In Ella, a local man had warned me not to visit Yala National Park, as he claimed it was too hard to see any animals. He recommended, instead, that I go to Udawalawe, where he said I’d be more likely to see elephants. I told him that I’d heard Yala was famous for leopards and he practically laughed in my face. “Nobody ever sees leopards,” he said.
I didn’t have any internet access during my time in Ella, so I couldn’t verify his claims, and had to make the difficult decision on instinct. I sat on the veranda at the wonderful Isuru Homestay, pondering my decision in the cold light of morning. One of the strange things about inland Sri Lanka is the startling difference in temperature between day and night. In the daytime it can be swelteringly hot, yet at night it genuinely quite cold. Come morning, I found myself grateful for the few winter clothes I’d worn on my way out of China. However, as the sun rose in the sky, it seemed as though my feet were in the tropics and my head was thousands of miles away. By ten o’clock, though, it gets truly tropical, and my wooly hat was back in the backpack.
I sat eating another massive, delicious breakfast while I pondered my conundrum, and even threw in a few extra notions – to visit Horton? Adam’s Peak? to head north or even over to the comparatively quiet eastern coast? With little information to go on, I decided to stick with my initial plan and see Yala National Park. In Africa the previous year, my luck in seeing animals was strong, and I felt that it might hold over. Despite the warning, I felt an irrational confidence that I would see a leopard once again.
From Ella to Katharagama
I bid farewell to my delightful hosts at Isuru and set off on a long, hot walk down the road to Ella, regretting that I’d spent so long thinking about where to go, instead of leaving early before the sun had risen so high. Then I stood and waited for long time at a ramshackle bus stop with a mix of foreigners and locals as various buses passed by on their way south. Everyone, it seemed, was heading to the coast except for me. Bus after bus passed by and told me that there weren’t going my way, ‘til eventually one headed for Matara picked me up and told me I could get off at Weerawila, and from there transfer to Katharagama, near the entrance to Yala.
The journey down through Ella Pass (or Ella Gap) was frightening, as the bus took corners at a ridiculous speed. People were thrown about inside the overcrowded vehicle, and I tried to hold on to my bag as well as the seat in front of me. People were tossed about like ragdolls and music blared from the speakers of the old, brightly painted bus, dulling the sound of the engine and brakes.
After a wild ride down the mountain, I got off at Weerawila and took a tuk-tuk to Katharagama instead of waiting for the much cheaper local bus. It cost 1,100, which is about ten times the price of the bus, but of course was faster and more convenient. It was also a lot more comfortable than being jammed in an overcrowded vehicle with my bags on my lap. We meandered through scenic countryside to the small town of Katharagama, which seemed a haphazard collection of little houses and temples and restaurants. My driver had no idea where to go, nor any sense of direction, but together we found our way to my next accommodation: Katharagama Homestay.
I was pleased to see that this little house was exactly like the other houses on the street – an authentic slice of Sri Lankan life. An old woman directed me to sit in a low-slung leather chair outside a concrete building as she finished sweeping indoors and brought me a pot of ginger tea. Later, a handsome young man who spoke impeccable English introduced himself and showed me around the small property. As we spoke, a huge monitor lizard sidled up to us. It seemed unaware of our presence, instead engaged in its hunt for grubs among the plants. In the trees above, some strange half-monkey, half-squirrel animals played noisily, and colourful birds flitted about between the branches.
I spent the late afternoon walking around the nearby area as the sun fell. The dusty streets filled with children playing cricket soon gave way to open expanses of rice paddies, and to the south there was a small lake filled with cranes and, according to the signs, crocodiles. I didn’t see any crocs, but you seldom do until they’re grabbing hold of your leg and pulling you into the water. Everywhere I went there were huge peacocks showing off their tail-feathers and crying loudly. I shot some photos of the sunset and then walked through the town until I found a friendly little restaurant to have dinner. Again, it was curry and rice – the local staple. There seemed to be very few foreigners around, and I felt this was a closer view of real Sri Lanka than Kandy or Ella.
