Waiting for a star to fall in Wilpattu National Park

Published: January 4th 2018
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Today we were travelling north from Negombo to Wilpattu National Park, then east to Anuradhapura.

We left Negombo around 8:30am after an early morning visit to the beach town’s fish markets and lagoon foreshore. We initially travelled north, hugging the western coastline for just under an hour until we arrived in the small township of Madampe to visit a local home-based industry cooperative. We’d stopped here for a factory tour and meal a few weeks earlier, but today we were only passing through. The cooperative manufactures a number of different coconut products, including rope from coconut fibre and treacle from coconut sap. We sampled fresh coconut juice and frothy warm toddy (fermented coconut sap), and our guide picked up a bottle of the cooperative’s trademark treacle.

We left the cooperative mid-morning and continued our journey towards Wilpattu National Park, stopping briefly in Chilaw to pick up some egg rolls and fish buns from Perera and Son Bakery (which we ate on the minibus as we travelled).

We arrived at Wilpattu National Park around 1:30pm, where we transferred into an open jeep and headed off on a safari. We saw monitor lizards, water buffalo, peacocks, peahens, jungle foul, green bee-eaters, spotted deer, crocodiles, monkeys, wild boar, herons and elephants. Unfortunately, we narrowly missed the main attraction – a leopard – by no more than two minutes. The people in front of us captured some fantastic photos of a leopard walking close to their jeep. We just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time (or more to the point, with the wrong driver at the right time)…

I really liked Wilpattu National Park. It was nowhere near as crowded as Yala National Park, and there was nowhere near the amount of degradation caused by jeeps. We finished our safari in the late afternoon, and as we bumped and lurched our way out of the park, I fell soundly asleep in the back of the open jeep. The early morning start was catching up with me.

On arriving back at the park’s entrance, we saw some wild elephants on the far side of a nearby lake, so we decided to traverse a dusty track on the lake’s edge to better position ourselves for a few late afternoon photos. On our way we came across a group of villagers bathing on the lake shore, and we felt terrible encroaching on their privacy. We did contemplate retracing our steps, but the elephants looked so majestic in the late afternoon sun, so we adopted our tried and true travel motto – ‘When in doubt, follow your first choice’. Unfortunately, karma was in play on the day. As we positioned our cameras and adjusted our lenses, something spooked the elephants – at first they grouped together, then suddenly one trumpeted and they all disappeared in a cloud of dust.

Rueing our lost photo opportunity, we walked back to the park’s entrance, jumped into the minibus and set off on the final leg of our day-long journey to Anuradhapura.

We left Negombo after breakfast. We were heading to Wilpattu National Park first, and on to Anuradhapura later that evening. We drove north through Negombo’s old neighbourhoods which seemed divided into Roman Catholic, Hindu and Muslim quarters – easily identified by either the mosques, churches or kovils (Hindu temples) in each area. We then manoeuvred busy morning traffic into the suburbs and through a region where they specialised in making the old style clay roof tiles. Apparently they use natural rubber to fuel the kilns, and the holes left (after the clay is dug out of the earth) are ingeniously used as prawn hatcheries. Clay tiles would have been an essential building material once, but apparently demand has dropped with people opting for cheaper pre-fabricated roof sheeting now.

We were now in the area known as the ‘coconut triangle’ of the country. The coconut tree is referred to as the ‘tree of life’ and is a much loved component of Sri Lankan living. The nut is the most productive part – giving milk, flesh and oil. The hard shell is used for fuel and as a utensil, while the husk is used for making coir (coconut fibre) products such as rope and gardening mulch. The rest of the plant is highly utilised as well – the timber is used for rafters, the fronds were once widely used for thatch roofs and are now used for celebratory decorations, the primary vein of the leaves on the fronds are dried and used in hard brooms, and the flowers are tapped for their sap which is cooked into treacle and jaggery (Sri Lankan palm sugar). The sap is also fermented to make coconut vinegar, drunk fresh or fermented as a fizzy low alcoholic toddy, or distilled into arrack. I’ve also seen the fresh flowers used as good luck charms in homes and businesses.

We were visiting a coconut plantation in Madampe to get an understanding of the ways in which they use the coconut tree. We’d visited the same plantation for a coconut cooking demonstration on the last trip. We walked through the small coir factory set in their back yard and watched the different stages of rope being made. We were each offered a thambili (orange king coconuts that are predominantly used for their natural electrolyte heavy water) to sip on while we waited for the ‘toddy tapper’ to arrive.

