National Parks, Sri Lanka - 20 to 23 April 2012

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May 6th 2012
Published: May 7th 2012
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We were sad to leave ‘The Tea Factory’ as it was so peaceful living amongst the tea plantation but it was time to move on. We headed out of the Hill Country and all along the sides of the roads were small stalls where locals sold the products from their gardens to passing traffic. There was a huge variety of fruit and vegetables but we could not see any of the Red Bananaswe had tried in Kandy; Jaywa said that they only grow in that region which was a shame as they were delicious.

We continued on our journey which had looked a short distance on the map but the roads were narrow more like little tracks as we headed towards Uda Walawe National Park. In the end it took us well over six hours, with the final couple of hours on really dreadful roads with huge pot holes everywhere. We had a couple of stops for our driver Jaywa to get a break and finally arrived in the small town of Uda Walawe.

Before continuing to our hotel we visited an 'Elephant Transit Home' near the town. Elephants are an endangered species and their survival in their natural habitat is threatened due to ‘human’ activities. Elephants in the wild are constantly being killed mainly on roads (up to three a week), and many elephant calves become orphaned. In order to support these elephants, the Department of Wildlife Conservation set up the Transit Home within Uda Walawe National Park with help from the Born Free Foundation. When we visited there were about 50 orphaned elephant calves being cared for. The calves are released to the jungle after they have become strong enough to survive on their own. The elephants are kept at part of the Uda Walawe National Park to maintain familiarity with their habitat, but have access to both food and medical care. We were able to view the baby elephants and watch them being bottle fed but every effort was made to limit contact between the elephants and humans to enable them to be successfully released back into the park.

We continued our journey to our hotel which was really hard to find down a unsealed road that had huge ‘craters’ - in fact in some parts there was not even a road....... We had to get out of the car and walk whilst Jaywa tried to manoeuvre the car over quite a few pot holes. At last we arrived at Kalu's Hideaway (I suppose that is why it was hard to find!!!) and had a really lovely welcome from the staff.

The hotel was very quiet (only 4 other guests and us) but was in a lovely location with the grounds backing down to a fast flowing river. Our room was like a ‘tree house’ built over the hotel with our own steps and views down to the river. The hotel is owned by Romesh Kaluwitarana (Kalu for short) who used to be a popular Sri Lanka cricketer before he retired and then decided to build the hotel in his favourite location in Sri Lanka. He choose a delightful spot with five acres of grounds surrounded by wilderness it was a truly relaxing place to stay, it was just a shame we only had a couple of days. However being out in the wilderness does have its problems and when we went down for ‘our usual’ pre-dinner drink we could not even sit on the chairs or sofas as they were covered in little midgets that had just hatched - they were everywhere. We were tempted to get out our fly protection head nets that we had last used in Australia!!! The staff had turned off most of the lights to try and stop them coming in, which was impossible as the restaurant was open to the elements - in the end they put us on a small candle lit table in the middle of the room which did not have too many - when you are hungry though you eat anything anyway.....

The next morning we hired a jeep and driver and travelled into Uda Walawe National Park and straight away saw a small herd of elephants - I was so excited..... The park was created to provide a sanctuary for wild animals displaced by the construction of the Uda Walawe reservoir on the Walawe River and it is famous for the many elephants that live here (about 500 in total). During our visit we saw small groups of elephants and many young calves as well as individuals roaming the park feeding on the abundant grasses and trees, not 500 but quite a few. We saw one particular elephant push down a tree and then start stripping away the bark to eat - they do cause huge amounts of damage but the trees seem to bounce back as we saw plenty of regrowth. We also saw huge numbers of Water Buffalo and a large range of wild birds including many Eagles, Kites, Shikra and Indian Grey Hornbills.

As we were driving around the park the rain started to come down in torrents so we stopped to put the roof down and continued to watch the wildlife from the open sides of the jeep. After a while the tracks got wetter and wetter then just as we spotted a huge group of elephants our jeep got stuck in the mud........ The driver tried everything to get it out and the elephants were approaching nearer and nearer with one particular female getting quite agitated as the engine struggled to move the vehicle out of the thick mud. In the end the driver just could not get it out of the ditch so had to radio for help.........(oh know not again)..... Luckily a nearby jeep arrived and towed us out (apparently this happens a lot - it does to us anyway). The elephants moved on but not before I got some lovely photographs of the young they were carefully guarding from us and probably the reason they were agitated.

We arrived very tired back at our hotel and we were the only guests that evening so we had the whole place to ourselves including 18 staff. We lounged about the hotel walking down to the river and swimming in the pool - so much space. The staff prepared us a Sri Lankan curry for dinner which was very tasty and quite mild until Paul said that it wasn't very hot - they then brought out some of the 'staff’s curry' for us to literally blew your head off........The next day we had to move on which was a shame as Kalu's Hideaway was in a lovely location and very peaceful, we saw so many birds in the grounds in fact I think we saw more here than we had seen anywhere throughout Sri Lanka. We got friendly with the locals who worked in the fruit and vegetable gardens surrounding the hotel - everyone was so very kind. A couple of very elderly females worked all day in the gardens and seemed to enjoy what they did, but again it was not easy work particularly in the heat. When we left all the staff came out to wave us off - very friendly and could not recommend the hotel enough to anyone visiting this area.

