Nearing the end of the 6pm curfew inside the park, there had been a mad last second dash as the guides made that all important “leopard phone call” to their fellow comrades who made the final attempt to arrive at the said location in time, so that their paying customers could catch a glimpse of the beautiful, striking yet illusive, leopard. I soon learnt when the “call” had been made because I suddenly had to hold on for dear life and try not to be bounced out of my seat or thrown over the side rail as my guides driving turned into that of a rally driver! As we arrived at the leopard location we were one of five jeeps who were in the vicinity all vying for the best view. It wasn’t a great spot, I stood at every angle I could, trying to photograph the beauty but he was just on the wrong side of a large domed rock formation, meaning it was only really when he decided to lift his head that he was visible. I wasn’t disappointed, I felt content as I had been lucky enough to have had a pretty fantastic thirty minutes in the park earlier in the morning watching a young leopard sleeping high up in a tree lazed out across a large branch, so my guide and I agreed we would leave and call it a day.
We headed back around the twisty orange dirt tracks, still at a fairly break neck speed as the 6pm deadline loomed, when suddenly my guide hit the brakes slamming the jeep into reverse, and then I saw what he saw…. And oh my did that take my breath away, my hands instantly turning shaky with excitement; he was close, really close, not even twenty metres away sitting up proudly on a domed rock looking straight at us. This was the moment I had been waiting for all day long, hoping, crossing my fingers that I would get a good close encounter with a leopard. But this moment right now, more than exceeded that expectation. He was so striking and so beautiful as he sat their eyeing us cautiously whilst he soaked up the last of the sun’s warmth. Relaxing, he slipped his large front paws in front of him and lay down whilst still observing us. Time stood still as I marvelled at this extraordinary creature. After a short while he sat back up surveyed his surroundings, turned around and gracefully jumped off the rock disappearing from view.
A safari at Yala National Park isn’t like trying to spot an animal on the African Plains, it is a bit more like trying to find a needle in a haystack but when you do come across an animal you will be gloriously rewarded. Yala is mostly low lying jungle and extremely dense foliage with the odd open expanse of wetland and lake, this is where you will see the water buffalo and most likely a herd of deer grazing. Yala has a maze of orange dirt tracks which allow the safari jeeps to navigate around the park, heaven help someone who didn’t know the tracks to ever find their way out again. I was lucky enough to visit the park in low season meaning that there were approximately a maximum of 30 jeeps in the park, rumour has it that in the peak season there can be over 150 jeeps in a morning session alone, and from various internet discussions it’s apparent that many eco friendly people think Yala should be avoided until the government puts a sensible daily limit on the number of jeeps that can enter; I don’t disagree but the huge attraction of Yala for the tourist is the high number of leopards in the park.
My guide was very good, he knew the tracks well and was constantly in touch with the other guides to make sure we didn’t miss out on anything, he had a sharp pair of eyes to spot the wildlife, but at times I felt my eyes were slightly sharper as on a number of occasions I would shout “STOP” as he’d just driven past an animal. I think I can thank my time spent in the Brazilian and Costa Rican jungle for giving me extra alertness and quick eyes for spotting the all important wildlife! I think once my guide realised I was interested in all wildlife be it deer or wild rabbit or wild boar then he started to sharpen up a little and not just concentrate on the big prize. One has to pay close attention; the movement I saw high up in the branch above could have been nothing, but after a few minutes of watching closely I soon noticed a few swaying branches and before I knew it there were some ten plus monkeys swinging to my right and stopping to have a leisurely munch on the leaves.
The numerous herd of water buffalo in Yala are a beautiful sight, especially when they are knee deep in water surrounded by white water lilies. It’s not just the animals that are fascinating in the national park but so is the variety of flora. There are many different fruit trees growing up out the undergrowth, there are bushes with pretty yellow flowers, miniature blue flowers lying low and the odd unusual red flower thrown into the mix. The birdlife is something else and rivals that of Costa Rica. The Bee-Eater was my favourite, similar to a kingfisher in shape but much smaller in two shades of bright green and a turquoise neck, he is a real stunner and actually quite brave. There are also many different water birds, from the Red-Wattled Lapwing to the Eurasion Spoonbill and the Asian Openbill, and the park is also thronging with peacocks and peahens.
I wasn’t lucky enough to see the sloth bear during my time in Yala, but I did see many an elephant. Fortunately I did a full day safari, as in the morning we didn’t come across any elephants and I was becoming slightly anxious as I so desperately wanted to see these magnificent animals in the wild. Straight after lunch though my wish was granted – I think we probably spent the best part of an hour parked up on the side of the orange dirt track watching a small herd of elephants go about their daily business. At times they were as close as five metres away. It was absolutely fascinating to watch how they eat; using the large front foot to kick and scrape up the grass removing the dirt from it and then using their long trunks to gather up the grass and scoop it up into their mouths.
I left the national park tired, with a slightly achey back from all the bouncing around in the jeep and a thick layer of orange dust and grime across my skin and clothes that I was doubtful I would ever be able to get clean again. That aside, I had had an amazing day being at one with nature and I was fairly confident the cloud nine feeling I was experiencing would last for days to come.