A few trees had been allocated for the extraction of sap from the coconut flowers, and these never fruit. Toddy tapping involves precisely cutting the large coconut flower bud, and bruising the whole bud by tapping it with a wooden mallet to get the sap flowing. A clay pot which has been blackened over a fire is tied to the tree to collect the dripping sap. The toddy tapper and the process of toddy tapping was the same as our previous visit, but this time he tapped different trees, and the freshly tapped frothy toddy straight out of the blackened pots tasted much better. I’m not sure if it was because the trees were different, or if it was because we were there earlier in the day and the sap hadn’t yet been sun-warmed and fermented. It was sweet and slightly fizzy, but without the overripe yeasty taste the last batch had. They sell the toddy to distillers of arrack, but also keep enough to make their own treacle. We’d tasted their treacle the last time we were here, and it was really delicious!

We drove a little further to the town of Chilaw for a toilet stop and to buy a takeaway lunch from Perera and Sons Bakery. We bought some short eats (an umbrella term for Sri Lankan fried or baked snacks) – triangle egg roti rolls, egg shaped egg rolls and a fish bun – which were all very very delicious. We also walked around the corner to Jetty Street to use the toilets at Cargills Food City. The Food City supermarkets have turned out to be a regular stop on travel days, as they have relatively clean toilets and they are a good place to buy alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

We then drove to Wilpattu National Park (which is why we picked up a takeaway lunch to eat on the minibus). I promptly fell asleep as we left Chilaw and only woke to munch on the short eats we’d bought. I fell asleep again and woke as we pulled into the National Park entrance at 1:30am. This was supposed to be a late afternoon safari, but as we’d made good time on the road (the anticipated road works hadn’t materialised), our group leader Bala made the decision to bring the safari drive forward. A few of us weren’t very happy about this, as most animals sleep through the heat of the day and don’t stir until it starts to cool down. However, the jeeps were already there waiting for us, so after a quick toilet stop, the group split into the two jeeps and we started our drive.

We’d crossed from the wet zone into the northern dry zone, and we could definitely feel the difference in climate. It was seriously hot and the air was bone dry!

We drove around for a long time before we saw anything. Wilpattu National Park is the largest national park and doesn’t have a high density of animals, so we’d been warned that animal sightings wouldn’t be as numerous at the other parks we’d visited.

The setting was a study in brown, surrounded on all sides by dry but dense woodland. I also noticed that there were a much higher number of natural lakes than the other parks. I later found out that a ‘willu’ is a natural water basin that fills with rainwater, and ‘Willu-Pattu’ means Land of Lakes.

The water level in one of the lakes was very low and our driver decided to give us a slushy drive through its muddy edges. As fun as it was, I didn’t particularly appreciate the environmental damage caused by veering off the path.

We eventually saw spotted deer, peacocks and peahens, green bee-eaters, crocodiles, monitor lizards, water buffalo, wild boar and jungle fowls (Sri Lanka’s national bird that looks suspiciously like a domestic rooster). The wetland bird life wasn’t as abundant as I thought it would be, but there were many egrets and gorgeous purple herons.

After a couple of hours we stopped at a picturesque lake with stunning reflections of the giant old world trees around it. I was very surprised when we were told we could get out of the jeep and walk down to the lake… as we’d just seen crocodiles a few hundred metres away! However, it was a lovely lake and it was nice to stretch our legs.

As we were gracelessly alighting the awkwardly designed jeeps, I noticed that a family of toque macaque monkeys had started to descend into the trees around our jeep – their attention totally focussed on a young tourist walking past us. What I couldn’t see was that he had a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits in his hand. A few monkeys scrambled down the trees and stood in his path, and the naive boy put the biscuits on the ground to reach for his camera. Well, the biscuits were snatched up by a sprinting monkey in a millisecond!

Some of you will know (from my rants on here) that I get seriously annoyed with tourists who feed wildlife (especially when they feed them processed food), but in this instance I would have to say fair play to the monkeys – that tourist was totally out-witted! 😊

While some of the monkeys enjoyed their chocolate biscuits in the trees, I noticed a very very cute mother macaque with the tiniest of babies trying to get more food from the other tourists. It gave me a close up view of the baby and how amazingly gentle the mother was with it. I love all animals, but there’s just something very very special about primates (the non-human ones) that melts my heart that much more.

In comparison to their more belligerent macaque cousins in other parts of south and south-east Asia, I have loved the quiet nature of the toque macaques in Sri Lanka. However, I fear that with rapidly increasing tourism (and stupid tourists), it won’t be long before Sri Lanka has to deal with the same problems of aggressive food-seeking macaques.

We continued our safari after that entertaining short break, and soon afterwards the other jeep got very lucky and spotted a leopard. However, our driver was an idiot (I’m being kind) and we missed out. After a lot of tedious waiting around to see if the leopard would reappear, we eventually left. The safari hadn’t been as exciting or interesting as the ones we’d already done at Kaudulla National Park or Yala National Park, but it was still a lovely experience.

