I'm barely in the cave for 30 seconds before Abby creeps up on me. Her unexpected approach is particularly startling thanks to the two-metre-long neck that she silently cranes through the open window behind me, straight over my shoulder.
Abby is a nine-year-old South African giraffe, and she is hungry. She knows that my arrival means it's time for breakfast, and today she is particularly impatient. Abby is a resident of Emirates Park Zoo in Abu Dhabi, and if you added up the amount of breakfast dates she goes on in any given week, you could call her a bit of a flirt. Still, as breakfast dates go, Abby and her pen-mate Mary are pretty spectacular company, even if their table etiquette could use some work.
Breakfast with Giraffes at Emirates Park Zoo
Emirates Park Zoo has been offering its Breakfast with Giraffes experience for a year, and it has quickly become the zoo's most popular attraction. It is one of only two places in the world where people can enjoy dining in such close quarters with giraffes, the other being Kenya's Giraffe Manor, which has become world famous thanks to the enchanting images of giraffes leering through the windows of a stately home as diners enjoy afternoon tea below.
Here in Abu Dhabi, it’s a cosier affair, with breakfast guests pulling up a chair in a specially designed cave on the edge of Abby and Mary’s enclosure, which they also share with a number of nosy ostriches. The cave can accommodate up to six guests at a time, alongside a pair of giant giraffe necks.
Before we sit down for our meal, we spend some time getting to know one another. Abby, who was born on Abu Dhabi's Sir Bani Yas Island, is friendly and curious, using the head holes around the cave to assess the situation and, more importantly, the food. She is clearly used to how this goes.
Four-year-old Mary is slightly more cautious, taking her time to introduce herself properly. "She likes to play hard to get," says keeper Saul Semango. "She's a bit of a diva like that." He assures us she will come in her own time, and he's right. Before long, both Mary and Abby are peering in through the open windows, ready to tuck into their breakfast.
I’m given handfuls of romaine lettuce to feed to the impatient pair, along with chunks of green apple and their favourite snack, mini cucumbers. I soon leave them to feed themselves, though, as my breakfast feast arrives. I’ve opted for the traditional Middle Eastern option, and I’m served a selection of pastries, bread, hummus and an omelette. The three of us dine together in companionable silence, and I stop every now and then to make a mental note of just how beautiful this whole experience is.
Abby soon gets a bout of food envy. Her attention turns from her silver bowl to the pile of fresh pastries in the centre of the table, her long tongue taking a swipe at one of the delicacies. Saul gives a knowing laugh.
Her bowl is now emptied of fresh fruit and vegetables, leaving only a mountain of untouched soy pellets. They don't go to waste, however, as the hungry ostrich who has been peering patiently through the window since we arrived at last gets what it was waiting for: it gobbles them down with enthusiasm, temporarily stealing Abby and Mary's spotlight.
Once we are all out of food, Abby and Mary retreat to the shade as the morning sun starts to sear. It's a good time for us to follow suit, too – spending more than an hour in a cave with limited air-conditioning in the summer heat takes its toll.
The experience doesn't end with Abby and Mary, though. We are also taken to meet Otto, the zoo's eight-year-old hungry hippo who is waiting for his morning feed. For everyone's safety, it's not quite the same up-close experience as dining with the giraffes – but we still get well acquainted as I throw apples into his wide and anticipating mouth.
The morning ends with an African drumming and dance lesson, which, thankfully, is conducted inside the air-conditioned Giraffe Cafe. While the last drumbeat signalled my cue to leave, if you have the time guests who do the Breakfast with Giraffes experience can spend the day in the zoo. It is included in the price, which is Dh250 per person. I can honestly say it’s worth it.
For more information or to book, visit www.emiratesparkzooandresort.com