Jul 15, 2011

Elephants and Leopards, Oh My-- Yala National Park

When we arrived in Sri Lanka, we had absolutely no preconceived ‘agenda’ in place.  While we had formed a rough itinerary, we were certainly (as always) open to suggestions.  As we started to meet other travellers along the way, one ‘must do’ started to stand out—a safari in Yala National Park.  After a bit of consideration, we decided to make an effort to see what all the hype was about, especially since we don’t plan to be in Africa anytime soon.

Once again, our Lonely Planet guidebook gave us a very rosy description. Yala is located in the south west and encompasses a total area of 126,786 hectares.  It’s a nature reserve as well as a national park and claims to have one of the densest leopard populations in the world, with 44 resident cats, together with elephants, water buffalos, 150 species of birds, monkeys, deer, and crocodiles.  Visits to the park usually entail doing a safari in an open air jeep, playing ‘spot the wild animal’ for either a half or full day.  And apparently the best place to arrange your safari is from Tissamahara, which is the real reason we were headed there in the first place (re:  It’s Festival Timein Kataragama).  Everyone we met who had just recently done a safari in Yala was all very positive about their experience. After arriving in Tissa, we ended up arranging our safari through Traveller’s Home Guest House.  We chose to do a 5hr afternoon safari from 2pm-7pm the next day—morning options were available but they picked you up at 5am!  We were forewarned by other travellers that we would get very dirty and dusty but we were all looking forward to spotting as many ‘big animals’ in their natural habitat as we could.

So how’d it go?  In many ways we had a very good afternoon.  Initially we had paid for a safari based on sharing with 2-4 other people in the jeep as they only charged us for the two adults (it would have cost more if we had just wanted the entire jeep to ourselves).  But to our surprise, when we were picked up, we learned that we were the only ones.  We saw pretty much a sample of all the animals that live in the park, including 3 individual elephants, several herds of water buffalo bathing, several spotted deer, a jackal/fox, 2 different species of monkeys, storks, a beautiful blue kingfisher bird and as well as many other exotic birds, many crocodiles, and the ‘big prize’--a leopard.  Our driver/spotter had very sharp eyes and spotted many animals that we had to really strain to see.  He delivered pretty much what we had paid for. 
Peacock in a tree

Spot the leopard??

Jackal (Fox)


Our Driver/Spotter

Spotted Deer

But still we were left a bit disappointed.  We’re pretty ‘tough customers’, having pretty much seen many of the animals in non-traditional zoo settings already—elephants in Thailand at the elephant orphanage, leopards and crocodiles in the wildlife sanctuary, loads of water buffalo in Cambodia, and more monkeys than we care to count throughout SEA. Although it was very unique to see the animals in a free and natural setting, the animals were still few and far between.  Sure, we saw herds of water buffalo early on, as well as the exotic birds, but it took about 45min after we had actually entered the park (which was another 1hr from when we were picked up) before we sighted our first ‘big’ animal, a lone male elephant.  By then, the kids had already started to lose their interest in the ‘spot the animal’ game.  For them, visiting a zoo may have been more satisfying as at least they could be guaranteed when and where they saw an animal, not to mention probably having a closer view of it.  When we spotted the elusive leopard, it was about 50m away and up on a tree branch that you had to use binoculars in order to even get a glimpse of him.  Although Maddy had fun using them for the first time and she was thrilled that she could actually see it, poor Yasmine didn’t actually see the leopard as she didn’t really get the hang of using the binoculars.  Never having been on a safari before, perhaps our expectations were a bit unrealistic, but we thought we’d see the animals in greater numbers than we did.  That Yala is touted as having one of the greatest densities of animals in all Sri Lankan nature/national parks had probably given us that idea.  By the end of our 5hrs, we were well and truly tired from the dry heat and from the bumpy dirt roads.  And our clothes and shoes as well as our hair, skin, nostrils, ears, and mouths were all caked in the red dust from the roads.  
'Hey--I can almost touch that leopard!'

At the end of the day, we don’t regret going on the safari and visiting the famed ‘Yala National Park’. After all, experiences are just that—to be experienced.  We probably would have regretted it more had we not gone.  Although it was quite expensive for us (5 hrs @ $48 USD/Rs4800 per adult, kids under 6yrs free; included driver, jeep, and all park charges),  in any case it will most likely be our ‘HalongBay’ while in Sri Lanka. 

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