Well, that was quite a day.
Where to begin? This morning we left our paradise, Horathapola, and embarked on a seven hour drive to the 2nd leg of our tour, Kulu Safaris in Yala.
The car journey was tiring. All of my senses felt assaulted as my eyes and ears and nose tried to take in the so unfamiliar sights and sounds and smells that lay themselves out like a feast before me. Our driver, Vijay, was safe and sensible and reassuring, but sadly the same could not be said for his compatriots on the road. I was still suffering from jetlag so having slept very little in the last 3 days, the road trip hit me hard. However, oh my word, this country is utterly beautiful. The varying landscapes from mountains to seas of trees to reservoirs to villages filled with shops selling clothes and gems and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables.
We finally arrived at our destination. We were shown to our tents and to be honest, I freaked a little.
OK, I freaked a lot.
Suddenly the idea of sleeping on my own in the middle of a jungle in a tent had gone from being a romantic notion to a scary reality and the wimp came out in me.
A G&T and wine over lunch helped to calm my nerves and then we set off on our first of four safari trips to look for leopards.
Enter Mr Twitcher and Mrs Anorak. Two Americans also staying at Kulu and who were sharing the jeep ride with us. It turned out they are avid bird watchers, well him anyway, with spread sheet to boot of what he has seen etc etc etc etc…….oops, i just fell asleep with boredom……anyway, suffice to say bird watching and leopard looking sort of took over. Truth be told there was no sort of about it. A frenzied obsession prevailed to add more ticks to that spread sheet as well as get a close up shot of that elusive leopard.
Meanwhile, I was transported to my own little piece of paradise where leopards were not on my radar. I was transfixed by peacocks parading, mongooses mating, monkeys monkeying around, water and land monitors monitoring – not to mention looking at exquisite tree formations, divine landscapes, sunsets. Water buffalo were cooling down in their own private pools of water, spotted deer were being spotted everywhere and elephants were cosying up to our jeep in search of treats.
And, yes, we did see a leopard. It was a bit like seeing Michael Jackson at one of his concerts at Wembley but without the aid of big screens. It was pretty amazing, but not as wonderful as the whole experience itself.
There is a lesson I learned here. Don’t get so involved in trying to find one thing at the expense of not noticing all the other spectacular things right in front of you.
The journey back to our camp was a bit like a Formula 1 race. Suddenly our driver realised the time and informed us his foot would have to be put down in order to get us to the gate which closed at 6pm. Oh boy was that exhilarating! Speeding through the jungle through muddy waters (thank the lord for the indestructible Issey Miyake) was the most fun I have had in ages.
By the time we had finished dinner, familiarity had crept in and the fears were disappearing into a blur of memories imprinted (hopefully) forever.
(You know what they say, though, pride comes before a fall and after day 2 when I felt utterly fearless, I found a centipede the size of my foot on my bathroom floor and a wild boar snored right outside my tent all night long.)
Well, we bade farewell to Horathapola. We will come back again one day. We have to. (He wailed. This is a Wanderlust Junkie talking, remember.) When we’d finished our breakfast, one of the staff appeared carrying two boxes. “What are those?” we asked. “Rats!” he jested. Actually not. Each box crafted from recycled paper contained a bottle of coconut shampoo and jars of coconut/vanilla tea, black peppercorns and pure coconut oil. Everything made on the estate. The kind of gift you might buy in Harvey Nichols or the gourmet department in El Corte Inglés. We will, we will, we will come back.
The drive from Horathapola to Yala is a mere 281.6 km. But this is Sri Lanka. It seemed eternal. It was Saturday. The traffic was battling for space on the narrow roads. We arrived with our bodies well and truly pummelled and in a post-traumatic state after what felt like many a potential death by collision with bus or truck.
The first safari drive was scheduled for 3 o’clock. So we bolted our lunch and (to my peril anyway) left without a quick wee. The result was that I was sitting with legs metaphorically crossed for the full three hours, which kind of marred the experience.
Even Wanderlust Junkies can be wimps sometimes.
I just sat there politely suffering in the belief that it is forbidden to set foot, let alone urinate, on the hallowed land of a nature reserve. (I later brought the subject up with the guide. Apparently no problem as long as there’s no leopard hovering in the branches of your chosen tree trunk.)
But it was lovely to be back in Yala and staying in a Kulu Safaris camp (we first visited in 2012). Not many creatures were in evidence. But Lau enjoyed the repeat experience and Maroulla was entranced by yet another Sri Lankan paradise. Oh, I was delighted to be back, don’t get me wrong. But physical contortion marred my response on that first drive. Meanwhile, our jeep companions (a couple from North California) ‘birded’. OMG. The tyranny of twitchers. “My spreadsheet lists 2043 different species,” beamed the husband like a primary school pupil who’d just got a gold star for handwriting. “Stooooop,” he’d yell at the sight of a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, with a thinly veiled smugness that he’d been the first to spot it. Having ticked so many birds already in his life and somewhat dominating the proceedings, he didn’t allow air time for such prolific delights as the dazzling Green Bee-eater, while peacocks – the most beautiful birds on the planet – were totally taken for granted, as if they were the spotted deer of the bird world. The only thing that bonded our group was the hope of spotting a leopard. We were near one once and saw its eye through the undergrowth. But that was it.
Nonetheless, during the next two drives (my pee anxiety allayed) we enjoyed the peacocks, the landscape, a very close encounter with an elephant, the sight of two mongooses mating (in a non creepy way), what seemed to be a water buffalo jacuzzi and a vast, startling petrified forest emerging from a reservoir (or ‘tank’, which is the term here), and the mysterious (to us – our birding man would know) cackles and squawks and calls from the trees surrounding our tents.
Lau and I enjoyed our return to Yala, though just a tad nostalgic for our 2012 experience. At that time Kulu Safaris pitched their tents in the actual reserve on the banks of a river where elephants drank just metres from your flap. You showered under a football-like container filled with hot water. The tents were real tents secured to the earth. Now there are real showers, the tents have been raised on a wooden frame and the government have said no to camping in the reserve. I loved the Enid Blyton adventure of it all five years ago. Now too the safari industry has mushroomed to the extent that sometimes you gag on the carbon monoxide from the jeep in front. And if there’s merely the hint of a leopard, everyone speeds to the site of the sighting and the track turns into Piccadilly Circus. But it is fun and I must remember that this Wanderlust junkie is somewhat spoiled and should curb his tendency to whinge.
The landscape is startling, the glimpse of any wildlife is charming and the sight of a leopard or whatever is a bonus.
Travel tip. Yala is divided into zones. Zone 5 is clearly the finest and an absolute must. That’s where the petrified forest is.