A unique safari experience at Yala National Park
Weekends usually mean travelling for us- packing up our gear, making tentative itinerary listings, looking for the best deals on accommodation, reserving them and most of all- thinking of how to effectively manage the weekend so we can get the maximum experience within a time frame of a mere 48 hours.
This weekend started as no different, with us planning on doing a hike into the mountains - until we were super surprised with an unexpected giveaway : a weekend, one whole day at one of the most exclusive safari camps you could think of! Camp leopard Yala!
Camp leopard Yala has it all - and it was an irresistible opportunity to explore the wild lands of Yala, with the prospect of coming face to face with srilanka's top apex predator : panthera pardus kotiya - AKA the Sri Lankan leopard. So naturally we jumped at the opportunity (who wouldn't) and made our way down past the southern tip of the island - to what would be our initiation to both glamping and the adventure of embarking on a safari.
We had replied to a giveaway promotion earlier that week, and had forgotten all about it - but we got the surprise of a lifetime when we suddenly had our names on Instagram as winners of the giveaway! And this was on Thursday night - we were both ecstatic and horrified by the idea. Mind you - since we started travelling, both locally and out, we always had a thorough plan, and it usually worked. This was all sorts of newness to us, but luckily camp leopard Yala was very very helpful and thoroughly diligent in planning out our stay.
We were offered a single day of stay, coupled with the camp's signature and unique experience - a half a day of safari, a chance to see leopards in the wild!! We couldn’t get hold of a long telephoto lens, but we made do with the kit lens .
And what could be better than a half a day of safari? A full day in the Yala national park!
And with that, we extended our stay to a single night and a full day of trails at yala. And it was in hindsight, one of the best decisions we made!
Getting to Yala is almost straightforward, you just need to skirt the coastline of the island, round it's southern tip, motor on some more - and you arrive at your destination.
Easier said than done, with more than 270km of steady motoring.Travelling on your car gives you more flexibility than using public transport, giving you the opportunity to go sightseeing and to deviate from your route, and this as always was our modus operandi.
Starting at the crack of dawn (5am ish - plenty morning on a Saturday) we took the southern expressway down to Matara (2 hours) and from thereon, motored steadily down towards Hambanthota - where we sidetracked and visited Ussangoda national park (another 3 hours) and took off to Kataragama. We will be doing full in depth guide to Ussangoda on our next blog article.
The roads are excellent, with sweeping views and vast skies, skirting along the crashing waves of a rugged coastline. And after a 7+ hour road trip, we arrived at our destination - not at the camp itself, but where our driver would pick us up and drop off at the camp ;Camp leopard being off the beaten track, somewhat difficult to traverse in a car.
We clambered on our new found beast - a blacked out safari rig with “kajja” at the helm. The rig was a monster and with kajja piloting we flew onto camp leopard! Things were looking good!!
The wilderness glamping experience.
It took us about 20 mins to access the camp, along undulating uneven ground, perched on top of our newfound 4x4 rig and it added to the seclusion of what camp leopard offers - and the bordering elephant fence (which was electrified) made no mistake where we were : right in the heart of wild Country.
Arriving at the camp, we were greeted with a quintessential safari camp - complete with an authentic tone of ruggedness intermixed with purpose. The entire camping ground was enclosed with a picket fence - but bordering it was the scrubland of the wilderness (the ever-present elephant fence a reminder of the natural incumbents of the area) the camp itself would be at home in the savannas of Serengeti if not here on local soil. What endeared it to us was the emphasis on its spartan and outdoor nature - although it was glamping it made no mistake in showcasing where its roots lay.
Upon checking in , we were greeted by the resident manager of the premises - the stalwart captain, who made us feet at home. There was no denying his seafaring lineage, and he was perfectly at home, in his element - and was an excellent host to us throughout our stay.
The other thing we got to know hands on - were the doggos who scampered onto greet us with a fervor that was infectious. They whole lot of them are rescued strays, that have quite happily settled down to cam life - the odd one of the bunch being booboo, the resident German shepherd. Booboo is very friendly when you get to know him, although his fetching skills are.. Well.. Done in his own flair.
Marc is perhaps the most energetic and most driven ranger we've met so far (the title ranger is a loose term - he is a cut above the norm) , and we were really impressed by his personality.
