When one thinks of Sri Lanka, one thinks of elephants and there are many of them living in the wild and in the national parks. But Sri Lanka is also home to the leopard, which lives in the largest of the national nature reserves, Yala. This was to be our next destination, with a safari to seek out this majestic and stealth-like creature. Yala National Park lies in the dry, hot and arid land area in the eastern part of the Southern province. It is a huge conservation area and the natural habitat for a huge range of creatures including, elephants, crocodiles, buffalo, deer, monkeys, mongoose and birds a plenty. However It is most famous for the elusive leopard.
Our gentleman friend Hema had come to Merissa to pick us up in his freshly washed, luxury A/C car, suitcase in the boot ready for our 10 day Sri Lankan adventure. He was ready waiting for us at the guesthouse in his sharply pressed short-sleeved shirt, neatly tucked into his long trousers and his shiny black lace up shoes. He had been a military man and his decorum and confidence showed this. Hema was keen to get going as we had a long drive ahead and were booked to have a late afternoon safari; this is the best time to see the animals as they advance out of the jungle to the watering holes after having been hidden away out of the hot midday sun.
The coastal road south was beautiful, it was less developed than the west coast in terms of tourism and this showed in the lack of hotels and the regalia that goes with tourism. It was lush and green for most of the way and we passed by some spectacular beaches and fishing coves. Hema drove at a nice steady speed so that we could admire the land and seascapes and told us that if we saw something of interest along the way then he would stop, and said that after all it was our trip.
Every now and then we would pass a large group of travellers on the side of the road or would be overtaken by a minivan full of people, a top their vehicles piles of baggage and plastic covered items. These were pilgrims, who were travelling from all over Sri Lanka to a temple shrine called Kataragama. It was the festival season and Kataragama is one of the most important temples in Sri Lanka to visit. These pilgrims could be Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or indeed Christian, but mainly Buddhist and Hindu, many of them Tamils from the North and hill country.
En route to Kataragama, the pilgrims would stop at different points, often temples or sacred spots for reset breaks; to eat, bathe and sleep and at different points along the way there were stalls, selling a stunning collection of fruit, some to eat, but many for the pilgrims to buy to give as offerings at the temple. Oddly, among the fruits were some highly painted, decorative animal figurines, not sure if they were also offerings too, or just novelty gifts, but there were two cute smiling dogs sitting at the front of the stall which we both took to…if it weren’t for the fact that they were rather large and heavy to carry in our luggage, we would have given them a home back in Blighty!
Gradually, the landscape, and climate changed, gone were the lush green tropical fields and hills, now we were now entering a flatter landscape, yellow, and barren where there had been no rain for a while. Here the farmers were suffering, the drought was causing problems with irrigation and the paddy fields were struggling to survive. We stopped to look at a standing, stone Buddha and stepping out of the comfort of the air conditioned car was like being blown with a huge, hot, hair dryer, the heat was intense and burning. In addition to changing terrain, the wildlife was also changing, here the road signs had elephants crossing, not just cattle…apparently wild elephants could often be seen wandering along the sides of the roads, especially in the early morning or at night.
We arrived in Tissamaharama (Tissa for short), this is the town from which you enter the Yala national park, it is also only a few kilometres to Kataragama, so the place was full of pilgrims. We emerged from the town onto a road running alongside a huge lake, Hema told us that over the weekend, the road becomes impassible with so many groups all parked up along the road, bathing and cooking. The lake was filled with waterlillies, dark purple ones known as the lotus flower, everywhere you go in Sri Lanka there are ponds and lakes growing them. These are farmed to collect the flowers for ‘offerings’ in the temples, they are placed on the altars in front of the Buddha as a gift or offering. The lotus is the sacred flower of buddhism and it is also seen as symbolic decoration in many of the temples, the fact that these beautiful flowers rise up, out of the muddy waters symbolises the potential for Buddhahood that everyone carries within them. The lake was also being used by the pilgrims to bathe in, here they wash and i mean full on lathering up, in order to purify themselves before entering the temple. There were whole families, mum, dad, uncle, aunt, brothers sisters, cousins all bathing in this beautiful lake! all were having a jolly time, laughing and smiling…On the right hand side of the lake was a temple with a huge, blindingly, white dagoba brightly lit by the afternoon sun, it was a stunning place to take a bath…
We turned off the main road down a dirt track which led us into the countryside, past bunglaows constructed of mud and eventually arrived in our destination, The Hibiscus Garden; a very smart modern, but traditionally built hotel, situated deep in the countryside. We were greeted with a cool refreshing fresh fruit juice and shown to our room, which was like a semi detached cabana (Bungalow), with French windows over looking a paddy field towards some mountains in the distance, there was a swimming pool where we could cool off surrounded by pretty gardens and a small lake…this would do very nicely!
Lunch was had and at 2.15 we were taken to our Land Rover to head off for our safari…Andy was chuffed to bits as this was his opportunity to dress for the occasion in his ‘Ray Mears Style Safari Gear’! The Land Rover had a high back to it for easy viewing and comfy seats, which was good as this was going to be a bumpy ride! Our driver looked about 12 years old, but was apparently 21. We jumped in and he sped off along the road we had just driven by the side of the lake, this time though we took a turning to the left and headed off on a smaller side road, bouncing along in our seats. After a few kilometres we took another turning, this time down a dirt track which led towards the jungle, there was evidence that elephants had been walking here as there were huge piles of dung scattered along the road. We hadn’t even entered the park and we were already having a lot of fun off-roading, being driven in a land rover meant our driver could manoeuvre us around the uneven ground at quite a speed. We had to travel quite a way into the dry, dusty jungle before we arrived at the park entrance. We jumped out and had a brief look at the museum whilst our driver bought the tickets. According to the museum there was all manner of animals, reptiles and birds that inhabited Yala and we were hoping to see a good many of them. But nothing was guaranteed especially the elusive leopard!
