A Carnival of Animals

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January 24th 2013
Published: January 26th 2013
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Well, as the title might suggest, the past week has been all about the wonderfully beautiful and varied wildlife of Sri Lanka. After ever so reluctantly leaving the absolute loveliness of Ella, we eventually did move down out of the cool and refreshing hills and onto the hot and muggy plains of southern Sri Lanka. Our first stop was the little lakeside town of Tissa where we booked into our room nestled among the rice paddies and immediately headed out for a late afternoon safari at nearby Bundalla National Park. We were pretty well the only visitors and we spent a lovely afternoon, bouncing around in the back of a jeep, taking in the beautiful and varied landscapes and the huge variety of the most stunning bird and monkey life. It was the start of what would be quite a prominently animal-focused portion of our trip…

The next morning we made our way by tuk-tuk to Yala National Park – renowned for its plethora of wildlife in general, but for its leopards in particular. It is actually home to the largest concentration of wild leopards anywhere in the world and one of the key reasons for our stopping by this lush part of Sri Lanka. We had come across the stories of the absolutely mad circus that Yala can be, as literally hundreds of safari jeeps tear up and down the main coast road, all of course jostling for a chance to spot a leopard, and which quite obviously, usually results in way too much chaos and noise and thus, no leopards. Indeed, the other travellers we chatted to had all had fruitless expeditions in regards to actually seeing a big cat and it was for this reason that we had organised a trip with Leopard Safaris who currently operate a camp in the park buffer zone (it used to be in the park itself until the President apparently decided that he wanted his family to run something similar and thus decreed that all existing operators had better skedaddle quick smart) and who assured us that they make every effort to avoid the madness that is the main stretch of the park.

We arrived, the only two guests, in the early afternoon, checked into our deluxe safari tent, had lunch and then headed out. Sajith, the camp manager, tracker and driver, reassured us that we’d be avoiding the masses and entering the park through the much remoter and less-visited northern gate. We clambered on to the mammoth open-sided 4WD jeep, settled in with binoculars and cameras (bless Sajith, he even went so far as to lend me his personal and very wonderful low light L-series zoom lens) and trundled out. Like the hills, it had been raining quite heavily here over the preceding weeks, and as we dodged the gaping potholes and sloshed through muddy trenches, Sajith regaled us with stories of how many times he has had to winch other jeeps out. And he confidently reassured us not to fear, as he (and indeed his entire family) were regular participants in frequent off-road rallies all around Asia.

As we bounced and slid along the zigzagging tracks, we spotted a huge array of birdlife – painted storks standing serenely, bright and vibrant bee-eaters, massive hornbills literally shaking the tops of trees as they landed and the most remarkable number of peacocks. I mean they were literally everywhere and it is really strange when you spot yet another glorious peacock strutting down the road and figure it's just a bit ho-hum.

But besides from the birds we were fortunate enough to spot so many other wonderful animals. Large monitor lizards clung upside down to trees, herds of startled deer looked up, freaked out and clumsily pranced away as we trundled by. A jackal loped off as we approached, followed by a mongoose who took off in the other direction. Every time we passed a stretch of water, the slinking forms of the muggers, the crocodiles that inhabit the area, would slowly ease themselves into the waterways and silently slide away. We paused briefly at a lake that looked remarkably similar to Kakadu with the wetlands, water lillies, jutting boulders and prolific birdlife all around. That is, until two elephants rumbled in to view.

We were about halfway through our safari and Sajith and our other personal park tracker had been excitedly following the ever-increasing warning calls emitted by monkeys and birds that indicate that a leopard is on the move nearby. We were getting closer and closer and the light was just transforming into that beautiful late-afternoon golden colour when the inevitable occurred. Sajith tried to circumnavigate a washed out stretch at speed and the whole jeep slid, dropped, stuttered and then completely sank down into a metre-deep trench of mud on the left hand side. There was an ominous silence and a sinking feeling as he tried to move forwards and then in reverse, and then forwards again, to little avail. We were stuck and with no sturdy tree within winching distance there was nothing to do but call in the cavalry in the form of the entire extended rally-driving family, who just happened to be visiting from Colombo for some leopard-spotting of their own.

Admittedly it was, shall we say, a tad frustrating as the hours dragged on and that wonderful photographic light faded into a duller twilight and then eventually into near darkness, with the warning calls gradually moving further and further off in to the distance. Eventually the family did arrive, rescued us via a combination of winches and we headed back to the camp, amid the jovial ribbing that a quite sheepish Sajith certainly seemed to be copping from his brothers-in-law in particular. The sun had completely vanished, visiting hours were well and truly over and we were still deep in the park as we flicked on the headlights and came around a bend. Right in to the path of two massive leopards, slowly loping along the road ahead of us. All frustration disappeared and we watched rapt as the massive and sleek figure of a full-grown male and his smaller mate slunk along for a few hundred metres before ducking off in to the bush.

That night, with with wonderfully exuberant smiles on our faces, we sat back and sipped gin and tonics and ate numerous scrumptious curries under a sky of countless twinkling stars. Swarms of fireflies danced in the nearby trees and we sat around and planned an early pre-dawn start for what would hopefully be a less eventful, yet more fruitful, second and final safari.

The next morning we slurped down a strong Sri Lankan coffee and were cruising through the gates before the sun had risen. It was beautiful watching the park come to life with the first rays, the birds and other animals all waking in a cacophony of noisy squaks and shrieks. We had a brief taste of the aforementioned jeep-chaos and grimaced as six other jeeps all arrived at the same time as us at our first spot where we had managed to track a leopard to. Obviously the leopard quickly scarpered and we just managed to glance a spotted behind before it took one look at the hordes of people and disappeared deep into the scrub.

