After returning to Colombo from my two fantastic reptile-filled days, I had a short day’s project work to complete. It only consisted of checking the few camera traps Anya and I had placed before she left for Nepal. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot to report: some dead batteries, 4 photos of a Southern coucal at the wetlands and the usual civets, mongoose and monitor lizard at the other site. Although I did see my first-ever Sri Lankan snake – a species of water snake. With that done, my excitement increased hour upon hour as, the next day, I would be visiting Yala National Park in the hopes of seeing a jungle cat and a sloth bear.
With a 5-hour journey ahead of me I had to be out early, so at 6am I excitedly bounced out of the hostel and hailed a tuk-tuk. Normally I feel completely safe in a tuk, no matter how erratic the driving, but this particularly battered little vehicle started smoking and began to smell like it could explode at any moment. 25 smoke-choked minutes later and I arrived in one piece at the central bus station, ready to meet Dinal. I was early, which gave me a great excuse to hunt down my favourite snack, a spiced vegetable rotti. Shortly after devouring my breakfast Dinal appeared and we hopped, once again, on the bus to Matara. Although the highway journey was boring, we found the local music videos being played on the coach TV endlessly amusing –lots of ridiculous drama (think tuk-tuk ‘high-speed’ chases) and over-acting. You get the picture?
At Matara it was straight off the coach and, after the usual confusion, onto the next bus. Our time on the highway was done; it was now a 3-hour slog on a small local bus via the local roads. This bus was more like what I’d expected; the coach was too comfy to be usual transport. We were crammed in like sardines in a can, except sardines have much more space! I was so squished that part of my arm had to hang out the window. The bags we couldn’t fit in the overhead racks we had to pile on ourselves or cram between our legs. It was uncomfortable but none-the-less quite amusing, especially as more and more people attempted to insert themselves, tetris style, on to the bus.
Eventually, we arrived at a non-descript stop at the side of a random road. But not after losing all feeling in both my butt cheeks. I assumed Dinal knew exactly where we were, it was either that or he was blagging it very well. A further tuk-tuk ride and we arrived at a hostel where we were received with a very warm welcome. Following a quick refresh and a bite to eat we booked a safari truck and driver, and finally headed off to Yala. It was just after 2:30pm, which meant we had approximately 4 hours until closing time to see what was wandering about; fortunately, it meant that we would be there at dusk which is one of the best times to see a jungle cat. I had to control my mounting excitement. As we approached the ticket office I caught a glimpse of the entry price and once again, it was not a good time for me to stand out like an albino at a tanning conference. Entry price for locals was 60 rupees but a whopping 3800 rupees for foreigners! Damn it, there was no way I was going to be able to pretend I was Sri Lankan. 10 minutes later – and with a significantly lighter purse – we finally entered the National Park and it was “Here kitty kitty!” time.
Almost as soon as we entered the park we came across a troop of grey langurs sitting bythe side of the road. They didn’t look impressed as the trucks, filled with gawping tourists, drove slowly past accompanied by the frantic clicking of cameras. After a few quick pictures, we zoomed ahead in an attempt to leave the mass of other vehicles behind. Our truck –on its own– was loud enough to scare off any wildlife, let alone a whole convoy of them. Although I knew the majority of the wildlife that lived in the Park would be accustomed to vehicular noise, having less din was going to be a bonus.
We turned off the main track onto a smaller road and immediately came across a small herd of elephants in the bushes. To most people this would be an amazing moment, but I’ve grown up visitingzoos and watching wildlife documentaries and they’re always featured, so quite frankly, to me they’re just big eared, long-nosed cows. I know that wild animals are very different from their captive counterparts, but certain species just bore me. I assume that our traditional zoo collections (and thus species focus) are based on the animals that are from countries within the former British Empire, and within this range we usually narrow it further to the larger charismatic species such as lions and eles. Personally, I find the smaller and more lesser-known species of much greater interest. I don’t want to seem unappreciative, it was nice hearing the herd rumbling to each other but, in general, they’re just not at the top of my interest list.
