A long day but a good day started at 3:30am as I awoke in an armchair that I’m intended to sit in for a couple of minutes some 7 hours earlier.
I tried to get back to sleep, this time on the hotel bed but it was not to be.
Breakfast at the hotel followed, and my taste buds reminding me just how much better fresh pineapple tastes in this area of the world.
Suitably fed and watered I headed downstairs to meet our driver who would shortly be taking us the entire breadth of the country as we headed out to Yala National Park. There were other parks closer, but I’d been assured that if we were only able to visit one place then we needed to go to Yala even with the additional distance we’d need to travel.
Not that I minded the distance as I was able to just sit back and watch Sri Lanka unfold in front of me. My colleagues were content to drift in and out of sleep, their bodies contorting into all sorts of strange positions as they sought a comfortable sleeping position in the back seat.
Our progress went well. We first took the new highway which was lined with rice paddies and in the distance mountains rose and fell away behind us. We made good time. Too good time in fact as when we reached the toll booth at the end of the motorway our driver was summonsed by a policeman who promptly cautioned him for speeding.
There was a few minutes delay as we awaited the outcome, then they came back laughing and joking.
“Are you in trouble” we asked?
“There is a fine… but he will pay it” he beamed “a bribe”!
Off of the highway we approached the coast, large waves breaking off of beaches and rocky coasts. We saw surfers on mopeds, the bikes modified to carry boards.
We passed through towns and villages, the roads packed with tuk-tuks mopeds and huge buses with the familiar name ‘Layland’. The gaps between the built up areas became longer and the number of farms, wetlands and paddy fields grew. I noticed that the lanes began to be lined with flags attached to houses, telegraph poles or the like - red on the left, green on the right. I asked if there was any significance to this, but our driver didn’t know.
Eventually we arrived at a restaurant named ‘Refresh’. “Eat light, this afternoon will be bumpy” was the message. This was easier said then done as the menu was full of things that looked appetising. I eventually settled for a BBQ pork steak and my first mango smoothie since I was last in Asia.
I’d forgotten just how much I love mango smoothies.
After lunch we got into our vehicle for the afternoon. A large modified Toyota Hi-Lux with 6 raised seats open to the air. We felt incredibly high up and the wind coming in was most welcome.
We drive a little, the road now turning into dirt tracks. As the terrain became rougher, we pulled up to a group of buildings. Out came a small man with white hair, he jumped into the back with us - ‘tracker’ came the explanation.
Then we drove into the park itself.
A safari in Yala is a totally different experience than one in Kenya. There the terrain was open and you could see for miles. If there was something that caught your interest then you headed towards it. Because the land was open there was always something to see. In Yala by comparison you travel along trails cut into the undergrowth. Thick densely packed jungle surrounds you on all sides allowing you only a small amount of visibility except around the watering holes where the jungle parts and large ponds are to be seen. Much later into the day were would find more parts where the land opened up but for now we would need to proceed slowly and keep an eye out for any wildlife.
The first animal we saw was a Painted Stork closely followed by a bemused looking Great white pelican.
A little further up the road we saw a mongoose just before is ran into the undergrowth.
Then we passed another car and after a brief exchange we started moving with purpose. Two other cars were already at the site and the reason was clear.
A leopard was lazing around in the branches of the a tree.
I’d really hoped to see one, and despite being in a excellent place to see them I knew the odds were still against us. But there she was looking magnificent and so near the start of the trip. If we ended the safari there and then it would have been worth it for me.
I scrambled around the jeep trying to find clear angles of the Leopard between the branches of the tree and the leaves moving in the wind. She then got up, scratched herself on the trunk, climbed a little higher and contentedly flopped back down.
Next we saw warthogs bathing in the mud and a monitor lizard. The tracker said it was a big lizard, but whilst still impressively large it would have been dwarfed by the monster sized Monitors that I saw in Langkawi.
We were stopped looking at a brightly coloured bird when we heard the unmistakable roar of an elephant.
They were so far into the undergrowth that we could barely see them, but we could just make out a baby and a female.
An eagle was seen shortly afterwards was were crocodiles and water buffalo. We were just talking about how lucky we’d been when another Jaguar ran out into the road in front of us. I just had time to react and get a couple of shots off as it disappeared into the jungle.
Two leopards in one day. Our luck was paying out today.
We drove for a while longer seeing lots of animals but no new species when we came across another parked car.
Another parked car with looking at not just one leopard in a tree, but two bundled up together!
Four leopards in a single day! It was almost unreal.
The two were interlaced and could easily have been taken as a single leopard. They were the most difficult to get a view on as clear line of sight was proving impossible, but there they were and I found it hard to tear my eyes away.
We made our way back out of the park for closing and were buzzing about our good fortune. We’d just gone through the gates when we were made to stop dead in our tracks.
A large bull elephant was straight in front of us out in the clear.
He ate slowly and then started to move towards us coming within inches before turning away and finding another bush on which to chew on.
He seemed very happy to see us!
Four leopards, and up close and (extremely) personal with an elephant. A pretty unbelievable day.
We returned in darkness after witnessing the sun setting behind the paddy fields and pagodas. It made a great ending to a great day.
There was the small matter of crossing the county again to get back to our hotel. But no-one cared. We were tired, and happy and I’d had a reminder of just how much I love travelling.