I’ve never had a bucket list, but if I did, a safari trip would always have been right smack bang at the top of it. In March this year, I finally got the chance to fulfil that lifelong ambition, travelling to Yala National Park in rural south-east Sri Lanka.
“How long would you like to go out into the park for?” asked our travel agent. “You could do four hours early in the morning, or you could do four hours late in the afternoon. Or, if you like, you could do twelve hours.”
We only had one full day in Yala, so wanted to make the most of it. “Stick us down for the twelve hours,” I said. After all, four hours doesn’t seem like enough, does it? By the time you’re out there, it’s time to leave again.
It’s fair to say you don’t really appreciate how long a twelve-hour safari actually is, until you’re on a twelve-hour safari. To put it into context, we spent longer in the jeep than we’d spent on the plane to get from London to Sri Lanka in the first place. And this is twelve hours in scorching 40C heat, on bumpy roads, with no flight attendants, and no armrests, and no in-flight movies. Then again, on a flight there aren’t any crocodiles or leopards. Having them on there just wouldn’t work, apparently. It’s health and safety gone mad.
Getting up for a safari trip is an adrenaline-pumping experience. It may have been 4am, but Cinnamon Wild, the breathtaking resort where we were based, was alive with the hustle and bustle of tourists eager to get out into the wilderness. Upon our arrival here the previous afternoon, the place had felt almost deserted, with monkeys and wild pigs significantly outnumbering the holidaymakers. But now, with even the sun not yet out of its bed, the place was alive with people jumping in and out of jeeps, staff running back and forth, and drivers chattering loudly to each other. We collected our pre-arranged packed lunches (more on those later), found our transportation, and headed excitedly out into the park.
Leopard Number 1
Now, it turned out there were a lot of jeeps heading along this road. A lot. And if there’s one thing that doesn’t seem entirely conducive to getting a close encounter with wild animals in their natural habitat, it’s a convoy of roaring engines all rocking up at the same time. As the sun began to rise, it felt worryingly like the only things we were going to spot were other cars. Fortunately, as we were about to discover, the leopards here could not give one single crap about cars. So, less than an hour in, we’d already hit the jackpot: a single adult female leopard, strolling along the side of the road without a care in the world. As the jeeps jostled for position and us tourists craned necks and fumbled with cameras, it sloped past us without so much as a glance in our direction, and headed off into the trees. The whole trip was already worth it.
Bird is the Word
Good news for fans of not breathing in exhaust fumes all day: as the morning progressed, the numerous jeeps gradually dispersed off on their own adventures, and we were left to explore Yala’s network of trails in peace. With jeep-ageddon having dissipated, the wildlife sightings increased, and our guide revelled in the opportunity to show off his impressive ornithological boffinry. Seriously, Sri Lanka’s birdlife is absolutely stunning. If the gnarled-up pigeons of London ever came here on a flying visit (geddit?), they’d be in line for one helluva crisis of confidence.
Leopard Number 2
As we made our way deeper into the park, the beasties started to come thick and fast. Monitor lizards gawped at us from the roadside. Crocodiles floated ominously in watering holes as apparently-suicidal monkeys and deer came down for a drink. In the far distance, we saw a gigantic bull elephant cooling itself down in a pool. And then came the highlight of the day: Leopard Number 2.
Handily, some monkeys alerted us to the spotty one’s presence by smashing the mid-morning tranquillity with an almighty commotion from high up in the trees. Our driver screeched to a halt, reversed back to where Monkey Alarm was still in full flow, and we waited. We didn’t have to wait long, either. With the monkeys still going ape (not technically a pun as monkeys aren’t apes, so you can quit your eye-rolling thanks very much), a stocky male leopard emerged from the trees, crossed the path in front of us, and disappeared off into the forest on the other side. Aaaaand breathe.
A Sad Lunch
Lunch, as it turned out, was quite the experience. We’d each been provided with a flimsy cardboard box, containing packed lunch staples: a sandwich, a chicken drumstick, an apple, some yoghurt, a boiled egg, some juice. Pretty standard, you might think. There’s just one problem: these things are not made with 40C temperatures in mind. Yoghurt, eggs and chicken that have been left for over six hours in that heat aren’t just a bit past their best. They’re unsafe, and we weren’t risking it. So what did we eat? Basically, nothing. We were out there for twelve hours, and – other than the bits we grazed on first thing in the morning – we ate zilch.
What were all the other safari trippers doing for food, we wondered. Looking around the break stop, we found out. Where we had our rapidly disintegrating cardboard containers, they had proper cool boxes. They had sandwiches, they had curries, they had baskets of fruit, gigantic bottles of water and squash, carved slices of juicy watermelon. Sri Lanka is a country bursting at the seams with incredible food, but here we’d have been happy with just a slice of that watermelon… if only someone could have taken pity on us.
Onwards, into the afternoon! Our tummies were empty, but our spirits remained high. After the morning’s events, we were eager for more sizzling hot animal action, and it didn’t take long for another huge highlight to come our way. A family of elephants, among them several elebabies, stood peacefully by the road, and we pulled up to the side to enjoy the sight. As we watched, more and more elephants emerged from the undergrowth, some small, some large. Close-up, they somehow managed to seem intimidating yet calm, overbearing yet friendly, powerful yet silent. It’s hard to imagine ever tiring of watching wild elephants and their slow, gentle interactions with each other. But our trip was moving into its final leg, so eventually we had to tear ourselves away and start heading back in the direction of the park exit.
Leopard Number 3
We were hot, we were tired, and more than anything we were absolutely bloody starving, but as we neared the road home there was time for one last treat. With the day’s tourists all heading for home at the same time, a convoy out of the park began to form, which swiftly turned into a traffic jam as each vehicle came to an abrupt halt. Up in a tree, just by the road, a female leopard lazed along a branch, it’s paws and tail dangling down. Agonisingly, pesky branches came between us and prevented me from getting the perfect camera shot; a pity, as this particular leopard seemed more than happy to lay still and pose for the tourists. What a professional.
And with that, it was back out onto the open road, to make the short journey back to Cinnamon Wild and the tantalising prospect of hitting the buffet and actually getting some food. It had been a tough day, but a magical one. Our backs ached, our tummies rumbled and our butts had long since lost all feeling, but we’d had the experience of a lifetime. Given the chance, I’d do the full twelve hours all over again. But I’d pack my own lunch.
Safari trip: 8 March 2019