Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Sri Lanka - Yala National Park

Famed for leopards, Yala produced plenty for us!
It was early in the morning that we headed out to Yala National Park from Colombo.  The drive itself is long, not in terms on kms, but the fact that you need to wind around mountains on small roads pretty slowly.  

We of course did some stopping along the way - mainly to pick up the fantastic fruit and veggies for the trip, but we still managed to arrive by lunch time at the Yala gate. 
Our accommodation in Yala

The accommodation in the park is something different to what I'm used to.  Basically a big bungalow with a couple of rooms, most of 10 beds are actually outside the rooms in the open on the verandah.  

It's a pretty good view from the verandah...
And so most people just sleep on the verandah, quite amusing when you think that these are unfenced bungalows, so there's nothing to stop a leopard from investigating you while you sleep at night ;) 

Bee-eater outside our bungalow

There is also a cook and a couple of other staff members that are around, so as long as you provide the food, they will do the cooking - quite a novelty from doing all your own cooking and cleaning. 

The "tame" wild boar that is constantly on the look out for scraps
We also had a couple of animals that hover around the bungalow used to the people.  One was a wild boar who would eat the scraps leftover from the meals, so we saw him throughout the day rummaging around.  

Asian elephant - smaller than its African cousin

And we had a few elephants visiting at night - they walk straight past the bungalow while we're sitting there.  The cooks and the tracker actually tried to chase one of the elephants off, because he was getting too close to the kitchen where they were cooking, but he paid no attention to them and finally wandered off on his own.

Water buffalo

The park itself is pretty small, but the roads are good throughout.  The flipside is that it's also pretty overcrowded and the good roads encourages fast driving between sightings, and since everyone is hooked up to the radio, it's a mad rush from one sighting to the next.  

Leopard in the morning

And the only sighting worth seeing is the leopard, at least that's what the guides seem to think.  For someone that has never seen any of the animals or birds from Asia, the guide was quite amused when I kept asking for him to stop for one of the most common birds - the Ceylon junglefowl ;) 

The Ceylon junglefowl
But otherwise the only goal is leopards... Luckily we had plenty of sightings.  According to the tracker (the mandatory park guide you need to take on all drives), we saw 14 different leopards during our 3 days there - a very impressive number... 

Tired jackal

Some of the sightings were pretty average, and with plenty of other people around, but we had 2 really nice sightings that were highlights.  

Catching a leopard drinking is always a fantastic sighting
One we came across a leopard drinking at a waterhole with virtually no other vehicles around. We watched as he drank and then climbed a tree before disappearing out of sight behind the leaves.

The other was on our last morning drive when we spotted 2 leopards resting on the main road.  We were the only ones there, as there had been another leopard sighting that the rest of Yala was at.  We watched them for about 5 minutes before another car arrived - a pretty special sighting to end our trip.

Indian pond heron
The birds of course were a highlight for me, as all the birds were new.  Of course there were a lot of species that are found in Africa as well, but there are always slight differences, and of course the names are all new.  

Malabar pied hornbill

One of my favourites is the peacock; I'd only ever seen semi-tame ones in South Africa, so to see these beautiful birds wandering around wild on the side of the road was fantastic.  Unfortunately they were not in breeding plumage, so I didn't get any really nice shots of them.

Spotted deer feeding

The way the drives work is that we do a game drive in the morning, then everyone comes back for a big breakfast and then it's chill out in the heat of the day (yes, it's hot!) until the afternoon game drive. 

Drowning or swimming? Water buffalo crossing water

Dru and I are not used to that (we drive around like headless chickens the whole day), so we got the guide to take us down to the river one day while everyone else was having their nap. 

Time to relax

You're allowed to bathe in the river, so while Dru did that I spent time watching a cheeky macaque trying to find anything he could from the car to grab and eat.

Like a thief looking for opportunities

Besides the leopards, the elephants of Sri Lanka are a prize sighting.  And especially those elephants will tusks, as it's a pretty rare sighting.  We were lucky enough that our first sighting of an elephant was actually a tusker.  

Would you swim if you saw this sunning himself?
I hadn't realised what a rare sighting they were (so used to African elephants mostly having tusks) but we didn't actually see many elephants and those we did see were tuskless.

The surrounds of Yala
So it was a pleasant surprise when we were on our way to the river bath, that we came across a tusker walking down the middle of the road.  Being so rare, the tusker bulls are all named, and this was Gemunu.  


He has become notorious for getting up close to vehicles and trying to grab whatever he can from inside the car. And he doesn't have a problem dropping things on the ground either, whether it's a bag or an expensive camera.  

Gemunu taking an early morning bath

So while popular with the tourists, he's not such a hit with the game drivers.  When our tracker told a passing car that we'd just seen Gemunu he was not at all enthusiastic to show his tourists!

Lovely male leopard we came across one morning
But back to the leopards... we really had some great sightings, and some fleeting... to us the leopards of Yala are bigger than their African counterparts, maybe in part due to the lack of other predators around.  

Kingfisher grabs a meal

They also seem more colourful, with their coats being a bit more orange tinted than the ones we're used to seeing.  Maybe it's because of the rich jungle colours - everything seems a bit more vivid in colour than the dryness of the African savannah...

Spotted by the spotted deer
Luckily they're pretty chilled out around the cars - probably they've got used to the vehicles around.  Because the tourists and guides definitely don't lower their voices around them... often there was a bit of a shouting match trying to get the tourists the best view, while the leopard looked totally uninterested...

Monkey running from something

The only thing that was on my wishlist that we didn't see was the sloth bear.  Unique to Asia, it's a small black bear with incredibly long claws.  We chased the spoor of one on our last morning there, but unfortunately didn't find it... I suppose Yala needs to save something for next time ;)

Leopard watching us approach

We spent 3 nights and 4 days at Yala, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The sightings were good, the setup was nice, and the birds were plenty.  It's a pretty small park, and when all the cars are at one sighting, it can feel pretty overcrowded, but it makes it that much better when you have a prize sighting all on your own!

A highlight... 2 leopards on a road with no one else but us

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