Those that know me know I do not camp. Only in rare, unavoidable circumstances do I succumb to a night sleeping close to nature and even then I will still be fearful of it. In Sri Lanka one of those rare, unavoidable situations arose when I discovered there may be a chance to see leopards in the wild in Yala National Park. (Yala Block 1 has one of the highest density’s of leopards per square kilometre in the world). This sounded like an opportunity I would not want to miss and yet it involved things I try to shun, like getting dirty and sleeping under canvas. Then I read about Leopard Safaris and all my weak arguments went out the window.
Leopard Safaris offer the chance to camp in luxury just beyond the fences of Block 1 of Yala National Park. For camping un-enthusiasts like myself they offer comforts like en-suite toilets, heated showers and places to charge your electrical items. All this seems all the more impressive when you realise how remote their location is.
We arrived at the Leopard Safaris camp just before lunch. Noel Rodrigo, the CEO of Leopard Safaris, had sent one of his jeeps to meet our driver just outside Kataragama, the nearest town, as we needed something more heavy duty to take us the remainder of the journey.
The camp is intimate and boutiquey, housing a maximum of 16 people at any one time, and centred around a beanbag strewn lounge that acts as reception, bar or library at various points throughout the day.
Lunch was served under the shade of a tree and as it was composed of a range of sumptuous local dishes Noel showed us how to tuck in the local way, with our fingers. Then, once the heat of the day had subsided and our food digested, the truck was loaded up for our first game drive.
I tried not to get my hopes up. Although 25 individual leopards are estimated to roam just Block 1 of Yala they are illusive and private creatures and this didn’t mean we would just stumble upon a bunch of them as soon as we entered the park (as I had foolishly imagined originally).
Our odds were increased by the fact that Leopard Safaris operate from a more remote section of the park, though, and use an entrance that is less popular than the back-to-back-jeep trail run from Tissa. When we entered the park we were the only vehicle within sight. It felt intrepid.
Immediately my head was turned by all sorts of splendid wildlife I wasn’t expecting to see; deer, buffalo, wild boar, monkeys, peacocks, crocodiles. The rangers (and we had 3 for us 2 guests) were just as ecstatic as us to spot rare birds (including the Brahminy Kite, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Blue-Tailed Bee-eater and Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill) and although we were not familiar with the bird names the rangers’ enthusiasm was catching. Everyone was on high alert for the main thing we had come to see though – the leopards.
At a watering hole the leopard trail was momentarily forgotten as a family of 4 elephants arrived for a drink. We stopped and silently watched as the young one tried to swot a nearby heron with his trunk, he didn’t want to share his water, even though there did seem to be more than enough to go around.
As we sat still in the park, Noel, known as the leopard man for his luck with spotting them and a skin condition which means parts of his body now look like one, explained how quiet we would need to be if the trackers expected there was a leopard in the vicinity. It is natural, he explained, to want to point and squeal but you really must not if you want to get a good look.
Thoroughly briefed we continued our drive of the park until some paw prints suddenly appeared in the sand. We were getting close. We were headed towards a secluded part of the park where the leopards are often spotted. I held my breath.
The vehicle jolted along the mottled track; the only sound was its purring engine. We passed a clearing and I saw what I thought was a very big cat. Hang on a minute..
“I saw one,” I cried breathlessly and pointed back towards the clearing. Doing everything we had been told not to.
“Shh,” the whole truck reprimanded me.
We backed up slowly until we were in front of the clearing. There resting on her paws was a very regal-looking female leopard. She looked directly at us. We stared straight back. This face-off must have lasted only minutes but felt like an age. But sadly another jeep was onto us; they must have heard us stop and were heading up the same path, all passengers on high alert. The leopard heard the approaching vehicle and very calmly got up and stalked into the nearest bush until she was no longer in sight.
“Is there a leopard around here?” boomed an Aussie voice from the next vehicle.
“Not any more,” we told him. That’s the way it goes.
We were the last vehicle to leave the park that night, racing against the clock to reach the gate before it locked, but not before we stopped to admire the sunset reflected in the water hole. Yala National Park was more sublimely scenic than I could possibly imagine, suddenly I was thankful to be staying in it.
At camp, staff were waiting with head torches and cold beers. As we sat and thought about what we had encountered that afternoon the staff were pouring solar powered waters into our shower cubicles and illuminating them with a lantern. By dinnertime the whole camp was lit by lanterns that led the way to the BBQ spread out under the stars. The food – jumbo prawns, chicken and steak – was delicious but eating under the blanket of stars was the real winner.
Sleep came surprisingly easy. The beds were comfy and although I woke at one stage and was certain there was a leopard outside the tent (I mimed the noise the next morning and was told it was probably water buffalo) I had a peaceful night’s rest until the 4.30am alarm call. A warm cup of tea and some biscuits were used to lure me out of bed and them we climbed back into the jeep. We had been the last to leave the park the night before and were the first to enter it the next morning – we needed to wake the park rangers up in order to get in!
It was pitch black when we set off but there was just enough light to see a porcupine scuttle across the road. The night before it had been a cobra in our path. Sunrise in the park was just as magical as sunset; like a light show set to a soundtrack of morning birdsong. We drove for several hours around the park watching the wildlife do their morning routines. More exotic birds were identified to us, with a little help from the guidebook and binoculars in the jeep, but the leopards were to remain elusive on this trip. As a last shot our driver took us on a route that other vehicles did not have the suspension for. This track was the bumpiest part of the park.
“You may want to put your camera down and hold on with two hands,” I was told as I was nearly ejected out of the jeep completely. Us girls whooped and giggled as we were thrown around by the road but were quietened when a rustle in the bush alerted us to something nearby. We sat and waited as the rustling grew ever closer, shades of grey visible through the branches. It took several minutes but finally the leaves parted and a massive elephant broke her way through, with a fluffy child hidden between her legs. The mother watched us warily and not for the first time on this trip I wondered what the back up plan was if she was to suddenly attack. We sat stiller than I have ever been before in my life, mentally trying to transmit thoughts that told her we meant no harm. Finally with a flourish of her trunk she turned and walked across the road in front us – mother and child disappearing back into the bush. That was the moment I fell in love with safari.
My first experience of safari taught me that you can’t (and shouldn’t) control nature. What animal encounters you have on safari are largely a matter of luck but what you can control is the level of expertise you have with you and the comfort you can do it in. Leopard Safaris had shown me luxury and a leopard in the wild. I couldn’t have wanted for more than that.
Thanks to Leopard Safaris for inviting me to camp in style with them and to Sebastian from Off The Path who first told me about what they do. For more information about safaris in Yala National Park contact Noel.