Upon checking in we were given an informative and quite interesting rundown on what the glamping and safari experience had instore for us. He also explained that the camp is not merely a “hotel” but a wilderness camp nonetheless, and you could expect some wild company now and then. Roaming around the camp is encouraged, but you need to be on the look out - and hopefully see some wildlife loitering near the picket fence or as in the case of a few roving bee eaters - enjoy the calm that the camp offers.
Also a history lesson on how Yala is entwined with the colorful past of the island was explained (I for one was woefully lacking on this) and it added to the experience.
Camp leopard is an exclusive retreat, with exceptional creature comforts. This being said - it still is a wilderness camp and doesn't just look the part. The lodging is provided in tastefully constructed camping tents that makes you feel right at home in the vast wilderness.
Rugged in the daytime, the camp comes alive with the coming darkness - with bonfires and burning lamps lit all throughout the camping grounds. There is a sense of calm and relaxation that flows into you in, with all the warm lights around you and the dark skies above. In afterthought, we realised that in all our time travelling, this was the only time we spent an entire afternoon languishing beneath the trees, carefree and devoid of any hurry - darting from one place to another. We initially thought of heading out to the nearby wadihiti kanda, or sithulpawwa - but we decided against it ; camp leopard has that effect on you.
And you should not forget the food! The cook is an absolute delight, and his expertise with the culinary arts are top notch. We agree it is perhaps some of the best meals we've ever had, irrespective of country or cuisine.
Note - the dessert we had was absolutely great, caramelised banana in a bed of vanilla ice-cream (with a hint of cinnamon) now that's what you call dessert!
Staring off on our safari.
The safari starts in the wee hours of the morning, and we departed from the camp headed towards the katagamauwa entrance of Yala - our driver for the day was Thiwanka, and he made an epic headlong dash to the entrance of the park .
While this was the latter part of the dry season, we came to grips with the global phenomenon of weather change ; it started to rain (practically unheard-of in latter years) Hopeful as we were, it (initially) gave us a sense of dread - with the local wildlife opting to stay dry and not venturing out into the open. Inundated with pelting rain, Mark and Thiwanka lead us onto the Yala block 3 trails (circumnavigating a closed gate - the wardens had misplaced the keys) on our way we were accompanied part of the way with some pilgrims to the kabelliththa devalaya, deep inside block 3.
Small history /geography lesson - Yala national park is one of the oldest national parks in srilanka, starting out as a wildlife sanctuary in the 1900s. It is subdivided into 5 sections or blocks, numbering from 1 to 5.
While block 1 is perhaps the most visited, we went on our safari on block 5 and 3 far less visited - there was a slight hitch however, with Yala block 1 having been closed down for 2 months (mandatory shutdown in the last part of the dry season). This made the reclusive block 5 more traversed by safari operators, but this day we were lucky - the rains, coupled with the start of the closure, made our visit more exclusive than we initially thought.
Yala is also littered with monuments attesting to human settlement - from the times beyond king Dutugamunu. The stone columns, ancient stupas and derelict reservoir bunds, are a testament that this was once a human occupied area, given away and reclaimed by the wilderness.
And in terms of vegetation, block 5 and block 3 are more densely wooded, with thick undergrowth. The block 5 however has been cleared of dense jungle and has a relatively open strip on either side of the trail extending a few hundred feet - perfect territory to spot wildlife.
The big 5 of Yala.
Yala (block 5)has a multitude of wildlife and ecosystems, from the arid scrublands with surface water being critical in the dry moths, to the more wet areas bordering Weheragala reservoir.
This in turn is a heaven for wildlife, with more than 250 species of birds and 44 species of mammals,reptiles including mugger crocodiles, in addition to a multitude of more species. Chief among that is the top 5, the most iconic animals of Yala. They include
The Sri Lankan leopard
TheSri Lankan elephant
And mugger crocodiles
And the Wild boar could be counted as an EXTRA contender aswell .
Principle amongst them is the leopard, the apex land predator found on the island. The camp leopard team, with Marc at the helm are more than good at tracking and giving you the chance to witness them in their element. And with the rains setting in we had the opportunity to put it to the test.
