After the unforgettable experience atop Adam’s peak we left the mountains behind and headed further south. Here I really need to praise Sri Lankan public transportation, because despite the cramped buses and old trains, it was never a problem to get from A to B without having booked tickets in advance. This meant it was possible for us to change our plans on the fly – stay longer in places we liked and leave earlier from places we didn’t. Badulla (not to be confused with Dambulla) for example was a surprisingly boring town, where we managed to visit the few unimpressive sites very quickly and move on. Similarly, on our way to the next destination we were not impressed by the place we planned to spend the night at, so we just continued to the next town. Travelling is not a hassle if you yourself are flexible. And our flexibility brought us to Yala national park.
Yala is the second largest wilderness preserve on the island, known best for its large number of leopards. The only way to visit it is with an official safari vehicle but there are lots of those. Finding one is not as difficult as getting the price right. As with almost everything in Lanka, prices are flexible and without haggling you can easily be charged double the actual cost for pretty much anything, if not more.
The park opens for visitors early in the morning and closes before sundown. Most tours start as early as possible when animals are still moving about, before it gets too hot. This also means that every morning there is a throng of safari SUVs at the park entrance, all anxious to get started. The park roads can get quite busy in some locations. You’d think the animals would be bothered, but fortunately only 1/3 of the park is open for visitors – there is ample space for them to roam undisturbed by curious tourists. In fact, during our visit most animals seemed unperturbed by our presence and mostly kept on sleeping or doing whatever they were before we encountered them.
And encounter them we did. We found dozens of different birds, birds so colorful that even those not into bird-watching would appreciate their looks. Several times we met wild elephants on the road. This wasn’t the first time for us to encounter wild elephants in Sri Lanka, however here we got much closer. The elephants in Lanka are a separate species known as the Sri Lanka elephant. Creative huh? We also met wild water buffalos, salt water and mugger crocodiles, several families of wild boar (their piglets are adorable) and also several species of, for lack of better knowledge, what I’d call spotted deer. No luck for us with leopards though. I guess it was their day off.
During the day the drivers keep in touch with each other via radio to share information about sightings. This helps tourists see more animals during their day to this large park, but you only get to see those who don’t mind being seen. During the day there is no getting out of the vehicle other than during lunch break at the beach – a welcome pause from driving to stretch legs and find a bit of shade during the hot day. During lunch time there is no point in driving around anyway, the animals are having their siesta as well.
Yala has a lot of beautiful diverse nature that can be admired even without the animals. There are areas which are reminiscent of the African savannah, areas of large forests, lots of hidden water holes, some cute clearings and of course the shore of the Indian ocean. Dotting the landscape are huge solitary boulders, some the size of small hills. I wouldn’t mind living here myself. The tourists might become a bit annoying though.