The grid-locked leopard (Yala, 05/06/2010)

The phone beebed as Sumudu reached over and said he’s customary ‘Kiyanna!’ (translated loosely as What’s up). Looking back at us with a terse ‘Allagane’ we sped up as he drove through the dusty tracks to where a leopard had been sighted taking a snooze in a tree. A breathless ride later we came to a hurried halt in front off not a snoozing leopard, but a traffic jam in the jungle.

Traffic jam (photo courtesy PP)

Don’t get me wrong, I love Yala from the bottom of my heart, but sometimes the crowds can get on my nerves. The engines revving, the fumes and the loudness of the pissed off drivers all can be a bit much. I don’t really care if the leopard in question is doing a tango, dressed in a pink mini-skirt on a Palu tree, I simply have no patience for this kind of thing.

Sumudu trying to get the line moving (photo courtesy PP)

We stayed in line for what seemed an eternity, Sumudu trying to jostle a look see at a leopard that remained obstinately blocked by a bush in front of us. I made the best of a bad time by settling down for a small nap. Which considering the fact I had woken up at 4am was much welcomed.

Time for a nap (photo courtesy PP)

Finally getting to the head, or rather the middle, of the line we could see the leopard, through a haze of intervening branches, rather firmly ensconced on a branch showing no sign of getting up. Rather unexpectedly however it suddenly raised its head, resulting in a shudder of excitement through the audience and a crescendo of camera clicks. It nonchalantly licked itself a bit, gave us a stern glare turned around and went straight back to sleep.

Yawn, lick, stare

That was of course, our sign to move on and leave the sleeping, celebrity leopard to its admirers, while we searched on for a more peaceful encounter.

Fast asleep


Stepping on Snakes (Moneragala Chronicles)

As a word of explanation, I once spent two months living in a little village in Maragalakanda, close to Moneragala back in 2004. My purpose, living there without electricity or running water, was to study bird diversity in an agroforestry scheme for my MSc. This was when the photography bug first bit so there are some tales worth telling and some photos worth showing, though the latter were for the most part taken with a dinky Canon G3. For more of the Moneragala Chronicles click here.

Nuwan jumped off the tree that he had just tied a yellow ribbon to, marking one of our research sites and landed lightly on the rock. He looked at his feet, looked at me initially with no indication that anything was amiss but a split second later his countenance changed. Dare I say he went a bit pale and in rapid succession he did a double take towards his feet and daintily but adroitly stepped aside.

Of course not being one to be fazed by anything, especially anything reptilian in nature, Nuwan excitedly beckoned me over to show me what he had almost landed on. On the rock, amidst the leaf litter lay a perfectly camouflaged, snake. Nuwan’s foot had landed a mere two inches away from its head but it hadn’t moved an inch as it lay there, the pointed snout of its viper head resting on its coils.

Hump-nosed Viper

We identified the snake quite easily as a Merrem’s Hump Nosed Viper, elegantly known as Hypnale hypnale in Latin and the Kunakatuwa in Sinhala. It was a beautiful specimen of what we at the time thought was a relatively mildly poisonous viper. Of course if Nuwan had been bitten it would have gotten complicated as we were a couple of kilometers out in the jungle down a very steep slope in thorny intermediate jungle. Rather spine tinglingly, I found out many moons later that according to two gentlemen by the name of Kularatne & Ratnatunge (1999) in a poetically titled article ‘Severe systemic effects of Merrem’s hump-nosed viper bite’ that the venom can cause acute renal failure and bleeding disorders.

Hump-nosed Viper

Thankfully at the time we were ignorant of these dangers and we simply took some pictures, patted the viper lovingly on the head (I jest!) and made our way back to the research site, being extra mindful of where we kept our feet.


The vertical leopard

For many moons the trackers at Yala used to urge us to keep an eye on the Palu trees, for apparently you would often see the tail of a leopard twitching in the tree tops. The higher elevations were favourite places for the elusive Panthera pardus kotiya (yes I’m showing off, I know the scientific name!) especially as the temperature in the park increased. Yet for all the supposed love for heights the leopards had, over a couple of decades of trips I never saw one in a tree.

December was when I first saw a leopard in a tree, a beautiful young cub. And on my next visit to Yala in January, it seemed all the leopards had suddenly decided to go aerial as a couple of hours into our round Sugathe our jeep driver got a call about a leopard up a tree near Vepandeniya on the Uraniya Loop. Pelting hell for leather there, what we initially came face to face was a line of vehicles. Unfortunately in Yala on the weekends, this is very much to be expected, so we resignedly took our place at the back and peered towards the Palu trees off to our left.

