Sri Lanka is a country that fascinate me so much. It was probably one of the best surprises i had while traveling in all my life. And for many reasons, like having eight UNESCO world heritage landmarks in such small area, the exceptional warmth of its people, the culture shock, their rich colonial heritage… But, above all, the stunning nature i had the opportunity to witness. I found one of the best examples in the Yala National Park, which is at the Southeast end of the island, it’s like a nice piece of wild Africa in the middle of Asia. Did you know that Yala has the highest density of leopards in the world?. Therefore, taking up a safari in Yala Park is one of the best things offered by Sri Lanka, a tear of the India poured into the Indian Ocean. From Tissamaharama i embarked on a journey to the most stunning nature sights that i could have imagined.
1. Preparing the Yala safari
Yala National Park
One of the key places where the safaris are organized to visit Yala National Park (there are 6 distinct blocks) is Tissamaharama, better known as Tissa. I arrived from Ella (a small and beautiful village) in a tuk-tuk while rain was pouring like a water blanket over us. I would just say, that i had to put some of my own clothes to cover the hole filled tuk-tuk hood.
From a mountainous and cold freezing region we went back to the heat of the Sri Lankan Plains. I didn’t previously hire anything, not accommodation nor tour excursion to the Yala. But by going around by tuk tuk and asking prices to some different hotels i finally found lodging at the Lake Side Hotel for 4000 rupees (10$ more or less) with a breakfast, and it was close to the Tissa Wewa, a beautiful artificial pond that was ideal to observe birds from one of the many canoes that are offered to the traveler’s. The area was filled with plenty of hotels, so it was convenient to go around in the tuk-tuk inquiring to some hotels in order to find an appropriate hotel.
Before going for a walk at Tissa, former capital of the old Kingdom of Ruhuna, i met a couple of guys that we ended up booking with, with the mandatory bargaining, a package including jeep, driver, guide and entries, which are expensive in itself, for a total of 6500 rupees per person ($20). If the tickets are already 2650 Sri Lankan rupees it seemed to me a pretty good deal. The idea was to be at the gate at 6:00 and be back at about 12:00, so it was going to be a total of six hours touring the Park.
Sri Lanka is a country in which bookings of either hotels or activities, can be made on the fly, like in many other Asian countries. In this case, i had only paid the first night in Anuradhapura, because i knew that i would arrive almost at dawn after a long journey. In Tissa it didn’t took long untill we began to receive different tour offers and thus i dedicated the rest of the time to roam through the city and its magnificent dagoba in the afternoon.
Yala National Park Gate
2. Safari Begins
The next morning i was waiting at the hotel gate at 5:00 in the morning, needless to say the sky was completely dark. We had a picnic-like breakfast prepared for us in the hotel, as well as water bottles, since later on we would not be able to find any water and the heat was going to be considerable. Our 4×4 Jeep turned out to be a filthy pickup, in which we had to ride at the back. In part, this was better for photography opportunity.
I remember with emotion the dark path to Yala park entrance. This morning hour the birds were making sounds emphatically. At that time nature is powerful. Because you know that the best times to see animals are both dawn and dusk and, for that reason, i wanted to be there at the time of the park opening, at 6:00 in the morning, with all the paperwork done and moving inside.
Soon enough, various jeeps and pick-up trucks were lining up at the door entrance. The access door had a tight control (apparently there is much poaching going on and they try to limit access). Untill, finally, we were able to access right in to the Yala National Park. The first images i remember are from a reddish sand road that took us to see different ponds, in which the water buffalo’s were taking the first morning baths, and crocodiles watching for afar the buffalos (their dream food). All that in just first few minutes!. And, shades of a spectacular rising sun beginning to color all the landscapes. All seemed more like Africa rather than an Asian island.
This time, and when i’ve done other safaris, all my senses sharpen up to the local scenes that sometimes overlook us. Often some things occur just under our noses and we don’t realize them because we are just distraccted. To see the animals, is necessary to have your eyes wide-open, be quiet and camera ready. Who knows if a Leopard is not far away but because you’re too absent-minded you are just gonna miss it. Or, that you are speaking so loud that the animal you want to see just flees away.
