Yala National Park

By Brian Spencer

A short, wiry, dark-skinned man dressed in a Sri Lankan sarong asks us to take a seat on one of the long padded benches lining the bed of a hulking off-road vehicle. We’re soon rambling down the bumpy, mostly deserted streets of Tissamaharama, the sun rising from behind a serene manmade lake just outside the city center, flocks of egrets perched in the tree tops on a small island just off the lake’s shore. The brilliant pinkish-purple sky and early morning sunlight cast an iridescent glow on the city’s impressive bleach-white dagoba.

Now rolling down a road pocked with large cracks and potholes, the air ripe with the scent of creeping humidity,  we pass water buffalo grazing in the arid plains stretching towards Yala National Park. An elephant, far off in the distance, drinks from a shallow swamp; the jeep plows through fresh piles of elephant dung. Down a little ways from the water buffalo, an off-road vehicle plastered with marijuana leaf and Bob Marley stickers is jacked up on the side of the road, the drivers deliberately changing a flat tire under the hot glare of four frustrated European tourists. They look at us longingly as we cruise by, downbeat facial expressions at once conveying understandable dismay at their safari’s delay, as well as exasperation over the luck of getting stuck with two huge stoners in the first place.

It’s exactly 6am as we roll up to the gates of Yala National Park, a 378-square mile patch of land on the southeastern coast of tear drop-shaped Sri Lanka and the country’s top safari destination. Closed for some time due to security issues during the civil war that ended in 2009, Yala is certainly not in the same class as, say, South Africa’s Kruger National Park or Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, but is still home to over 40 different mammals, more than 200 bird species, and one of the densest populations of spotted leopards on the planet. Spotting one of those elusive leopards is at the top of most visitors’ safari wish list, though as we’ll soon find out tracking them down can sometimes prove to be a fool’s errand.

We stop to pay the small litany of entrance fees and take a quick browse through the park’s small museum. A flabby, boorish Russian — his modest ensemble of flip flops, stained-white tank top, and shorts that could pass for tightie whities very appealing — bulls his way through the museum, stopping to pose for pictures next to the taxidermied animal carcasses like a big-game trophy hunter.  The rest of the Russian tour group he’s with soon follows him in; this is our cue to get out.

Hunting for Leopards

The part of Yala our guide, Nimal, drives us through isn’t nearly as dense with leafy, jungle vegetation as I had expected it to be, which isn’t to say this sometimes sparsely forested landscape was any less scenic. As we bounced down these dusty, red-dirt roads and over small rocks and boulders, our eyes constantly scanning the brush for signs of life, Nimal made periodic stops to point out some of his favorite spots in the park, speaking of their beauty with obvious and endearing sincerity. Still ponds covered in lotus flowers. A rock formation shaped like an elephant. Gulls skimming the surface of shallow swamps, searching for fish. Whenever he cut the rumbling engine, we found ourselves engulfed in a blanketing buzz of screeching cicadas, chirping crickets, and singing birds.

Yala National Park

Within an hour we spotted elephants, water buffalos, wild boars, spotted deer, mongooses, and a long list of tropical birds such as the yellow-billed hornbill and Oriental darter, but no leopard. We stop for lunch in a clearing just off a deserted beach: This is the site of a restaurant that was wiped out by the devastating tsunami of 2004. Nimal says that some 40 locals and tourists from France, Germany, and Japan were killed in this immediate area alone, their bodies found strewn along the beach and deep in the woods. In fact, he’s lucky he wasn’t amongst them since he’d been in this exact same spot earlier that morning, before the tsunami swept ashore.

Our Yala safari lasted for another hour or so after lunch. At one point Nimal spotted fresh leopard tracks and made repeated loops around a rocky area surrounded by cliffs where he says the cats are often seen sunbathing, but in the end we didn’t see the park’s star resident. We did, however, have a close encounter with an ornery elephant. The previous night’s heavy rain made wildlife spotting somewhat difficult because when it’s dry, guides know the animals will likely be somewhere around the regular watering holes in the morning.

Nimal seemed crushed that we didn’t see a leopard; like he’d failed us. We didn’t mind at all, though. Yala National Park isn’t a zoo; you’re not guaranteed of seeing anything on safari. Okay, you’ll almost definitely see elephants, scores of junglefowl — Sri Lanka’s national bird — and maybe, if you’re lucky, a Russian tourist in his underwear.

Read more Perceptive Travel Blog features from Brian Spencer here.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.