Mar 1-2, 2017
Our first and only night in Tissa wasn’t a complete rain-fest.
At around 5pm, the rain finally subsided and we took a slow and wet walk towards Tissamahara’s famed lake.
On our way there, we passed a Dagoba called Yatala Wehera but I failed to get a picture because my camera was on the wrong setting.
Considering we were only around 75km from Ella and the hill country, it was rather ridiculous to feel the weather change from cool mountain air to hot and humid costal temperatures.
After a longer than anticipated walk, we finally reached Tissa’s famed Tissa Wewa, or Tissa Lake, and the nearby Tissa Dagoba.
It was rather nice with its lily pads, distant hills and with what I thought was Adam’s Peak, but asked a local and they laughed at me.
We tried to find a place to eat on the lakeside, but nothing affordable or with a view could be found.
The following morning, we got up at 3:30am because we had to meet our driver at 4:45am to start our safari in Yala National Park.
We were joined by a couple from Spain and a girl from Japan.
As soon as we got into the safari truck, the driver put the pedal to the medal and was speeding through the darkness like his life depended on it.
We reached the park gates in record time but the wait to receive our entry tickets was still well over 30 minutes.
As soon as the driver got back, the Spanish couple decided this was the ideal time to go to the bathroom.
The driver was noticeably annoyed, but once they were back, he sped and butted his way near the front of the pack.
The sheer number of trucks near the entrance gate could have easily numbered 100 and some only had 1-2 people so it was definitely a waste of fuel and a waste of trucks.
Once in the park, we passed some really beautiful landscapes, but the speed of the driver and the bumpiness of the road made it literally impossible to take any pictures.
The driver’s rationale was to get as deep into the park as fast as possible to maximize our chances of seeing Yala’s Big 3: the Leopard, the Asian Elephant and the Sloth Bear.
Our driver was exceptionally good at speeding by other drivers and before we knew it we were ahead of the pack and virtually alone.
The first animal we came across was a crocodile. He was swimming and was kind of difficult to see, but it was definitely a croc.
Soon we passed some water buffalo and deers near a large body of water and Tracy and I were sure we had seen a leopard lurking in the distance.
Meanwhile, the driver was frantically calling his fellow drivers seeing if anyone had a lead on any leopards and he said one had been heard not too far away.
When we got there, there were already several trucks waiting cautiously, but all that could be seen were a group of deer.
Before long, he got a call from a driver and we sped towards a definite leopard sighting.
By the time we got there, there were easily 20 trucks already queuing up to catch a glimpse of this elusive feline.
We waited almost 30 minutes to get our turn, and the rest of our truck was fast asleep until Tracy woke them up so they could see, but even when we were told exactly where to look, we could really only smile and nod. Even zooming in with my 135mm lens still did not prove to be that helpful for seeing this big cat.
So I guess technically we saw one of the Big 3.
Yala National Park is 1268 square kilometres and we were exploring, along with a hundred other people, Block 1.
Block 1 is 141 square kilometres and is said to have around 25 leopards, making it the most dense leopard population and therefore easiest place to spot these animals in all of Sri Lanka.
As we left the ridiculous line-up of trucks, we came across a mother and baby elephant, said to be surprisingly elusive in this part of the park.
Big 2/3: Check.
Now that the pressure had been taken off, the driver actually allowed us to take pictures of the landscape and the other animals.
We saw wild boars, more crocs and Sri Lanka’s national bird, the Ceylon Jungle Fowl (more like a fancy chicken, but don’t tell them that).
Actually, the birds at the park were out of this world: the variety, colours and diversity (over 435 species in all of Sri Lanka) would be enough to make birders out of us, without all the other weird connotations that goes along with the title.
We stopped for a bathroom break and got to wander on an absolutely beautiful beach before heading back into our truck.
What sets Yala apart is that although it is grassland, it still lies just steps from the Indian Ocean, which makes for an absolutely incredible landscape. This proximity also meant that it was flattened in the 2004 tsunami and 250 people in the park lost theirs lives, but apparently no animals.
After our break, we were driving around and stopped next to a truck with its guests pointing and using binoculars. They said there was a leopard lounging but it was too far to see with the naked eye.
Story of our lives.
All of sudden they yelled “It’s moving!” and we could see its spotted coat glide through the bush next to us.
All the trucks (about 3 or 4, including ours) backed up quickly and tried to follow it.
We were all waiting at a clearing in the bush, hoping that the leopard would make all of our days.
Within seconds,the leopard stepped into the clearing and with the noises of the drivers, actually stopped and looked directly at us.
We continued to pursue it and in one final display of awesomeness, it decided to cross the road in front of us, and, just like that, it was back in the thick jungle, leaving the few that were lucky enough to see it giddy with delight.
For the final hour or so of our safari, we saw more buffalo, deer, crocs and even a few strutting peacocks.
We saw the Big 2 out of 3 (and so much more), and with only a few other trucks around us to see them, it made the moment that much more special.
We had heard horror stories about overcrowding and competitive trucks at Yala, but we were fortunate enough to have a really special experience there, one that we will not soon forget.