So, we booked our ‘private’ safari in advance as we did not want to be disappointed. Herself opted for the ‘delux’ jeep, just for the extra bit of comfort you understand. As somewhat seasoned travelers at this stage, we were a tad cynical about these ‘packaged’ tours, the high entrance fees, service charges, taxes and the tipping regime. But, not having been on a safari previously, we were keen to explore with a slightly open mind and managed expectations.
Our hotel in Yala was in an isolated location, but convenient to Yala National Park on the south east coast of Sri Lanka. The area had been badly hit by the 2004 tsunami and, unlike other parts of Sri Lanka, the park itself is largely arid bushland bordered on one side by the vast Indian Ocean.
So, we are up at 5:00 AM, pick up our lunch pack, much needed water and head for the wilderness which is Yala to arrive just before sunrise. Surprisingly, we are not alone, we park up in one of three separate lines of jeeps, red parking lights peering out of the dawning light. There are at least 30 jeeps at this stage. Our driver hops out with our cash in hand to buy the entrance tickets.
It’s all a bit surreal as we sit there waiting for the off. The only animals on show are the wild dogs making their way up the line of jeeps. More and more jeeps and fellow adventurers arrive behind us and we size each other up. A few familiar faces from our own hotel, some people seem to be dressed for the beach, others for the Himalayas. I am comparing jeeps and we surmise that ours might perhaps be more purpose built and had a back door to keep us safe, but the level of ‘comfort’ had yet to be determined.
While we are waiting some travelers like ourselves sit back and relax, others get out of the jeep & pace up and down impatiently. Another group are out taking pictures of the rising sun, each other or the wild dogs. By the time the drivers return the Chinese girls on our left (no offense but they were Chinese) had eaten their lunch, drank all their water and had filled two flash cards with photos – of themselves!
Along with our driver and tickets, we now seem to have acquired a park guide. He introduces himself, climbs aboard & off we go. After about five minutes we stop again at the proper entrance to the park. We again wait in line as apparently the animals are still in their slumbers! Eventually we are checked through the gates & head off into the bush. As it transpires there are numerous dirt tracks across the park and so the jeeps set out on different courses. It has to be said that apart from a couple of occasions later in the day, we typically didn’t bump into more than a couple of other jeeps on and off as we made our way through the bush.
So, what about the wildlife you might ask? Truth be told it was fascinating to see so many animals and birds up close, but more importantly in an open and natural environment. The thick bush opens out in areas to flat plains, or to wetlands and occasionally to huge odd rock formations including one which resembles a woman’s head and the more well known ‘Elephant Rock’. As the landscape changes the wildlife varies accordingly; water buffalo, wild boars, the colourful jungle fowl which is the national bird of Sri Lanka, black necked storks, pelicans, grey herons, hornbills, parakeets, macaque monkeys, mongoose, deer, hares, huge numbers of peacocks, land monitors, crocodiles, the odd carcass and jackals roaming the plains.
The highlight for us was undoubtedly the small family of elephants that we chanced upon. Initially it was hard to make them out as it was in a shaded area of light bush. But then you could see that the tree trunks were in fact legs and out of nothing they seemed to transform into all their glory; the ears flapping, the tails flicking, and their trunks pulling the greener leaves from lower down in the bush. There is one large male standing off in the background, a female minding her young calf and at least three other herd members skulking around in the bush. All this less than three feet from us – absolutely amazing. We stayed there for almost ten minutes watching them graze while they kept an even bigger dark wary eye on us.
We head on our way again and, as we bump into other jeeps, our driver is very keen to tell his counterparts about our find – seems we were particularly lucky to have come across such an elephant family gathering. Later in the day we come across a group of six or seven jeeps in a secluded area beside a rock formation. There are whispers passing back and forth from jeep to jeep, with each one being translated by the corresponding guide into Chinese, English, French etc depending on the different nationalities in the jeep. There was talk of a leopard sitting on the rock. Then he seemed to be hiding behind the rock or perhaps in a small cave beneath the rock. Another that he was injured, his right leg apparently so he was now somewhat vulnerable to attack from others. We waited, quietly amidst the whispers and the searing heat. We waited and waited, jeeps came and went. So did we, no leopard sighting for us today, but sure we had the (tall) tale of what might have been to satisfy our desire.
We made the long way back along the bumpy dirt track, fewer animals around now because of the heat but somewhat smug that we paid the extra Rupees for the ‘delux’ jeep as it really was a bumpy ride in places. A great day was had by all and fantastic to see the wildlife in their natural setting, doing what animals do in the wild.