Footsteps in…Yala

Next stop…Yala National Park and leopard spotting!!! Winding down the twisty and bendy roads, we bid adieu to beautiful Nur’Eliya, and look forward to our next adventure, at the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, in the wild! This jewel of a country has it all –gorgeous beaches, culture, hills, mountains and wildlife, and guess what – the highest concentration of leopards in the world, in Yala! M and I go on numerous safaris’ back home, but we have never managed to spot a leopard.

Leopards are elusive and solitary creatures, and their territories can extend between 75 and 450 square kilometres (probably explains why we have such rotten luck finding these spotty creatures) BUT in Sri Lanka, there is a leopard every 5 square kilometres. There is pretty much no way we are going back home without spotting at least ONE leopard! We are certainly hoping that Sri Lanka will break this jinx!

Yala is the second largest park in Sri Lanka, approximately 170 Km away from Nur’Eliya, this time passing the lush green tea plantations winding downhill, leaving the misty hills behind. The weather has certainly improved and I hope that this is the last we have seen of the rain that has followed us this far. About 60 odd kilometres into the journey, Ravi stops the car and points out what I can simply describe as one of the most beautiful sights in the world to us, known as Ella Gap in the small town of Ella. It really is like peeking in between the hills and vales, and it is stunning. I half expect Julie Andrews to come singing songs from the Sound of Music, it is one of those scenes, and it is even more stunning than World’s End.

A few kilometres from Ella Gap lie the Ravana Ella Falls, which are the widest falls in the country and as legend would have it, the very spot where King Ravan held Sita captive (there is another theory that contradicts this as he is also rumoured to have hidden her in a forest close to Dambulla) but nonetheless, it is nice to spend some time listening to the water thunder down the cliff and spray us as it hits the rocks at the bottom, while ambling around the little kiosks that sell some interesting artefacts. You can also explore the cave but this involves some climbing, and thanks to yesterday’s trek in the Horton Plains we are all climbed out and ready to head towards Yala to spot some leopards instead.

Ella Gap and Ravana Ella Falls. Can you picture scenes from The Sound of Music? I can!!!

Ella Gap and Ravana Ella Falls. Can you picture scenes from The Sound of Music? I can!!!

We have to stay in the town of Kataragama, as our choice of hotel in Yala itself is not available. We check into the “Chairmans Suite” at the Mandara Rosen and it reminds me immediately of the Gateway in Jodhpur…musty and basic but clean, with a staff that will go to the ends of the earth to get you whatever you need. Yala National Park is a good 45 minute drive away though, and we hastily shovel down a rice and curry lunch at the hotel before hopping back into the car to meet our “super luxury jeep” that will drive us to the park.

In my mind, I thought we would be cruising the park in a monster looking vehicle with a canopy, much like the jeep in the cartoon Madagascar. But, the Sri Lankan version of a jeep couldn’t be further from this image in my mind. A jeep in this country is a fancy word for a pick up truck, with a cabin on the back and some seats screwed into the base. And sadly, the difference between a normal, luxury and super luxury will make or break your safari. If you want to have a bone breaking experience, choose the “normal jeep” which is a regular 2 wheel pick up that has a wooden bench running down either side of the back. The other two available categories are the luxury and super luxury, which both have bus like cushioned seats but the luxury is a 2 wheel drive and the super luxury is a 4 wheel drive. I am wondering what is with all this drive business, and I am told that in order to spot leopards, which are often found hidden in the rocks scattered around the park you NEED a 4 wheel drive. The rules of karma that seem to apply to the majority of Sri Lankans don’t seem to apply to the folks in Kataragama who were more than willing not to give us bang for buck but thanks to Ravi, we got us a super luxury “jeep”. The price difference is nominal, compared to what you will have paid to get into Yala in the first place, so just do it – book the darn super luxury vehicle.

The "Super Luxury" jeep...

The “Super Luxury” jeep…

Our first game drive started at about 2.30 pm, and lo and behold, the first animal we spotted was an elephant at the entrance…now, coming from Kenya this isn’t a big deal, but the Sri Lankans consider this to be a lucky sign and so Ravi declared that we would be spotting leopard for sure in this game drive! I certainly hoped so!

The park is so different from any other park I have been to. A narrow road leads you into a big, thick, green jungle and because all I wanted to see was leopard, my eyes were busy scanning the tops of the trees to see if I could spot some “spots”…and as luck would have it, within 10 minutes of us being in the park we spotted our first Pardus Panthera Kotiya…the Sri Lankan leopard, sleeping away in a tree, in the distance. We were so engrossed in watching and waiting for this leopard to wake up and hopefully come down the tree, that nobody had noticed that a large bull elephant had come up rather close to one of the vehicles in the long line of Jeeps full of tourists and their paraphernalia. The pandemonium that ensued was like watching a movie, everyone started up their cars and tried to back up, with the guides shouting to the car behind them to move, move, move- and where to, I have no idea because there was nowhere to move to…luckily, the bull decided that he wasn’t so interested in these strange looking gadgets and turned away.

