Over a year ago, Ranger Don Heyneke visited Sri Lanka in the first part of a Guide Exchange Program between Londolozi and Leopard Trails Camp. This year, it was ranger Kevin Power’s turn to make the journey across the Indian Ocea, the first part of which he documented on the Londolozi Blog. Read on for Part 2 of his Sri Lanka adventures:
Following on from the first part of my Sri Lanka blog, the second part of my adventure was different to the first, but as exciting. We left the camp at Wilpattu en route to the Leopard Trails camp at Yala National Park. I was extremely excited as Yala National park is home to one the highest concentrations of leopards on the planet, and they just happen to be one of my favourite animals.
There are two ways of getting to Yala from Wilpattu, the more sensible/quicker route along the highway around Colombo, or the much prettier yet more daunting route through the Knuckles mountain range in the middle of the country; obviously us adventurous souls chose the latter. A choice I was extremely happy that we made.
We set off from Wilpattu knowing we would be on the road for majority of the day. Even though the last few days had been an overload of information and experiences, and my body was still trying to work out what time frame it should be working on, the urge to nap on the transfer was overcome by the amazing scenery I was experiencing and the stories I was being told by Indi and Arran. We passed through villages and towns that had so much colour and culture, my head was moving from side to side so much I felt like I was at Centre Court watching the Wimbledon final, it was incredible to say the least.
We arrived at the base of the Knuckles and started to ascend. The road was steep. I could compare it to an escalator in a shopping centre, but for about 25 kilometres up a mountain. It was amazing. The thing that amazed me the most was that civilisation didn’t stop; villages were built up the side of the mountain almost the whole way up. Amongst some of the most incredible views were the fruit stores perched on the side of the mountain, defying gravity and supplying the surrounding villages with the freshest produce from around the country. This is where most of the tea plantations are in Sri Lanka, the perfect altitude for these plants to grow, just another addition to the beautiful scenery; tea plantations hanging onto the side of a mountain.
As we ascended to the top of the pass the mist started to roll over; a fitting scene for the road and the jungle we were travelling through. Its now safe to say that we were all agreeing our decision to go through the mountains was a fantastic idea, as the views were breath-taking. The Knuckles were an absolute treat to experience, but we still had to make it to Yala, so we carried on, leaving the beautiful mountains behind us.
We stopped for a quick egg roll at a local spot in one of the towns at the base of the mountain, which we all agreed we shall call Egg Roll Palace from now on. This was one of the most memorable culinary experiences of my trip. It was a small little cafe on the side of the main road. Between the delicious egg rolls and our fatigue, not much was said at dinner; we were all devouring our rolls and I was fixated on the small black and white TV in the corner – still not sure what the actors were saying, but they must have been really good, as even I was intrigued and I had no idea what was going on.
We arrived at the camp quite late to greet the rest of the team, all very satisfied with the experiences we had just had in the mountains, and of course the egg rolls. A bit of a catch up and then we were off to bed ready for the start of the next part of my adventure.
Waking up in Yala was quite different to Wilpattu. I immediately felt it was much dryer, and the sun had gained momentum slightly earlier than it had in Wilpattu – it was hot! We had a very leisurely morning on that first day, taking it easy and recovering from the long trip the day before – thank goodness for the air-conditioning in the tent to cool me down. The plan for the day was to get things organised for our camping trip!
There aren’t any permanent lodges allowed in the park itself – all the commercial operations are just outside the park, but there are few designated camp sites within the park that one can book for the evening, which we did. This was such a special experience. We arrived at our camp site in the afternoon and started setting up. It was a stunning setting in the middle of the jungle along the banks of the Manik River. After many discussions about what tree to tie the ropes onto and which way the tents should face, the one South African and five Sri Lankans managed to set up what we thought was a pretty comfortable camp site – which it was. Working up quite a sweat building our humble abode, we all agreed that a dip in the river was in order. The Manik River runs through most of Yala national park; it’s a crucial life blood for the area providing water for most of the fauna and flora. It’s not very deep though – so it makes for the perfect place to relax and cool down with good friends in the jungle in the afternoon. As the sun was nearing the horizon and casting its last rays over the jungle, we were interrupted mid conversation by the piercing sounds of an alarm call from a spotted deer. Even if one hasn’t heard what the alarm of a spotted deer sounds like, its quite evident from the sound that the animal is panicked. Back at Londolozi we hear alarm calls from most of the prey species – they often help us find predators – but when we do hear an alarm call we can never quite say what predator it is, as there are many different types but when one hears an alarm call in the jungles of Yala national park, it usually means one thing – Leopard! We all jumped up and went investigating, pin-pointing where the alarm calls were coming from. Just as we were about to give up we caught a quick glimpse of a leopard darting away through the thick foliage – my first leopard in Yala, and it was on foot! That night we sat around the fire swopping stories whilst Avi made us dinner – I’m still not sure what would have been hotter, a piece of coal from the fire or my chilli chicken!
The next morning we set off on a drive, not long after we had left the camp site we came across two young leopards. The two of them were left on their own whilst their mom went off to hunt. We stayed with them for ages and watched as the one youngster tried to stalk a herd of buffalo – certainly way out of his league, but great practice for the future. Yala is home to an abundance of wildlife, and we definitely ticked off quite a few of the species as well as some new bird species for me.
The next few days were spent going on drives in the afternoon and mornings, and truly experiencing the wonders and beautiful scenery of Yala national park, and of course, being guided through all of this by the guys at Leopard trails and being looked after extremely well. We even ventured into town on one evening to a local spot for egg hoppers and spring rolls — certainly one of my favourite meals of the trip.
The last couple of days we were joined by the directors of Leopard Trails. This was an amazing experience. I got the chance to spend time with the gentlemen that had made my trip possible. We had an awesome couple of days with lots of laughs and some incredible game drives. This was when I had what was certainly my best Leopard sighting. We managed to find a female who was on the move. At first she was a little distance off the road but we still had some awesome visuals. Our amazing driver and tracker, with all their experience, then decided to go wait at one of the nearby water holes, taking into the account the time of day and dryness of the area – they thought she must be going for a drink, and they were 100% correct! She came up to the water hole and was greeted by two large buffalo, who weren’t very happy to see her and proceeded to chase her into a tree. She waited for them to move off and came down the tree and drank right in front of us. It was an epic sighting.
The evenings were spent chatting and laughing around fires and tables of amazing food. Stories were told and shared under the stars. It was certainly a perfect end to an incredible trip, one that I can most certainly say was life-changing and undoubtedly unforgettable! I have no doubt I would have loved Sri Lanka if I had travelled there on my own accord and planned my own trip, but having been hosted by Leopard Trails and looked after by the team, they made it a trip of a life time. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank the team enough.
Like any trip one goes on it has to come to an end. It was one of those sensations where you are sad to leave but ove joyed that you had done it and the experiences you have gained are irreplaceable. The trip to the airport was an early one, again I was with Mr Chandrasiri, who I’m pretty sure thinks I have a slight problem as every time he saw me I was just grinning like a child on christmas day.
I sat in the airport waiting to depart and still couldn’t get rid of my smile just remembering all my amazing experiences from the past two weeks in what I now think of as one of the most incredible countries I’ve visited – Sri Lanka.