Day 9 – safari: Sri Lanka is great for wildlife watching as it has more than 100 protected areas under government guard, which covers more than 8% of the country. Yala is famous for its leopards, which is why I headed there as a fan of cats both big and small. I asked the hotel to organise me an afternoon safari after a morning by the pool, starting at 2pm. I had a safari booked for early the next morning, which is when it’s recommended to go in order to see the most animals when it’s cool in the morning. I thought I’d give myself the best chance of seeing leopards by doing two excursions. My hotel booked safari cost around £50 and my pre-booked safari around £90.
You need to book your own driver and vehicle but Yala provides you with a guide for your 4 x 4 as part of the price of entrance. Both guides I had were really knowledgeable about the animals themselves and also the best places in the park to head to for a good chance to see them, they were also very respectful of the animals and it didn’t feel as though we were chasing anything about the park, just stopping and watching quietly when we came across something.
We entered by the Kataragama entrance which was nearest to the hotel. On the way in we saw a family of boar, who came out to meet us looking for food. There were a number of adults accompanied by their tiny little stripy offspring. The babies hung back sheltered by the bushes, a bit unsure of the jeep. We stopped and watched them for a while, although they quickly tired of an audience when they realised they wouldn’t be fed. We saw a water buffalo and a mongoose before we’d even got inside the park. Just before we reached the gate, there was a big grey and black monkey (a grey langur) hanging out in the tree watching us bounce by. I hadn’t quite appreciated how bumpy the roads would be, I thought a 4 x 4 would absorb some of the impact, but it was an extremely rough ride being thrown all over the place for several hours.
Inside the park at last we saw two crocodiles lying out on the grass, mouths open to regulate their body temperature. Blink and you miss them, they’re so well camouflaged against the landscape. As we continued on we saw plenty of birds: green bee-eater birds, Sri Lankan junglefowl and whole flocks of painted storks. We also came across a clearing filled with the Bambi kind of deer. They were super cute sat there munching on grass, preening themselves and getting groomed by some fellow birds. I watched them for ages through my binoculars. As we passed more boar it transpired my guide was fluent in both English and Disney as he pointed and shouted ‘Pumba!’
At one point a cobra crossed the road in front of us, which is apparently a very rare sight in the day time as there are so many of their predators active during the day. After several hours we picked up the pace a bit in search of leopards zipping all over the park as mud flew up from the road and spattered us inside the 4 x 4. It was growing late and the park would be closing soon. I was overwhelmed by the amount of different animals we’d already seen, especially the crocodiles and the cobra. The sun was slowly slipping from the sky as we rounded a corner, and there in the middle of the road stood a huge female leopard. My guide told me she was the mother to one cub. She ambled along the road slowly and didn’t seem to notice us watching. We thought we was heading into the bushes away from us but instead she leapt onto her hind legs to scent mark the bushes with her face, then crossed the road to mark a tree on the other side. Eventually she slipped out of sight into the bushes. It was such a wonderful experience as they’re so elusive, even in a place like Yala where there are plenty of them. After our sighting a number of other cars turned up looking for the leopard but we headed off in the other direction away from the crowds.
We continued for a while hoping to see more and stopped to watch the sun set over a watering hole then headed back as the park closed. My guide said I had been super lucky to see both the cobra and the leopard- I did pretty well for my first ever safari! It was an early night for me, exhausted from the bumpy ride and needing all the sleep I could get ahead of my 5am safari the next morning.
My tips for this leg of the journey
Yala is a bit out the way but well worth the journey. It’s a pleasant enough bus ride if you’re already on the south coast. Make sure you enter through the Katagarama entrance rather than the main entrance near Tissa to have the park to yourself.
I didn’t do an all day safari but based on how tiring I found it in a jeep for several hours I personally wouldn’t want to do it and much prefer the two half day safaris I took.
Go with the flow- you can’t control which animals you see so try not to have too many expectations about the safari and enjoy everything you do see. Make the most of the guides’ knowledge of the animals and ask plenty of questions.