What can I say, other than we have just had one of the best experiences of our lives!
A few days ago we did a full-day safari in Kumana National Park (also known as Yala East), a scenic 35,664-hectare wildlife park, with Arugam Bay Tours.
The day started at 5am when we were collected from our Arugam Bay accommodation by a truck which had roughly 7 open-air seats in the back. Other than settling the fee for the tour, there was nothing else that we needed to do and we were quickly on our way.
We thought it was too good to be true to have the whole vehicle to ourselves, so fully expected to go on to collect more people before making our way to Kumana. However, that moment never came: we zipped along the main road, exited the Arugam Bay area and within minutes were in the countryside heading to our safari destination. Lucky, or what?!
We set off
As we exited Arugam Bay our guide and chauffeur for the day, Manaf, jumped out of the truck and popped into a basic little store with a man out the front making the dough for the day’s roti production. Manaf came out with a bagful of hoppers – a popular Sri Lankan pancake made with flour and coconut milk. He popped the bag on the passenger seat (at which point we were unsure of who they were for) and set off again.
After about ten minutes of driving, we were in the Sri Lankan countryside. It was still dark at this point.
Just a quick side note; what is truly special about Sri Lanka is its vast expanses of untouched land: something of a rarity in today’s overpopulated world. It really is breathtaking to see so much land which is protected for its wildlife where animals live freely without human intervention.
Soon after hitting the countryside – Manaf said “elephant!”. To our left were two fully grown majestic beasts. One of the elephants crossed the road in front of us, making a silhouette in our headlights. We were off to a good start!
After an hour or so of driving, we arrived at the park entrance. Manaf popped out to do the paperwork with one of the rangers. Before getting back into the truck, he handed us the hoppers for us to eat. They not only filled a hole but were incredibly tasty too! A ranger opened the gate and we headed in.
Arriving at sunrise was incredibly special. Seeing great plains of open land, with the orange sky reflecting off the lakes and water buffalo silhouetting against the horizon, is something we’ll never forget.
After sunrise we stopped beside a wetlands. Manaf laid down a picnic rug and organised a second breakfast for us: bread, jam, fresh passionfruit and mango. We insisted that he sat with us, and we all had breakfast together overlooking the huge expanse of wetland which was laden with birdlife: some nesting, some surveying the landscape from various vantage points, some feeding in the grass, and some gliding effortlessly over the canopy. We spotted pelicans, herons, cormorants, kingfishers, eagles and hornbills – to name a few.
A brief encounter
After breakfast we had a few hours of driving before lunch. We saw so many varieties of birds it was staggering, along with warthogs, monkeys, water buffalo, mongoose, crocodiles and, the moment we had been waiting for – a leopard!
Chloe, who has an incredible eyesight and ability to spot nature, shouted “leopard, leopard!” as we drove speedily along the dusty dirt tracks. We came to a grinding halt and Manaf slowly reversed. Chloe had seen him sitting upright on top of a rock but he had been alarmed by our vehicle and by the time we reversed back, he was gone (or so we thought!). Our driver said that it was likely the leopard had taken quick refuge in the shaded crevices between the rocks and suspected he’d still be in the area if we returned. Manaf promised we’d go back after lunch.
Lunch in paradise
As lunch approached Manaf told us he’d take us half-an-hour off-road to a quiet destination to have a picnic. Our other option was to return to the same spot we had breakfast, but as this was now occupied by some absolute heroes who were picking up plastic (dropped by people who had recently embarked on a religious pilgrimage to Sithulpahuwa), we felt best to let them do their jobs and us to find somewhere quieter.
We snaked through the off-road dirt tracks and came to a stretch of rainforest home to monitor lizards and lots of monkeys (we saw one lizard about 2 metres long!), and arrived at a little pocket of paradise: a few rocks overlooking a beach created on the riverbed due to the low water-levels during dry-season.
Our guide brought out an assortment of curries (dhal, beetroot curry and dry coconut sambol) served with rice and papadam. We ate the incredibly fresh and delicious local food (the best dhal we’d had in Sri Lanka), overlooking pools of shallow fish-filled pools of water and beach, while purple-faced leaf monkeys played in the trees above us. I turned to Chloe and said: “isn’t this just paradise?”
A proper encounter!
Stomachs full, we were ready for our afternoon safari. Back to the leopard spot we went and it was still there! Again, a little put off by the sound of our vehicle, it made a quick escape to the gap between the rocks – but stayed long enough for us to see his back and tail. We proceeded to peer into the gaps and saw him vividly: although he was difficult to make out due to the area being so shaded and tree branches interfering with our view. We soon moved on, feeling incredibly lucky.
The next couple of hours of driving were immense: we saw two elephants wading through a vast expanse of lake, and many more buffalo, spotted deer, mongoose, bird species, lizards and monkeys, with the addition of a snake and, what turned out to be a real highlight: a lake with roughly 40 crocodiles basking in the sun with their mouths open. It was a sight to behold and we just kept wanting to pinch ourselves.
But what happened next blew our minds. We were in the last stages of our safari, the sun was low and we were heading for the exit, driving on a road with rich undergrowth either side. The hot weather had subsided and we had noticed an upturn in the amount of wildlife on display.
Standing in the middle of the road about 100 metres ahead of us was a fully grown leopard (the one we had seen earlier was an adolescent). This couldn’t be true: we had been told by our guide on umpteen occasions after seeing the first leopard how rare seeing one was, passed a number tour groups and guides who told us they hadn’t seen any that day, and felt more than lucky to have seen the rear end and faint outline of the leopard in the rocks earlier; but there in front of us, in clear daylight was one of the world’s most beautiful creatures in all its glory.
As we passed slowly and parked up beside him, he sat upright and stared at us straight in the eyes. Chloe was tearful and I was speechless. These moments in life don’t come around very often and we both felt so blessed. Manaf just kept repeating, “lucky, lucky group” while smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.
Having an experience like this can’t be without its shoutouts. First, our driver and guide, Manaf, who was an absolute legend and incredibly knowledgeable about the park, its inhabitants and where to spot the best wildlife. We ate breakfast and lunch together and grew an awesome bond with him. We felt it was his day as much as ours and that we were all sharing the experience together.
The second goes to the absolute heroes picking up rubbish. They did it with a smile on their faces and, as environmentalists, we just loved seeing them care for the natural world and preserving the park’s beauty.
The last couple of shout outs go to Arugam Bay Tours for putting the day on for us (it wasn’t sponsored, we paid full-price for our tour and just loved every minute of it), and the park rangers and all the organisations behind the preservation of Sri Lanka’s incredible nature parks and wildlife. It’s what makes the country so special and we applaud the people who look after and maintain it so wonderfully.