It has been a lifelong dream of mine to go on a wildlife safari, particularly one which offers the potential opportunity to witness one of the ‘big cats’ firsthand. As a result, when we booked our flights to Sri Lanka one of the first things I looked into were the various safari opportunities. Sri Lanka is renowned for its beautiful national parks, each offering different spectacular sights to witness, but I was immediately drawn to Yala National Park. With the highest concentration of native leopards in the world, I knew this was the place for me.
With the park settled upon, the next step was arranging the safari. As with most countries where tourism is a booming industry, there are countless options where Joe Blow has purchased a jeep and wants to take you around the park. Having been on a different safari in Chitwan National Park where the guides crowded around a one-horned rhinoceros in a manner that clearly made the rhino (not to mention myself) uncomfortable, I was not planning on ‘cheeping out’ so to speak on this one. We did a lot of research and finally decided upon Ajith Safari Jeep Tours. Ajith himself was very professional and informative and we developed a good relationship early on.
When we finally arrived at Tissamaharama, the gateway town to Yala National Park, Ajith, his son, and a young man Nalaka, who was to be our guide the next day on the safari were there to greet us. We had opted for an ‘overnight safari’ where we spent the night camped out in a treehouse (A literal house in a tree, see the photo below). We left the office to get our first glimpse of the behemoth of a Jeep which would be our method of transportation the next day. After driving for miles into the middle of nowhere (again, quite literally) we arrived at the site where we would be spending the night. We had an incredible barbecued dinner of tuna steaks, chicken and local grilled vegetables, as well as delving into a few Lion lagers and Old Arrack (essentially fermented coconut alcohol). Afterwards we called it a night, as the real fun was set to begin around 5:00AM the next morning.
Although certainly not the most comfortable lodging I have ever been in, sleeping in the treehouse was a very cool experience. Waking up at 5 we had tea (in Sri Lanka it is all about the tea) and took off for the park. The full day safari is broken up into three parts, namely early morning, late morning and afternoon (the middle of the day is intolerably hot, for the people on the safari as well as the animals so you’re better off just lounging by the river). We hired our guide who was a good friend of the company, purchased our park permits and were underway. Right off the bat we found a pack of wild boars hanging out by the river, a group of painted storks (similar to pelicans), as well as a pack of jackals (upwards of fifteen in number, evidently to see this many in a group is exceedingly rare). This was an remarkable experience in itself, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have the elusive leopard on my mind. Finally, a couple of hours in we received a call on the radio saying that one group had spotted a leopard. We rushed over to the site and got our first glimpse of a mother leopard up in a tree, digesting the remains of a deer it had shared with its cubs the night before. This first look was incredible, although she was a few hundred yards off (you do not venture off the Jeep trails in Yala, something which I think is very responsible and was glad to see) and somewhat difficult to see.
The day proceeded with sightings of peacocks and many other beautiful birds, an occasional Asian elephant taking a bath in the river and numerous other incredible animals. We stopped for lunch and after relaxing for a while were informed that a family of elephants had been spotted at a local watering hole. This was amazing in itself as there were very few other people there (most commonly people opt for either the morning or afternoon tour rather than the full day or overnight). I must say, looking straight into the eyes of these magnificent enormous creatures as they crossed our path was a thrilling experience in itself. As the hours passed we saw many more amazing animals, but I was (albeit silently) losing faith that would would see a leopard up close just as the light was beginning to fade. Just as I had almost given up, we saw them. A set of tracks clearly belonging to an alpha male leopard.
At this stage it is easy to see why paying for experienced drivers and guides is a wise decision. While all of the other Jeeps decided to make a left turn towards the watering hole, our driver and guide made a split second decision to go in the other direction. Left to our own devices (and probably deemed as fools by the other drivers) we carefully peered in the forest as our Jeep slowly inched along. Suddenly we caught a glimpse of moving spots through the trees. There was no doubt this was a leopard, moving parallel to our Jeep. We kept up this pace (all the while people began to catch on to our strategy, and a long procession of Jeeps began to linger behind us, but we definitely had the best seats in the house). All of a sudden our guide exclaimed that he was turning and coming in our direction! We looked up and sure enough, the leopard had decided to cross the road and was walking straight for the Jeep. My heart racing as he inched closer, I somehow managed to raise my camera and grab a picture of this majestic creature as, from mere feet away, he looked up right into my eyes. I have been fortunate to have partaken in a number of incredible experiences while traveling in my life, but making eye contact with this big cat simply took my breath away, and certainly ranks up near the top of the list. Finally, the leopard decided he had had enough, and he turned and walked up the path. We followed him for about one hundred feet before he turned and walked off into the forest on the other side of the road, disappearing into the trees like a fading memory. Afterwards we parked the Jeep and a round of ear to ear grins and high fives broke out from the four of us in the Jeep, each understanding fully that what we had just witnessed was extremely rare.
All told I couldn’t believe the luck we had that day. Anyone who loves wildlife should strongly consider taking the time to go on a wildlife safari at some point in their lives. I can say with complete honesty that this particular safari was a life changing event for me. Below are just a small sample size of the images I shot that day.
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