Sugathe, our regular jeep driver

Sure enough, a flash of gold and black beckoned from amongst the boughs. A beautiful, full grown female leopard was taking a break from the hot sun. As usual, the angle she was sitting at afforded the rather wonderful photographic opportunity of a leopard leg. So we patiently settled in to wait her out, hoping against hope than when she came down off the tree she would offer a decent photograph as a reward for our patience.

She shows some rear

The heat was cloistering as we waited, the rumble of engines and diesel fumes reeked every now and then as a jeep either gave up and left or another heard the news and rolled up. We were treated to a moment of comedy when a jeep rolled up to us and an earnest gentleman asked us whether we were looking at the leopard that was up in the tree. Taken up by the obviousness of this question, both S and I didn’t miss a beat as we replied in unison, ‘No! We’re looking at the other leopard!’ Our tracker and Sugathe had to stifle their laughter while the rest of our jeep rocked with mirth. Of course this was all in Sinhala which tends to add a musical eloquence to such silliness which is probably lost in translation.

Teases us with a couple of tantalizing glimpses

While we waited, we were treated to some irresponsible behaviour from the inhabitants of a jeep in front, who were flashing a mirror at the leopard, trying to get it off the tree. Unfortunately the trackers seem to be unable to keep this kind of behaviour under control. With the risk of sounding preachy it is imperative that those of us who visit these parks show the animals the respect that they deserve as we are in their habitat. The offending jeep was too far in front for us to be able to spot who was doing it but some of the drivers and trackers yelled out (well in a manner of speaking) asking them to stop bothering the animal.

It seemed like we would be there for ever, as the leopard showed no indication of moving a muscle, apart from the occasional twitch to shake a fly off. Then…luck struck. A herd of wild boar, oblivious to the leopard above their heads moved into the grove of Palu trees and through it. The leopard perked up, sat up and, as we trained our cameras, slipped down the tree trunk and leapt into the jungle in one fluid movement, accompanied by what could only be described as a mute roar of camera clicks.

In the blink of an eye, she comes down

As the leopard disappeared into the forest behind the wild boar, the jeeps all roared into action, reversing up to a fork of the road with everyone trying to figure out where the leopard went. Sugathe has been doing this for twenty years, and his experience showed. Ignoring the antics of the rest of the tourists, we drove slightly down another road and stayed put, Sugathe admonishing us to keep quiet.

Wild boar crossing

Sure enough, the wild boar broke through, the mothers scurrying their young piglets along, dust kicked up by their tiny hooves. As they crossed the road, the dust settled. Then a minute later, out of seemingly nowhere, the leopard stepped out onto the road. She looked over to us in curiousity before deciding that we were not worth getting worried about and stalked across the road, a feline princess of the jungle, beautiful in her glory. Well worth the wait

On the hunt, she crosses into the jungle


Wrestling elephants in Kaudulla

As some of the foreign elements of the family had come down for a flying visit to the homeland we did a rather hectic jaunt to the cultural triangle including Sigiriya, Ritigalla, etc and decided to get some wildlife in by visiting Minneriya. Notably I had never been to Minneriya to see the 'gathering' so I was quite excited. We rolled into Sigiriya village, rented a jeep from the hotel and headed out to the park in the early evening.

As the jeep hurtled over the potholes, my aunt got progressively mystified, as in her experience, Minneriya had been a lot closer to the hotel than it seemed now. Talking to the jeep driver, the mystery was cleared up when it turned out that despite our request, we were heading to the nearby Kaudulla park instead of Minneriya. Apparently because given the time of year (July), Kaudulla was a better place to visit to see pachyderms as the gathering still hadn't taken place in Minneriya.

Jeep entering the park

Rolling into the park, we all stood up in the jeep in anticipation. Initially we were greeted primarily by cows, grazing at the border off the tank. Not the most exciting of animals to see. Things however brightened up shortly afterwards with the appearance of a lone male elephant obliviously eating close by to the road. As we nervously sidled past, the elephant didn't move a whisker (if he had had whiskers that is) and instead studiously ignored us. It then proceeded to put on a 'hat' of some foliage and wandered off towards the waters edge, perhaps to quench its thirst or take an afternoon dip.

Wearing a green cap, he wanders off

A few minutes later though and a bit of a distance away, another elephant turned up. And he was a bit more peraly as my aunt out it (i.e. more frolicky, would be the best translation I guess).

