A lifetime in 8-year UAE journey: From being blessed by the Pope to travelling to Antarctica

'From Abu Dhabi to Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and beyond, we have discovered something amazing in every emirate of this beautiful country'

By Winston Cowie

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Published: Wed 1 Dec 2021, 9:13 AM

The UAE is a land of dreams, vision and hard work. A land of duty, respect and culture. A place of opportunity and adventure. It’s all there before us, and you don’t have to look too hard to see it.

The great writer Roald Dahl once said that life is one long story and a series of short memorable ones. Here in the UAE, you can live a hundred different lives in one lifetime. My family and I have always celebrated the sanctity and beauty of life, and in this country, we’ve been fortunate to live many lives and go on countless unforgettable adventures.


This is our UAE story. An eight-year long journey, with many short memorable stories, and more to come in sha Allah. It goes something like this:

A family for our family


Two of our four children were born here, Zachary and Luke. Our daughters, Issy and Evie, were one and two years old when we came. Arriving in the UAE Capital for the first time, we quickly became part of a new family, the wonderful team at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi. It’s hard to explain, but almost immediately my colleagues became brothers and sisters, not just co-workers. I don’t think there are many places in the world where that amazingly positive and supportive culture exists in the workplace.

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Once-in-a-lifetime experiences

During our time in the UAE we have experienced some amazing things. We were blessed by Pope Francis at Zayed Sports City during a pontiff’s first visit to the Arabian Peninsula. I became Captain Redbeard (in Arabic: Noukhada Corsan Bu Lehya Hamra), the dhow sailing pirate, sailing in four dhow races on 60-foot traditional Arabian dhows from Dalma Island to Mirfa; and Sir Abu Nu’Ayr to Dubai. And I chased every rugby kid's dream by playing international rugby for the UAE at the World Cup qualifiers in Malaysia.

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From the UAE to Antarctica and back again

Through my work, I had the opportunity to go to Antarctica in 2018, during the Year of Zayed. I am incredibly grateful to have been chosen as an ambassador of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi and Dr. Jane Goodall in Antarctica, where we learned about climate change from polar explorer Sir Robert Swan. During that trip, we sent a message of thanks to the UAE’s leadership, and a message to the world on the importance of tackling climate change…all in solar lights. Our travels were documented in an Environment Agency film: Zayed’s Antarctic Lights.

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Wild encounters

From Abu Dhabi to Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and beyond, we have discovered something amazing in every emirate of this beautiful country. One experience that stands out for me was a sea dive my friend and I did when we went in search of bull sharks. Although rare sightings in the UAE, we were incredibly lucky to discover one. Our Environment Agency team also saved two whale sharks that became lost in a canal 25km in from the coast of the Arabian Gulf. It was one of those Roald Dahl moments, an incredible experience and very close to the heart.

We satellite-tagged green turtles at Butinah Atoll and made a documentary about it: Wild Abu Dhabi: The Turtles of Al Dhafra. This involved jumping off the side of a moving boat, catching the turtles by hand (because Green turtles only forage and don’t go ashore and nest in Abu Dhabi), and then satellite tagging them to see where they go. We found they go all the way to Oman!

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At one with the land and the people

As a family, we have regularly gone boating around Abu Dhabi islands. Our children have dived with black-tip reef sharks and turtles, in Abu Dhabi and also across Snoopy Island in Fujairah, building their confidence in the sea. They have learned to wakeboard here too, and at a young age. For work our team travelled the UAE’s fishing majlis and met the traditional fishers in all emirates, a really special cultural experience. They shared their traditional knowledge and stories about what were once the main professions in the UAE of the past. They also talked about their dream of recovering the fisheries, which is now happening, Alhamdulillah, thanks to the efforts of the agency and decisions of our leaders.

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Camping is another favoured activity for our family. We frequent the Ras Al Khaimah mountains, hiking to the amazing stone villages perched on top of the mountains. Incredible! Sites over 500 years old! Sheri village was a memorable one, hiking 14km with my three-year-old on my shoulders. After the hike and in the evening while we were sitting around the fire, the moon peeking above the mountains, we heard a lone owl. Its song reverberated throughout the valley. It was electrifying. During the UAE’s welcoming winters, we also camp in the desert, seeing on occasion camel caravans at dawn. It’s a beautiful sight – camels in single file walking across the dunes.

All of these stories, these experiences have been shared with the dear friends we have met since moving to the UAE - our UAE family. The best things in life are shared. May we make and share many more memories in the years to come.

**Winston Cowie is the Manager of Marine Policy at the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi. A New Zealand national he is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, film director; author of New Zealand history books; and UAE rugby player and dhow sailor.

This article is part of the “The UAE’s 50” series, featuring stories and journeys of people who call the UAE home. You can share your personal stories in the UAE via www.uaeyearof.ae



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