Sri Lanka is a nice country, with great scenry, beaches and nature, and very friendly people. I’ve only been in the country for a few days and already had so many people smiling at me and yelling “hello!”. My main reason for visiting, aside from a flight sale and not too much entry bureaucracy, was the wildlife. Sri Lanka is known for being the best place to see leopards, and Yala National Park is the go-to site for them.
There are a few things to know about Yala’s safaris. First of all, it’s hardly a wilderness experience. Drivers contact each other when they see something and this often results in a cluster of cars around one animal. If it’s a leopard, they will really race towards it, braking harshly when they reach a speed bump and slamming the accelerator once they’re over it (or at least, their front wheels). Some drivers are better than others, ranging from those who can pull off the same trick as the guys did in Borneo (where they make you think “how on earth did they see that?”) to someone who just knows how to operate a jeep. Just. Most safaris to Yala cost a lot if booked online, and arranging it in Tissa can be cheaper but a riskier affair, as you’ve no idea what you’re paying for. I found a reputable organisation, Safari Janaka, who were very reasonably priced (5500 LKR, about £29). One last thing to note is that you’ll have a choice betwen half day and full day safaris. It’s always best to choose the half day option, which will be in the morning or evening when animals are at their most active.
It’s an early start for me, and the jeep meets me in front of my guesthouse at 4.30 AM. The driver is one of the chirpiest guys I’ve met in Sri Lanka so far, which is saying something. The park gate does not open until 6AM, so we stop at the HQ to get breakfast while the driver pays for our entrance. There’s a small shop selling rotis and a museum on Yala’s wildlife.
Once we’re off, it’s a simple timetable; we’ll drive around and stop by the beach in the middle of our five hours for a toilet and fruits break. The day begins with the driver getting The Call and initiating a bumpy ride. A cluster of jeeps has formed around a leopard sleeping in a tree. We can only see its back, so we decide to come back later.
Plus, the driver has received another Call; this time, it’s a sloth bear. It’s tiny, less than a metre high and one and a half long. It meanders its way through the caravan, and ends up two metres in front of us. It would rip us to shreds were we not in the jeeps, and although the open sided vehicle would not stop an attack, plus everyone is leaning out for pictures, the bear takes no notice. Funny that.
As we drive on, we pass herds of deer, water buffalo, rabbits and wild boar, food for the leopard. The driver stops for any intersting birds such as an eagle and a jungle-fowl, the wild ancestor of the chicken. We often stop at waterholes to search them, and one of them turns up a mongoose, a weasel-like animal with a love of fighting venemous snakes.
At one point we come across a herd of elephants. One of them, a big male, is washing himself with his trunk, while the females try to control their calves. Yala has some open ground, but much of it is bush, so it can be easy to get lost. Some of the females who don’t have to deal with burdens like parenting rest under a tree, while monkeys chatter above their heads.
The sleeping lopard never wakes up, and the best show he puts on for us is moving his paws slightly. I had booked two safaris before I got here, to maximise the chances of seeing a leopard, and since it’s good value for money I decide to give it another shot, my fingers crossed for a full view of a leopard.
On the second day the company is much better; an English backpacker, her mother and a Japanese guy cycling around the country, all a nice and talkative bunch. As the day wears on, though, they get more and more silent. The driver stops for more birds this time, and tells us what they are, so I think to myself “that will make this extra trip worth it”. Failure is a bit of a problem in wildlife tours; there’s no guarantee of seing animals, it rarely results in you getting your money back, and I had gone through quite a bit to get here; a flight, a long bus ride with a longer wait after the first one got cancelled, plus time gaps in between to make up for any delays. We keep driving through the bush, stopping by rocky outcrops and the place where the sleeping leopard was. No luck.
But, I tell myself, at least I have seen a leopard, even if it wasn’t a great view. The others don’t have that to fall back on. When I go back to my list, I’ll be able to put a tick beside “leopard”. And, I have done my bit to protect them by spending money on them and incentivising people to keep them alive.
And then, when a leopard pops up by the side of the road, it takes a second for us half-asleep passengers to register this and start yelling “stop, STOP!” The jeep reverses, and the leopard wanders around the bush, moving gradually towards the road. It crosses in front of us, calm as a coma, a polar contrast to the emotions on the jeep. Our cameras click away and we say nothing. It hangs around for a moment then disappears into the thicket on the other side of the road, and we then start laughing away. The driver starts high-fiving everyone, and Team England can’t stop saying “oh my gosh!”
That’s pretty much made my day, and my trip. The first day, even the sloth bear, which the driver said he hadn’t seen for two months, didn’t feel special due to the fact that it was the result of a tip-off. This time, it was just us and Spotty, no other vehicles around and a successful case of pot-luck. I knew it was unlikely that we would get an encounter of that nature, and before I had been determined to enjoy the rest of Sri Lanka despite my failure in that regard. Now, however, that will be much easier. More to follow.