Frisky elephant

This was where the behaviour of some of the park visitors began to grate. One jeep with a lone photographer drove straight up to elephant and began to bait it. Another jeep full of Italian tourists started to yell at the elephant. The humans became the uncivilized lot while the elephant thankfully retreated back into the bush. It looks like our protected areas are protected only in name and the visitors simply have no respect for our great outdoors.

Elephant baiting

The lack of empathy the Italians suffered from had to be seen to be believed. Previously when we were buying tickets to enter the park, a couple of round, lobster red tourists wandered straight past a tame(?) owl that was seated on a post by the walkway to the office. Obviously so un-attuned to the natural world that they didn't see a great big owl taking a break within a few feet of them. Thankfully the owl wasn't too fussed and instead pointed his back at me as soon as I pointed my camera at him. The golden rule of wildlife photography that is, all animals feel their posterior is the best part to be photographed.

Owl backside; Owl peeking

Anyways back to the elephants. After the antics of the parkgoers we moved on further into the park and that's when things got truly magical and surreal. Four adolescent male elephants turned up and proceeded to put on the Circu du Soleil of elephant performances. Testing each others strengths out, they wrestled each other, trunks twisting, legs heaving and even biting each others tails. At one point, they formed a rugby scrum, two versus two and pushed at each other. Obviously trying to get points for originality they even fought over tree branches, which were still attached to the tree.

Wrestling elephants part one

I was enchanted and furiously clicked away at the elephants. In fact I was so engrossed I hit someone in the jeep in the head with my lens quite solidly. But no matter because the lens came to no harm.

Wrestling elephants part two

As the sun set, the four elephants were still at it and we had to regretfully take their leave. Almost on queue as we bounced away over the grey green grass, as we looked back, the elephants merged back into the forest, blotting out from our view as the light fell like a curtain over their performance.

Eastern Grey Heron at sunset


Hunters in the shallows

I finned out to where the water depth increased to around 3 meters, still getting used to feeling of being so lightweight sans the usual scuba tank, weights and other paraphernalia. Even inhaling was vastly different, so silent through the snorkel as opposed to the usual clatter of the regulator. The early morning sun warmed my back as I floated above a prolific garden of coral.

The branched corals however looked oddly bleak, deserted, as if the myriad inhabitants knew that something was afoot. After peering into the blue distance for awhile without any reward, I took a quick skin dive down and as I skimmed over the coral, it was there. One minute what was an empty blue space was suddenly occupied by the streamlined, gun-metal grey of the world’s best adapted predator. Like a wraith it had appeared out of the blue, a Black-Tip shark. Unfortunately the commotion I caused with my dive scared it off and it retreated as quickly as it had turned up.

Chastened by my lesson in patience, I came back up to the surface and hung there hoping I hadn’t scared off the shark. The coral lay silent once more while the snorkel hummed as I breathed in and out, the blue water still empty.

Suddenly, in between one snorkel breath and the other….they were everywhere. The pack had arrived.
Images courtesy of Dharshana Jayawardena (Dive Sri Lanka)
The sharks weaved sinuously through the water; initially two of them right in front of me caught my attention. A movement out of the corner of my eye, another shark to the left skimmed over the reef while more swam in the distance, shadows in the blue yonder. The inhabitants of the coral reef had been in hiding for a very good reason. The one thing that came to mind as the sharks swam, soaring over the coral, was purpose. They looked to be in hunting mode, effortlessly gliding through the water.
Images courtesy of Dharshana Jayawardena (Dive Sri Lanka)

Some of the sharks were incongruously followed by the bright yellow and black Golden Trevalley, shivering their fins at high speed in order to keep up with their chosen host. I watched as one Trevalley take a break down to the reef to scoop up some invisible morsel. You could almost hear it cursing to itself as it came up off the reef in a flurry almost having missed its shark, which obliviously swam on.
Images courtesy of Dharshana Jayawardena (Dive Sri Lanka) 

An indescribable feeling of awe overcame me as the shark pack swam around me, the perfect predator, a pinnacle of evolutionary magnificence that has not changed for millennia.

Images courtesy of Dharshana Jayawardena (Dive Sri Lanka)

I also felt hugely privileged. This was a sight that not many people will see. Overfishing has depleted shark populations in Sri Lanka hugely. The fishing both for consumption and more insidiously for the fin export market in China has reduced these magnificent creatures to a fraction of their original abundance. A similar campaign against leopards would have raised the ire of conservationists and the public in multitudes. Unfortunately the misunderstood nature of the shark and our lack of understanding of the ocean have led to the mass murder of sharks and the loss of one of the most magnificent animals in the seas surrounding us.

