Working Wonders: Dubai’s desert for an office with oryx as colleagues

Bab Al Shams’ leisure and recreation manager Willem Du Plooy rubs shoulders with 50 wild camels at Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve

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Our Working Wonders of the UAE series takes you to some of the country's most recognisable destinations to uncover the daily duties of the talented employees working there

Deep in the rolling dunes of the Al Marmoom Desert, Willem Du Plooy slows his Defender to a halt and takes in the majesty of his workplace.

Here, the South African expat has no parking restrictions, no air-con woes and no annoying colleagues – poisonous snakes aside.

The leisure and recreation manager at Bab Al Shams – Dubai's best known desert hotel that opened almost 20 years ago – spends his days leading desert walks and drives through the largest unfenced nature reserve in the UAE.

For eight years the keen conservationist has chaperoned visitors into the territory of wild camels, gazelles, oryx, snakes, spiders, flamingos and hundreds of other native and migratory birds, dealing with everything from flat tyres to hungry scorpions.

Here, he invites The National along for the day to discover the desert sanctuary and its wild residents.

What does your job involve?

My role involves taking guests out into the beautiful white dunes and educating them about the landscape and animals.

An important part of that is also bringing the UAE's heritage to life through archery, falconry and horse riding.

The Arabian oryx is something that's unique to this part of the world and it's remarkable to think that at the beginning of the century, they were almost wiped out before they were reintroduced and rehabilitated by the government.

We also have a lot of desert gazelles and they seem to be everywhere at the moment.

What are some of the most exciting aspects?

No two days at Bab Al Shams are the same.

One moment I could be doing a bit of admin or working on budgets and the next, I'll be in the middle of the desert dune bashing.

That's how I get to live my passion – I'm very fortunate to be able to do that.

The possibilities for having unique and interesting encounters are endless and we're providing experiences that money can't buy.

What are the biggest challenges?

If you don't go looking for trouble in the desert, you probably won't find it.

But as long as you don't go poking holes or putting your sleeping bag next to a big animal then you should be fine.

Part of our job is educating people about these animals. For example, not all snakes are poisonous and not all scorpions are out to get you.

When we walk in the desert, we know what to look out for and although you want to be cautious with certain things, you don't want to ruin the whole experience by unnecessarily scaring people.

Sometimes you get a flat tyre and things can be quite unpredictable, but that's all part of the adventure. We deal with it and we carry on.

What are the most rewarding aspects?

Contributing to desert conservation and creating memorable experiences for guests.

One guy fell in love with falconry. I met up with him a couple of months later and he told me his wife had given him an ultimatum – either the falcon was going or he was.

Another time we discovered an Arabian night owl that the mother had kicked out of the nest. Of course, you can't just leave a beautiful baby owl there to die so we picked it up and took it to a charity that cares for birds of prey who later rehabilitated it.

We saw a progress picture later of this beautiful bird of prey in flight, which was quite a transformation from the scrawny featherless thing we rescued.

What are the most memorable moments you’ve had at work?

The best experiences are the unexpected ones, and every day poses new possibilities.

One day I was on a desert drive and we came face to face with 50 camels with 50 babies by their side, which is just something you never see. We were just at the right place at the right time.

We also stumbled across a colony of spiny lizards and started feeding them fruit every day on our nature walks.

They are pretty big and one day we left an apple, they totally demolished it!

The next day we left a pear, which they ate half of and then a banana and so on.

We were feeding them for about six months and it got to the point where there'd be 80 lizards basking in the sun waiting for us to bring them their lunch.

Updated: November 10, 2023, 11:59 AM