All the animals we saw were very languid in the intense afternoon heat, which fortuitously made for easier photography as they just couldn’t motivate themselves to move anywhere in a hurry… even with a jeep of five gawking tourists watching them! This was an unexpected bonus of starting our safari earlier than we were meant to, as was the fact that we only saw four other jeeps in the park. It enhanced that lovely feeling of being deep in a jungle setting. We passed a convoy of jeeps entering the park as we exited at about 5:30pm.

By the end of the safari drive we were quite hot, sweaty and totally covered in red dust. We fixed the first two issues by crawling back into our air conditioned minibus with much relief. When we got back to the minibus, those in our jeep teasingly asked Bala for our money back because we’d missed out on the leopard. To placate us, he recklessly promised a sighting of wild elephants at a lake near the park exit. I saw our driver Anil and our bus assistant Hemantha look very dubious at his promise, but we stopped at the exit and walked to the swampy weed-choked lake.

Much to our surprise and very much on cue, a family of elephants appeared on the far side of the lake. The elephants were a fair way away from us, but it was fabulous to watch them even from this distance. The elephants seemed to be exhibiting normal elephant meandering and feeding behaviour as they walked to the lake, but something suddenly spooked them, and when one trumpeted a very loud alarm, they bolted back into the trees and out of our sight in a matter of seconds. I’ve never seen stampeding elephants before, and it really was a sight to behold. Luckily I’d been taking a burst of photos when it happened, and I captured the very moment they spooked and the resulting cloud dust of running elephants. I’d really love to know what frightened them so much.

I enjoyed the safari in Wilpattu National Park – despite the bad driver and not seeing the leopard. Even though our animal sightings were somewhat fewer than we’d hoped, that’s the nature of the safari game. And given the choice, I’d much prefer the animals called the shots of whether or not they wanted to be gawked at, rather than the unsavoury and immoral setting of jailed animals in zoos.

Next we travel east to Anuradhapura, an ancient capital city in ruins.


4th January 2018
toque macaques

Wilpattu National Park
Sometimes the parks with smaller concentrations of animals are the most rewarding...gotta look harder and enjoy when animals are found. Other than that there is a silence that can be enjoyable as well. This is a great shot. Wondering if Mum's bub cut her hair...looks like the scissor job our daughter inflicted on her dolls (and attempted on us) when she was small.
5th January 2018
toque macaques

Re: Wilpattu National Park
The quietness of this park was very welcome, especially after we'd visited two more popular parks. The toque macaque 'hair styles' were hilarious, especially when it looked like they'd meticulously combed that middle part :)
6th January 2018

Nature at its best
Always great to find a place to view animals in freedom. You've managed some amazing photos. You are right I don't know why people insist on feeding these animals. Common sense should win out but does not... even when warning signs are available. As you say, no shortage of stupid tourists or smart monkeys.
6th January 2018

Re: Nature at its best
Thanks Merry! ‘Freedom’ is such a beautiful word. There are stupid humans, and then there are selfish ones who value their personal experience over anything else. I’d take the monkeys over either of those types any day :)
8th January 2018

Clear photographs
I have been here in early rainy season and even then roads very muddy, so it is impossible to go to many places. Maybe I should go back in dry season, because I like your photographs very much.
8th January 2018

Re: Clear photographs
Thanks for your kind comment Sampath. I can see how the tracks in Wilpattu could easily get muddy when it rains. We had good light for photos, but it was very hot and dusty too :)
8th January 2018

Beautiful photos!
Seems you had a great experience, just a shame on not getting that close-up with the leopard. :-)
8th January 2018

Re: Beautiful photos!
Thanks Per-Olof! We were very disappointed about not seeing that leopard... but we consoled ourselves by saying we'd seen one the week before, and it would have been greedy to ask for more :/ Plus all the other animals seemed pleased to see us :)
2nd February 2018

Missed it by that much
The only thing worse than missing an experience like seeing a Leopard is hearing that you just missed it and seeing the photos to prove it. We have the worst luck in the world for these sorts of things so never ever get a jeep with us. Great photos, as always.
2nd February 2018

Re: Missed it by that much
Thanks guys! Our inexperienced driver decided that he knew better than the experienced driver leading the safari, and struck out on his own - grrr! But I suppose that's the nature of the safari game :)
15th May 2018
stampeding elephants!

I love these animals, but are very fragile, i think, they can kill you if they're panicking!!!
22nd May 2018
stampeding elephants!

Re: Elephants...
Generally speaking they are beautiful gentle giants, but like most wild animals, that can change in a split second. We were so glad we were on the other side of the lake when this happened :)

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