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The driver put down his mobile phone, quickly turned the jeep around, and slammed on the accelerator. No more stopping for birds, mongooses, jackals, or crocodiles. Instead, we sped along as fast as the bumpy dirt road allowed. A long day of safari in Yala National Park, in the southeast of Sri Lanka, was nearing its end, and we still had not seen a leopard, which the park is famous for. So this sudden burst of urgency following the phone call could only mean one thing: a leopard had been sighted by one of the other vehicles criss-crossing Block 1, the part of the park open to visitors, and we were trying to get there before it disappeared.

The driver put down his mobile phone, quickly turned the jeep around, and slammed on the accelerator. No more stopping for birds, mongooses, jackals, or crocodiles. Instead, we sped along as fast as the bumpy dirt road allowed. A long day of safari in Yala National Park, in the southeast of Sri Lanka, was nearing its end, and we still had not seen a leopard, which the park is famous for. So this sudden burst of urgency following the phone call could only mean one thing: a leopard had been sighted by one of the other vehicles criss-crossing Block 1, the part of the park open to visitors, and we were trying to get there before it disappeared.

The spot where the leoport must be could be made out well in advance: about 8 or 10 safari jeeps were all jostling for space. As we got closer, we joined the queue and gradually inched forward until the guide pointed in the direction of where the leopard was supposed to be, hidden at the backside of a large rock. All that could be seen – and only if you knew where to look – was its paw. But then it lazily lifted its head, staring back as if to look what all the commotion in the distance was about.  And suddenly, the whole day of heat, dust and sweat had been worth it: the sight of this magnificent cat in its natural habitat was simply awe-inspiring.

Hooked and in search of better shots, I tried my luck again two days later. This time, the tell-tale phone call came quite soon – a juvenile leopard resting in a tree. The tree was about 100m from the road and how anybody could have spotted the animal – which was almost perfectly camouflaged among the foliage – is beyond me. But there it was, sleepily rubbing its eyes and glancing in our direction from time to time.

Although leopards are the main attraction, Yala is also a great place to get up close to elephants…or the other way around, as they seem to be quite curious and often come within touching distance to the vehicles. In fact, one of them inquisitively stuck its trunk through the driver’s window – even from the back of the Jeep, you could sense his heartbeat quicken…Other exotic (if you’re from Europe) animals that are easily seen include crocodiles, monitor lizards, mongooses, jackals, toque macaques, and a large number of bird species, including painted storks, various types of bee eaters, and Malabar pied hornbills. On the other hand, I found it difficult to get excited about wild water buffaloes (rather indistinguishable from the domestic ones), peacocks, and junglefowl (basically chickens).

Yet, although Yala has the leopards, I actually enjoyed Bundala National Park (which is about the same distance, but in the opposite direction, from Tissamaharama, the base for Yala) more. In Yala, it seems that almost the sole objective of everyone (drivers, guides, and tourists, myself included) is to “tick” the leopard. Until that is achieved, stops for other wildlife tend to be perfunctory, and once it is achieved, the drivers will often end the safari. So unless the objective is to just see the obligatory leopard, the only way to really enjoy Yala, I found, is to rent a vehicle just for yourself, for the entire day, and do everything at your own pace.

On the other hand, Bundala does not have any leopards – but it has all of the other wildlife of Yala and is particularly renowned for its birds. That means that it’s much less popular (and hence less crowded), but also much more relaxed and full of surprises. The German couple I was sharing the vehicle with were, just like me, happy to simply stop and watch and enjoy the sense of actually being enveloped by nature and wildlife – rather than constantly being on the move on the lookout for leopards. There were plenty of rewards: a juvenile elephant frolicking with two adults, a toque macaque that looked as though it had put lipstick on (see above), and a “boring” peacock that, to our great surprise, flew off quite gracefully until it disappeared in the distance…

P.S.: Having been on a number of safaris now – by vehicle, canoe, on horseback, and on foot – my visit to Yala made me realize that I am not a great fan of vehicle safaris. I’m hoping to write down my thoughts in a separate post soon, but in the meantime, this article in the Guardian chimes with the mixed feelings I had when visiting the Masai Mara a few years ago.       

Please also have a look at my SRI LANKA GALLERY.