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YALA NATIONAL PARK - December 2009

I last wrote a journal when we were last on an animal safari (in South Africa) I think about 10 years ago. Here I go again. The reason I wrote the last one was that when we got back from the first day’s drives I was finding memories already getting confused. So I started it then. This time, what with the passage of time, memories are probably liable to get even more confused. So I’m starting it now, before it starts.

Monday, 28 December 2009

We’ve spent most of the day getting here. “Here” is Tissamaharama, or Tissa, a few miles from the Yala National Park in the south of Sri Lanka. We couldn’t stay in the only lodge actually in the park, so we’re in the Priyankara Hotel in Tissa, which the Rough Guide says is the poshest in town. It probably is, though it’s not one of the amazingly luxurious establishments – even ludicrously so – that you can find here.

On the drive we stopped at the Amanwella hotel near Tangalle on the south coast. This is firmly in that category. Very beautiful, set in a glorious bay with golden sand and leaning palm trees, but fairly sterile and characterless. Room rates are (according to the Rough Guide) up to US$800 a night – open to negotiation in these troubled times, I wouldn’t wonder. The 1,500 rupees (£8) we spent on our fruit juice and coffee may not do much for its bottom line. It didn’t seem busy and the man in charge, an Englishman Jonathan Blitz, said that, yes, they’re suffering the effects of the recession but people aren’t worrying about the Sri Lankan political situation – nor are we.

The drive here from Galle was pleasant, in the capable hands of our driver Nalaka. When we agreed to take him, we had a conversation about speed and overtaking. In Sri Lanka all tuktuks, all buses and most other vehicles have to be overtaken, largely regardless of oncoming traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists and wandering dogs and cattle. We explained that we would be in no hurry, we could go reasonably slowly and that, perhaps, we could only overtake when the road was clear. This message was received very politely – and indeed has been adhered to rigidly. The only comment I have made is to say that it’s alright to go a little faster if the road is empty.

One interesting aspect of the drive was the change of scenery. The first part was through the lushest, most beautiful vegetation, with masses of palm trees. It then changes to what the guide book calls dry savannah. Apparently we cross the climatic line between the wet zone to the west (well-known to be some of the most beautiful parts of the country) to the eastern dry zone.

Monday evening

We’ve now met our driver and guide for tomorrow. Very basic English. We meet at 5.15 tomorrow morning.

A family of Australians have warned us not to expect too much. They saw a few elephants, but no leopards.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

We’re now back – despite all the warnings – from a highly enjoyable, exhausting and very successful day in the Yala park, seeing all the animals advertised including, quite early in the piece, three leopards.

It started at an unsocial hour in the morning, namely 5.15 when we’d agreed to meet our guide, Danny, outside the hotel. We’d asked the hotel to organise it. We met him the previous evening with his boss, who took the money and explained that he wouldn’t actually be our man. Danny then emerged silently from the background and seemed to speak little English. But it turned out that he was excellent, with enough English to get by and an amazing ability to spot animals in the dense undergrowth.

We set off at about 5.30 in the dark and must have got to the park just after dawn. It was still fairly dark and overcast. In fact the weather was perhaps the one disappointment. Certainly there was no sunshine; and for an hour or so in the middle of the day, rain. What was this all about? We were meant to be well into the dry season, but obviously here, as elsewhere, the weather is not doing what it’s meant to be doing. Fortunately it recovered and brightened up a bit in the afternoon.

There was some degree of chaos when we arrived at the park. Danny and I got out of the jeep to go to the office. We elbowed our way through, and joined a throng of people in a makeshift office, where various papers were issued and stamped, and money was paid (by me).

Then it turned out that there weren’t enough, or possibly any, “trackers”. The deal is that you have a driver in his jeep and that you pick up a tracker at the gate to guide you through the park. There were a mass of jeeps waiting not too patiently for the non-existent trackers, including (probably helpfully) some irate Italians. Quite quickly it was decided to go without a tracker. It turned out that a tracker was quite unnecessary. No-one can go off-piste. The park is covered by a network of dusty (or on our day, wet) red paths – and Danny obviously knew his way round perfectly well.

The experiences started slowly: much driving along red paths, along with a procession of jeeps, through a mixture of open savannah and dense bush, with nothing much to see but distant water buffaloes and a profusion of peacocks – on the ground and in the trees.