At 05:30 I was met by two young men in a big open-sided jeep. They said very little as we set of through the cold, dark morning towards Yala National Park. I was a little apprehensive as we arrived and they had said nothing to me. The tour was rather expensive compared to those I’d taken in South Africa, and yet the guides didn’t even seem to speak English. Instead, they spoke to each other in the cab as I sat in the back, anxious that this may prove to be a massive waste of time.
The sun edged over the horizon as we entered the park and began to slowly drive around, looking for animals. There weren’t many other vehicles and I had mine to myself, having paid for a private tour. At first we saw a few interesting birds – bee-eaters, kingfishers, Brahminy kites, and serpent eagles – as well as some deer and wild boar. However, the guides didn’t seem to notice everything we passed, nor did they know the names of every animal. They certainly didn’t tell me much about the animals they did spot, as had been the case anywhere in Africa.
Still, there was plenty to see. Soon we passed a whole family of elephants, lots of crocodiles lazing in or by the water, dozens of mongooses (mongeese?), and more. The park itself was quite beautiful to see, and with so few vehicles on the roads it was very peaceful.
At 09:00 we stopped for breakfast by a long beach and once again I was presented with a veritable feast. Sri Lankan breakfasts were really impressing me. There were rotis, hoppers, and fruits. As we ate, I spoke to the one guide who spoke some English, and he told me he was training for the job but that he was embarrassed by his poor language skills. He seemed a nice guy, and he was obviously doing his best to improve his abilities, so I decided to put a bit more faith in him as the day went on.
We continued onwards, seeing elephants and other animals quite close, and stopped for lunch at 14:30, beside a little river. After eating, I climbed a tree and sat on a thick, white-barked branch hanging over the river. As I sat, I watched three macaques climb down from another tree and enter the jeep. I’d left my bag sitting open, with my camera charging on top of it. It was also filled with other somewhat valuable items. Thankfully, the monkeys delicately placed my camera and charger on a seat, reached into the bag passed all the valuables, and extracted only my iPhone charger. They then shot up the tree to the very highest branches and wrapped the cable around the top. Talk about cheeky monkeys…
It took ten minutes of throwing rocks and sticks to knock the charger down, but soon we were off again for the last section of the tour. By now we had seen everything except a leopard, and although I knew the late afternoon was a good time for leopard spotting (pun intended), I was no longer hopeful. I felt that the early morning had been our best chance. We continued to see more elephants and crocodiles, including a very close encounter with a young female elephant who decided she was unimpressed with our proximity to her family group.
Finally, as we headed towards the exit in the dying light, a very large leopard strolled casually in front of the jeep. It stopped for a moment and stared at us, then moved to the side of the road, where it stalked closer. It marked its territory, watched us again for a few seconds, and then disappeared into the bushes. It was an incredibly fortunate sighting – a completely clear viewing of an adult leopard. The guides phoned in the sighting and soon a half dozen jeeps sat around, with long lens pointing everywhere, but no one managed to catch a glimpse of the usually elusive animal.
Later, as we again headed for the exit, another car found another leopard, and my guides took off at alarmingly high speed towards the location. Here, we could see another leopard hiding in the buses. It was impossible to get a good photo, but the piercing green eyes in the darkness left a deep impression upon me. Moreover, this typical sighting – of a well-camouflaged animal hunkered down behind the vegetation – reinforced just how lucky I’d been. It was now six o’clock and the guides were eager to go. Yet as darkness fell, animals kept presenting themselves, and the drive home was filled with closer encounters with elephants.
Back at the homestay, the old lady cooked me a delicious dinner, and I sat and reflected upon my luck. My early anxiety about the quality of the tour had proven ill-founded. Instead, I was presented with another amazing safari experience, getting close to some of the most incredible animals on the planet. Regardless of what came next during my time in Sri Lanka, this day had made it all worthwhile.