Far from Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, laid-back beaches and ancient architecture, Lee Marshall discovers a national park brimming with wildlife.
In our first hour inside Sri Lanka’s vast Yala National Park, we’d seen a lone bull elephant feeding in a marshy lake in the middle distance. Then a family of elephants had appeared by the roadside, so close we could see every wrinkle in their dusty parchment skin. We’d watched spoonbills probing ponds for crustaceans and been charmed by painted storks – an apt name for a black-and-white bird that looks like it went into an avian makeover parlour and asked to be turned into a flamingo but changed its mind and fled after the first dab of pink on its tail feathers. Basking mugger crocodiles, a huge Bengal monitor lizard waddling across a rock like a toddler learning to crawl and a tribe of scampering black-faced langur monkeys had also helped to fill our photographic game bag.
“Not bad for your first-ever safari,” said enthusiastic young guide John Wilson, a born-and-bred Sri Lankan who spoke perfect Oxford English.
About two minutes later, we rounded a bend on a dusty road between spiky shrubs and spreading canopy trees and juddered to a halt a few yards from a creature I had never expected to see outside of a zoo.
Radiating coiled-up power and grace, the leopard padded across the road, turning to give our stalled jeep a contemptuous look. Time slowed down then sped up as I fumbled for my smartphone. The one picture I managed to take is of dappled undergrowth – an object lesson in the effectiveness of feline camouflage and learning to go with the magic of the moment.
The surprise of the leopard sighting amplified another revelation I’d been living with for a couple of days. Until recently, I’d never thought of Sri Lanka as a safari destination. Beach holidays, ancient Buddhist temples, hill-country tea plantations, sure. But safaris?
This, it turned out, was pure ignorance on my part. More than a quarter of the total land area of the tear-shaped island, once known as Ceylon, falls within some form of conservation area. There are 25 national parks and 60 wildlife sanctuaries – a few dating back to the country’s British colonial era, several more designated after the South Asian nation’s independence in 1948.
On the south-east coast, Yala was proclaimed a national park in 1938, along with Wilpattu in the north-west. These are the largest protected areas in the country and the best for leopard sightings. Yala covers 979 square kilometres of grassland, forest and dry scrub, with plentiful lakes and watering holes.
It’s divided into five blocks – four can be visited with some forward planning – plus a strict nature reserve.
The majority of visitors opt for Block 1, the closest to the area’s main town, Tissamaharama, or Tissa, where most of the companies offering jeep tours of the park are based. With its abundance of fresh water, this is also the best place for spotting leopards and elephants and can become crowded in the January-to-May high season. Sitting in a traffic jam, choking on dust because someone has spotted a leopard up ahead and has paid their driver extra not to move until they get the perfect shot, is the downside of Block 1’s glorious biodiversity. In 2008, the last full year of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Yala received 43,368 visitors. By 2016, that figure had risen fifteenfold to 658,277.
Yet for all its access issues, Yala is a truly remarkable reserve. When approached in the right way, it can rank with most African safari parks in opening your eyes to the wonder and diversity of the natural world. And since January, that “right way” is within easy reach via Wild Coast Tented Lodge, an eco-hotel that sets the benchmark for sustainable safari tourism in Sri Lanka.
Owned by brothers Malik and Dilhan Fernando of Resplendent Ceylon (the hospitality arm of Dilmah, the country’s most important vertically integrated tea company) and designed by Dutch, English and Sri Lankan consortium Nomadic Resorts, Wild Coast lives up to its name. It stands within the park’s closely regulated buffer zone, adjacent to a beach of fine yellow sand where smooth grey boulders lie half underwater. These ancient rocks provided the inspiration for the resort’s main restaurant, bar and lounge buildings: arching oval domes with bamboo frames clad in reclaimed teak shingles.
From this nerve centre, paths lead through coastal shrubland to Wild Coast’s 28 tented suites arranged in clusters around watering holes. The décor riffs on colonial safari motifs and features leather and mahogany furniture and copper fixtures. But it’s the permeability between the inside and outside that’s the real thrill of the resort, whether you’re watching a party of grey langurs frolicking on your terrace before they scamper across the roof or enjoying mango, papaya and hoppers (fermented-batter pancakes made from rice flour and coconut milk – a Sri Lankan staple) at sunrise.
A daily safari is part of the package at Wild Coast. The rangers are serious conservationists, while the drivers are well versed in the national park’s less-visited byroads. There’s also an advantage to being so close to the Block 1 entrance: get there early enough in the morning and you have the place almost to yourself for a blissful hour or so.
We were lucky with our leopard sighting. But safaris, like life, are about more than the big moments and our guide, Wilson, ably teased out quiet revelations as we bounced along Yala’s rutted red-sand tracks or laid in wait, engine stilled, by watering holes or grassy clearings. We even ventured as far as Lunugamvehera National Park, an elephant corridor and important waterfowl sanctuary, where we were only the second group to visit that day.
In Block 3, we watched two male sambar deer “lock horns” with a clatter, going at it like bruisers in a pub brawl. We were dazzled by a pair of chestnut-headed bee-eaters on the branch of a cassia tree. All the while, Wilson illuminated the backstories, including that of the solitary bull elephant we saw feeding at the banks of a pond. Having reached maturity, this bull with a shorn tail (truncated either by a trap or during a fight with a dominant tusker) was condemned to wander, his hopes of advancement pinned on getting lucky with a female when the big boys weren’t around.
And there was the moment, on a side road in Block 1, an hour or so before sunset, when we stopped by a watering hole occupied by a single wallowing buffalo. We watched as a slender little egret descended. Next came a painted stork, spiralling down into the water like a parachutist trying to hit a target. Right on cue, as if someone was directing the scene, two more water buffaloes emerged from the forest – a mother and a year-old calf that kept nuzzling her teats as she made for the muddy wallow. In the space of three or four minutes, the empty stage had become filled with actors and we were silent, lost in wonder. I wouldn’t have missed seeing the leopard for anything in the world but when I remember my Sri Lankan safari, it’s this simple, magical moment that really stands out. ￼
Five other Sri Lankan destinations you’ve probably never heard of
Perhaps the most fascinating of the island’s inland heritage sites, Anuradhapura is Sri Lanka’s Angkor Wat. The sprawling ruins of the ancient city are best explored on a rented bicycle, given the extent of the site. The place is an engaging mix of active Buddhist temples and remote jungle locations, such as the delightful monastic bathing ponds, Kuttam Pokuna.
Horton Plains National Park
This highland plateau with a mean annual temperature of 15°C feels more Scottish than South Asian. Coming to an abrupt, panoramic stop at an escarpment aptly named World’s End, it’s an area of misty grasslands edged by giant tree rhododendrons and keena trees draped with dew-streaked old man’s beard lichen.
You know that palm-fringed, white-sand bay you’ve dreamt about? It really does exist – on Sri Lanka’s south coast, not far from the busy city of Matara. At this laid-back surfers’ beach with a scattering of guesthouses, claim a hammock and live the dream.
Long considered off limits to tourists, the northern capital of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Hindu community has bounced back since the Civil War ended in 2009. Today, the city is as vibrant as the Holi festival, as spicy as a crab curry (the local speciality) and as fruity-cool (in its chic café and hotel scene) as a ripe mango.
The long, sandy peninsula and archipelago north of Colombo has been earmarked for an eco-friendly luxury tourism development, still in its early stages. Visit now to see dolphins, Dutch-era fortifications and scattered fishing villages and for some of the best kitesurfing.