Although Yala has one of the highest leopard densities in the world, it can be hard to spot the feline - drier days give you an opportunity to observe them either taking the road, or coming down to a watering hole, but if it rains, well.. Your chances are pretty low. But hey, you can never say - and you could get lucky.
And sure enough we did! we got the opportunity to see them SIX INDIVIDUAL TIMES.
In search of the big five.
With the rains coming down in torrents, we headed back out of block 3 and made our way into block 5.we had a front row seat on how Marc looked out for leopards - watching and listening intently to warning cries of langurs and most curiously - pea fowls. (a peafowl warning cry needs to be heard to be believed)
Leopard spotting is a waiting game. It rewards patience with a glimpse of a sleek cat, gliding effortlessly into the thicket - melting in and out of the shadows. It’s one thing to see them on TV - a whole new eye opener to see them in their element.
Their power and majesty, and seemingly effortless movement is something you should be witness to, at least once in your lifetime.
The first one we saw was well hidden inside the underbrush, and putting eyes on her was a magical moment. You really get to appreciate how seamlessly they blend in with the environment, and how they almost melt into the undergrowth magically .
As we progressed into the day we saw them an astonishing 5 times more - from a youngster prowling on keeping tabs on us, to a few adolescent cubs playing with themselves (going all out jungle gym in the trees - in the jungle) this was by far the highlight of the entire journey.
While crisscrossing the trails in search of leopards, we came across a Sloth bear that was making its way along the forest. Unfortunately for us we got only some fleeting glimpses of the fellow bumbling along, and when peering through the binoculars, it turned out to be a mother with a young cub it tow!
In Between Sloth bears and leopards, we came across abundant wildlife - birds, including white bellied sea eagles, changeable serpent eagles, brahmin kites several species of cormorants and the odd pea fowl - the latter in particular, drying themselves off after the heavy showers. Deer and langur were all over the place - and yes, we did see a party of hogs disappear into the long grass.
Not bad for half a day with heavy showers. And we still had half more to go!
Marc bid us farewell after midday – and while we dropped him off at the park entrance ,we had ourselves a well deserved cuppa coffee .At this point we were pretty much soaked to the bone , and the warm caffeine made all the difference.
Afterwards we were joined by “podi mama”.
Podi mama, a venerable ranger with over 10 years alone at yala national Park was a quiet soul whose quiet demeanor held back years and years of experience. He was retired but still worked at the park, imparting knowledge to the newer generation of ranger and visitor alike.
One of the most incredible facets he mentioned was the fact about remnants of the old settlements still being found - deep in the forest reserves. The malaria epidemic and increasing isolation faced by the settlers had led to the abandonment of the entire Yala region by the then settlers, whose descendants are still found here and there, he added.
Moreover, his experiences of encountering a herd of wild (once domestic) cattle and a scattering of jaffna drumstick trees still seen inside the forest tell of a time of human habitation. It’s a fascinating insight into the past, and it's all the more hard to see him as once part of a hard charging crew in charge of running after errant renegade cows, and bringing them back from the forests - he was all smiles when I was taken aback upon learning they did this all on foot.
You would have never guessed.
With podi mama and Thiwanka at the helm we made tracks, particularly along the weheragala reservoir. The dead trees lining hauntingly amid the receded waters is a sombre sight. We were on the prowl for some wild buffalo, but we didn't encounter them, and with light fading and an occasional spurt of rain pelting down , we made our way all though the trails of block 5 - suffice to say we went everywhere that was possible.
Lunch break and an afternoon with jumbos.
We skipped breakfast and didn't even notice we missed it, the excitement of seeing leopards and the steady rain making it disappear from our minds. A stopover for lunch was a welcome break, although we did not feel any kind of tiredness -but it was good to be on the ground on your own power.
We stopped over close to the weheragala reservoir, with the irrigation canal practically next to us. A perfect spot (Marc told us afterwards, that they usually have the spread at the river - but since the rains kept coming, we were obliged to head here instead)
The lunch was carried on the pick-up itself, and the tailgate became our impromptu tabletop spread with no doubt, It was perhaps one of the best lunches we've ever had so far (no exaggeration needed here) - perfection at each mouthful.
