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Published: January 25th 2014
I arrive in Tissamaharama (shortened to Tissa henceforth for obvious reasons) after two stinky, crammed local bus rides. A few tuk tuks and guesthouse touts are already waiting for me. While I try my best to ignore them, one is particularly persistent. He follows me on a motorcycle, trying to steer me towards his (or his family's) guesthouse.
"Where you stay, sir?"
-"Oh, I can't tell you. It's a secret."
"Why you say that? I'm honest."
-"Well, you have a guesthouse as well, so you're competition."
"Yes, but I just ask you, no problem. Which guesthouse?"
"Oh, ok. Actually, I know the place. The father of the owner died last week. They have funeral there tonight. My family and me, we're going to pay our respects. I don't think it's open for business at the moment."
I reckon he's full of shit. A guy in a safari jeep joins in and says he can drive me there for free. If I don't like it, I go to his guesthouse to check it out. I agree. We go to the place, I like it, and wave the driver goodbye.
Yala National Park
owner learns I'm from Germany, he starts talking to me in very decent German. I try to ask him cautiously whether there's really a funeral.
"So...I heard tonight there's a funeral here?"
"Yes, somebody told me your father has passed on."
-"Ha! Liars. Arseholes. Shit people. Make up stories to make other places look bad. They just want to make business."
So much for the guy on the motorcycle being honest.
I get up at 4:30am to get ready for a safari of Yala National Park. An English and a Chinese couple join me, which is a pretty good mixture. Politeness and unobtrusiveness. Our jeep starts at 5am. From Tissa, it takes us about 30 minutes to get to the park entrance, where we wait for our driver/guide to pay the entrance fees. Turns out we're not the only sleepy-looking foreigners on the back of a safari jeep: there must be around 50 jeeps in the national park this morning.
Our guide is a very young-looking guy wearing an Angry Birds t-shirt. He stops frequently to point out animals to us. He basically just says the critter's
name, but doesn't provide much more information. It usually goes something like this:
He brakes. "Look!"
"There, in the tree!"
In fact, we see many peacocks throughout the day. It quickly becomes sort of a running gag between us foreigners.
Driver brakes. "There, look!"
-"What is it?"
We see peacocks on the ground, in trees, and peacock males doing their pretty boy-dance. We tell the driver not to stop for peacocks anymore. More interesting are the other types of birds we see: the stunning green bee-eater, storks, a hawk, hornbills, a few kingfishers. There are also some lizards, crocodiles, water buffaloes, and a mongoose couple, which is the most random animal we see. They look a bit like ferrets, and behave in a rather amusing manner. The couple can't seem to make up their minds whether to fight or to be touchy with each other, with mood swings happening by the second.
Our driver gets word that there's a leopard somewhere, so he turns the car and races towards a different section of the park. When we
arrive, we find around 10 jeeps parked closely to a bunch of trees. After much straining and speculation, we kind of see the leopard's tail. It's sitting on a branch, looks like it's feasting on a kill. The scene starts to feel more and more like a carnival, with jeeps arriving constantly and trying to get closer to the tree in question. Drivers start arguing with each other, and us foreigners just kind of sit around awkwardly. There's something strange about being in the back of a jeep and parking next to another one. You're so close to the other foreigners that you can lean over and pat them on the back or pinch their cheeks, yet you just pretend to look somewhere else and don't even say hello. One time we're parked next to a jeep with locals in the back. One Sri Lankan guy asks me in all seriousness if I'm from China, which makes my day. The Chinese couple is also greatly amused by this, and just calls me 'Chinese guy' from now on.
We drive around for a few more hours without seeing all that much. A few birds and lizards here and there, and
Müllers Bräu Pilsner
German-type Sri Lankan beer
one elephant from a distance. Just as we're about to leave the park again, we discover an elephant right next to the track. He's an old male in the middle of eating his second breakfast, so we try to be quiet while taking our shots. We observe him for a while, until he moves to the other side of the road. Our driver does the most idiotic thing imaginable: he starts the car, and jerks the wheel violently to the left while accelerating a little too much, making the jeep dash directly towards the elephant. He just wanted to go to the left side of the road, to be closer to the elephant, but first of all he did that in the dumbest way imaginable, and second of all we've already seen enough of that elephant. Instead of just leaving the old giant to chill out and do his thing, we've threatened him. There was absolutely no need for that. It prompts the elephant to trumpet and charge halfway towards our car. He's made his point: watch what you're doing, you might bite off more than you can chew. We tell the driver to drive off and leave him alone.
Back in Tissa, there's a party going on at our guesthouse. The owner tells me they're celebrating the opening of another place. He invites all his foreign guests to eat. There's a massive buffet and a few dozen Sri Lankans piling food on their plates and gobbling it down using only their right hand. The curries are spicy as hell. Lucky there's curd and syrup for dessert to combat the heat.
After consulting with the owner how to get to my next destination, he arranges for a tuk tuk to take me to the closest junction, where I catch a bus to the village of Uda Walawe. The reason I go there is for another safari, this time of Uda Walawe National Park. That one promises more of the same, but more elephants.
As I'm the only foreigner in my guesthouse, the following morning, I sit alone on the back of a jeep. Makes you feel a bit like a snob. This safari is only a short one, from 6:30-9:30am, as that's the best time to spot elephants. And elephants we were about so see. A herd of maybe 7-8 pachyderms, which is busy
Yala National Park
taking a sandbath, while 4-5 jeeps loaded with foreigners are snapping away. One jeep in particular starts chaffing my butt after a while. They're pretty much hogging the best spot, with the Swiss couple in the back standing on the roof of their jeep, taking pictures with telescope lenses, blocking everybody else's view. But luck is on my side, the herd moves towards another spot, and I tell my driver to follow them before the others catch on. Thus I get to observe elephants like never before: up close and personal, while they're doing their thing. I haven't even seen them that closely in South Africa. It's fascinating to observe them in the wild, and to study their behaviour and mannerisms. Thank fuck my driver is not as useless as the one in Yala NP. After all, I'm here to see elephants, not to traumatise them.
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