Abu Dhabi and the Sir Bani Yas Challenge

Shortly after the Oman recon trip with Husaak Adventures in December, they informed me of a challenge race to be held on Sir Bani Yas Island, offshore Abu Dhabi. While I had already consistently been working out, I decided to accept the challenge and use it to set a fitness goal for myself. The Challenge was to be 50 km total, with a 10 km run, 37 km mountain bike course, and culminating with a 3 km lagoonal sea kayak haul to the finish. I accepted the challenge in mid-January, and with the race being held in late March, it was time to get serious with my workouts!

Abu Dhabi

I first visited Abu Dhabi in November 2002, when I was contemplating a one-year sabbatical at the Petroleum Institute. The PI was a newly formed university that was funded by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), and Colorado School of Mines was contracted by ADNOC to provide the intellectual capital to get the PI off the ground. I was involved in the early curricular development for the Petroleum Geosciences undergraduate degree. A few Mines faculty were beginning to occupy administrative positions in residence, and others were being solicited for sabbaticals. For a variety of reasons, but mostly because I was setting up a new stable isotope lab at Mines at the time, I ended up not taking the sabbatical. However, I really enjoyed my visit to the PI and had a chance to get out to see the famous coastal sabkhas and got out into the Gulf with my friend and colleague Saleh Al-Hashimi on his boat.

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A dhow and the rapidly growing Abu Dhabi skyline circa 2002.

Needless to say, in the intervening years, Abu Dhabi has changed drastically, and is now nearly rivaling Dubai in growth and glitter. I went to AD a day early before the long transport to Sir Bani Yas, principally to visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum. I had heard great things about the museum, and my visit did not disappoint.

Louvre Abu Dhabi

At this point, I’ve probably visited the Louvre 1.0 in Paris three or four times. You need about a week to cover the vast collections there, and I know for certain that I haven’t seen everything there is to see – I guess I’ll have to go back to Paris…

Cost of the Louvre Abu Dhabi was well over $1 billion USD, with about $750 million USD for purchases and rentals for the collections. The building itself came in under $100 million, and the remainder was for appropriating the Louvre name for 30 years.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi can be completely explored in a day, even accounting for special exhibits. The museum is in the Saadiyat marina district, about a ten-minute taxi ride from the Sheraton Corniche where I stayed. I arrived very close to opening time to (hopefully) beat the crowds. The approach to the museum is impressive; a latticework dome appears to float atop clean, white geometric buildings that are set within an azure lagoon.


The Sheraton Corniche Resort, Abu Dhabi.


Entrance to the museum.


Underneath the latticework dome with a view from the lagoon to the Gulf.

The collections include pieces on loan from Paris and other museums, but some are “owned” by the Abu Dhabi museum. The interior layout is easy to access and to find your way around. I’ll include a few pics here to give you a flavor of the range of collections. As always, you can click on individual images to see an expanded view.

Yes, that’s the original Whistler’s Mother (on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris).

The science-oriented exhibits in the regular collections were not as extensive as those in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (an earlier blog entry), but I was very excited to see a special exhibit called “Globes – Visions of the World”. This exhibit traced the history of spheres and globes in human culture and history, going back to the Greek ideal of the sphere as the perfect shape, although it’s accepted that the Chinese were into spheres well before the Hellenistic infatuation with them. By extension, the Greek philosophers and naturalists developed the Celestial Sphere (or Armillary Sphere) which, in the Ptolemaic system, placed the Earth at the center of a series of concentric spheres. A model Armillary Sphere is in the photos below, along with a brief view of the convoluted epicycles and deferents needed to account for celestial motions (especially retrograde motion) in a geocentric system. Note the zodiac signs around the celestial depiction in the book. Also shown is a map of a terrestrial sphere, showing Earth’s climate zones, and a drawing of Mercator and his homie working out the geometry of the Mercator projection.

The Globes special exhibit.

Should you find yourself in the Emirates and you’re looking for some culture beyond the glitz/architecture/shopping/attractions of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I definitely recommend a visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It was a day well spent!

Sir Bani Yas Challenge

Sir Bani Yas Island is located in the Arabian Gulf and belongs to the Abu Dhabi emirate of the UAE. It’s located close to 170 km west-southwest of the UAE capital city of Abu Dhabi. When I first located the island on Google Maps, it appeared roughly circular – to me, that indicated that it was most likely related to a salt dome. These form excellent stratigraphic traps for petroleum accumulations. The map below shows a number of these round islands and features within the Gulf. Some of the large oilfields of the Middle East (and for that matter, the Gulf of Mexico) are related to salt domes. The yellow arrow points to SBYI.

