With crocodiles waiting in the waters, elephants trumpeting through the plains and sly leopards stealthily moving through the jungle, Yala National Park is the green sister of the African Savannah. Yala also happens to have the highest concentration of leopards on earth and is thus a prime location to spot these furtive cats.
From Ella, we came down to the small town of Tissamaharama, where tour companies fighting for tourist bucks begin their safaris in Yala National Park. We booked our safari with our guesthouse and hoped for the best – we crossed our fingers hoping to spot leopards, even though their sighting is rare. Even if we didn’t see any leopards, we were promised a host of other wildlife to look forward to.
With a 4am wakeup call, we were picked up by a pickup truck that’s been transformed into a safari jeep. The truck was adapted with six individual car seats in its truck and covered with a tarp ceiling with a front window. It was actually more comfortable than expected. In the darkness of the early morning, we drove to the park entrance.
Right after the entrance, by a small lake, we received a proper introduction to the first few animals. A flock of Sri Lankan painted storks shared the lake with large crocodiles that patrolled the ground for unaware birds. Even though we didn’t see any birds being taken, an attack was almost certainly imminent.
Driving further into the jungle, we spotted an abundance of birds, from peacocks to green bee-eaters to species endemic to Sri Lanka, like the Sri Lankan Junglefowl. All of them were equally colorful and beautiful.
None of the peacocks opened their tails for us, but the green-bee eaters certainly looked very photogenic posing beside our car or flying with us. The junglefowls were a major source of entertainment, as they ran in front of our car for a considerable amount of time like chickens until realizing that all they had to do was move to the side and let us pass through.
In the distance, a herd of spotted deers feasted on the lush green leaves of the surrounding bushes. All of them ceased action as we passed by though, directing their ears at us and carefully watching our movements, ready to run if we decided to get any closer.
Later on, we saw many of them sprint across the road right in front of us, as if they were running for their lives. The smaller, baby deers were even cuter.
Every now and then, we spotted some dwarf mongoose crossing the streets. These funny-looking animals reminded us of a ferret. Their looks shouldn’t fool you though, as they are specially known for fighting and killing venomous snakes, particularly cobras.
All of the sightings were nice and all, but we came here to see the rarest of them all – the leopards. I admit that I couldn’t take my eyes off of the surrounding trees, expecting to spot a lazy one resting there. After two hours driving around in the jungle, both Julie and I were starting to get hopeless about it. At that point, our driver seemed to get a phone call and started driving with determination through the dirt roads, joined by many jeeps later. Was that it? Were we finally going to see wild leopards?
The dense jungle suddenly opened into this beautiful swamp area with a mirror lake, scattered trees here and there, and a beautiful background with rocky mountains and blue sky. It was much too open for leopards here, but what we did see was nonetheless worth it. In the distance, a family of elephants bathing in the lake and feeding from the trees slowly made their way across. It was a spectacular view.
After that, our batteries were recharged, but only to be drained during the next hour. Without any sighting, expect for a few wild boars and water buffalos here and there, Julie dozed off while I kept my eyes on the trees. At some point, our driver stopped the jeep and pointed at the road. We looked at it attentively and saw some leopard’s footprints.
Was that it? Was that the closest we would get to a leopard? It was looking like it more and more. Leopards were more likely to be seen early in the morning and we’ve been driving around for about four hours now. We tried our best to hold expectations in check, remembering to be grateful for whatever little we did get to see. For another hour or so, our driver took us around the park, not giving up hope and keeping his trained eyes on the trees.
At some point, he suddenly hit the brakes, turned back to us and frantically knocked on the window separating his cabin from the trunk, giving us a thumbs up. He reversed, stopped the car and came out of the car, pointing to a tree in the far far distance. “Look, a leopard!” All six of us sitting on the back of the jeep looked into the distance seeing nothing. “On that tree!” I squinted in the direction he pointed, struggling to see anything besides greenery, until I finally saw the patterned yellow and black fur lying on one of the tree branches. It was so far away that I could barely see it with my naked eyes. I still have absolutely no idea how our driver spotted it, WHILE driving! What amazing eyesight!
We picked up the binoculars to take a closer look. The young leopard rested on the tree branch slightly above the rest of the foliage, lounging. We spent the next few minutes admiring its beauty, seeing it yawning, licking its paws and finally getting up, jumping down the tree and vanishing into the bushes. Unfortunately, we lacked the proper lenses to take a closer shot of this majestic animal. The best we could do was to take a shot through the binoculars, which didn’t turn out very well. But we saw a wild leopard!
Even though we only saw the leopard from afar and couldn’t really capture that moment properly, we still treasured it. Even at the best place in the world to spot these felines, the sightings are still rare and we were the only group to spot it that morning. Luck was on our side, especially thanks to our guide!
After the leopard left us, we drove to the beach inside the national park to finally stretch our legs. We were not allowed to exit the vehicle at any point in the park except here – it was nice to stand and walk for a little bit after sitting for so long. The deserted beach was lovely, reminiscent of Lagoinha do Leste. We all had some fresh fruits with (what else?) tea, celebrating a mission accomplished.
The safari at the Yala National Park was a fun experience, as we had never felt more immersed in nature. It’s a testament to the biodiversity in Sri Lanka that we were able to see so much in one park in one morning. While there will always be more animals to see at a zoo, there was something special about seeing living things in the wild, in their natural habitat. We will remember all the one-of-a-kind wildlife we saw in Yala as one of the highlights of our time in Sri Lanka. Should we ever repeat this (or something similar to this) again, however, we definitely need the proper gear next time!
For more pictures from the Yala National Park, please visit the gallery!