The silence of the humid pre-dawn air is broken by the frantic whispers of our Sri Lankan tour guides.
I’m sitting in the back of a safari jeep, in a line of many, waiting for the opening of Yala National Park – one of the country’s most popular attractions. One of the guides translates the muffled exchange for us. They’re talking tactics to make sure they get us as close as possible to the elusive and protected Panthera pardus kotiya – Sri Lanka’s native leopard.
Yala National Park is in the south-eastern region of Sri Lanka, about 243 kilometres from the nation’s capital Colombo. Yala was designated a national park in 1938 and is home to around 215 bird species and 44 different mammals.
While 130,000 hectares of the land is protected, a section of the park is open to the public. Here are some top tips for travelling to Yala National Park.
At 6am as the sun rises the gates open and we’re off. We pass water buffalo wading in the marshes, elephants wandering through the scrub, a herd of deer and numerous animals I’ve never seen before. Other than your typical Australian zoo, this is as close to wild animals as I’ve ever been. The exhilaration of not knowing what I might see, or how close it might get, is heightened by the drive through the scrub in an open-sided jeep!
Researching and booking your visit to Yala National Park with a reputable tour company is the best way to go. Our excellent tour guides from the Isle of Smiles tour company do their best to ensure we do see as much as possible – even going so far as to send out a tracker on a bike, ahead of our convoy, so that he can radio back and let our driver know where to head.
Our driver suddenly becomes excited and picks up a bit of speed. We reach the tracker and finally spot a leopard up in a tree feasting on a deer! Our guides warn us to be quiet. No one says a word. The only sound is the click of camera shutters. Finally we move on, and I wonder how we’re going to top that experience.
A short while later our driver comes to a sudden stop behind a line of jeeps. We’re not sure why, until we hear lumbering steps. An elephant has decided to share the road and is walking alongside the procession.
After all the excitement we are ready for lunch and a Sri Lankan feast awaits us. We picnic at Patanangala on Yala’s coastline, where there’s a memorial commemorating 250 people lost in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Our guides tells the story of an animal tracker who saw animals in Yala moving to higher ground that day. By gathering his family and following the animals, everyone was saved.
The rest of the safari sees me come close to monkeys, sloth bears, deer, elk, beautiful peacocks and even the odd crocodile (not so close). Although I’m a little more adventurous by the end of the day than I was at the beginning, I’m glad to return to the safety of our hotel.
For the very adventurous, there are wildlife bungalows inside Yala National Park where you can spend the night. Sleeping in the wilderness means you can be out exploring the park before it officially opens in the morning.
Do you have any top tips for travelling to Yala National Park? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock/Photodune
About the writer
Marianne Diaz is a research scientist by day and a freelance travel writer by night! She’s travelled to Sri Lanka to explore her children’s part-heritage and embarked on nerd-travel – travel for research to Japan, Bloomington, Chicago and Boston in the U.S. Her main aim is to get to the Italian Aeolian Islands one day with her whole family to check out the other half of her kids’ heritage (and her own). Marianne’s favourite travel love is exploring history-laden country towns, and the unique and intriguing landscapes of Australia. She believes there really is no place like home.