Our Yala Safari
The drive to Yala (although long, seven plus hours with stops) was an especially pretty one. On the first leg of our journey through many “upcountry” tea estates, we passed several beautiful waterfalls and stopped at the last one, across the road from St. Claire’s Teas. St. Claire's had an extensive collection and selection of teas, attractively displayed behind a counter that resembled an upscale bar. There was no opportunity to taste the teas but I took a chance and bought some. I also took advantage of their spotless bathroom.
After about an hour and a half on twisty, one lane roads we began driving to higher elevations. The air became cooler and crisper and the vegetation featured tall palm trees interspersed with tea bushes.
Perhaps we missed something by not making a stop at the hill station of Nuwara Eliya but we drove on through it. This was the favored retreat from the heat and humidity (elevation about 6200 ft) for the well heeled and well connected British lowlanders living in Sri Lanka in the first half of the twentieth century. We could see that the town was overflowing with Sri Lankan families on holiday. There were many colonial era hotels, golf courses and sporting venues. Pony rides were clearly the most popular activity for the under six set.
After Nuwara Eliya the growing of tea begins to give way to the growing of vegetables and flowers. As we drove further southeast we saw more and more beautifully laid out fields. We stopped for lunch at the Grand Ella Motel (formerly the Ella Rest House). Midday the temperature was about 75 degrees, just perfect for touring. The property’s location takes full advantage of the vast views of the surrounding area. You can look straight ahead throughElla Gap, and see the plains 3000 feet below. The hot buffet had just been put out so I felt safe eating it. The food was indifferent but fast and we wanted to push on to Yala.
As we continued our descent the temperature became noticeably warmer and the vegetation tropical. By the time we were an hour from Yala it was quite hot and humid. During the last hour or two Noel Rodrigo (owner of Leopard Safaris) called a couple of times to see how far along we were. He planned to meet up with us, transfer luggage to his jeep and take us to his campsite, then an afternoon game drive. This all well very smoothly. We met on a side road outside the town of Yala. Chandra would have two days to relax and we would have a safari experience.
I liked Noel immediately. He was engaging and pleased to show us his favorite park (he also does mobile tent camping in other parks when is off season for Yala). We drove on a dirt tract to the gated entrance to his camp. The set up was similar to deluxe mobile camping in Zambia or Tanzania. Sturdy tents with tented showers and toilets a few steps from the sleeping tent. We quickly stowed our bags in our tent, grabbed binoculars and mosquito repellant and piled in to Noel’s custom Land Cruiser for an afternoon game drive.
Security is indeed tight in and around the park. There’s a police station at the first park entrance gate. Noel hops out and shows the officials our passports. We drive another quarter of a mile and Noel hops out to go to another check-in point. He returns with official papers and a spotter in tow. At the third check point, Noel hands a man some papers, another gate opens and we are in Yala Block 1. There are five blocks (divisions) in this park and Block 1 (aka Yala West) is the only block open to tourists. Our sightings included mongoose, wild boar, sambar, spotted deer, families of elephant cows and calves. Water buffalo wallowed in the water up to their nostrils and stood still as statues. No leopards.
Yala has the highest concentration of leopards in Asia owing in part to the fact that they are the highest predators around. There are no lions in Sri Lanka, despite the lion’s image on the national flag. There are no tigers in Sri Lanka, despite this animal’s adoption as the mascot of the Tamil Tigers. So leopards rule and do not lose their young to other predators. I had high hopes of seeing one or more of these magnificent creatures during our stay.
All visitors must be out of the park by 6 pm, so after two hours we headed out of the park, going through all the same checkpoints. Fred and I cleaned up and were invited to the table for dinner. We were the only guests in camp that night and maximum capacity is ten guests. The food preparation and staging areas are well hidden so that food comes out of the bushes as if from a fine restaurant. And fine food it was. It is quite a feat to bring in fresh food and make sure of reliable refrigeration. The various Sri Lankan dishes were well prepared and presented. The wines were probably as good as gettable and from Chile.
Noel is a wonderful host, making sure our needs are met and overseeing every aspect of this class operation. The camp staff are friendly and well trained. At dinner Noel told us about his fascination with leopards as a young boy growing up in Colombo. His abiding interest in leopards and in depth knowledge of and respect for them gave impetus to Leopard Safaris. His company is only three years old and has already been vetted by Sri Lanka in Style.
After dinner we sat in our lounge chairs star gazing. The southern sky was dazzling and Fred pointed out some of the constellations to Noel. Then Noel had an intense look on his face; he heard deer barking and knew a leopard was close by. We all went outside the camp gate so Noel could look for tracks. Yes, there were recent tracks. We waited with baited breath. We waited longer. No leopard.
We went to bed.
Next morning we took a game drive around 8 am, after some wake-up coffee.
So far the temperature has been 75-78 during the day and maybe 68 at night. Same fifteen minuts security routine to get in to the park as yesterday. In the park we saw several peacocks dancing to attract the peahens; they were unimpressed and the cocks eventually ended their display. We followed a group of elephants for a while. Since leopards favor rocky outcrops with water holes and Noel knows one mother with cubs to headquarter at a particular rock terrace, we returned several times to this locale in hopes of seeing the elusive cat.