Say NO to Shark Finning!


Rained out (Gal Oya Part 4)

Continued from (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3)

Did I mention it was raining? Well it was and showed no signs of letting up. As we huddled under the tarp, making some feeble attempts at sopping up the tents, one of the more astute members of the group noted the river. Where there had previously been a somewhat small rapid shooting frothy white through the rocks, there was now what looked like the Limpopo in full blast. Brown water with vestiges of white foam shot through the rocks with frightening energy as the water swirled up the tree trunks that had previously stood high and dry. The sand bank on the opposite bank, which, with its rock face backing had seemed such an ideal camp site was now washed away.

Given the impending prospect of being washed into the Senanayake Samudra, kitchen table and all, we discussed our options, namely:
a)    get the hell out of there and go crash at the park office
b)    batten down and stay, hope the rain stops and the river doesn’t rise any further.

One would think that given the situation option a) would have been the natural choice. But, being the adventurers that we are, it was quite a lengthy debate we had on what to do. Eventually sense prevailed (not due to any contribution from me, I was quite down for hanging around to see what happened) and we decided to break camp and move out. While setting camp had been relatively simple, breaking camp was anything but.

By this time we were all miserable and soaked to the bone and tired from the hike. Untying ropes, folding tents with sand sticking everywhere and carrying heavy boxes up to the cabs almost incapacitated us...but we plugged on. Once again the tracker showed his true worth by not helping in the least bit. We decided not to tip him after our trip and to instead charge him for our meals due to his helpful demeanor. Gehan made him carry our ablution water bottles though, as an elegant final touch.

Packing the cabs was just the beginning as heading back out to the office we discovered that the piddling little streams we had splashed across in our mighty four wheel drives had now turned into reasonably significant bodies of water. The water was a murky brown amongst the jungle trees and there was no telling what the depth of the water and mud was. Thus we were treated to the sight of grown men holding each others hands and fording the river to check the depth. Unfortunately I had packed away my camera at the bottom of my gear bag to keep it dry so couldn’t record these images for posterity.

For the most part, the streams were pretty shallow and devoid of mud so didn’t provide much impediment to the cabs on four wheel. There was one moment where we all had our hearts in our mouth, where turning a corner it appeared the entire road had become a river, with a couple of trees fallen across it. Thankfully this turned out to be an optical illusion as the road actually swiveled off at right angles to our initial turn and was in quite good condition. We chugged across the last stream and breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t been marooned.

Fording through the jungle (note these images were taken the next morning as we were leaving the park)

On our way to the office we took a break to check out a collection of smooth, round, black rocks that were all that was left of an ancient road that apparently had stretched from Ruhuna to Pollonaruwa back in the times of the kings. The road would have been quite wide, enough for two modern vehicles to pass and it was amazing that it still remained in some shape or form (unfortunately no pictures again). We pondered for a bit if even back in those days anybody took a 10% commission for building such roads and then, mildly depressed by the reminder of the situation in the country, we headed back to the relative safety of the Department office to, after an eternity of being damp, enjoy the unbelievable luxury of some dry clothes.

It seemed like our Gal Oya camping adventure had ended but we made the best of it by enjoying the idyllic location of the department office. One of the best parts of a trip out of Colombo is of course the company, so we cracked a couple of bottles of wine and sat around telling tall tales of jungle trips of the past as well as some more earthy and inappropriate stories. Further entertained by a scorpion dropping by to say hello, we drank until we were dry and retired to the rather precarious tree house for the night, noting that we should probably check the weather report before coming to Gal Oya next.

The precarious tree house; Unwelcome visitor


Walk to Makara (Gal Oya Part 3)

Continued from (Part 1) (Part 2)

I woke up bright and early to take some landscapes from our campsite. Unfortunately the sun didn't have the same idea and it was a decidedly overcast and damp day that I woke up to. While the rest of the camp slumbered I wandered down to the river, camera in hand and amused myself by stopping my aperture down as much as possible and taking some long exposures.

Sleeping camp; Gal Oya river at dawn

Once enough people had woken up to provide some sort of rescue service in case of wild animal attack I wandered out of camp for some ablutions and then met up with everyone else for a morning river bath. Dry zone notwithstanding the Gal Oya is pretty damn cold early in the morning and rain appeared to be in the air.