We took off in another direction, lost the other jeeps and were heading back along a particularly beautiful stretch that we’d driven the previous afternoon when we rounded the bend and there he was. A beautiful male cub just sitting smack bang in the middle of the road, standing guard while his sister feasted on a carcass nearby. We pulled over, not more than thirty metres away and just sat there watching him in awe. He didn’t seem at all concerned, although admittedly his eyes never left us for a moment and we spent a good fifteen minutes watching him watching us. It was an amazing experience to be in the presence of such a beautiful creature as he went about his usual morning routine and neither of us could stop grinning for the rest of the day…

Finally sated of leopard-spotting and bidding Sajith and the ther camp boys a huge estuti, we headed off further along the coast and spent a beautiful night in a lovely rustic bungalow that perched on the edge of the Kalametiya bird sanctuary. And as the sun set on this most wonderful of days, we sprawled on the top of a huge granite boulder, looking out at the waterways and the prolific birdlife, nibbling on crackers and Happy Cow cheese (interestingly Sri Lankans seem to prefer this vintage to the more internationally renowned Laughing Cow) and sipping Lion beers. It was stunningly beautiful, looking out over the lagoons and to the nearby beaches where the local fisherman were returning to shore. We eventually scampered back down the rock as the last rays of the sun flashed across the plain. And then bumped in to the rather large crocodile emerging from the rushes a mere ten metres away. With much undignified haste, and armed with little more than an empty beer bottle, we quickly scrambled off in the other direction and left the big fella to look elsewhere for his dinner.

After all of this rushing about, winching cars out of muddy quagmires and the ever-so taxing animal-spotting, we unanimously decided that a few days on the beach was well warranted. We thus checked into our lovely open-air room and spent the next couple of days on one of the most perfect beaches at Talalla, where the fishermens' outriggers outnumbered people by five to one. We wandered the sands and swam in the beautifully warm waters by day and munched on delicious seafood by night. Feeling rather rejuvenated, we arose before dawn yet again and dashed down the coast to Mirissa for yet another wildlife expedition – but this time out to sea to hunt down the blue whales which frequent the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

Despite coming close, neither of us has actually ever seen a whale in the wild, having missed them multiple times when traversing Australia and, although I was fortunate enough to swim with whale-sharks in The Philippines, this was an altogether different proposition. The largest animal on earth, the blue whale weighs in at a mere 170-odd tonnes, and we again sat in eager anticipation as we weighed anchor and slowly moved out to sea. And we weren’t disappointed, spending a beautiful morning chugging up and down the deep channels that lie a few kilometres off of the coastline, watching the manta rays lazily waft past and the scores of spinner dolphins throw themselves around with abandon. However, much like the circus at Yala, the average charter boat just seems to steam on in at full throttle at the first sighting of a far off spurt from a blowhole which again, results in freaking the poor whale out who just flips his tail and quickly heads down into the depths. And as they can stay under for well over half an hour, it can obviously prove a quite frustrating experience for anyone who just wants to sit back and watch these majestic creaturesgo about their business from a bit further afield. Thankfully, we seemed to have chosen the one responsible charter captain who flat out refused to engage in the same headlong rush and while the other three boats around us proceeded to dash in, scare off the whales and then chug off in search of others, we left them to it, sitting still with motors idling, just chatting for the next twenty minutes until the two whales we’d found cautiously resurfaced, with cascading fountains of water spurting from their blowholes. They almost seemed to glance around, notice the lack of too many boats, and then swam around slowly and languidly seeking out further fields of plankton for breakfast. And then seemingly curious, they changed tack and manoeuvred over towards us. We all sat there, struck dumb and in awe for the second time in four days as these beautiful creatures came to within twenty metres of us, blew a few blasts through their blowholes, gave a final flick of their tails and then took off down into the depths…

That afternoon, we flagged another tuk tuk (which has become our chosen form of travel over the last week – open to the breeze which relieves the stifling heat, yet moving slowly enough to really be able to take in the countryside as you putt through it) and headed along the beautiful coastline, taking in the countless amazingly stunning little stretches of beach, framed by palms and little fishing villages. Every so often you’d notice clusters of grave stones and memorials, the shells of devastated buildings and the snapped-off trunks of huge palm trees. It was just over eight years ago that the tsunami smashed through this area and the eastern seaboard, obviously devastating the entire region and killing over 30 000 people, while leaving countless others injured, orphaned or homeless. Seeing the rejuvenation was heartening but you couldn’t help but reflect on what must have been a truly awful and heart-wrenching experience for all Sri Lankans.

We eventually arrived at Thalpe for a final night on the beach which was spent in a lovely boutique resort where we again ate the freshest and most scrumptious seafood and watched as scores of turtles swam past as the sun slowly set behind the palms. We arose early to head to Galle and spent a final couple of days wandering the beautiful streets and crumbling walls of the old fort. It was lovely to just roam amongst the little cobbled lanes and along the ramparts as the sun set, watching the guys play spontaneous games of cricket under the fort walls and young locals leap off of the huge rocks into the sea below.

And that is that. After a final meal of delicious seafood and vegetable curries, washed down with Lion beers, we bid a final and massive estuti to the wonderful people of Sri Lanka. We’ve had a truly amazing time – meeting some beautiful people, seeing some stunning places and having some utterly unforgettable experiences. Until an inevitable next time…ayu bowan Sri Lanka.


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