Sunrise in Sri Lanka, 6am, and we are on our way to Yala.
The open sided jeep pulled up outside the house while it was still dark, and we were introduced to Indika, our driver and guide for the day. We clambered into the back, and settled down for the drive. The moon had already set, but the stars were burning fiercely in the sky.
Right from the off, Indika proved to be a fantastic guide. While still on the journey to Yala, we skirted around another national park, called Bundala, which is more known for its bird watching. As we crossed a ford, Indika suddenly cut the engine and pointed down into the water. It took our eyes a few seconds to work out what he was trying to show us, but there, sure enough, in the water right beneath us were two crocodiles, stalking in the eerie light that was spilling across the plains from the rising sun.
We arrived at the park entrance just before 6.45am, and paid our tourist entrance fee (3000 SLR each). Locals have to pay much less to get in, which I think is understandable, as the park is public land that belongs to the citizens of Sri Lanka. After all, they are paying their taxes, and the entrance fees into popular attractions are just like taxes for tourists, that most people are willing to pay- a great way for the government to get a little more money into their country.
The park itself 1260 square km, and is split into 5 blocks. 1 and 2 are open to the public, leaving 3, 4, and 5 purely for the animals to roam undisturbed. Block 1 by far the most commonly visited, and is full of winding bumpy dust tracks for the safari vehicles to follow. To visit block 2, you pay a much, much higher entrance fee – we are told that it is all off road, and more jungle-y and wild than block 1, making animals shyer, but more rewarding to find.
Having paid our dues, we were free to roam anywhere in block 1 until nightfall, taking the jeep along whatever track took our fancy. Within minutes of entering, Indika was already stopping the jeep and pointing to all types of grand, colourful birds, and (what we think were) furry mongoose slinking about in the undergrowth.
The landscape was quite different to what either Rich or myself were expecting. Mostly the tracks passed through thicket, and dusty scrub land, but it would then suddenly open out onto stunning grassy plains that stretched to the horizon, or waterholes that appeared through the bushes from seemingly nowhere. Whenever Indika stopped the jeep, we could drink in the sounds of nature all around us. Rustling bushes beckoned us to explore further.
There were apparently around 80 other jeeps in the park with us, but apparently in high season it can be up to 400. We did run into other vehicles, especially around a well known leopard spot or popular view point, where they would pile up four trucks thick, but mostly we were alone, and able to enjoy trundling about the dusty tracks with nobody else in sight, and going nowhere in particular (although I’m sure Indika knew where he was going really).
As for the animals, birds aside, we spotted warthogs, lizards, and crocodiles galore, and deer and cows grazing a plenty. There were many highlights. Persoanlly, I adored the green flash of the bee eater bird, a little kingfishers type, that would dart out of the thicket ahead of us. Rich loved the little warthogs that would potter about the bogs. Once, a whole family of striped deer leapt across the road in front of us. Rich even spotted us an elephant – my first! – which Indika then excitedly reported by radio to the other drivers (he said it was a bit of a competition for who could see the most animals each day). No leopards were out to play for us, but it seems they are extremely difficult to find (none had been spotted for the last three days), but we did get one unexpectedly rare treat. Right when all of the other vehicles were piled up and looking the wrong way to try to see a leopard, a little slouchy brown bear lumbered across the path right in front of us! Indika was delighted, and seemed to enjoy boasting to any other jeep that would listen!
As the sun reached the highest part of the sky, and the animals were mainly hiding away from the heat, we spent lunch time bathing in the gloriously cool and shallow river that marks the boundaries between block 1 and 2. Samantika had prepared us all a glorious cold curried lunch, and as we lazed in the hottest part of the day, Indika told us stories of the other animals he had seen in his time as a driver. He had a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of birds, and said he enjoyed his job- although I imagine it must be exhausting to be constantly scouring the bushes for wildlife, squinting in the sun, while also concentrating on driving along some of the most trechorously bumpy roads I have ever seen. One tip I would give for any women (or men I guess) who are planning on doing a Yala safari some time soon- definitely wear a heavy duty sports bra for your comfort!
We set out again in the afternoon to catch any animals who came out for dusk, before sadly waving goodbye to the park, and then speeding off back through the tea plantations towards home. For one last treat, Indika spotted us yet another elephant, a sea tortoise, and a night heron by the road side.
We thought the day was over, when he pulled us over outside a little ramshackled cafe on the edge of Bundala park. The walls were made of mud, and the roof of bits of corrugated iron, woven palm leaves, and planks of wood. There was no flooring except for the naked earth. This was his home, Indika said, and he wanted to invite us in for some black tea. Inside the hut, we met his mother and father, and some fishermen, who were clearly locals to the cafe. The men made some crude jokes about birds, and then joked with Rich about wanting something stronger than tea- referring to arrac, a Sri Lankan whiskey that Rich had been treated to when staying with Luxshmann and Nelun in Colombo.
Indika presented us with gifts, shells he had collected and laced with bright cotton. They were not finished, he explained, but he wanted us to have them.
Seeing Indikas home served as a reminder to us, that it can be all too easy to forget or ignore the poverty that exists in Sri Lanka as a Western traveller.
We exchanged email addresses when we said goodbye so as to send him some of the photos from today. I hope I will never forget the generousity he showed us by inviting us into his home this evening, a truely humbling experience.
That’s all from Yala, next stop, we’re heading out West to the one of the best places for surfing in the world, Arugambay.
But first, we have to face the long journey there…
I hope you’re all well,
Stay breezey 🐊
Ps. Once again, sorry for low quality photos, I will update them when we’re back in a more wifi liberal zone in a few weeks or so!