Several times Noel opened the car door to more closely examine the leopard tracks he spotted. Yes, she was just here and went that way he indicated. Heart thumping we drove slowly around the area. Apparently the monsoons were strong earlier this year and there is plenty of water at Yala. This makes for beautiful woodland terrain with large watering holes but it means the leopards needn't go far into the open for water. We saw many of the same animals as yesterday and some striking kingfishers and beaters. By ten thirty we were back at camp for a delicious breakfast. Besides eggs and pancakes, there were curries and very tasty fried leaves. I forgot to write down what they were called.
We sat under the front extension of our tent and enjoyed the landscape. Soon a police car drove into camp. Two men in uniform got out and went to talk to Noel. My imagination spun several stories while I waited for reality to present itself. After twenty minutes Noel and the cops came over to our tent. Noel introduced us to the Police Commissioner for Yala. He had stopped by to say hello to Noel. It appeared they had a warm, friendly relationship and I thought this was surely an important alliance to have in these parts. We chatted with the Chief as best we could without a common language and then he took his leave.
Just before lunch new guests arrived. They were a family we met when we had lunch at Norwood, with the spunky splash and squeal in the pool kids. At camp the children were more subdued and quite charming. After a satisfying lunch Fred and I retreated to our beach chairs and read. I’ve finished reading Woolf in Ceylon and thoroughly enjoyed it. In it Ondaatje wrote about Woolf’s travels to Yala and comments that in this youth in Sri Lanka Yala was Ondaatje’s very favorite place.
I'm now reading The Sweet and Simple Kind by Yasmine Gooneratne, a thoughtful gift from Tania at Kandy House. It's a well crafted story about two cousins growing up in households that represent contrasting views and values about what it means to be Sri Lankan.
Mid afternoon we gathered for a cold drink before our game drive and Noel introduced us to the man who owns the farm adjacent to Noel's camp concession. We complimented him on the flavorful vegetables we'd been enjoying from his farm. After the farmer left, Noel shared his history with this man. The farmer used to be a poacher. Noel spent months to years gradually educating this man about the vicious cycle of poaching and the healthy cycle of producing food. Noel's conviction and sincerity would be hard to resist and fortunately the reformed poacher is now making more money growing vegetable than he did killing wildlife.
I'd read in one of the many leopard books around camp that going on five game drives gives the tourist a 90% probability of seeing a leopard. So we decided to get up early next morning so we could get in a fourth game drive before leaving Yala.
This afternoon's game drive was another adventure on bumpy track. We drove to one section of Block 1 that was maybe half a mile from the ocean. The aqua blue sea was a wonderful backdrop for game viewing. In this same area, close to the water, we stopped at what looked like an abandoned government building. Turns out that Noel has undertaken a project in which he’s invested his own money and raised capitol as well. The structure is not abandoned, its newly constructed and not quite completed. It will be a tourist rest stop in a few months. At present there are no toilet facilities in Yala and visitors are not allowed out of their vehicle. So the bathroom facilities will be a welcomed addition. Noel plans to make it available to all Yala visitors, not just his guests.
We revisited all the leopard haunts that Noel knew. He was trying his best to get us a leopard sighting and I really appreciated his efforts. Leopards are not in the park for tourist exhibitions so I figured calling “here kitty, kitty, kitty” would be of little help.
Of course, I'm disappointed not to have seen a leopard. Whether sleeping in a tree, hunting, dragging a kill in to a tree, playing with cubs or just walking along a path they are magnificient creatures. Still, I'm glad that I visited Yala and had a delightful safari experience. Lucky for me,I have experienced the thrill of seeing leopards in several places in Zambia, Kenya and Botswana.
After breakfast and a fond farewell to Noel and staff,a Leopard Safari staffer drove us to where the dirt track to camp intersected the main Yala road (a dirt track) and we met up with Chandra. We took the main (only)road that follows the coast from the southeast corner of Sri Lanka toward the southwest corner.
We asked Chandra to drive us to Amanwella for lunch; it
was time for a refined atmosphere and food after two days tenting it. Amanwella delivered. It is a sleek, sparkling, minimalist property with the fine service and high staff to guest ratio that distinguishes the Aman hotel group. We ate outside facing the
glistening white sands of a secluded bay. The sun became so hot we had to keep shifting our position at table to stay in some shade. If shade had eluded again, we would have moved indoors. We had some delicious seafood and good wine. I took a gander around the public areas, they seemed deserted. I understand the rooms are top of the line, each villa having a pool and full view of the Indian Ocean. But, unless the interior materials and decor create a feeling of being in Sri Lankan, this stylist resort could have been sited in any tropical locale in the world.
About half way between Tangalla and Galle (around Koggala) Chandra pointed out stilt fishermen not too far off shore. It was so bright and there was so much glare (and my polarizing filter was not handy) I skipped the photo op thinking a silhouette later
in the afternoon would make a nicer shot. I didn't think to ask if this fishing technique was common along the south coast. Its not, only in this one area of Matara District.
Along the coast road Chandra pointed out places that were hard hit by the 2004 tsunami. Lots of billboards about international aid, little evidence. I had hoped we would have time to meet with someone I’d corresponded with from the Helping Hands Foundation to learn more about their social service work with the tea workers. But by the time we left Amanwella we knew squeezing in this visit would be rushing things and just too much. They were gracious and understanding.
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Our Yala Safari