I was all excited about going on a safari in Sri Lanka because it would be a first for me. Sure, it wouldn’t be like going on one in Africa because they don’t have the Big Five but they do have elephants and leopards. Besides, going on a safari in Sri Lanka is relatively inexpensive and not very commercialized and that suited me.
The best-known safari park is Yala and since Bundala National Park—famous for its birds—is almost beside it I decided to go to both. I booked a room for a couple of nights at a lodge outside Tissamaharama (better known as Tissa) and was talked into giving my safari business to the “brother” of the guy who drove me there from Nuwara Eliya. “My brother has very good jeeps,” I was told.
Bundala National Park
The following morning I was up and ready to go at 5:30am, as instructed. It was totally dark and I hung around my hotel door but the jeep didn’t arrive for it had broken down! It was light by the time a replacement jeep was found. I was the only customer, a bit of a disappointment, but “the brother” said it would be the same price if there was just me or if the jeep was full.
I decided to leave my rather sour mood behind for I was going birding! The drive to the park was crazy rough but totally interesting for I was seeing Sri Lankan life up close. The jeep stopped at the park gate while I paid the entrance fee and the mandatory park ranger joined us, a very nice man with excellent English who seemed to know a lot about birds.
The ranger quickly realized that I was not a birder because I was looking through the wrong end of the binoculars I had picked up at Heathrow Airport on the way here. Even when I was looking through them the right way I couldn’t make out anything at first. I couldn’t even see the crocodile that was right in front of me. But the guide was patient and insisted that we not move on until I could find it.
The next test was to find a monitor in a tree, which was almost as big as the crocodile. He called out directions, “look to the left side of the tree, lower branch, by the hole” and when I finally spotted it I was rather excited.
So I finally relaxed and started seeing birds. “That’s a common kingfisher,” he’d say, “and beside it is a rare black and white one”. You don’t sit around waiting for a bird to show up here for they are everywhere. There are 427recorded species, both endemic and migratory. Birds migrate here from Northern India, Siberia, Scandinavia and Western Europe.
The ranger guided the driver with quick taps on the window, indicating what road to take, when to back up, when to stop. I very quickly felt we were a team, with the driver and ranger seeming to be as pleased as I was with what we saw. It didn’t matter at all if a bird was rare for they were all rare to me; I simply liked the pretty ones. The ranger said that the next time I should bring a bird book, lens for the camera so that I can take photos of them and better binoculars. Good advice.
The ranger suggested I go to Yala National Park in the late afternoon instead of waiting until the morning and I decided to follow his advice and change my booking. This time the jeep was on time and I was once again the only customer.
Yala National Park
Yala National Park is famous for its elephant population, leopard, spotted deer, barking deer, monkey, wild buffalo, wild boar, sloth bear, and many varieties of birds. The peacock is most famous here, particularly the mating dance of the male. Peacocks are fine but I’d seen many of them; I was anxious to see the big ones.
There were many more jeeps in this park whereas I only saw three in Bundala. All the other jeeps were full and I felt somewhat conspicuous having my jeep to myself. This time the ranger who joined us was old and grumpy and rude to the driver.
We did some racing around to see an elusive leopard. We saw deer but I’m from Canada and I’ve seen lots of deer. At the very least I wanted to see elephants and the idiot ranger said that it was raining and elephants and leopards don’t come out if it rains. My response was that the park should have shut the gate then because it was a waste of everyone’s money. When he realized that I wasn’t happy (and therefore he wasn’t going to get a tip) he put more effort into it and we came upon elephant after elephant.
The expedition was worth it, if only because of the setting. The roads were horrible, often just mud trails and jeeps got stuck and other jeeps would stop and push the stuck one out of the mud.
When the tsunami stuck Sri Lanka in 2004, there were four waves that killed 47 people here. There is a memorial in the park about this. I was told that the animals fled ahead of the waves and that none died.
When we finally left the park (and the grumpy ranger) it was dark and still rainy and I stayed in the back of the jeep and simply enjoyed the stillness and the cool evening breeze. Cows blocked the road from time to time as they made their way home. My body ached from all the jolts it had endured.
Sure, the safaris weren’t spectacular but it was still a very special day.
Birding and other safari articles
Birding in Costa Rica with Road Scholar
Stopping at Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
Safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Stuck in the mud on a Tanzanian safari
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013