We travelled to Tissamaharama (hard to pronounce) and Jaywa took us to meet a local man to negotiate the hire of a 4 wheel-drive safari jeep to enable to get into all the National Parks. His name was Jayathunga (Jaya for short). A little confusing though with Jaywa our driver and guide and Jaya our NP jeep driver) Jaya had two vehicles one a little more comfortable than the other and with only £2.50 per day difference in price, you can guess which one we hired. We negotiated a really good price for his services including two visits to Yala NP and one to Bundalla National Park with pickups direct from our hotel, which was difficult enough to get to and which also needed a 4 wheel drive vehicle. Jaya ran a small Guesthouse with his wife as well as providing transport into the National Parks for tourists. His wife came out to say hello and showed us around their guest rooms. She was very hospitable and offered us some free ‘free’ coffee which she served in lovely china cups whilst we sat and watched a couple of Brown Headed Barbets in the trees. If you ever visit this area and want a bargain I can give you their details as the rooms were good value at only 3000 rupees a night (about £15) and air-conditioned.

We continued on to our accommodation at Chaaya Wild Yala which is a hotel nearest to the Yala National Park entrance which will enable us to get into the park easily. To get to the hotel we had to go down an unsealed road and because of the recent rains the road was in really bad condition in one part the road disappeared and we had to drive through a field with a small river running through. We had to walk whilst Jaywa managed to steer the car around the edge. We finally arrived at the gates of the hotel where a guard lifted the barrier for us. Inside was a sign with the dates of the latest sightings of Elephant, Leopard, Bear and Jackal - both elephant and leopard had been spotted on the road the day before. We continued along the track passing some large granite boulders and came out by a lagoon with the hotel behind. We had a warm welcome by the staff and were shown to our chalet. The accommodation consisted of individual jungle chalets resembling game lodges each set within the park around the main building which housed the restaurant, bar and swimming pool. A nice luxury in the bush but the hotel was not as cheap as the ones we had stayed in previously. Behind our chalet was the beach and behind the swimming pool was the lagoon so the hotel was in the best location possible and the nearest to the entrance to the National Park - hence the price.

In the afternoon we set off on our first safari into Yala National Park (also known as Ruhunu NP) which is Sri Lanka’s most popular NP covering 386 square miles of scrub jungle, open savannah, woodland, lagoons and rivers as well as a long coastline. The park has the highest density of leopards anywhere in the world so we were really hoping to see one. It also has many other mammals including elephants, bears, antelopes and a rich bird life of peacocks, hornbills and more. As soon as we entered we did see a lot of a wildlife although not so many elephants as we had seen in other parks. It was just like a miniature African safari, although the terrain made it hard to spot some of the animals. Our first encountered was with a large cobra snake crossing the track (our guide said that it is very unusual to see these on the track as they usually get eaten by predators) luckily for us though it soon slid away into the jungle. Elaine - I take it you did not see any? We saw herds of Water Buffalo, the shaggy bulky body of the Sambar Deer as well as the more angelic Spotted Deer (cute bambi), Wild Boar, Mongoose, Hares and lots of Monkeys perched high up in the trees.

At the many natural lagoons we saw Crocodiles basking in the sun and many waterbirds, diving and fishing amongst the pink and white waterlilies and lotus flowers which were everywhere. There was a huge variety of waterbirds including; Pelicans, beautiful Painted Storks, Spoonbills, White Ibis, Herons, Egrets and Cormorants to name a few.

On land we saw the colourful Chestnut Headed Bee Eater (we seemed to see these everywhere), the Long Tailed Paradise Flycatcher, Crested Serpent Eagles, Indian Grey Hornbills as well as huge numbers of Peafowl (peacocks) which we had seen all over Sri Lanka. At last we got a sighting of what we really wanted to see, our first encounter with a wild leopard. It was feeding on its prey which was amazing even though we only got a glimpse through the thick scrub jungle - it was so well hidden, but memorable nevertheless. The leopard is the smallest of the four big cats the other three are the tiger, lion and jaguar but we will have to wait to see them in the wild on future travels.........

We finally arrived exhausted back to our hotel just in time for dinner. Our table overlooked the pool area and as we watched a group of Wild Boar roamed around the edge of the swimming pool just in front of us - surreal. Later after dinner it was quite amusing as we had to be escorted back to our lodge as you are not allowed to wander the hotel grounds after six in the evening due to elephants and other animals roaming around.......however the lad that took us back was so small, not sure what he could have done to help us if we did meet anything unpleasant........

We had to be up at five the next morning for our second trip into the park which was a little early but it is the best time to spot the wildlife and we could then laze about for the rest of the day. Luckily because we were so near to the entrance of the park we did not have to travel back down the unsealed road and got to the park before most people. We were about the third jeep to enter the park that day and within minutes we came to a sudden halt, this large elephant was standing on the track and would not move - he stayed there for a good five minutes just looking at us tourist in our jeeps and shuffling his huge back legs as if to say ‘this is my home not yours’!