With some poking around in the geological literature, I found out that SBYI is not just related to a salt dome, but that it actually exposes the core of the salt dome, along with associated sedimentary rocks that were deposited adjacent to, and at the same time of, deposition/accumulation of the salt. The salt accumulated over 600 million years ago, during a time when the region was (similar to today) characterized by a very arid climate. Evaporation of large volumes of seawater resulted in the accumulation of vast salt deposits, comprised principally of calcium sulfate (gypsum/anhydrite) and sodium chloride (halite). Being less dense than the surrounding and overlying sediment that accumulated later, the salt migrated upward into a dome-like feature.

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Location of Sir Bani Yas Island (yellow arrow) between Abu Dhabi city and Qatar. Note the numerous other domal features in the Arabian Gulf.

The schematic section through SBYI shown below is an attempt by the authors to show the internal structure of the dome, given the mappable surface expression of the geology. While there are some intercalated volcanics, the salts, dolostones, and sandstones/siltstones/shales were all originally deposited horizontally.  Upward flow of the less dense salt created intense disruption of those early sediments.


salt dome

Schematic of the SBY salt dome (ENHG Bulletin No. 27, 1985).


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The long axis of SBYI is about 17.5 km (11 miles).

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An oblique view of the island, looking toward the barrier islands on the eastern shore.

In 1977, Sheikh Zayed (founder of UAE) established the mostly barren island as a nature reserve. Vegetation was planted and Arabian and African animals were imported. A recent National Geographic Travel piece explains more about the nature reserve.

As mentioned in the introduction, the SBY Challenge was designed to be a unique 50 km “triathlon”, with running, mountain biking, and sea kayaking in and around the island. The possibility of being chased by free-range cheetahs added a certain level of excitement… About 290 participants signed up for the challenge – I figured I only had to run/ride faster than the slowest participant to avoid being eaten by the island’s carnivores.

As it turned out, the supplier of the mountain bikes for the challenge completely reneged on their promise, about 36 hours before the start of the race. The Husaak team went into overdrive to redesign the course and the challenge, this time without a mountain biking leg. The overhaul of the course resulted in a run/trek/hike leg of just under 21 miles (33.5 km), and kept the 3 km (1.8 mile) kayak to the finish.

Participants were bused from Abu Dhabi to boats waiting to take us over to the island. We arrived the evening before the race, had a group dinner, and then slept in a tent city on the beach. The next morning arrived very warm and very humid, promising an additional component to the challenge.

I decided that I would take advantage of the “cooler” morning air, and run the first part of the challenge as a 10K race. I’m pretty sure the last 10K that I ran was about 15 years ago (I used the run the Bolder Boulder 10K every year). Well, I ran the first 10 km, only stopping twice – once to take photos, and once to refuel at the first aid station. Pretty proud of myself on that, and getting it done in 75 minutes in hot and humid conditions.

Race headquarters, tent city, start of the race with Husaak President Ali Husain @husaak, sunrise on the course, coastal lagoon, and antelopes (Thompson’s Gazelles) along the course.

Not going to lie, the rest of the challenge was pretty brutal. But, the island was spectacular! The salt dome sediments were a rainbow of colors. The terrain was much more rugged than I had anticipated. If you’ve ever been to coastal Abu Dhabi, you’d know that it’s one of the flattest places on Earth, so the topography was a surprise. At just about every aid station I stopped, took on fuel, and spent time talking with other participants about the geology of the island. I ran into several Saudi Aramco employees and they enthusiastically endured my geological rantings.

Views along the trail through the interior of the island.

Well, what do you know, I finished the challenge. I was not fast, but I finished. Of the 287 entrants, only 113 finished the challenge. It took me well over seven hours to complete, but I certainly wasn’t rushing past the aid stations! I was the only entrant from the United States, while most were from UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. I was clearly among the “older” participants, and definitely one of the oldest to complete it. Out of the 113 finishers, I crossed the line at 102. Yay me!! I had been bike training, so it was a let down to not be able to bike. I’d never before run/hiked over 20 miles in one shot. Overall, pretty darn proud of the accomplishment and I’ll be looking to sign up again next year. The Husaak Adventures team was phenomenal as usual. If you’re looking for adventure on the Arabian peninsula (or Mongolia, Alaska, or Tanzania), check them out. I’ll be writing more about Husaak experiences when I cover our summer KFUPM activities.

The completion banner, giraffes on course, slow time, and shipping out and away from the island.

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