An added bonus is getting to feed the fish that seem to be teeming in the irrigation canal, whom are pretty docile and come all the way upto you.
After lunch we ventured down to the nearby Menik River, we were expecting muddy waters but the like rest of the day, it surprised us again by being clear. We had some time exploring the banks and taking in the dense jungle foliage - and the intricate rock formations of the river bed.
This is where we came to see a baby mugger crocodile perched almost nonchalantly on one of the rocks. We practically ran into it - it stood perfectly still and unmoving, and after a few photographs (minus an autograph) dipped into the waters and was gone.
Wild buffaloes and (almost) pink elephants.
So far we had seen most of the wild incumbents of Yala, minus elephants. We had seen a sauntering wild buffalo in the morning, but were curious to see a herd of them if possible. With this in mind we headed back along a single trail we hadn't tried out yet - and ended up in a dried-up lake shore with a whole bunch of dead trees and - a herd of buffaloes!! Whom seemed very much surprised to see us as we were to them.
Leopards are shy, Sloth bears will maul you if surprised upon (they have poor eyesight) but wild buffaloes are toe to hoof with wild elephants when it comes to danger - and would happily gore you down if felt threatened. We certainly got the idea at that moment, when one fellow started to flex his horns, but suddenly darted back away farther out with the entire herd in tow.
Light was fading and the prospect of seeing some wild pachyderms were ebbing away with it - we opted to leave behind the park and head on down the buttala kataragama Road, where sightings of wild elephants are common. On our way back over the last trail, podi mama pointed out fresh elephant tracks on the muddy trail. The trail cut through reddish brown soil, commonly seen in the park - we had a small chat on the possibility of an encounter with the bloke who made the prints - particularly on how to get away from a situation. Well.. over the next bend on the trail, we got our wish - over the high bramble thickets a big eared head poked over, bellowed a shrill trumpet and disappeared
It never fully retreated, watching us cautiously for a few minutes before plodding over to it's herd! We inched closer and came face to face with a whole herd of wild pachyderms, with a few young ones in tow. They had been getting themselves a full on spa treatment, with a fine coating of deep red dust and mud on their skin (both to protect it from insect bites and to keep the skin moisturized)
What a perfect way to end up what had been a thoroughly exciting adventure.
With our set goals achieved, and the Yala top 5 all rounded up we made our way back to camp - it was and would be an unforgettable initiation into the wilderness. With podi mama, Marc and Thiwanka we experienced what we set out to do - to see where the wild things are, and we achieved it in style.
So if you're planning on a safari into Yala, with an undertone of seeking leopards - with an authentic local touch,most definitely camp leopard Yala is for you! Likewise we will be returning back to the camp in the near future, with better telephoto lenses and ready to have another adventure in the wild.
While on our way back to the camp we had some close encounters with wild elephants that had grown accustomed to receiving ‘handouts’ from locals. It is both fascinating and equally sad to see these beasts on the wayside, getting easy pickings from gullible motorists, but you also appreciate the resourcefulness and knack the pachyderms : whom seem very plump and well fed than their fully wild acclimatized brethren we had seen earlier that evening . The intake of foreign food, far apart from their natural diet, disrupts their digestive systems - leading to a plethora of problems.
Thiwanka told us that although the safari jeeps abstain from feeding these fellows, (they KNOW this and don't come to the safari jeeps - but eagerly go to buses in particular) the general public activity engage in this haphazard activity, putting both the elephant and human in harms way. The bottom line is, recognizing the errors and transgressions is the first phase of moving forward to correct them.
Camp leopard Yala, who do sustainable tourism - promote conservation through exposure and letting the average person get closer to nature. It elects a response that has far reaching impact. Done right, it can be the change we all look forward to.
If you want to learn more about Camp leopard Yala, and would like go out on an unforgettable adventure you should definitely check them out. Here’s the link to their website.
So that's it - and phew! It sure would have been a long read - but I'll be writing up a condensed version soon, with pointers and tips (especially on equipment) plus what to expect and how to be better prepared.
Thank you so much for reading and if you made it this far down.. There's a pat in the back you! Here's us leaving you on a high note reminding you - adventure is out there!!
“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” ― Anita Desai