17 March - Yala NP

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13 March - To Kandy
14 March - Kandy
15 March - To Haputale
16 March - To Tissa
17 March - Yala NP
18 March - To Galle

1930 – Tissa Inn Hotel

I’ve been trying to avoid doing this during this trip. I’ve been trying to give a piecemeal but current accounting of each day. When we went to Thailand, I wrote each day in one sitting. That way I could wait and see what parts of the day were big, and focus on those. But that meant I shrunk each day down to a few pages. Why shrink days? Grow pages instead, and have room for blow-by-blow events. Of course, if I’d done that in Thailand I wouldn’t have any pages left in this book. But this trip is okay. It’s short. Good to start short, I guess.

But I never really had any time to write today. It would have been wonderful to get a blow-by-blow account, but in this case it was a tradeoff between writing about stuff or actually seeing it. Maybe I need a tape recorder for taking notes. Or maybe a video camera. Heck, why not go all out and get a mind recorder system? (After I invent one, of course.) Paper and pencil is just so archaic.

Our wake-up call, a knock on the door, came entirely too early. Chris claimed he didn’t hear it, so I guess it’s a good thing I’m sleeping near the door. I’m not sure Chris would actually have woken up.

I packed what I was taking last night, so it was quick and simple to get going. Our driver was waiting, and as soon as we were ready we zoomed off. I really don’t remember much of that first drive. It was very early, but there was actually a fair bit of predawn light. If we were sailing, we could have seen fish pots easily.

Sunrise was beautiful, over a lagoon right by the ocean. Two fishermen were up to their waists, and hadn’t seemed to have moved much twelve hours later, when we came out.

We picked up our guide at the main park office. His English was mediocre, but he knew the animals very well. He also looked up birds in his (rather battered) bird book to show us what we were seeing, so we didn’t have to decipher odd names spoken with his accent. He was also quick to tell the driver to stop once it was clear we didn’t need to be ten feet from every animal to take a picture. I love our long lens.

Most of the animals we saw in the park were birds. Water birds mostly; egrets, herons, storks, ibis, spoonbill, ducks, openbills, etc. But that’s certainly not a complete list. I was dismayed when a bee-eater I was trying to photograph flew away, but the guide said, “Don’t worry… later” and he was right. Bee-eaters everywhere. So were peacocks and peahens. We even saw a peacock presenting, which was a glorious sight. What else... lapwings, a pitta, parrots, button-quails, sunbirds, eagles, kites, LBJs… bird heaven. We certainly didn’t need to do an extra bird tour.

We saw an elephant pretty early on. It was a young male, only thirty years old or so. He was patiently devouring a tree by the side of the road, branch by branch. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem to be eating any of the leaves. He stripped them off before shoving the wood into his mouth. We also saw what I guess was a mother and baby, though the ‘mother’ was quite small herself. Another elephant we saw was quite obviously male. I tell you, ‘hung like a horse’ doesn’t do it justice. For be it’s now going to be ‘hung like Dumbo.’

I’m falling asleep. It’s been way too long a day. I guess I’ll write about the further animals we saw plus small tidbits about the road and car tomorrow. I’m gone.

0708, 18 March

It really is too early, but I couldn’t sleep. Damn mozzies, and it was hot as a haybarn. Chris is still passed out under his mozzie net. I envy him that.

Anyway. Yala National Park. We saw lots of water buffalo right away, and throughout the day. Anywhere that’s remotely near deep water we saw them. Docile creatures, but quite an impressive set of horns. Wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of one.

Focusing on the water, we also saw several big crocs. They lay lazily on the bank, mouths open or closed, waiting for something interesting and tasty to happen. Our car coming closer for a picture was apparently too interesting and not tasty enough for one. It swam away.

A few more animals we saw: Wild boar (they were everywhere); a wild hare, which was a complete and total bonus since I didn’t know they lived in these parts; and land monitor lizards, which look like the goannas of Aus and look completely ridiculous when they run.

We spent most of the morning driving up the coast, keeping a right-hand-on-the-wall kind of system. I’m very glad we had a driver, as we would have gotten hopelessly lost without him. He knew the (unmarked) roads (more like tracks) like he drove them every day… which I guess he pretty much does.

We had breakfast at the beach, sitting on the foundation of an old building. There was a small memorial and plaque there for the tsunami. I was impressed. We were quite a way back from the water, and there were six to ten vertical feet of beach, too. The building was flattened. There was one wooden pole standing, and a bit of wall in the far corner. That was it. Surprisingly, big trees around there were still standing. They’re big, yeah, but those waves knocked down a whole concrete building. A village on the other side of the bay got wiped out too, but they’ve rebuilt little shanty houses. In the same place. Life goes on, I guess.

