April 17, 2015. (Courtesy: The Island and writer Siri Ipalawatte).
After rattling about in the modified jeep for four hours or so, I’m beginning to seriously doubt Hansa Premakumara, our tour organiser. His enthusiasm about leopards in the Wilpattu National Park was a big part of the reason I travelled there a few months back. When I stayed at the Kokmote Bungalow in the Wilpattu National Park, I soon discovered that there’s big gap between Hansa’s rendering of its location for leopard sightings and the quite, loneliness that existed in that place. I probably should have quit consulting him for travel advice there and then, but I felt I should give him another chance.
So, once again on Hansa’s advice, I’m in the Yala National Park. The modified jeep is an open-sided safari vehicle, which, when not hurtling through the jungle on a rutted bush track, is actually very comfortable and stylish. We’ve been in search of a leopard for the best part of two days and we haven’t seen so much as a tail. The ‘search’ involved a bouncy and occasionally kidney-jarring ride through the Block I of this magnificent park: up and down boulders, in and out of sand dunes, across shrub jungle and arid grasslands, through undergrowths and whatever else our enthusiastic guide thought an elusive leopard might be found.
"Shhh!" said Hansa. We again listened for warning call in jungle. Though I have no idea what a warning call sounds like, I eagerly did what he said. Again, nothing happened. For the next couple of hours the same way – lots of hopeful scouting, but leopard is a no-show. My disappointment with Hansa is becoming palpable. I’ve travelled too far to not see a leopard.
One of the great thrills of a visit to the Yala National Park is a sighting of a leopard, perhaps as a blur of yellow, or as one bounds across a jungle track, or even as a sudden encounter up close. Its blend of elegance, power and agility has earned the leopard its pride of place as the national animal of this park. Yala is one of the few places in the world where leopards are seen during daylight hours.
It was a five-hour drive from Battaramulla to Tissamaharama, a journey that’s punctuated by many close calls with oncoming traffic and with peacocks and dogs that have met their end on some parts of the new highway from Galle to Matara. Glad to be away from that experience, we pulled into a roadside café for a cool drink.
In front of a small boutique at the Palatupana junction an open hood safari jeep awaited our arrival. It was a sultry mid evening and we were to venture to the Pardus luxury tents campsite a few kilometres into the Yala National park. After kilometres of gravel and some upright spinning funnels of dust devils and the light brown scrub of the bush, and the immensity of woodland and thorns – after all that thirst, we arrived at the campsite.
The appeal of Pardus was its remoteness in Yala, the uniqueness of its location and the luxury of its accommodation. One of the boasts of the camp was that the dining area was set up on a massive boulder that gives panoramic views in the morning and at the sunset. It was also eco-friendly, depending on solar panels for electricity and cooking and for reducing all its kitchen waste into compost to fertilize the gardens in the bordering villages. There were only two tents, but ‘tents’ gives a mistaken impression – they were more like canvas bungalows on high platforms; they had showers and double beds with mosquito nets like wedding veils. The tents made locally, have been designed to emulate African safari tents. While the tent elevated on the deck is sealed completely save the zipped entrance, netting along the sides and the doorway ensure ventilation and stave off the many insects.
Hansa who runs the camp was a son of my friend, Upul. He called himself a safari guide but he was the moving force behind reconceived campsite, and he was a great lover of the wild, with a particular affection for elephants and leopards. I met him three years before in Colombo, at the end of my ‘Three weeks in Sri Lanka’ trip, and we had kept in touch. His fortunes had risen during this period; he had become an entrepreneur, with his own high-end safari company. He was obviously prospering in a competitive tourism business – he still conducts safaris of his own all over the wilds of Sri Lanka – and is very knowledgeable about the endemic birds and mammals of Sri Lanka.
A stout figure in a pair of bush shorts and a t-shirt, Hansa was perfectionist, with a great work ethic, who had grown up in a small family – his father an electric engineer, his mother a landscape gardener. Abandoning his studies in Australia and a career in marketing in the United Kingdom to be trainee guide in tourism, he started his own company. And he was still not much more than 30 but knows a heap about the behaviour of the Yala elephants.
Sri Lanka, a thickly populated country, has the highest density of jumbos in the world. A census in 2013 found 5,880 elephants. There are over twenty million land hungry humans, too, all crammed into a space smaller than Tasmania, and the resulting friction is costing about 200 elephants and 50 human lives a year.
"Elephants own the forest, where they are right at home, ambling in family groups, going wherever they wish. If they decide to eat a tree, they will do so, and are well known for tearing even a Kitul tree to pieces with their tusks, for juicy pulp. If you are in their way, they will trample you and keep going. They never give the impression that they need anyone or anything." He said.
"Elephants are emotionally highly complex, Hansa continued. "Never lose your respect and never assume too much, but don’t be afraid." "You must have had some amazing experiences," I said.