We continued through the park and saw so much wildlife but it was a shame as we did not see any leopards that day but lots of other animals and birds including the very rare Black-Necked Stork. There was a chap at our hotel who had travelled miles to see this stork and although he had been to the park several times he did not get a glimpse so I suppose we were quite lucky.....but I would have preferred another leopard. We stopped in the park at the beach where there was a memorial to those who lost their lives in the Tsunami - a group of tourist visiting the park had stopped here on the morning of the disaster and they were all lost.

That afternoon we lazed by the pool with the lagoon behind us - pure bliss. There were several Water Buffalo in the lagoon including a mother and calf. We had seen the pair the day before and the mother only had three legs but she managed to get around with her calf and today they were happily wallowing in the water up to their necks. The mother was obviously too big for the leopards but would have to guard her calf which she seemed to be managing quite well - would be a different story I think if she was in Africa with so many more predators. We relaxed and Paul listened to music and I wrote up the blog in between dips of the pool and spotting the variety of wildlife all around us - we did not want to leave....probably could not find a nicer location....

Later we walked down to the beach and watched the waves crashing to the shore, it was a beautiful beach, lovely golden sand but the sea was far too rough to swim in. Paul climbed some huge boulders near the edge of the sea but suddenly huge rollers were breaking on the rocks and I told him to 'come down quickly' - he only just made it in time........ The seas around here are quite wild and unpredictable. You can be walking along the beach with the tide a long way off when suddently a wave will bring it right inland before retreating again. We walked 'carefully' along the beach for a while where we spotted a couple of local fishermen's trying to bring in their catch between huge waves it took them ages just to come ashore. They had a couple of thatched huts and a few boats nearby - would not like to be a fisherman around here! We turned inland and came out on the other side of the lagoon which was located behind the hotel's swimming pool. We stopped to photograph a couple of Spoonbills and got quite a shock when we noticed a large crocodile just a few feet from us - was it man eating.....we quickly returned to the pool..... Later he staff said they had about 15 crocodiles in the lagoon but never answered our question about whether they were dangerous. We had not seen any signs regarding crocs only elephants and snakes - so they must be OK!

That evening we sat at the bar on the Observation Deck which looked out over the National Park and lagoon and one of the bar staff noticed a sleepy leopard lazing on a large rock on the other side of the lagoon - a wonderful site, even at that distance and there it remained for the next hour oblivious to us watching until it was too dark to see it. It was a shame it was dark and so far away as we were only able to get a distant photograph with our lens of this lovely animal but we could make out its spots - see if you can........We started chatting to a young couple who said they were in the next lodge to us and would you believe it but they also lived in Southampton (the next town to us in the UK) its a small world. They were at the end of their holiday to Sri Lanka and like us had thoroughly enjoyed their time.

The next morning we had to be up even earlier as we had a long journey to get to Bundala National Park. The park is an internationally important wintering ground for migratory water birds in Sri Lanka. At the entrance we were joined by a ‘bird spotter‘ which seems to be the standard practice around the parks that a guide joins you in your hired vehicle. Apparently if you have a full day safari at the parks you have to pay for their lunch as well! So this meant we were rather outnumbered with Jaywa, our tour guide, Jaya our jeep driver and also a Park Ranger........ We saw many land and water birds in the park but were surprised to see a couple of Jackals in the undergrowth as well as lots of Monkeys, the Ranger said you did not usually see these animal during the day. Many Crocodiles were swimming in the lagoons as well several huge Terrapins in the marshy areas.

We drove along some rough sand dunes and thought that we could not go any further as the track turned into just sand and rocks but we continued and reached the ocean where we stopped for our picnic breakfast whilst watching fisherman far out at sea. Whilst there the Ranger noticed a large Green Turtle in the sea by the rocks and we sat and watched it until it disappeared into the deep.

On the way out of the park we saw several Mongoose crossing the tracks but they were to quick to get a photograph as they scampered into the undergrowth. We arrived at an area which was covered in prickly cactus fruits and was home to a multitude of Monkeys feeding on the bright red fruits - looked rather prickly but they did not seem to mind. They were quite fussy eating only the ‘best bits’ and throwing the rest away before grabbing the next ripe fruit.

We thoroughly enjoyed our day in the Bundalla NP but it was time to go and returned to our hotel passing many rice paddies on the way with workers deep in the thick mud. Jaywa was hungry so Jaya stopped at one of the local 'stores' where they bought some Hoppers (we gave them a miss). We said goodbye to our delightful driver, Jaya. He wished us a pleasant onward journey and kept apologizing for not finding us any more leopards........ we thought two was lovely.

We had so enjoyed our visit to this area which was rich in National Parks and not to be missed if your come to Sri Lanka as the wildlife is prolific. Tomorrow we head to Tangalle on the south coast - see you there.


7th May 2012

mum i think you meant midges????!!!! check the spelling!!!!

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