After that, when most other tours were making their way back to the entrance, we pushed farther into the park. Here we found roads much less well-maintained than those by the sea. Sometimes the track for one wheel was so much higher than the other I was afraid we’d roll right over. Others, it was so muddy or lake-like that we had to take it at speed, bumping and sliding all over the place with only a modicum of control.

See, all the vehicles tourists take on ‘safari’ are supposed to be four-wheel-drive. But Dad looked under the car at breakfast and said the forward drive shaft (I think) was broken, presumably from driving on pavement with it engaged. I know next to nothing about cars, but that’s what Dad said.

And, sure enough, we soon found ourselves trying to go on a road that was far too rough and muddy. The rear wheels were spinning, so we engaged the 4WD and… the wheels were still spinning. Luckily we could back out of it and go another way.

Our driver also had several routes that seemed to be his private tracks. The road sort of phased out until we were going along little more than a game trail, past wildflowers and low scrubby bushes. Then a dip, splash, and bump, sliiide, and we were in the trees. Very differend landscape than what we’d seen. Forest with no low bushes, just spindly trees and leaf litter. Basically no road. I have no idea how he first found the path. It looked like he had to go through and measure the distances between all the trees. Very cool. Very wild. We picked up a real road by the river, after a short break.

His other ‘private track’ I think was a private track. There was a branch across it, and in all the time we were there, no other car came. It also led to the river, and this is where we had our middle-of-the-day break.

It was beautiful and shady and cool, and around noon a fairly stiff breeze came up. The river bank was hot and sunny, though. We explored a bit, but it was very hot and we were told not to wander far because of animals. Most of the time we sat on mats in the shade, reading or sleeping or, in the case of Mom and me, looking up all the birds our guide had identified for us.

(en route to Matara)

After lunch, a rather blah fried rice with chicken, Mom and I went for a ‘swim.’ This was interesting, since the river is only 18 inches at its deepest point, but flowing quite quickly. So maybe we took more of a cooling dip. If I dug my toes deep into the sand and steered with my head and hands, I could stay completely submerged. Though actually the breeze was far cooler than the water. It was like a swimming pool. Sand got everywhere, though.

At 3pm we all piled into the car again and went in search of the elusive leopard. There are only 35 in the entire park. None of the other Jeeps we talked to had seen one. Our driver last saw one three days ago. “Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't,” he said.

We saw other animals, though. Spotted deer were common all day. They all looked like Bambi, and we couldn’t quite manage to get through to our guide that where we’re from, only the babies have spots. We saw more birds, as well, and water buffalo and boars. Several mongoose. And Samba deer, which are as big as elk.

All the animals were more lively in the afternoon. The plains were strangely Africa-esque with red-brown dust, thorn trees and cactus. Animals prowled all over it.

The water holes weren’t quite as active, though the birds and water buffalo certainly were enjoying themselves. We were going over to get a buffalo picture when a nearby Jeep waved us over. They were parked by the side of the road, staring into the bush. We all perked up and drove over quickly.

Sure enough, they were watching a leopard. I have no idea how they saw it, unless it crossed the road before hiding. I could hardly see it, let alone take a picture of it. I tried, but it was just too dark and hidden.

Then it moved. Got up and walked, to one side of the bush and the other, almost in the open. By now there were three other cars there. I couldn’t blame the leopard for feeling restless. It paced around a bit more, as we jostled for the best positions, and then walked off.

Some people continued down the road. Some stayed, hoping it would come back. We made for the perpendicular road, along which was a waterhole. It was in the general direction that the big cat was walking. We turned off the engine, and waited. And for such diligence we were rewarded. Not ten minutes later, he stuck his head out of the bushes on the other side of the road. He must have crossed where we couldn’t see and then doubled back.

We had a perfect view as he crossed the clearing beyond the waterfall, slinking low like he was stalking buffalo. It was directly up-sun, but that didn’t stop the cameras. Click click click. God, what a magnificent animal. Sleek and strong and beautiful. He climbed a tree like it was nothing. Fifteen feet straight up, two seconds.

He perched on a branch, tail and hind legs dangling. Unfortunately a branch obscured his face from our angle and another car had parked us in.

I guess the leopard was just lazing in the shade. After several minutes he got up and walked out to several branches. When he climbed back down it was with a scramble and a leap. He then sat down and groomed, just like any cat who had exerted itself. After a time it walked away, disappearing into the bush away from the road.

We didn’t stop seeing animals after that, of course. We didn’t even stop looking for leopards, though we didn’t see any more. We did see two jackals, however, crossing the Africa-like savannah. They looked like foxes in a hyena role.

I was sad to leave the park, but we’d definitely spent enough time there. We were all hungry and rather tired. We got a nice sunset leaving the park, and then discovered that we had no headlights. We even stopped at a shop to see if we could get them fixed, but there was a short in the line somewhere. Basically, we were stuck with four-way flashers. Very comforting on the half-hour drive in the dark with everyone driving like maniacs and passing every which-way…

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