They said the meeting place was by the Buddha statue just on the edge of the town. A short while later they called to see if I’d reached. ‘I don’t think so,” was my response, “Is it obvious, could I have missed it?” I credit them for not being sarcastic in their response, being, as most on the island are, very charmingly Sri Lankan. And when I eventually did arrive I appreciated their ability to be polite, when faced with a stupid guest, all the more. For all who may venture to Yala, this is the meeting point for most lodges on the Kataragama side and no, you can’t miss it!
Welcomes were shared, luggage loaded and it was at that point that the heavens opened and I mean, opened with a torrential downpour that ripped through the jeeps and within seconds, we were drenched. My heart sank. For anyone who knows anything about wildlife, after such a downpour there’s little point in heading out on safari, chances of seeing anything would be slim to non. I was gutted, this was to be my first visit to Yala National Park in around 15 years. The last time I was there, it was just another destination I had to get to know as part of my job as a luxury travel specialist. In the intervening time, I’d left the UK, lived in India, spent a season running a lodge adjacent to one of it’s best wildlife parks and had become a keen lover of nature and wildlife. This was a stolen two days in a 2 month work trip, some me time to spend at a luxury lodge with some of Sri Lanka’s best naturalists, and no matter how luxurious and how excellent the naturalists, the last thing we needed was rain.
I met the team, checked in and had a bite to eat. We all knew there was little point in venturing into the park, and a cadence of futility hung in the air. The naturalists looked at me despondently, I looked at them expectantly. Finally, I spoke up, ‘Well, for me, it’s not just about seeing the key species, it’s about being in nature, the views and the landscapes. I mean, decent wildlife would be a bonus but I won’t hold a lack of sightings against you, I’d still just like to go.’ I saw a smile. So many clients just want to focus on the key species and so many safaris become a hunt for just those, which can, if the leopards of Yala aren’t feeling terribly obliging, leave clients feeling disappointed. But a wildlife experience takes in the micro fauna and flora and with a brilliant guide, a safari experience can be extraordinary without even seeing any major animals. I’d won the guides over, “Let’s do it then,’ was their retort and they set about making the arrangements with big smiles on their faces. The jeep arrived, we clambered in, cameras were loaded just in case, and I was given a quick brief on the park.
Yala National Park is a protected area of nearly 130,000 hectares made up of light forests, scrub, grasslands, tanks and lagoons. It is stunning, adjacent to the Indian Ocean and therefore comprising sand dunes and scrub along this wild coastal edge, and yet is home to 215 bird species and 44 species of animals including leopard, elephant sloth bears, sambars, jackals, spotted dear, peacocks, and crocodiles.
If I go into the details of what happened over the next three safaris, we will be here for a week. Aaron (naturalist and owner of the lodge) simply couldn’t believe it, he had never had so many sightings in such a short time, in all his time in the park. A glimpse, could it be, over there, through the trees, yes, see, standing stock still, a leopard beautifully framed as it paused its journey in search of prey. As more jeeps descended, we moved on, just around the corner three crocodiles were basking at the side of a small pond, further on a wild boar defining the words of the song,
‘Mud mud, glorious Mud, nothing quite like it for cooling the blood,’
Shaking our heads, smiling with our good fortune, not to mention delight, we knew we’d been lucky,. We headed back to the lodge, trying to contain our excitement infront of the guests who had elected to stay at the lodge and enjoy its excellent ambiance.
The following morning was named the ‘Mornng of Mastication.’ It started with a leopard on a kill, determined to fill its belly with its efforts of that morning, seemingly obvlivious to the jeeps vying to get the best view through the undergrowth. Next was a painted stork, making its way through the marsh land to a local pond where we were rewarded with the briefest glipse of a silvery fish before it was devoured. Further on, a giant squirrel peeked out from behind a tree trunk as we paused once more, hoping for a better glimpse. It was not to be, but we were not to be left wanting for long. A couple of obliging Asian Elephants were foraging in the forest, their camouflage apparent; we could hear their gentle rumbling, and twigs snapping as they meandered gently along, we were teased with the sounds of branches bouncing back into place as they took fruit from the trees, but couldn’t see them despite only being a few feet away. Patience, with a little patience, sitting quietly in the open-topped jeep, taking an early sneaky peek at photographs we had already taken, we were eventually treated to a wonderful sighting.
Sighing in blissful contentment, this morning could not get any better, we paused once more, this time for a baby crocodile. It was in no hurry to move on, and as neither were we, so we decided to hone our photography skills when, on the other side of the path, Aaron spied movement. He, tapped me on the shoulder, put his finger on his lips and pointed across to a mongoose which clearly planning an attack on an unsuspecting python. We stayed for the fight and the ultimate outcome, we had the luxury of time and exclusivity and the ensuing silence of having no other noisy jeeps around. Not being a key species, other guests that came by soon moved on, and I can still hear to this day, the mongoose’s jaws crunching as it devoured its win. Which reminded us, time was moving on, we were hungry and we decided it was time to head back to Ceylon Wild for our own breakfast.
On the final safari, we decided to venture to the another zone of the park that is open to tourists, focusing on product knowledge because we’d seen all we needed to see in terms of wildlife. It had been exceptional but we knew that we had had more than our fair share of luck. However, our luck held, and we came across another leopard cub peeking out of the foliage and countless birds appeared seemingly in celebration of our good fortunes.
A drive back to the lodge can often be a despondent affair with talk of, well there is still tomorrow, but we left in jubilant mood, our laughter and incredulous rounds of, “What a day! Extraordinary! That mongoose! I’ve never seen a giant squirrel that close/how can elephants be so close and yet hidden, filling the dusk,” when we were silenced by sharp breaking which threw us against the seats infront. Our eagle eyed driver had spotted a leopard and her cubs hiding in the bushes. How, I have no idea, it was almost dark but thanks to his eagle eyes, we managed to spot the mother and one cub. It was definitely time for a celebratory, perfectly poured G&T.
In short, in total, in just three safaris, Yala National Park provided 11 leopard sightings (2 lone leopards, 3 on a kill, a mother and 3 cubs, and 2 other cubs) three Rusty Spotted Cats, 4 bull elephants, 3 giant squirrels, a mongoose killing and then chomping on a python, several adult crocs and one ever so cute baby, 3 jackal, several wild boar, loads of deer and a whole plethora of wonderful birds.
So much for not venturing out after a storm. The beauty of a true safari experience with wonderful guides, is that one just never knows what might happen.
Oh, and to top it all off, I stayed at https://www.ceylonwildsafaris.com/ and trust me, it doesn’t get much better than that.