But then the leopards. The word had got around, so a number of jeeps had collected. And there beside us were three leopards climbing down out of a tree and wandering into the bush. It was still a bit dark; and wasn’t possible to take pictures. Had one tried, one would have probably missed the whole thing. But seeing at least one leopard is what a lot of people go to Yala to do. The fact that it only lasts for about five minutes is neither here nor there. Somehow, for the rest of the day, everything else seemed a bonus. Even though other things were really more fun: including the monkeys. Needless to say, when the leopards were on the move, every monkey in every tree nearby was on red alert and expressing itself loudly, as well as jumping around from branch to branch and from tree to tree. Much more fun to watch than the leopards.

The other stars of the show were of course the elephants. We saw elephants on three or four occasions – probably more. The best was when a family group of presumably mum and dad, plus a young one and a baby, strolled across the path in front of us – or, in the case of the baby, scampered across. Also, later on in the day, just as we were leaving, we watched a large bull elephant in the distance, slowly walking – and swimming – through one of the shallow lakes in the park.

People had said that, of course it’s nothing like Africa. I’m not so sure. Maybe they have generous memories of Africa: in any wild animal environment, you go for longish periods without seeing much. Obviously, Yala is no different – and it doesn’t have lions and rhinos. But there’s a lot to see and we must have been lucky. The esteemed Danny told us we were (and it was reflected in his tip). Here’s a sort of a list:

● Monkeys, as already mentioned. They live in groups but when on the move go one by one, about 100 yards apart. We stopped to watch about 20 cross the road, each one looking around constantly to check that the coast was clear, and then doing amazing leaps across the water beside the road and then over the road itself; largely ignoring us, although they were quick to regroup in some consternation when a bus lumbered along. The monkeys, according to Danny, are all of one type: langur monkeys.

● Water buffalo. We saw lots of them, mostly immersed in the water-holes with not much more than the horns appearing above the surface. They tended to heave themselves out of the water at the end of the day. They have big, serious horns, although not as fearsome as the African variety.

● Crocodiles. You wouldn’t spot them without a guide. They look like logs of wood, even after they’ve been pointed out. They lie motionless beside the water - biding their time . . .

● Deer. Lots of spotted deer and a few elk – which apparently are really sambar, the largest deer in Sri Lanka, and not elk at all.

● Mongooses. We saw two or three, one close enough to look at properly. Not particularly attractive beasts, but who are we to say? They’ve been around for some 30 million years, which is over 29 million years longer than us, so they must be getting something right. (Incidentally, they are gooses not geese.)

● Jackals. Two (surprisingly small) animals going purposefully in the direction of a herd of deer – who didn’t seem unduly fussed.

● Wild cat. One of the first animals we saw. According to the guide book, they are very rare. They don’t look very different from a scruffy domestic cat.

● Wild boar.

● Monitor lizard.

And a mass of birds, of many varieties, mostly sadly unidentified by me. Danny could identify them, but his English became more impenetrable on bird varieties. Here are some we could spot:

● Peacocks in profusion, often highly vocal.

● Egrets. Common outside the park too, by the paddy fields.

● Herons.

● Storks, particularly the so-called painted stork. Beautiful, dignified creatures, picking their elegant way through the shallow water.

● Jungle fowl. New to us: a very colourful chicken, to look at, with lots of red and yellow. Apparently adopted as the (or a) national bird of Sri Lanka.

● Pelicans.

● a crested hawk-eagle.

Getting around the Park

I should mention how you get around the park. I’ve referred to jeeps. They’re not jeeps at all. Danny’s was a somewhat clapped-out mini-truck (very like what we see as taxis in Bequia). You climb into the back and sit on one of the benches on each side. There were other trucks that were slightly more substantial and one or two with rows of seating at the back (as in South African parks). There were a few minibuses, which didn’t look quite up to the job. The roads are clear, red, dirt tracks, with many bumps and (certainly when we were there) pools of water. Danny’s vehicle is not strong on springs and suspension: you feel every bump and every crater. Still, it did us proud, only breaking down once: this was readily fixed by Danny doing something with a crowbar under the bonnet.

Tsunami memorial

We had a whole day. Most people probably go for a three-hour morning or afternoon drive. For us, we had a break in the middle of the day (having started at about 6.30) at the beach on the southern edge of the park, during which we were probably expected to have a swim – and would have done, but for the mild drizzle. Instead we inspected a memorial to the tsunami victims. There had been a restaurant and a bungalow, both completely destroyed except for the concrete foundations. The memorial is a curious, sad-looking, modernistic image of, I assume, waves. It may well look even sadder in a few years. There is also a memorial slab in granite with an inscription in Singala and English, both of which have been much rubbed out by the elements.

December 2009

Tony Herbert

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