Yala National Park
The three leopards were sprawled under the tree, impervious to the gawkers in a cluster of jeeps a hundred yards away. While Yala, Sri Lanka’s largest national park, has the world’s most dense concentration of wild leopards, sightings of the nocturnal animals remain infrequent. Our guide and driver, Sumudo, assured us we would see them. “I 100% guarantee it!” he had declared. He had reason to be confident: Only 26, he had been leading safaris for the previous eight years, including two years spent with the Discovery Channel tracking elephant herds in nearby Udawalawe National Park.
Sumudo had picked us up at 5 AM that morning from our hotel in Tissamaharama, Yala’s gateway city. We had arrived there the previous day from Colombo; after our northern Sri Lankan trip we headed south, first taking a five hour train to Matara then spending three hours on a crowded bus to Tissa.
We got into the back of the open top jeep, facing each other, and drove in the dark to the entrance of the park. There we were joined by a mandatory park ranger, the pavement ended, and we bounced along on a dusty road.
We passed a few buffalo and an elephant but Sumudo didn’t slow down, saying that there would be plenty of time to see them later. Right now we had to find the leopards before they disappeared into the bush to escape the heat of the day.
We drove quickly, making a few turns, and stopped on top of a large rock. Sumudo killed the engine, lit a cigarette and told us that this was a popular crossing spot for leopards. Sure enough, one, two, and then three leopards appeared in the distance. Other jeeps passing by joined us and we all watched and took pictures of them lazing around.
Eventually the leopards walked out of our line of sight. The jeeps separated and we were again on our private safari.
Sumudo drove us around the park pointing out the various animals, taking us off the main road and impressing us with his off roading skills. A few times we approached what I thought was an impassable pothole or break in the road only to have him gun the engine and with a bump we were would be past it and on our way. After an hour we were fully coated with dust and my hair had turned brown.
Several of the animals were right in front of us.
Once in a while Sumudo would stop and tell us to look and we would be confused not seeing anything. After pointing and tell us what we were searching for we would see a crocodile or smaller animal hiding in plain sight.
We visited this beach in the park where a monument was built to honor the 40 tourists who had died during the 2004 tsunami. That day Sumudo had been very confused about why there were no animals to bee seen. Apparently they had a sixth sense that something was amiss and had fled far inland. He had driven to this beach after the tsunami struck unaware of what had happened and was shocked to to see the destruction telling us he “thought it was the end of the country.”
We had lunch in a secluded area and then relaxed in the shade. Sarah and I fell asleep in the back of the jeep and woke up to see monkeys in the tree above us. “Aren’t those our crackers?” I asked Sarah. While we were sleeping they had jumped down and grabbed our entire package and were busy eating it. I let them keep it.
After 13 hours in the jeep we were completely worn out. We left the park, dropping off our ranger on the way. Then, about a mile outside of the park entrance Sumudo stopped the car for the last time. On the side of the road was a lone confused elephant lingering about, having had taken a wrong turn. We spent a minute looking him and him at us before parting ways and heading in opposite directions on the road from Yala.