Yala, is the most visited of the reserves in Sri Lanka, it covers an area of 1260 square kilometres, but 4/5ths of this is designated as a strict natural reserve and is not open to visitors. The dry zone landscape of Yala is strikingly beautiful with is low scrub, trees dotted around and strange rocky outcrops, one of which resembles a huge elephant. The reserve is also bordered by the Indian Ocean and a stunning coastline. In amongst the scrub are large watering holes, although due to the lack of rain many of them were looking low, but it is here that most of the parks wild life can be seen.
The first group of animals we see are water buffaloes wallowing it the cool water, one of two with white wader birds perched on their backs, crocodiles lying low in the water, with their snouts just visible above the water line, pelicans, wild peacocks and flamingoes all going about their business of eating and lounging. We continue down differing tracks, all the time our driver has his keen eye on the lookout, we stop to look at colourful birds, little lime green ones and blue kingfishers. We spot another croc, this time out of the water on the banks lying there cooling off with its mouth wide open. Our driver has his mobile phone and every now and then he gets a message to tell him where he can find another group of creatures. It’s good fun bumping around, but not sure how the animals feel about this human invasion…they didn’t seem bothered by us, I guess the ones that hang out in this part of the reserve are accustomed to the noise and intrusion of the jeeps.
We spent an hour or so darting in and out of the jungle, our eyes and ears sharp. At points the terrain was so uneven that we were driving at angles, just about managing to stay on 4 wheels, it was like a continuous fair ground ride, exhilarating and adrenaline fuelling. We came upon a troop of grey, black-faced monkeys, in a clearing hanging around in the trees and sitting on the ground just doing their own thing, they were our first encounter with wild monkeys and were funny and fascinating to watch, especially the young ones, who like little children just couldn’t sit still and were playing in the trees, sliding up and down creepers or mums tail if that happened to be close by. We could have sat their for hours watching them.
We moved on down another track that led us to the elephant rock, which really does resemble a huge elephant, we had a look and at that point thought that this might be the only elephant we might see…we had seen more birds, buffalo and crocs, but no elephants or leopards…we stopped at the beach for a rest, we would resume our safari at 4pm, this is when a lot of the animals who have been taking shade from the midday sun would be out and about. The curved beach was stunning with its pure white sand and lapping waves. I went to pick up a piece of drift wood and something briefly scurried, it was a lizard, it froze next to a piece of rock so I took a photo which I showed to Hema, who had come along for the ride, it was a chameleon and was so well camouflaged that I hadn’t seen it until it moved.
It was here on the beach that the group of Japanese tourists were staying in a beach bungalow when the tsunami struck, the remains of the bungalow were still here with some commemorative plaques as a memorial. It was such a beautiful place to have suffered such horror and loss of life.
Watered up and rested, we got back in our jeep and once again bounced off through the scrub, This time there was more urgency in our driver’s manner, this time he was in search of the big game, he was determined to seek out the elephants and that all elusive leopard! We had another two hours before the reserve closed at 6pm, so we were hopeful that we would at least see an elephant or two. But hey if we didn’t we’d had a good time anyway…his phone went off, we didn’t know what was said but we were suddenly turning around and dashing off in pursuit of something…it was a lone, male elephant, stood munching away on some bushes, It was magnificent, a huge specimen and we had front seat views. We stopped for a few minutes and then another call was taken and we sped off in another direction, this time to another lone elephant by a waterhole ripping at a tree, a number of jeeps all arrived at once with their spectators all wanting a look, so we moved on. Another call and this time it was full speed ahead, we arrived at another drinking hole to see the back of our elusive leopard, slowly strolling away into the scrub, we were the last vehicle to to arrive I time to see it. It didn’t look much like a leopard as its spots were covered by a dusty layer of mud, but we had at least seen it!
Our driver was happy, not everyone got to see a leopard, so he felt he had earned his tip! He drove back around to where the lone elephant was tearing away at the tree, parked up and turned off the engine so we could sit quietly and observe this amazing creature for a while. We were the only ones there and for about ten minutes we sat and watched from about 10ft away as he ripped at the branches with his trunk and devoured his way through them. At one point he was becoming frustrated by a branch that just wouldn’t snap, but he preserved and managed eventually to win. We kept urging him to move away from the tree so we could see him in all his glory. Eventually our patience paid off; he backed away and turned to the watering hole to take a drink, his long trunk acting like a straw as he sucked up the water and squirted it into his mouth, he did this a few times in between just standing still, he then took a big suck and squirted it back into the water so it made a splash. After he had had his fill he turned away from us and slowly meandered back into the jungle. This was just such an amazing experience to witness and close up too.
After a bit more driving around it was getting near to closing time so we slowly made our way back towards the main entrance, stopping along the way to watch the birds, crocs, deer and buffalo. There was an interesting wading bird who stealthily waded along the edge of the lake, every now and then it’s long tongue rapidly flicking out to catch its prey whilst the little green birds that we had seen earlier in the afternoon sat chattering to each other. It had been a brilliant and breathtaking experience, one full of excitement and enchantment that we would never forget.
To top the day off our drive back to the hotel took us by the lake, where the spectacle of the setting sun glistening on the water was a final treat…