barely able to see, yet gripping onto the pulley-driver rope in front of my face. My instructor calls out for me to turn and face him. I’m always up for a new challenge, however demanding, so this is my very first attempt at wakeboarding. The thing is, I’d only signed up for a peaceful afternoon of kayaking.
Welcome to the new water sports hub of Ajman – a one million sqm mangrove forest in a tidal creek that was declared a nature reserve in 2004. There’s now a mixed-use coastal development there, called Al Zorah, which is home to not only residents and hotel guests, but also over 60 species of birds including pink flamingos, egret, heron and – most recently spotted flying around the mangroves – kingfishers.
I was here to explore the mangroves (a change from the mountainous kayaking I’d fallen in love with in Hatta earlier this winter), and to meet Brian Parry, an adventure specialist from North Wales who has set up several outdoor facilities including kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking, abseiling and paddle boarding, from Ras Al Khaimah to Abu Dhabi.
The waterside Ajman facility, Quest for Adventure, is constructed from shipping containers, with a café, changing rooms (that come in handy, as you’ll see later) and showers, and plans for a camping area and pop-up F&B outlets. Instructor Matt Powis, from Devon in the UK, leaps off a nearby pontoon into the water, zipping across the cove, gracefully flying up in the air, twisting and turning and landing back on the water.
I’ve watched wakeboarders at Kite Beach, gracefully fly over the crashing waves, being pulled by huge kites, embracing nature’s energy. However, as Brain explains, the electric system being demonstrated by Matt is quite unique – the all-weather system can be used day and night. Powered by a small electric motor, with a top speed of 30mph, the pulley system stretches across the marina cove. Zipping back and forth, Matt was amazing to watch but hard to capture on my phone. ‘Do you want go, Mark?’ I explained that I was here more for the calm kayaking, getting-close-to-nature experience, but he was adamant that I should have a go.
I was taken through the safety aspects, laying on the quayside, Matt talked me through the technique of being in the water, to being on the water. Safety vest on, feet securely clipped onto the wakeboard.
I jumped in the water, the temperature was too cold but still a shock. Following instructions, I was soon being pulled through the water. As the speed increased I could feel the tension on my arms and shoulders, trying my hardest to do the opposite of what you feel naturally, I managed to gently raise myself out of the water. Feeling confident, I moved my body in the correct position, within seconds I was vertical, the tension on my upper body intense. Struggling to stay up, I soon crashed into the water, trying not to swallow more salt water. I managed to compose myself, wow, that was way harder than I thought it was going to be. Trying to catch my breath, I could hear Matt shouting more instructions. Again poised in the start-up position, I was ready for another attempt. This time it was a little easier, as I tried to remember how to stand, keeping arms straight I was off. I managed to get up and out of the water quicker, I had a good few seconds actually riding the waves. Crashing more times than I managed to stay on the water, I was feeling exhausted, but I wasn’t ready to give up. As I got ready to give this one final shot, I told myself I am going to do this.
I could feel the tension on the rope as the speed increased and I started to raise from the cold water. Giving myself some vocal encouragement I was up. I could hear Matt shouting, ‘Mark, twist and lean, twist and lean’. Following his instructions I was up, facing forward and steady on the water, ‘wakeboarding’. As I approached the pontoon the speed decreased and I gently dropped in to the water, heart racing I was pumped. ‘Yes Mark, yes, that was incredible,’ said Matt.
With my heart still thumping from the wakeboarding experience, I went for the quieter experience of kayaking, what I had come here for initially.
A kayaking trip here actually begins with a ride in a twin Canadian canoe, tied up for more stability as you navigate from the marina to the mangroves. (Brian tells me that Canadian hunters buddy up to maximise stability, as a day’s catch can make a canoe wobbly). Our canoe had a battery-powered outboard engine, which gently guided us out of the marina and into the mangroves. Nonetheless, the water was little choppy, splashing over the sides and drenching my second change of clothing, so I recommend keeping some spare clothes for when you get back to those changing rooms at the base.
As part of the nature reserve development, concrete blocks have been set in the creek and a replanting programme has begun to increase the volume of greenery and attract more wildlife. More than 100 species regularly breed in the reserve, which hosts large numbers of migratory birds en route to Europe, Asia and Africa.
As we got closer to the mangroves, the water became dramatically calmer; the plants are a natural defence against the elements, I’m told. The conversation became non-existent as we all stared at the amazing vista and all you could hear was the gentle hum of the outboard motor. Wild birds swooped close to the water, and red-clawed crabs scurried as they felt the vibrations of the canoes’ motor. These crabs are the ‘keystone species’ in the mangrove forest, feeding on the leaves and in turn, fertilising the soil. The ever-changing views reminded me of the stunning Florida’s everglades, which I visited a decade ago.
In the distance I could see the silhouettes of the reserve’s stars, the year-round pink flamingos, in the shallower part of the creek. With the tide out and the water shallower, we approach a pontoon to switch from the canoe into kayaks (it’s not easy getting out of one floating vessel and into another, but I managed to), and after a quick run-through of paddling techniques from Brian we were off, heading into the sunset with the water so shallow you can see the tiny fish and shells at the bottom of the creek. Stopping to capture the fading sun’s reflection off the water, I could hear squawking birds deep in the mangroves.
After an hour, gently paddling in and out of the mangroves, I could really feel the strain on my arms from all the wakeboarding activities earlier that day. The air felt clean and fresh, the sounds of the birds echoed across the water as we headed back to the pontoon. Clambering out of the kayak we jumped back into the canoe and headed back to base. As the sun set I could feel a bit of a chill. At this point, I was looking forward to a hot shower and some dry clothes. As the light faded, you could see the glow from the city lights reflect on the water.
From crashing and riding the waves earlier that day, to gently cruising the mangroves, getting close to nature and being at arm’s length from beautiful flamingos, this hadn’t just a been an adventure – it has been an education.
Prices: A mangrove kayak nature tour (day or night) is Dh190 per person; a full moon kayak tour is Dh220 per person.
Cable wakeboarding is Dh150 per person (Dh200 for beginners).
Timings: Every day from 10am to 7pm
Call: 058 567 0730 or email email@example.com
Address: Al Zorah Marina 1, Ajman, UAE. questforadventure.net
The Al Zorah nature reserve is located north of the emirate, close to Shaikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road (E311). There are 12km of waterfront, 1.6km of sandy beaches and an 18-hole golf course, as well as restaurants and the Oberoi Al Zorah hotel.