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Published: December 9th 2016
I had to take four buses to reach the town of Tissamaharama from Ohiya. First was a bus to Welimada (22km, one hour, 60 LKR), then to Bandarewella (22km, one hour and twenty minutes, 52 LKR), then to Weerawila Junction (95km, two and a half hours, 139 LKR), and then finally to Tissamaharama (one hour, 30 LKR). I didn't have anywhere booked in Tissa because I hadn't had any internet for a while, but I figured I'd be able to find somewhere near the bus station. At Weerawila Junction a guy had approached me and said his brother had a hotel in Tissa for 1500 LKR and gave me his card, so at least I had that option. At the Tissa bus station I had no sooner got off the bus than a guy in a tuktuk zoomed up and said he had a hotel just round the corner for 1000 LKR. This would be my cheapest room yet. I was a bit sceptical given the prices of rooms in the other places I'd been, but figured this was a tourist town so there could well be more budget hotels. Tuktuk Guy's friend turned up as well (I'll call them "Tuktuk
Guy" and "Safari Guy" for convenience), and we all went to the hotel. It was called the Moon Lanka Yala - presumably they just chose some random words out of a hat and put them on a sign - and sure enough the room was 1000 LKR and approximately double the size I had been expecting for the price. Their safari to Yala National Park, though, was not so cheap.
Safari Guy said he already had three people at the hotel going the next day for a full-day safari, and he was charging a whopping 12,000 LKR per person. I checked his figures and found that it was a major money-gouging effort. First up he was duplicitly claiming that the entry ticket was almost 4000 per person when it was just over 2000 each if there were four people (he was totalling all the costs as being per person when only the "foreign adult" was per person, everything else was shared costs). When I pointed this out he immediately said the prices on his laminated card were "last year's prices" and they have gone up to what he was claiming they were. Secondly the private costs (i.e. the jeep
and food, as opposed to the official government entry ticket prices) were ridiculous. Breakfast and lunch were both charged at 600 each (he feigned surprise that lunch at almost any restaurant would cost about 250 or 300; and the breakfast was just toast and fruit which is about 150-worth). That left the total jeep cost (before splitting between the four people) at about 26,000 LKR! (Remember there are about 100 LKR to one NZ dollar, so just remove the last two zeros to get the amount - in this case NZ$260 just for the jeep). Although I told Safari Guy his prices were ridiculous and also why
they were ridiculous (e.g. I spelled out what the ticket price should really be, and also that I knew a full-day four-person safari should cost about 8000 LKR maximum per person not 12,000), I was also being careful what I said because he was giving the impression he was also the hotel owner. So I ended with saying that I would think about it and let him know later after I'd had lunch, intending to just go find a more realistic safari price somewhere else.
I went up to my room to
Leopard )Panthera pardus)
...somewhere in the middle-distance...
get my wallet and Safari Guy followed me up there to "talk", and he made it clear I was not to talk to the other guests about the prices "because this is just business"! After the two guys left I was on my way out as well when I was intercepted by another man who said he was the owner and that I wasn't to pay the other guys the money for the room. Apparently they had a habit of telling guests to pay them and then denying it so either the guests had to pay twice or the owner didn't get the money for the room. I had to be sure, he said, to only pay the people inside the house. This was getting more and more dodgy. I asked if the safari guys even worked there, and was told that they did inasmuch as they found stray tourists at the bus station and did the safari sales. But they didn't have anything else to do with the hotel itself. As I was talking to him, Tuktuk Guy suddenly reappeared and sternly told me I was not to book a safari with anybody else except them. I just made
a sort of uh-huh noise rather than tell him to mind his own business.
After lunch I found another hotel down the road where I asked what their jeep safari cost. The lady rang the company they dealt with - 8000 total per person for a full day, or 5500 for a half-day. That was much more like the real price so I booked the half-day one. I had done a full day at Wilpattu and it gets a bit much just sitting in a jeep being thrown around on rutted dirt roads for twelve hours. It should be noted that unlike Wilpattu and probably all the other parks where the per person cost depends on the actual number of people, here there always seems to be a fixed per person rate so each person pays (for example) 8000 whether there are two or six people in the jeep.
I don't think there's really any way to entirely avoid the pricing scams when visiting Yala unless you are travelling with a big international tour company, but that's a whole different kind of money-gouger. On the one I went on I was charged 5500 for the half-day which was
reasonable and I didn't have a problem with it. Afterwards I asked two Germans who were in the jeep what they were charged, and it was 5000 each - but they said they'd seen the manifest when they were picked up, as the driver was crossing off the names, and there was one below theirs marked at 8000 which, as it wasn't me, had to be the French guy we picked up last. I think all the tours overcharge on the official entry tickets as well, because they don't let the tourists pay for these - they tell them only the driver can do this "because it is a group" and then tell them it is 4000 each or whatever.
