I have welcomed the New Year in many a different place, 5 star hotels in Colombo, a cold pub in Bromley, fireworks on the home street and on the streets of Vegas. 2010 however had most of those other times beat, as I returned to a place that has always had a hold on my heart, Yala National Park in the deep south of Sri Lanka. Yala has played a large role in my life, from the lore of family tales to my first memories of wildlife and nature. The dry plains and twisted palu and weera trees formed the back drop to most of my childhood photographs. The half glimpses of the elusive leopard and the lumbering bear and the old men of the jungle trackers formed some of the best parts of my childhood.
Despite all this prior to August 2009, I hadn’t been into the park for well over a decade, the vagaries of college and working in the first world having prevented me from any trips on the mostly breathless visits back home. What I found when I went back in 2009, having moved back to Sri Lanka for an extended period of time, was somewhat different from my childhood memories. The safari jeeps and cellphones had revolutionized the quest for wildlife sightings (more on that later). Instead of the one or two leopards we used to see over three holiday trips a year, with my last three trips to Yala, I have in fact lost count of the number of leopards I have seen.
On the penultimate day of 2009 however, I experienced Yala the old school way, a double cab with a couple of friends and an experienced tracker. Pug marks in the sand and instinct played the largest part in our sightings instead of phone calls and death defying drives. Our count was still pretty high though, six (well five and a leg) sightings over three days (I did cheat a bit as well with the cellphone).
We decided to stay our three nights at New Forest Circuit Bungalow about 15 minutes (as the furiously driven double cab flies) outside the park, mostly through necessity than choice as all the other locations were booked out. Not a place I would really recommend though because it was generally a bit decrepit, though the staff was excellent. At the end of the day Panthera, close by is only Rs.2,000 more a night but a lot more pleasant with its outdoor sleeping areas. Did I mention the pterodactyl sized mosquitoes that the bungalow sported since the beds were inside stuffy rooms? Bring repellent, basketfuls of coils or just book somewhere else. The place has potential but not the planning or implementation to take advantage of that potential.
After an uneventful drive in from Colombo via Pelmadulla, the customary stop at Silver Ray (good decent food though not as futuristic an establishment as its name may suggest) and a wander down the adi-seeia (100 foot) road we rolled into the bungalow, calling Nana, our tracker on the way to alert him of our arrival. After freshening up (i.e. a much awaited pee break), we swung by Yala Village to pick up another friend and headed into the park.
Like I said I had been into the park a few times this year but in the dry season. The fact that the rains had come was in evidence, every waterhole was now full and crocs were to be seen everywhere, including the rather menacing specimen shown above, swimming in a waterhole by the main route. I sincerely empathize with any poor deer that has to drink from that waterhole.
Clockwise: Jungle Fowl, Orange breasted Green Pigeon, Pipit, Malabar Pied Hornbill
Birds were also abundant including more Jungle Fowl than I had seen in awhile and other residents such as Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Pipit and Malabar Pied Hornbills. Migrants were also abundant including the beautiful Blue-tailed Beeater and Brahminy mynah and Whistling teal. Everybody comes to Yala for the big three, leopard, bear and elephant and it’s easy to overlook that the park actually has some excellent bird life, especially in the migrant season.
T-B: Blue-tailed Beeater, Brahminy Mynah, Whistling Teal
Of course we were no exception in longing to see the big three and shortly after entering the park we saw leopard courtesy of a hurried yell from a passing safari jeep. Unfortunately all we could see of the beast was a leg and to see that leg itself we had to proceed through a traffic jam created by the safari jeeps as they crowded around to show their clients the elusive creature. Giving that leopard up for lost we proceeded down Gonagala pare (road) only to be diverted by a rather magnificent Crested Hawk Eagle who didn’t seem pleased at us disturbing his rest.
After snapping some shots and taking leave of the angsty bird, we proceeded down the road for what seemed a millisecond before Nana yelped in an excited undertone kotiya (leopard)! Sure enough was what appeared to be the biggest leopard this side of the Indian Ocean perched on a palu tree above the road. After the first few minutes of being awestruck, we were struck by a couple of things, one, the rather magnificent size of the creature, belly distended by a meal of what could only have been a medium sized water buffalo and also the rather incongruously small branch the leopard had decided to perch on.
The light was absolutely breathtaking for photography and the leopard glowed golden in the warm afternoon sunshine. Of course as with most wildlife photography, the leopard was facing away from us so we patiently decided to stake out to the tree and wait for the opportune moment to get some National Geographic worthy shots. The reactions in the double cab ranged from a groan of disgust from Nishan to a sage observation from Nana that with the leopard’s gonads being squashed by the branch, it was only a matter of time that the leopard descended from the tree.
So we waited. And waited. And waited. The leopard peacefully slumbered. My hand started to feel as if it was disconnected from the rest of my body after holding the camera and 300mm lens steady for 20 minutes waiting for the damn leopard to move. It teased us once or twice by raising its head, then sitting up for a grooming session, almost falling off the branch in the process, and then promptly went back to sleep. Kept company by mercifully few safari jeeps we waited for almost an hour, while the leopard slept on.
Cursing the lazy beast we decided to make a move. Driving below the leopard it turned out he had been shamming all this time and had not in fact been asleep. Instead he looked down at us very interestedly, possibly thinking that he might have room for dessert, before thinking better of it and yawning widely. After having confirmed that we were in fact hugely disinteresting, he went back to sleep and we decided to move on.
Another few milliseconds down the road and we appeared to enter fantasy land, as with a sense of déjà vu, Nana repeated his hushed yelp, kotiya! Another huge male leopard rolled in the grass by the side of the road, busy cleaning his face and paws in the grass. Of course, true to form he never really gave us a full frontal view of his handiwork and instead decided to hightail it off into the brush after a few minutes of toiletries.
Leaving for the bush
Trying to calm our beating hearts we proceeded through the park for a few more minutes before calling it a day. After all there is only so much excitement we can take these days, not being as young as we used to be. As the blue moon rose into the sky and created the first night rainbow I had ever seen (I swear I hadn’t been drinking yet) we headed to Yala village for drinks and to dodge a couple of testy elephants.
The blue moon
With a 12 year Mendis and Ginger Beer in hand we counted down to the New Year (btw for those not in the know, the 12 year Mendis is a definite winner when it comes to arrack, sweet and full flavoured, try some now!). As 2010 dawned, we experienced no fireworks, just the ocean roaring as two elephants wrestled in the moonlight. One could not have asked for a better way to end one year and begin another.
To be continued.