I have never been the Jungle Jane type and probably never will be. But last week I bravely agreed to venture into the wild. Some might say that I was tossed into a pickup truck, kicking and screaming and then hauled off to Yala. But of course that’s not true.
We set off from Colombo at 10.30pm and stopped at a wayside joint in Ratnapura past midnight for dinner which consisted of ‘hot hot’ godamba rotti and lunumiris. It was over this meal that someone came up with the bright idea of changing our route. Instead of going through Nonagama as planned it was decided (not unanimously) that we would turn off from Ambilipitiya and take some shortcut through Sevenagala that would take us to Thanamalwila straight and save us about 45 minutes off the journey. It did not help that the same truck driver giving directions warned us about the roads being lonely and wild elephants crossing. But while I quietly hyperventilated in the back seat no one else seemed to care. Did I mention I was traveling with two guys?
Thankfully we did not meet any elephants although we nearly crashed into a herd of buffaloes as black as the night itself. The roads were not too bad and we made it to the A2 without much drama and oh what a road that was. Smooth as silk and lit up like a Christmas tree.
Around 3.30am we reached Yala, the Panthera Lodge where we would spend the next 4 days. Like any other female who had calmly denied nature on a bumpy 5 hour ride, I headed straight for the washroom. Spacious, clean, and well organized, I was impressed. Then I reached for some toilet paper and right there on the loo roll, I met the first of many many frogs I would make acquaintance with during my stay. But no seriously the bathrooms were great. The shower area opens up to the sky and there is something so right about looking up at the stars while you shower. If you have ever been to Yala you would know that the skies there hold nothing back when they put on a show. The sleeping arrangements were simple and comfortable. At night swarms of little bugs appear out of nowhere but they are harmless and there are mosquito nets for protection if you must. The whole place will cost you 8K per night which comes to practically nothing when split amongst about 8 people or more. And they will even do an awesome barbeque if you ask. There is also a gender confused dog. Her name is Joel.
We had just enough time to stretch our legs and have some coffee before our chauffeur for the day arrived sharp at 5am. His name is Sumudu and he knew more about the tracks and behavior of animals than any park tracker we ever took. No surprise, considering how his father Sugathe has been driving in Yala for the last 35 years. Sumudu also turned out to be our unofficial drill sergeant. After each trip he would warn us in ominous tones not to get late. Probably the only thing that had me scuttling out of bed at 4.30 every morning was the fear of him barking at me. But his enthusiasm was contagious and it had me making 6 trips to the park in 3 days.
The first day was great. After fifteen minutes I was getting bored with the deer, wild boar and peacocks when suddenly this sloth bear jumped on to the road right in front of us. It’s difficult to say who was more excited, him or us. But he was a shy fella and after much simpering took off into the trees and we never saw him again. Soon after we realized that while we kept our eyes trained on the sides, a huge leopard was strolling on the road just ahead. He could not be bothered with us and took his own time disappearing in to the bushes. But we hung around for a while trying to catch another glimpse and were rewarded with a clear sighting of him and a smaller female leopard engaging in some foreplay. Later in the day we met 3 leopard cubs and their mom and in the evening we found 2 cubs lounging on trees just by the side of the road. The grand finale that evening was the regular sighting at Kotigala where this majestic leopard preened and stretched on a huge slab of rock for all to see. It was interesting to note how while the full grown leopards shy away from humans the cubs are unafraid and almost inquisitive as they stare right back at us.
Day two was almost as good because we managed to spot a fresh carcass of a small deer by the side of the road. After much stalking we caught sight of a female leopard and her cub lurking nearby and for the rest of the day we were hooked. Parked discreetly and waited for what seemed like eternity and towards evening we finally found ourselves eye to eye with her. She came up to the carcass and eyeballed us as if trying to decide if she could trust us to not steal her kill. We must have looked hungry because she pointedly dragged the carcass away from us. But we could still see them and it was beautiful how she made the cub eat while she paced about flicking her tail. Not unlike any human mother making sure her child finishes all the vegetables.
Third day was disappointing as we managed catch only a fleeting glimpse of the leopard on and off and I was especially depressed because the bear wasn’t making an appearance. But we were told this was to be expected and after over 12 sightings of leopards and the bear we really couldn’t complain much. Personally I enjoyed sightings of the birds almost as much. All of them – Owls, Jungle Fowls, Darters, Changeable Hawk Eagles, Hornbills, Spoonbills and even a Lesser Adjutant etc.
The journey back was long because we stopped in Kirinda to gape at the sea and then took the gorgeous Uda Walawe road. At Thibolketiya we stopped for lunch and beers at a tiny shop with a big board that shouted ‘Wev maalu & Bath’ (river fish & rice) where we attacked the simple fare of kiri kos, ambarella curry and kola like savages.
I’m sunburnt and the skin is peeling off my nose, every bone in my body hurts from being rattled about in that contraption they call a Defender and I have lost all feeling in the area of my derriere. But all things considered, I would have to admit it’s one of the best trips I’ve ever done and I’m going back the first opportunity I get.