At the end of that first day, after I'd come back to the hotel from getting dinner, Tuktuk Guy was waiting for me outside my room to see if I was doing the safari the next morning. I told him I was going with someone else, and did he ever get mad! He said he had told me I wasn't allowed to book with anyone else and wanted to know who it was with. Now that I knew these
guys didn't have any control over the hotel rooms I gave him an absolute tongue-lashing, telling him it was none of his business who I was booked with, that I could book with whoever I liked, that they were scamming people out of thousands of rupees and they knew full well what a real safari price should be, and that I wouldn't do business with them under any circumstances. Then he tried the different tack of pretending that he had nothing to do with the safari stuff, he had just brought me to the cheap room, and we were friends; basically playing me off against Safari Guy to try and keep on my side. I told him to get lost and went into my room. I could hear him downstairs in the courtyard on his phone. Then he calls out "sir, sir!" from below. When I went out he says "my boss says you have to take your bags and leave". So I laid into him again, telling him that him and "his boss" didn't own or run the hotel, they had no say who stays there, and if this other guy wanted to throw threats at me to come
down here and try it to my face. This argument went on for some time, with the guy saying "his boss" was on his way but he was coming from a long way and would take a long time. Of course the other guy wasn't coming down there because he didn't want to deal with me. Funnily enough, neither guy showed up at the hotel at all the next day while I was there.
Next morning I headed off at 4am (!) to the other hotel, to meet the jeep at 4.30. I took my smaller pack with me containing everything I couldn't afford to lose (like my laptop) because I wasn't convinced my stuff would still be in the room when I got back. That might sound a bit paranoid, but the guys at the hotel were obviously crooked. Later I did a google search and came up with just two hits for the hotel, both from this year - one about the owner being caught at night in a room going through a guest's pack (from Tripadvisor, since removed but it still comes up in searches), and the other about being charged for a safari which never
happened and then claiming it was some other company's fault so the people lost their money. Basically what I'm saying is don't stay at the Moon Lanka Yala.
There were four other people on my safari. Already in the jeep when it arrived to pick me up was a nice German couple, and a girl from Portugal who was also very pleasant but didn't seem very smart (she was asking questions like did they feed the leopards at the park so they had enough to eat). After I was in the jeep we headed off to pick up a French guy at a hotel outside town, but on the road to the park.
I was interested in seeing the comparisons between Wilpattu and Yala, especially with regards to the visitor numbers. Wilpattu is very quiet because not many tourists visit the north and even if they do they still have Yala as their one-off safari. I saw seven jeeps all day in Wilpattu. When we arrived at the entrance to Yala at about 5.30am there must have been forty jeeps there already, with more arriving. The park opens at 6am. The short road between the ticket counter and
the gate had a queue a couple of hundred metres long. At one point in the morning where there was a sleeping leopard our jeep was in a traffic jam with jeeps in front and behind as far along the road as the eye could see, and the other side of the road also had a similar jam going in the opposite direction. Each jeep had a minute to try and spot the leopard and then had to move on for the next jeep to get into position. There must have been close to a hundred jeeps, and it was slow and tedious.
Nevertheless, for most of the time we were in the park (6am to about 11.30am) we didn't see many jeeps. I mean, we saw them almost continuously but only in ones or twos because the park is so big that it is only at the leopard-jams that you see the total numbers. So despite my concerns prior to coming here, Yala is actually a great park to visit and the wildlife is quite abundant. This is still the off-season though, so maybe avoid the high-season!
I wasn't actively birding because I was in a jeep
with others, although the driver did stop and point out large or colourful species, like storks and kingfishers. (He even stopped for a dung beetle which was creating and then rolling a ball of dung). Yala is a dry-zone park too, so the birds are the same as at Wilpattu. I spotted fifty species, but only about six were ones I hadn't seen in Sri Lanka yet, like green imperial pigeons and black-necked storks.
Although it makes me sound like a regular tourist, I was at Yala not for birds but for mammals, specifically - in order of how much I wanted to see them - sloth bear, leopard, and golden jackal. It isn't the best time of year for sloth bears, for that you need the fruit season when they are up in the trees and easy to see, so I did not see any, but I did see two golden jackals and three leopards. Other mammals were four ruddy mongooses, multitudes of feral water buffalo and chital, quite a lot of wild pigs, three sambar, one elephant, one three-striped palm squirrel, and a small troop of tufted grey langurs. The mongooses were a welcome addition to my
Sri Lanka trip. Despite there being four species in the country, and them being diurnal, I hadn't seen any up to visiting Yala which was a bit of a worry for me.
The first leopard we saw was a fair distance away. In a grassy area near a waterhole there were a few jeeps parked up, a sure sign of leopard. It was somewhere back in the scrub. I scanned the terrain and spotted it pretty quickly sitting next to a bush. As we watched it moved under the bush and waited as a buffalo and calf walked past, then it slipped out into the open and trotted rapidly after the animals. I thought we were going to witness a kill, but instead the buffalo just kept walking, completely unaware there was a leopard behind them, and the leopard simply went behind more bushes and never reappeared. I got some photos as it was crossing the open ground but they just show a tiny fuzzy leopard.
The second leopard was much better. This was where the jeep queue was that I mentioned earlier. There were actually two leopards within a few hundred metres of each other, the first
one walking through the forest right by the road and the second one asleep in a tree. The walking one I saw really well through my binoculars - in fact it stopped level with our jeep and stared right at us - but even though it was within ten metres of the road the undergrowth was so thick there was no point trying to get a photo. The next one, the one asleep in the tree, was quite far back and mostly obscured except from just the right angle. I took photos of this one but they were even less use than the useless photos of the first leopard.
Back at the hotel I found my room untouched - just as well for them! - and the next morning I left Tissamaharama without regrets for the whale-watching town of Mirissa.
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