Yala National Park
Yala park wild boars
3. AT 6:30 AM…
Our guide was carrying a walkie-talkie to communicate with other colleagues. They were informing each other if they had witness something, or if they had some news about the other jeeps. This way they inform each other of anything interesting going on.
We all knew that the witnessing a Leopard was going to be a terribly difficult task. And all our hopes were deposited in those first hours of the day, when Leopards return from a night of hunting and just go around looking for a place to sleep and avoid the scorching daytime heat. In fact, although the Yala is the place most suitable for viewing Leopards, it always depend on luck, and i admit that i highly hoped on that to happen, but if it didnt. There would be many other interesting things to enjoy.
Suddenly, only just after 30 minutes of entering to the Park, the car stopped along with two others. People used binoculars to gaze out to a rocks area. I heard in a low voice a “You’re lucky, men” and looked into those rocks in which, no doubt, had a lying Leopard. It was about 20 meters away and he had no intention of moving. His gesture denoted such serenity and security, that we just had to stood there… only to watch, photograph, and enjoy!.
I reckon that the feeling of watching an elusive animal like this, in a place as the Yala Park, is pure emotion. The elegance of the Leopard gave meaning to all my Sri Lanka trip. The minute that gave us that predator seemed hours in which a feeling of disbelief and happiness equally went through my mind. I had the luck to witness one of the park’s finest sight, when we were just beginning to haunt the paths of one of the most impressive natural parks that i had ever visited.
Yala park Leopard
4. Witnessing nature in a pick-ip truck
In the Yala National park is true that Leopard is the star, and every park visitor dream, but although there wouldn’t be any Leopard hanging around, the park would be equally deserving of a visit. Because, in each meter that is advanced the landscape becomes more and more beautiful, more wild and extraordinary situations to be contemplated. Is surprising to find such a contrast of arid terrains, jungles and wetland scenic views.
And i have to admit that we were tremendously lucky to see so many animals. If memory not fails me, besides the Leopard, we saw elephants, jackals, hawks, eagles, deer, water buffalo, crocodiles, monkeys, wild boars and some others that crossed our path really really close.
On the pick-up we spent almost six hours visiting the Yala National Park, crossing the many trails of sand which can be accessed by this such large vehicles. Although our pick-up was so torn down that sometimes the engine would not start. But that was just a minor inconvenience, visiting the Yala is a continuously stop to enjoy the landscapes that are ahead. With or without view, the animal fauna was represented in an overwhelming way at Sri Lanka’s Yala Park. And is not always, that we have a chance to enjoy planet earth displaying such beauty and majesty, as if you were inside a documentary.
Yala park Sri lanka
5. Taking a break
About 10 in the morning, we made a stop at a safe place, to get off of the pick-up and to eat breakfast that was prepared for us at the hotel. At that time, after ten o’clock, the morning heat was very strong and increasingly was becoming more and more difficult to be able to see the animals, that were becoming elusive. We did stop about thirty minutes in a sort of beach. One of those beaches that at 2004 Christmas were devastated by the great Tsunami. This beach was was a rough diamond, no trace of humanity, empty, silent, superb…
Even with the scorching hot and the sun on the highest, still there where some interesting moments to be witness. Like when a huge lizard stopped on our front to scratch the Earth in search for insects to eat. It is like a Komodo Dragon but about just half of his stature. 1 meter and a half, which is not bad at all!.
Other great highlights where starred by the water buffalo’s, sharing bath with the crocodiles, as if such thing is possible. But it is very usual to observe how they sway their heads and sharp antlers being the only thing looming at such hot morning. The buffalo population in the Yala Park is really extraordinary.
Not so much, the of Elephants, which are harder to see in the Yala, since their more favorable terrain is located hundreds of kilometers away in interior areas more humid and wooded as Minneriya and surroundings.
Yala park wild buffalo
Yala National Park
6. Yala Park in Sri Lanka was truly amazing
Satisfaction was at its highest since things could not had gone any better. I was aware that the nature was very kind and displayed itself in all its magnitude. In Yala National Park, i had enjoyed a life time experience in this Asian safari. I left with image in the heart that could never forget and, why not, it would be worthwhile to return once again to this wonderful country that is Sri Lanka.
PS 1: You can know more at www.yalasrilanka.lk
PS 2: Special thanks to Patty Ho, Kazue Asano, Rvils, Miran Rijavec.