The white lioness was only two inches away from me, observing my every move. I was amazed by her majestic appearance and the green surroundings of the place.
As she roared loudly, the other lionesses and a lion approached us. My heart jumped out of fear as they ran towards me. Luckily for me, a thick glass wall stood between us.
I was not in the wild, but at the new Dubai Safari in Al Warqa 5 on Al Aweer Road. Although the much anticipated Dh1 billion worth new attraction could pass for a traditional African-styled safari - I felt like I was really in Africa!
Spread out across 119 hectares, the media was invited on an exclusive tour ahead of the Dubai Safari's grand opening for the public. A train picked us up at the entrance and took us to the giraffe feeding area, which we were told was just a little teaser of what was about to come.
There were cooling fans installed all around the safari that sprayed cool water and air, meant to help keep the animals and humans from feeling the region's intense heat (we'll learn to be more appreciative of this feature in the summer!). As we watched, four giraffes that came out to play. Even though they were a tad bit shy, they observed us sharply from afar. Three of them were brought from the Dubai Zoo, so they were used to humans gawking at them, maybe.
A closed bus picked us up next, taking us to what is described as the 'heart of the Dubai Safari' - indeed, it was. At the open safari, called the Safari Village, we were about to see lions, hyenas, baboons, ostriches, buffalos and Siberian tigers.
As the bus entered the first mechanical gate - many of these are installed throughout this part of the tour for security reasons) - we saw big rocky walls, centred with lots of greenery and water. We had entered a wetland. There were hippopotamuses peeping out of the water - they seemed shy but also intrigued by the human arrival.
A little further into the Safari Village, we approached the home of the lions. The surroundings were designed comfortably for all the animals, with each section having a huge space for them to walk or run around, cooling water fans, greenery, rocks and trees to climb and a drinking water reservoir. All in all, a significant upgrade from the Dubai Zoo.
In a late night post on social media on Tuesday, Dubai Safari announced free entry for all visitors during the soft launch period - starting from December 12 - daily from 9 am until 5 pm for two weeks:
The highlight, for me personally and I think for most others, were the Siberian tigers. As we entered the next gate, a massive green oasis with a magnificent waterfall grabbed our attention.
Three orange Siberian tigers were resting on the grass. They didn't care too much about us as they didn't budge from their spot. But we humans were left speechless by their beauty. The bus circled around the tigers' home and to our surprise, it also went behind the waterfall, giving us quite a picturesque view.
Leaving the tigers behind, we headed to the drive-thru crocodile exhibit. The brave bus driver drove on a bridge that was built on the water itself. We had to make a brief, unscheduled stop as we wait for a crocodile to move away from the road - giving us an authentic African-safari feel!
After the Safari Village, we took a quick look around the African Village, which had a reptile house and an air-conditioned walkway where we can see the white lions and hyenas up close. The white lionesses and lions weren't timid at all and came to play.
The media tour was just a little sneak peek of what the Dubai Safari has to offer. There is still the Arabian Village, Asian Village and Kids Farm that has to be explored and these will be accessible when the park officially opens to the public.
The three hours quickly went by and our tour was over. But I know exactly where I'm heading the next time I miss my adventurous trips in the African wild - to the new Dubai Safari, just 25 minutes away from home.
The African Village is spread out across 12 hectares of land at the Dubai Safari Park and includes all sorts of African-styled patterns and structures. The surroundings are meant to make the visitors believe they are in the African continent as they walk around the colourful buildings.
The village has been divided into two main areas, including the African Savannah and the African Rainforest. Home to 20 different kinds of animals, the guests can see reptiles and amphibians that originate from Africa. There are shaded walkways available to the visitors and a tour guide is present to provide a bit of history and general knowledge about the reptiles that are there.
Giant snakes are also a must-see in this part of the village. Compared to the Dubai Zoo, the variety of reptiles is better. The reptile pit also larger in size. When this part of the Dubai Safari opens to the public, there will also be different kinds of African performances, reflecting the African culture and offerign entertainment to visitors.
Dubbed as the 'heart of the Dubai Safari, this open safari is the main attraction of the entire tour. A closed bus takes you right in the middle of the animals' home and allows the guest a closer look at the majestic creatures - lions, crocodiles, Siberian tigers, baboons, among others.
These animals are not trapped behind glass walls or claustrophobic rooms, instead there are large home-like areas built for them, with loads of greenery, rocky walls and reservoirs for drinking water. What's interesting for visitors is that there might be many unscheduled stops along the way, as some of the animals may be resting on the safari bus route.
During the media tour, a crocodile was resting on the bridge we were crossing and we waited an extra five minutes, until it was safe to move.
The main highlight for the Safari Village are the Siberian tigers. Guests will get a pleasant surprise when they spot the gigantic waterfall feature at the tigers' home. The bus actually goes behind the waterfall, through a roadway installed for vehicles. This sight is, perhaps, the most breathtaking of the tour and is a must-see.