Sri Lanka – Yala National ParkBack to Story

Kulu Safari

Yala National Park sits in the dry semi arid zone of the South East of Sri Lanka.  The park itself covers over 900km2 but only two of five of the zones, which represent less than 15% of the park, can be accessed. I get the opportunity to spend a couple of days with Kulu Safaris in the grounds of the park.

Kulu Safaris

At the park entrance, Mark, the charismatic host of the camp meets us and I swing gracefully onto the back of the truck.  It’s fair to say that’s an exaggeration and it is more hauling than swinging.  Mark graciously says it won’t take long to get used to it.

The Kulu camp is approximately 30 minutes in from the gates and we make our way on the dusty corrugated road. It was not long into the journey when I was caught daydreaming on the back of the truck and nearly missed seeing the leopard cross the road.  Unfortunately I did miss the shot.  A very early lesson learnt the hard way about being prepared and alert.

The camp is one of three licensed to stay overnight in the park and has approximately 8 tents for guests.  To reach the camp you drive along a riverbed and it is visible as you ascend a small rise in the road.  The tents discretely merge into the bush to minimise disruption to the inhabitants of the park.

Mark shows everyone around the camp by pointing out all the facilities and making sure everyone feels at home.  He chuckles to himself as he explains the plasma television and air conditioning remotes are by the bed.  It is the first sign of the sense of humour that is to come. It’s not until around the campfire over a few wines that he reveals the origin of his chuckles.  He explains he once had a guest that arrived on safari in Prada heels and a Chanel handbag like a scene from Sex in the City.  Similar to such a scene, she was taken aback to discover the lack of both television and air conditioning in the tent.

One of the unique aspects of life in the camp is dining. For both breakfast and lunch the tables are often set up in the river or under the shade of the trees along the banks.  It looks like a lovely way to relax as they sit with their feet in the water and I can confirm that it was as good as it looks.

The troops of monkeys living nearby are putting on a show for everyone.  The boys in the camp use a rope tied across the trees by the river.  The monkeys have decided to create a competition to see who can walk across it like a tightrope.  Some try walking forward, others on their side. One less adventurous monkey takes one look and decides it’s much easier to go by land. The mischievous one of the group hides in the trees and swings down on the monkeys concentrating on the rope with the aim to knocking them off.  All this is done with obvious laughter and mirth both from monkeys and onlookers.

Every morning and evening its time for the safari which is all about riding on the back of the purpose built jeeps and looking for wildlife in the key water holes.  The advantage of staying in the park, apart from those mentioned already, is that for the 30 minutes or so at the beginning and end of the day you feel like you have the park to yourselves.  All operator’s work to the same starting hours however those outside have to start at the gates at 5:30am. Kulu Safaris camp has the advantage of already deep into the park when we start the jeeps at 5:30am. And of course this is the optimal time to see all the wildlife that like to make the most of the cooler temperatures and no doubt quieter environment.

Yala Wildlife

The headline of the park is definitely the leopard.  Mark estimates there are approximately 50 in the park but his gut feel is that numbers are growing.  Wikipedia describe it as one of the most concentrated populations of leopard in the world.  Yala National Park has a reputation for being comparatively easy to spot leopards because they are more active during the day than their African counterparts.  My new jeep mate has lived in Africa for 3 years and never seen one and was thrilled when we had 2 viewings in one day. It was certainly one of the most amazing things to see this great cat slinking across the road. I was surprised both by the size of the animal and also the incredible grace.

The other drawcard to this park are the elephants. While at the park I was lucky enough to see a tusker elephant and also a family with baby elephants. Sri Lanka has seen a decline in wild elephants as man and elephant have been increasingly competing for habitat. The National Parks in Sri Lanka have become increasingly important to provide a safe haven for not only these great animals but all of the Sri Lankan wildlife.

The challenge that I see though is the balance between access to the park and protection of the animals. While visiting the park we experienced the huge numbers of vehicles that are allowed into the park every day. There is no control over the vehicle numbers or the types of vehicles allowed. As a result, at times, it was almost a traffic jam of vehicles with some of the drivers showing little or no sensitivity to that fact there were wild animals living in the park. You could almost see the animals coughing in the diesel fumes as vehicles blocked their way to much needed watering holes. This is, of course, an exaggeration but I think there is a delicate balancing act between access and protection.

Tsunami 2004

On one of the days Mark takes us to Yala Beach as one of the new arrivals required a bathroom.  He called it a walking safari – showing that sense of humour again.  We get the chance to hop out and walk along the pristine beaches.  There are some temporary fishing huts and boats further down the beach.  As we climb up we’re told this was one of the worst hit areas of the 2004 Tsunami.  Two lodges were on the clearing where we were parked and many tourists and locals alike died.  Interesting to note not one wild animal died.  They all moved inland to safety.  Even the domestic animals the only ones to perish were tied down.  It was a very sobering thought in this land of paradise.

Travel photographs from Yala National Park, including images of leopards, deer, bea eaters, peacocks, crocodiles and Yala Beach. With Kulu Safaris.

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