This is part 2 of a two-part story. This is about my safari experience, but to read about my camping experience click here.
It was about 3 in the afternoon when we headed out for our first game drive. The sun was sitting low in the sky, throwing shadows across the dirt path in front of us, and inside the jeep we sat with our breath bated, waiting to see what wildlife we were going to find. We were in “block one” of Yala National Park, a place that has gained a rather unbeatable recognition for having the highest density of leopards in the world. And yet even with this knowledge in mind, I somehow didn’t believe that I would be lucky enough to see a leopard. Of the hundred or so people who go into Yala each day, only a few manage a sighting, and somehow I just didn’t think I would be one of them…but I was wrong.
I was doing a jeep safari as part of a sponsored camping experience by a high-end safari company called Leopard Safaris. It was my first day in the park and I had no idea what to expect. As we trundled along the dusty roads of block one I soaked up the amazing scenery of ‘the bush’. Yala spreads right out over the South East Coast of Sri Lanka, encompassing a wide area of land made up of grassy plains, rocky outcrops, lagoons, light forest, and isolated coastline. The park is home to a diverse mix of reptiles, mammals, and birdlife, as well as some small fishing villages on the coast.
When people normally talk about safaris, they usually have somewhere like Kenya in mind, but whilst this was a long way from Africa, it certainly felt like a real safari, with the scenery (and wildlife) seeming to jump right out at me with a striking range of new colours, sounds, and smells.
It was about an hour into the first safari as we were driving past a large waterhole when suddenly I heard the word I most wanted to hear: “leopard” whispered the nature spotter, his eyes wide open and a finger held dramatically against his mouth to let us know we needed to be quiet. He pointed to the other side of the water, where to my complete surprise I saw an adult male leopard strolling through the grass. It was quite far away and rather hard to capture on camera, but using the binoculars I was able to see it perfectly. My first ever leopard sighting! What an amazing feeling! And the trip just got better from then on. Over the course of my weekend at Leopard Safaris I saw 12 different leopards. Each one seeming to be closer to us than the one before. Our driver Sajith and our wildlife expert had excellent eyes and expert knowledge for seeking out leopards. They seemed to quite literally be everywhere - draped over trees, playing in the grasses, drinking from the waterholes, prowling the dirt road paths. But the last leopard I saw was my favourite of all. Just 3m or so away from the jeep, it was lying in the grass washing itself, and as we drove past it looked straight at me and licked its lips! It was a truly humbling experience to see such a large and beautiful animal up close.
But leopards were not the only thing worth noting in the park, and they were certainly the hardest thing to get photos of as they were often to far away for the poor zoom function on my camera to capture. A little easier to take photos of were the fearless elephants who seemed completely unfazed by our being there. One of them even did a small dance for us in front of our jeep!
There were also plenty of smaller animals that were equally impressive. I liked the birds in particular. There were lots of eagles, storks with brightly coloured legs, peacocks, and tiny tropical birds flying in and out of the trees.
And there were lots of other awesome animals too….
Have you ever done an Asian safari? What animals did you see?