The traffic jam caused by the jeeps.

The traffic jam caused by the jeeps.

Now, stupid doesn’t even begin to describe what happened next. We were all stuck on this dead end road (leopard lane, I named it) and there were about 20 or so vehicles and so we had to move one after the other onto the main road to move on – and this bull had ambled off down this main road. We all passed him cautiously, one by one, but alas, there exists one idiot driver for every 10 sensible drivers. The idiot behind us decided he was going to get really close to the bull and stop so that his tourists could take a close up picture… and, what does the elephant do? He sticks his trunk into the open vehicle and catch hold of a bag, sending the people in the jeep to the other end in panic, and the driver too – at this point, the idiot driver has panicked and has decided to climb out of his window, and in a split second his tour guide has to take over the wheel of the vehicle! The guide steps on the gas, with the driver half hanging out off the window, and this movement results in the elephant’s tusk getting stuck in the jeep!!! We are all watching in horror at this scene unfolding, wondering what is going to happen next – this was one angry elephant and we could hear him getting pissed off and trumpeting in despair or anger…don’t quite know, and I was convinced that the elephant was going to push the car over in anger! This is a wild animal after all!!

Can you see the elephant sticking its trunk into the jeep?!!!

Can you see the elephant sticking its trunk into the jeep?!!!

At this point, other drivers had begun to shout to this idiot to stop his car, so that they could try and lure the elephant away, and thankfully he listened, stopped his car, and the elephant pulled out its trunk and with it, a black bag and tossed it in the air and stomped on it. I don’t think I have ever seen someone reverse a car as fast as this driver did. All everyone wanted to do after that was avoid this rogue elephant and get out of the park and the poor animal, probably having had enough decided to crash its way into the jungle, leaving us to hot foot it out of the park. Thanks to this guy, I was filled with a sense of dread every time I saw an elephant in Yala…

The black bag that the ellie took out of the jeep

The black bag that the ellie took out of the jeep

The drive back to Kataragama was uneventful, much welcome after all the excitement of the evening as was a nice glass of wine with our rice and curry dinner back at Mandara Rosen. Given that Kataragama is some distance from Yala, we had an early start the next morning and I was not looking forward to waking up at 4 am to drive to the park, but had to be done if more leopards were to be spotted. Now, if you ever decide to spend some time in Yala, try and stay at the Chaaya Wild instead which is literally 5 minutes from the park gate, but book early because it gets full quickly.

Breakfast and lunch packs in hand, we set off for our all day game drive. I am thankful that we have the super luxury jeep, seeing that this is going to be a reeaallly long day! On the plus side, we got to see sunrise in Yala National Park, driving around hunting for leopards. This time though, we didn’t get lucky as quickly as we had hoped…we saw loads of birds, peacocks, peahens, pretty flowers, Samar deer and elephants before seeing what we really came all the way to Yala for…

Samar deer, peacocks and bright flowers in Yala.

Samar deer, peacocks and bright flowers in Yala.

Ravi’s sharp eyes spotted two paws hanging off a tree. Jackpot!! Sadly for us though, our secret was not so safe as other jeeps soon came and parked next to us, and for some reason the Sri Lankan drivers have some silent understanding at giving each other turns in viewing (which isn’t a bad thing) but this meant that our prime photography spot was soon taken. Luckily though, a lot of the tourists were not on all day safaris and so rushed back to their hotels in time for breakfast, which meant that we had this leopard all to ourselves for a while. We sat around next to that tree for almost 2 hours before the lazy cat awoke from its slumber and decided to get more comfortable in its perch. I have never been more excited to click away than I was then, enjoying trying to capture this glorious creature. It must have had enough of sitting around, or simply become hungry because it suddenly got up, climbed down the tree and disappeared into the bushes below. Well worth the 2 hour wait, especially since we didn’t see any more leopard after this, despite driving off road and into various lairs where they are often found. Hopefully, this means that the jinx is now broken and next time M and I go to a Kenyan park, we shall spot leopard!

Can you spot him? Our panthera pardus kottiya!

Can you spot him? Our panthera pardus kottiya!

A whole day game drive meant driving around every inch of the block and trying to spot as much as we could – we saw loads of peacocks, and got lucky enough to see a male dancing for its mate!

As proud as a peacock!

As proud as a peacock!

…more elephants, a rock shaped like an elephant, and a python eating a rabbit….and as much as I hate those slithery creatures, I even had the nerve to look – for a couple of seconds! Sadly we didn’t spot the black bears that are also predominant in Yala, but by 5 pm I was more than ready to head out of the park and back to the hotel for a nice hot shower and to catch some zzzz’s. Tomorrow we will be heading to the capital, Colombo for the last leg of this incredible journey…

Elephant rock in the plains of Yala, and some interesting birds...a hornbill and owl, I think?

Elephant rock in the plains of Yala, and some interesting birds…a hornbill and owl, I think?

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