Following a late breakfast we powwowed as to what to do, finally deciding on a small walk to Makara, about a click from the camp site to where the river exits into the mighty Senanayake Samudra. A friend of mine (whom I have no reason to disbelieve) told me that the site was called Makara (i.e. dragon) because the water coming out of the rocks at certain times of the year looks like it’s coming out of the mouth of a dragon.

The initial part of the hike was through some beautiful forest, ethereally lit by the sunlight filtering through the canopy to dapple the litter strewn floor. The tracker rather sternly told us that if he told us not to move, to please follow his instructions in order to avoid having a bear tear our heads off. He then promptly forgot that there were two small kids in our group and was miles ahead of us during the whole hike, which was again...a bit disconcerting. As we clambered through the dark gallery forest, roots twisting blackly across our path amongst the tumbled rocks, the forest was eerily quiet. No bird life was apparent due to the overcast conditions, just armies of insects marching their way through silently, occasionally taking a detour over us.

Through the forest; Over streams

A light gradually filtered through the forest and we could see a bright break ahead of us through the all encompassing foliage. We emerged out of the forest and stepped out onto some rocks by the border of the river, blinking and trying to adjust to the light. Vast sandbanks petered down to the muddy water as we watched a juvenile white bellied sea eagle fly into the jungle. This was the Makara area but as the river was pretty high it was just water flowing over rocks as opposed to under them.

Makara rocks amidst the river

Apparently during the dry season a stadium of sand forms where you can camp and then walk to the Senanayake Samudra to see elephants. The landscape was still quite beautiful if a bit imposing, the brown river snaking through gigantic boulders while we walked precariously close to the edge. A slip and roll down the sandbank and the only option I could see of getting back onto land was swimming into the reservoir and to the bank. A prospect I looked upon somewhat dimly due to both the unfriendly nature of the river and the definite presence of crocodiles of an indeterminate size and disposition in it.

The lazy tracker

It was then that it started to drizzle and half the group (rather wisely headed back). We of course voted to keep heading out crossing some treacherous sand dunes and slippery rocks. We finally came to a point where it became impossible in the wet blustery conditions to continue without breaking at least a few bones. There we soaked for a bit, huddling into some rocks, trying to wait out the rain and then once the rain seemed to lighten started heading back. The incessant rain had made the walk back even more treacherous and small streams we had hopped across were now mini rapids. We amused ourselves on the way back by falling down a couple of inclines where the soft earth had turned into gooey mud, all the while acutely conscious of what the damp maybe doing to our camera equipment.

Stumbling back into camp, soaked (having disturbing visions of a puddle of water in my camera bag soaking everything) to the bone we hastily unloaded and started drying off. Thankfully some t-shirts in my bag had managed to soak much of the water but our tents hadn't been so lucky, having leaked rather extravagantly.

Sheltering from the rain

After cleaning up our camera gear and drying the tent to the best of our abilities we decided to clean ourselves off by jumping into the river. We noted with some interest that the water had increased in level as the rain continued to pour down, where the water had been gushing over the rocks, it was now more of a cataract, white flecked and angry brown.


Setting up camp (Gal Oya Part 2)

Continued from (Part 1)

After a handful of hours of sleep and the long, arduous drive, we celebrated by carrying a mountain of camping gear down a small path to our campsite on the banks of the Gal Oya. In the spirit of trying out this Web 2.0 business, I did a small videolog of our approach to the campsite. Note that most of the time I'm talking utter nonsense due to equal measures of exhaustion, concentrating on not trying to fall down the path and my general ability to talk nonsense. David Attenborough I most certainly am not. Also please note there might be a small amount of swearing in the clip so close your ears if you're sensitive to that kind of thing.

Videos aside, we carried everything but the kitchen table (oh wait...we did carry the kitchen table down) to the site and set up. Thankfully the tents (rather brilliant knock offs of $500 REI tents) were easy to install and put up and in the space of an hour we were sorted. All there was to do was jump in the river, which we thought was quite high (little did we know how mistaken we were on this as we saw on the second day) and cool off. Before that however we took some time off to be bitten vigorously by the Kadiya's that were everywhere in Gal Oya...and I mean everywhere! Our tracker also rather oddly proved to be the laziest individual I have ever come across, not lifting a finger to help us or direct us as to the best site to camp, etc. Rarely have I seen customer service done so badly and it was a shame because he seemed quite intelligent and enthusiastic about the wilds.

Unloading the gear; Setting up camp

A cold beer, gold leaf and a dip in the Gal Oya followed by a rice and curry followed. Pure bliss as the sun set on our little camp in the jungle.

Continued to (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4)