We’ve all edged forward in our seats. A large Asian elephant is eyeballing us through the glassless window of the jeep. “Can I feed him?” begs my son, Luca. “Can I touch him?” chips in my daughter, Rae.
I can understand why they’re asking; it would be so easy to reach out and place a hand on a leathery flank, but I’m conscious this is a wild animal. “Remember the rules — don’t feed or touch the animals,” Chandika, our guide, calmly tells the children. It’s a handy reminder; it’s not often a friendly elephant appears at such close quarters.
“The natural pink pigment on the elephants’ noses is used to identify them,” says Charith, the biologist guide who also accompanies us. “This one is known as ‘The Beggar.’”
Our jeep inches forward a few feet, and I just miss a classic head-to-head shot of elephant and child, my iPhone choosing that exact moment to shut down in the heat. Still, this is our third wildlife encounter, and we haven’t even entered the Yala National Park yet. Earlier, we’d watched a rat snake cross the road and had to rescue a tortoise doing the same thing. We’ve also encountered lots of ‘rice hounds’. “These dogs are kept by villages as leopard and elephant protectors,” Charith had explained.
It’s been an eventful 75-minute drive north west from our base, the newly opened Wild Coast Tented Lodge, to the edge of block five (378sq-mile Yala is divided into five ‘blocks’). Block one, the most popular safari area, is closed as we’re in the July-September dry season and a drought means large numbers of animals congregating around a single water hole. Park authorities felt it unfair to subject them to more stress from gawking tourists. Plus they’re trying to resolve a guide licence issue. “There are too many jeeps, which means too many visitors. So they’re trying to find a balance,” Chandika explains.
Heading into the park it’s extremely hot, with 84% humidity, and we’re glad for the air rushing through the jeep. “All I can see is green,” says Luca, manhandling Chandika’s binoculars. “That’s because you’re staring at me,” laughs Chandika, redirecting him away from his shirt to the flora outside — a vivid green against the red earth.
The first animals we encounter are Ceylon spotted deers. “I absolutely love the deers,” says Rae. Then we glimpse a peacock and it’s soon forgotten. “My new favourite animals are arctic foxes and peacocks,” she proclaims. Then we see an iguana — which, according to our guides, isn’t an iguana at all. “Who told you we had iguanas?” Charith asks. “Nick, the Lodge chef,” I say. “We went to the fish market with him yesterday morning.”
“It’s a water monitor,” says Chandika. “We have lots of those. I’m sure the chef is better with identifying the fish!”
This is proving to be quite the safari, albeit almost entirely unplanned (added in as an afterthought on our arrival). Our Sri Lanka expedition had started in tea country, in the Central Highlands, before we headed to Yala National Park, staying in the newly opened Wild Coast Tented Lodge on the south coast. It was only meant to be a brief pit stop to see the lodge before ending our trip in the coastal resort of Cape Weligama, 90 miles to the west.
Safaris are something Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly acclaimed for, and it’s easy to see why. As we continue our drive, Charith points out native plant species, including ironwood and palu trees; suddenly, Chandika raises a finger to his lips, and we go silent. It seems we may be about to get lucky. In the trees, something stirs. At first, all we see is shadow, then a brown, furry, ragged shape appears. But it’s a sloth bear, not a big cat. Then the bear decides to make a bigger appearance, fully emerging from the undergrowth. “They make terrible pictures,” says Chandika, nonetheless continuing to train his telephoto lens on the trees. “Too shabby.”
Unfortunately, we’re then descended upon by an army of chattering, camera-wielding tourists packed into jeeps. By pausing, we’d alerted them to our find, and they practically chase the bear off, much to our annoyance. This is the downside of a dry-season safari, with block one closed, explains Chandika.
But there’s plenty more to see: bee-eaters, black-crested bulbuls, stonechats, black-rumped flamebacks… So many species of exotic-sounding bird, in fact, that I become name blind. There’s also an abundance of primates to look out for — macaques, langurs, monkeys — but the children aren’t that fussed; they’re primed for Sri Lanka’s apex predator. “I want to see a leopard now,” demands Rae. I’m not holding out much hope, all too aware of how hard it is to spot one of these big cats. But Chandika remains upbeat about the chances of a sighting.
We pause for a tea break in the middle of the park. Served from a three-tiered trolley sent ahead by the Wild Coast Tented Lodge, it’s a picture of colonial-era England. As we munch on cucumber sandwiches and ginger cake, the talk turns to leopards. As Chandika explains that Sri Lanka has the world’s highest per-square-mile concentration of the felines, he’s interrupted by a growling sound coming from his shirt pocket: one of the weirdest ring tones I’ve ever heard. “It’s a leopard,” he smiles.
“National Geographic’s Night Stalkers leopards documentary was filmed here,” Chandika tells us. “There are around 10 to 15 in Yala, and at least two in this area. And yes, they are dangerous, but leopards prefer their prey to be around 40 kilos and below. Barking deer or pigs.”
“Or children,” I joke.
Back in the jeep, it’s nearing 4pm and getting dark. Chandika reassures us this is a good time for sightings, as the leopards will be getting thirsty. He seems to think they won’t be spooked by our presence at a nearby water hole. “They’re proud creatures; they won’t run off. And they’re used to the jeep engine noises.”
We wait. I hear Chandika’s phone ringing again. Only it’s not — it’s coming from bushes nearby, around which other tourist jeeps are congregating. There are urgent whispers: “Leopard! Leopard!” Our vehicle edges forward, but we can’t see a thing. Chandika shakes his head. “Let’s retreat,” he says. We do, and wait. And wait. And wait.
One by one, the other jeeps drive off. Then, our reward: a rather large shadow lurking in the trees. A leopard appears, stepping out into the open, gingerly at first. Then another emerges behind him. It’s a male and female, Charith explains identifiable by the different collar of spots around their necks. The pair walk past the watering hole — proud and dignified, very much at their own pace, and I could swear they’re eyeballing us.
“This is great,” says Rae. “Two leopards!”
Something tells me her list of favourite animals is about to expand again.
Maria and Chad. Rae (10), Luca (8).
Best for adventurous families.
The leopards, elephants, peacocks, tea — and the pool at the Wild Coast Tented Lodge.
The windy roads on the long drive between Ceylon Tea Trails and Yala National Park.
How to do it
Experience Travel Group has a week in Sri Lanka from £3,087 per adult, £2,917 per child, including flights, transfers, experiences and stays at Ceylon Tea Trails (all-inclusive), Wild Coast Tented Lodge (all-inclusive, including game drives) and Cape Weligama (B&B).
Published in the 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family