Londolozi focuses on three core tenets; Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife and Care of the People. Conservation is a core thread to who we are and we realise that in our attempts to conserve, we don’t stand alone. I saw this first-hand recently when I was given the remarkable opportunity to participate in a guide exchange programme with Leopard Trails based in Sri Lanka.
We are now entering into the second year of the programme and to say it’s been success would be an understatement. It has exceeded everyone’s expectations and we all have no doubt that it will continue to grow and be extremely beneficial to both the guides from Londolozi in Africa, and the guides from the Leopard Trails team in Sri Lanka.
How the programme has worked is that each year a guide from the Leopard Trails team comes over to Londolozi for two weeks, the exchange is then reciprocated with a guide from the Londolozi team heading over to the Leopard Trails camps in Sri Lanka for the same duration. During this time he/she is exposed to the daily operations of the different camps, and of course, being a guiding exchange – the main focus is on the guiding and wildlife experience.
My trip began in Johannesburg where I was possibly the most excited human in the entire airport. The only rival to my excitement levels was a young labrador who looked like he hadn’t seen his owner for a few months. My next stop was Colombo, Sri Lanka. Arriving in Colombo was just as exhilarating, so many different emotions, slight nerves, but excitement was still the over-riding emotion.
There I was met by Mr Chandrasiri who was my lift into the city itself. I was immediately blown away. Coming from a small city in South Africa and working out in the bush, my definition of traffic is a few cars at a traffic light but wow was I wrong. The hustle and bustle of the highway was amazing to see, so many cars moving in different directions, lots of hooting, but amazingly enough it worked. I was amazed and had a massive grin on my face. I think Mr Chandrasiri saw more of my teeth than my dentist has seen in my whole life. I was in my element.
On my first night in Colombo I was met by a few members of the Leopard Trail’s team and was taken out for dinner with the directors of the company. This was where I had the first experience of one of the aspects of the Leopard Trails team, one that would become a trend for my entire stay. This amazing team makes a huge effort to make an outsider feel welcome and right at home in a new country, and with a new culture and new people. This continued attention had a massive impact on my trip.
The next day we were off to the first camp I would experience – The Leopard trails camp just outside Wilpattu National Park. The drive there was filled with making a new friend, catching up with an old one, a few naps sorting out the jet lag, and a fresh coconut that was sliced in front of me and poured down my throat.
We arrived at the camp and settled in for a bit and then headed off on my first wildlife experience. It wasn’t to Wilpattu though, it was to a smaller park on the outskirts of the park of Wilpattu, called Kala Wewa National Park. Here I had my first experience of the Asian elephant. It was an experience I had been hoping for. One of my favourite African animals is the Savannah elephant, so for me to see its cousin on an island thousands of kilometres away was special. We were fortunate enough to see many elephants that afternoon, but there was one incredible sighting that will stick with me forever. As the day was drawing to an end, the park official we were with rattled off something in Sinhala whilst we were watching a tusker. Tuskers are rare amongst the Asian elephant, with no more that 5-6 % of them having tusks. I thought he was saying something about the one we were watching but it was only when I saw Indi sprinting off to the edge of the lake and turn around with a massive smile that I knew something was up. He shouted to Arran, “we’ve found him”. I didn’t know it at this stage, but the Kala Wewa was home to some of the biggest tuskers left in Sri Lanka, and that was why we were there. We had found one. Across the lake we could see that the size of this male was impressive. He was with a herd of about 20-30 females and calves and he towered over all of them. We made our way around the lake and view them from a safe distance. We sat with them for about an hour, mesmerised by this tusker. It was always going to be special for me as it was my first afternoon spent with Asian elephants, but I knew it was extra special when I looked at Arran, Indi and the park official, all three who had been seeing elephants their whole lives, and not one of them could speak out of sheer respect and amazement for this huge tusker. That was when I realised the significance of the occasion.
On our way home we spotted a Russel’s viper crossing the road, we viewed it for a short while and then ushered it off to the safety of the jungle. The rest of the ride home was filled with us chattering away about the experience, but silence also overcame us at times while we processed the incredible experience we had just had with one of the last remaining large tuskers of Sri Lanka. I went to bed that night feeling like we had spent the afternoon with an ancient king of the land.
Wilpattu National Park is situated towards the North Eastern part of Sri Lanka and is characterised by extremely dense jungle that every now and then opens up and gives way to massive shallow lakes with short grass around the edges. These lakes give Wilpattu its very unique bio-diversity. In the short time I was there, just a few days, it was impossible for me to see and understand the entire eco-system. I could see though the amount of bio diversity and how capable the environment is of sustaining it naturally, something that reminded me a lot of the Greater Kruger Park, where Londolozi is situated back in South Africa. It was on my first drive in Wilpattu that we found one of Sri Lanka’s most unique creatures, the sloth bear. This blew my mind. Having only ever experienced African animals my whole life, it was incredible to see a large male walking along the road and foraging around for Palu fruits – one of their favourites. We spent a really good amount of time with the sloth bear, and considering one cannot off road in the park, we managed to get some awesome views of this amazing creature. Once again I had Indi and Arran at my side to explain and guide me through the sighting — which would be a standard for our stay, if I wanted to know anything, there was always one of the guys to answer my questions. Wilpattu also served up my first leopard sighting in Sri Lanka of a relatively skittish female who showed herself on the road for a brief moment and then slunk off into the dense jungle growth and settled down. It was whilst we were looking through binoculars at her when she had settled down that I realised why the animals are so successful in these jungles; they are nearly invisible with their camouflage.
We had so many amazing sightings in Wilpattu, including a few more leopard sightings. One of them was of a very large male across one of the massive lakes on the forest edge. It was such a beautiful scene. A few other species we managed to see were the spotted deer, barking deer, wild boar, buffalo, mugger crocodiles and two of the more entertaining creatures – the gray langurs and the very naughty macaques.
Being an avid birder, some of my favourites were the birds and by pestering Arran with the name of every one we saw, we managed to tick off quite a few. Amongst them were a fair amount of the endemic birds that Sri Lanka has to offer, all of them being lifers for me. Evenings were spent chatting with the guides and swapping tales of our very different and yet similar countries and wildlife experiences. It was during these chats that I started to admire Sri Lankan history. The history of Sri Lanka is phenomenal and the ancient history of the different cultures and their influences was really something that interested me. The guys were all very happy to share stories with me, something I really admire about the Sri Lankan culture. They’re a people that are very proud of their country.
We ended off the our last night at Wilpattu, I bid everyone a good night and headed off to my tent. I sat outside for a while and contemplated the last few days, processing all the new things I had seen and experienced. I felt a sense of comfort, as if I were outside my room at Londolozi, yet I was thousands of kilometres away. I contemplated this thought and started to realise that even though the wildlife, the people and the country were all new to me, the experiences I was having were all based on the same foundations that I have been exposed to at Londolozi. I closed my eyes that night with a smile on my face and knew that the next day I would embark on the next part of my adventure…