The strangeness of being in an open-sided dining tent on top of a massive boulder, in the middle of the national park in the night, kept the conversation somewhat subdued. It was a situation daunting even to my much travelled other friends at the table, humbled by the surrounding darkness. While there is no set menu, the three meals for the day can be custom-made upon request be it Sri Lankan, Western or Indian. The dinner, with massive lobsters, prawns and salad was delicious, but past the torches and lanterns at the end of the boulder I could hear the snorts and grumbles of wild pigs thrashing in the grass, and the bird squawks and the crackles of insects hitting on the kerosene lamp. This dinner on the boulder stands out in my memory as the highest level of comfort one could find in the Yala bush, while still retaining all the elements of the safari experience.
One by one, the guests were escorted to their tents by a guide raking the path with the light of a powerful flashlight, looking for a snake or a scorpion, or possibly other nasty crawlies. The night air cracked with the slapping of bats and fit-fit-fit of insects and the hoots of herons. The kerosene lamps lit outside cast an amber glow and the wilderness lay visible all around through the tent’s windows. While sheer fascination kept my eyes open for a while the lull of jungle eventually cast it spell and blissful sleep won over. In the middle of the night wiping sleep from my eyes and staring out into the pitch darkness I learned that two elephants had arrived to drink water from the water hole on the bottom of the boulder just a few metres away from the tent. I had a few more hours before dawn.
Dawn was sudden near the camp site, without any hills or heights to delay the sunrise, and the shimmering mirrors of the sea and channels intensified the light, which was all gold. After breakfast we swap travel tales and then Hansa showed me around the camp – the staff quarters, the solar panels – and droppings near the water hole that elephants had deposited last night.
A little while later, getting ready leave for our morning safari, he said, "The elephants embody so much of Yala." And his peroration about the glory of Yala elephants reminded me of the passion of Morel, the idealistic hero of Romain Gary’s
The Roots of Heavens
In this early environmental theme novel, Morel mounts a campaign in Africa to save elephants from big guns of hunters, and he failed.
While Yala makes no promises about sightings, it has one of the highest leopard densities in Sri Lanka, or may be in the world. There are over 75 leopards identified since 2002 using visual spot patterns variations at Yala. It’s as close as you can get to sure bet on seeing this elegant animal in the wild. Thirty-odd species of mammals, including elephant, wild buffalo, sambhur, deer, sloth bear, Toque monkey, Grey langur, slender Loris, jackal, pangolin and rodent are also found in the park. And the twitchers won’t be disappointed either, with more than 140 types of birds and a huge number of different butterflies to keep their cameras and binoculars busy. There are also big, open patches of grassland here and there, and ancient rocky peaks emerging from the forest and standing guard throughout the park. It’s an impressive place with or without leopards.
But it’s leopard that I am here for. On my first trip into the park I was wide-eyed and ready at every moment to spy one darting through the forest. I told myself that a split-second sighting, just a burst of colour amongst a clump of forest would be enough to satisfy me. We drove out of the campsite and immediately came across a group of spotted deer- beautiful animals with big eyes and a shy, anxious manner. We asked the driver to stop so we can watch and take photos. We did this with each new animal sighting. The grey langur was a crowd pleaser, with their acrobatics and cheeky black faces. After a round or two more of the spotted deer, the peacock and the odd owl or fox, enthusiasm began to wane for stopping the jeep in a hurry and snapping loads of shots. Sure, they are all very cuddly and cute, but after an hour with them I was ready for the jungle king to show his dots.
Our afternoon safari went much same way as our previous outings. We race around, stopped, looked, and listened but nothing. I started to feel a little bitterness brewing inside. I tried to muster a few memories from my time at the camp – the glorious sun set, the lovely food, sharing travel tales with Hansa, the extraordinary accommodation – but it all felt a bit tainted by not glimpsing a leopard. I pretty well gave up hope for the remaining hours of the last safari and slouch in my seat thinking of my trip back to Canberra.
Then, rounding a corner on the sandy track, we saw several other safari vehicles parked, with all passengers standing up and frantically clicking cameras like paparazzi. We stopped and got up quickly. This was not just a flash of dots in the distance. Right there, 20 metres from us, a leopard was sitting there yawing unperturbed by our presence. For about five minutes, one of the greatest leopard shows on earth took place right before my eyes. I fumbled with my camera to capture the moment, but also made sure to watch without looking through the lens. I wanted to remember this. It’s the very best of Discovery Channel coming at me live and in 3D. For a minute or two it stared straight at us – eyes locked on ours with the intense scrutiny of a supreme predator. And then, in a flash, he was gone. We stood there, stunned. I sat back, feeling a little drained – sad may be.
It was the briefest of encounters – an exchange of glances that jolted the senses, seared the mind.
"You’re lucky," Hansa told me as the jeep moved back to the campsite.