We drove around for the next few hours and saw a plethora of amazing bird life. The bee-eaters were definitely the most photogenic; they’d sit and pose perfectly for you before flying off for a few seconds only to land back on the same branch they’d just vacated, ready for their next photo shoot. Both the ranger’s eyes and Dinal’s were incredibly sharp –not much escaped their attention. We saw axis deer, painted storks, a mugger crocodile, more birds, mongoose (I loved these guys) and land monitors basking in trees (I know, they clearly don’t understand their name). As we bounced along the track a silhouette in a distant tree caught my eye, and I rapped the cabin window to signal to stop. With the light behind it, all we could do was identify that it was an eagle of some description. We continued down the track for a better look. We stopped as close to the tree as the road would allow, and were rewarded with an amazing view of a Legg’s hawk eagle (Nisaetus kelaarti) that didn’t even seem to notice, or care for, our existence. In the 10 minutes that we watched it 4 packed safari trucks passed us, with the people only glancing up at the raptor, and continued on their way. I was shocked. This was something different and no one was interested, not even as a great photo opportunity. Apparently this was normal, most visitors only want to see leopard, elephant and maybe sloth bear, they weren’t interested in anything else. I know I’ve just said that I wasn’t interested in the eles, but at least I’ll spend a bit of time watching them.
As we continued on we’d occasionally come across a group of trucks parked up in silence, desperately attempting to glimpse a leopard. Either a swish of a tail had been seen disappearing into the bushes by a ranger or a call had been heard. Although I’m most definitely a cat person, I’m not fussed in the slightest by the big cats for the same reasons as I mentioned earlier regarding the elephants. Whenever I heard a ranger say ‘Kotiya’ (leopard in Sinhala) my heart sank, as it meant at least 20 minutes sitting at the leopard blockade, 20 minutes not searching for bears or jungle cats.
I saw my first ever hoopoe!!!!!! They’re an adorable bird. Rare migrants to the UK. I’d wanted to see one since I could remember. Oddly, they looked bigger in the bird book I had at home. We came across the first one wandering around in the grass, merrily pecking away at insects. I’m not going to lie – I did let out an excited squeal and flap my arms quite a bit. Further up the track, I could see two more dust-bathing in the middle of the road. I was so happy to just see them that I almost forgot to take any pictures!
The last few hours of our tour were filled with more bird sightings, another mongoose or two, a pair or hornbills, a very close viewing of a serpent eagle, a MAHUSIVE python, oh and a leopard. Alas, as the sun began to set we saw no fresh signs of sloth bear and not a glimpse of a jungle cat. The closer we got to the exit the larger I’m sure my pupils became huge – must see in the dark! Must see jungle cat! But it was not to be.
Back at the hostel, as we devoured some amazing home cooked food, it was decided that if we could find a cash point then we’d attempt another round at Yala, only this time we’d arrive just before dawn. Just as we finished eating we heard a commotion. As we ventured down the path it transpired that one of the staff had seen a snake in the bushes. Dinal sprang into action. A few moments of careful poking about to determine exactly where the sneaky little guy was hiding, and quick as a fat kid on cake, Dinal had grabbed him. It was the most unusual snake I’d ever seen. The patterning on the body changed halfway down from blotches to stripes. It was a harmless trinket snake (Coelognathus helena), so I had a cuddle. Even after explaining that this species wasn’t a threat and both Dinal and I handling it, the locals still weren’t convinced and wouldn’t come close, let alone touch it. As I took a few pictures my camera batteries gave up. Perfect! I didn’t have any spares or my charger with me. Although, whenever I forgot my camera I always saw amazing things, it was nature’s way of winding me up. Maybe this was a good thing?
It was 4am and I was up, dressed and definitely had my crazy eyes on. It was still pitch black outside but our truck would arrive soon and we were determined to be the first in the park to find bears and jungle cats. We arrived at the ticket office at 5am, we were the first but had to wait 50 minutes before they opened up and allowed us entrance. In that time over 30 trucks had arrived and parked all over the place: classic Sri Lankan queuing. This was considered off-season. I dreaded to think how busy it would be in peak season and it was easier to understand how, unfortunately, animals had been hit by safari trucks.
As soon as we entered the park we came across bear scat, it was approximately 30 minutes old. To say I was excited doesn’t even begin to cover it. We spent the next 5 ½ hours searching for cats and bears but saw neither. As we passed other trucks the driversexchanged information but no one had seen a bear let alone a jungle cat. Just as we were about to leave we came across some fresh scat, it was in the middle of the roasting hot road but it was still wet. We saw some tracks in the dust crossing the road. Apparently bears tend to amble around almost aimlessly with no distinct direction to their travel, and so it is almost impossible to predict where they could be heading. After circling the same area for almost an hour we saw……………………..………………………………… nothing.
Unfortunately, we had to call it quits and head out of the park and back to Colombo. Yala had defeated us– twice!
I would be back.