To see the abundant wildlife in four national parks, Sharon Ng Kooi Kin endures driving on what passes off as roads
WE don’t go on one safari in Sri Lanka. We go on four in 12 days! Our bones are shaken and rattled out of joint, even as our eyes feast on the magnificent wildlife!
Most of the national parks that offer these safaris have extremely bad roads. In one, driving on the rocky laterite road is really brutal as our hired 4WD takes the torturous journey into and around the park.
On another, the dry earthen track kicks up so much dust, our clothes wash out black ink at laundry time. And on yet another, the pot holes should be re-named small lakes!
But the rewards of going on safari far outweigh the poor conditions of the roads, especially for nature lovers like us. Let me recount for you these safaris in order of personal preference.
YALA NATIONAL PARK
This is one national park that should be visited by all visitors to Sri Lanka and 30,000 visitors vouch for its popularity. The Peacock Reach Hotel near Tissa is very comfortable once we get used to the gaudy decorations reflecting its name.
Multi-coloured tiles, paint work and furniture compete with the many real-life peacocks resting on trees or strutting about in the surrounding grounds.
We’re up early at 5.30am and our driver, Chandran, is already waiting at the gate. Together with Jeevan, the National Park guide and Chandima Jayaweera, our bird guide, we make our way on some quite rough roads. Our main sighting target that day is the leopards.
But before the main course comes, the park serves us “appetisers” in the form of Asian elephants, crocodiles, toque macaques, purple-faced leaf monkey, monitor lizards, grey langur, black-naped hare, ruddy mongoose, water buffaloes, spotted deer, wild boars and even a two-metre long python!
Now, have you ever seen a tree literally covered with the black-headed ibis, an Asian open-bill?
As we wait for the main course, there are two false alarms to tease our anticipation. We come across paw prints of the elusive cats in one location and in another, screeching alarm calls of monkeys indicate their presence. But though we patiently wait at these sites and communicate with hand signals or whispers or just remain as still as possible, the spotted cats never make an appearance.
At about 4.30pm, we want to call it a day, despondently accepting the fact that we’re just not lucky enough to see those spotted felines.
Suddenly, Jeevan alerts us to two animals reclining on a mound of earth on the other side of a small shallow gully and lake. And there they are, those beautiful Sri Lanka leopards which we have been hunting the whole day!
The leopards are completely unaware that there are human observers around. They play with each other, stretch and recline. They walk down slopes as only a graceful feline can and generally giving us a rare glimpse at how such animals behave in the wild.
There are no trees or bushes to obstruct our view and our party is the first to spot them. That means we can park our vehicles at the best vantage point and shoot as many photographs as we like. For 20 minutes, we observe and gaze in wonder at these beautiful creatures.
Then a second vehicle discovers us and the driver telephones the other groups. Akasha Junction is the favoured spot that day and soon about 30 vehicles have zeroed in on that location!
It is unbelievable how quickly the news spread and, even as we drive away back to the rangers station, still more vehicles are speeding towards it.
The dust storm, kicked up by the rushing cars, is soon swallowed up by the gathering dusk. We are fortunate to have seen those leopards about one hour before nightfall.
When I ask Jeevan why he does not inform other drivers when there is a rare sighting, his quick reply is: “Then it is not a safari any more!”
UDAWALAWE NATIONAL WILDLIFE PARK
My second favourite safari is at an elephant sanctuary, 200km southeast of Colombo. After checking into Nurwara Hotel the day before, we start at 6.20am the following day in an open-top 4WD.
Udawalawe game reserve is a major eco-tourism destination in Sri Lanka mainly because its 30,800ha is sanctuary for 400 wild elephants which move around the grasslands in herds.
It is not uncommon to see a few of them wandering on to the tracks where loads of excited visitors stop to allow them to pass, like royalty.
After all that excitement, we park under a huge shady tree, at a scenic spot surrounded by small lakes and grasslands. Even as we eat our picnic breakfast, elegant storks walk nearby.
We have good sightings of the wooly-necked, painted and lesser adjutant storks, species not easy to see in Malaysia. Other animals recorded here are civet cats, langurs, muntjacs, shrews, hares and deer.
Then there is the elusive spurfowl which we manage to have only a fleeting glimpse of during our entire stay in Sri Lanka. As we continue our safari, we come across more elephants, and also many raptors like the montagu’s harrier, white-bellied sea eagle, crested serpent eagle and oriental honey buzzard. The roads here are comparatively well-maintained and the ride is therefore not unpleasant.
As we take our leave, we cannot resist making a last minute stop to offer cobs of maize, through the electric fence, to elephants waiting on the other side. Being fed regularly by visitors, they have learnt to congregate here for this guaranteed treat.
BUNDALA NATIONAL PARK
A large section of Bundala National Park is wetland because it is part of five shallow brackish lagoons. It was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1969 and a Ramsar Site in 1991. It is an internationally important wintering ground for migratory water birds in Sri Lanka.
Together with local birds, 197 species of birds have been recorded here. Bundala was declared a Man And Biosphere Reserve by Unesco in 2005 and a National Bird Ringing Programme established.
A salt pan company has built 7.5km of bunds and road works to access the water and extract the salt. And so we can go on this safari on wheels. Yippee! What a relief for my tired legs!
We spotted about 30 species of water birds, among them the great thick-knee, pied kingfisher and glossy ibis. I enjoy observing the hovering habit of the pied kingfisher, not commonly seen in Malaysia.
We are told that thousands of great flamingo will fly in during the winter but we are too early for this spectacular sight. Still, to see some during those few hours is sufficient to keep us happy.
SINGHARAJA NATIONAL PARK
After a five-hour energy-sapping journey, through narrow roads and traffic jams, we check into Green Shadow Lodge, near Singharaja National Park, which has no accommodations within its boundaries.
With incredulous eyes, I take in the small log cabin bedroom in which we are supposed to spend the next three days.
The ceiling is gunnysack cloth slung across the roof. The 122cm-wide bed for two is actually a pallet with mattress, placed on top of a rectangle of logs, immovable from the rough wooden wall. Two trails of black jungle ants decorate one wall.
“We are in here only to sleep at night,” my hubby says, trying to comfort me. But I can tell you that it is scant comfort as I cover the wall next to the bed with a propped up spare mattress. At least I won’t have ants crawling all over me when I sleep!
This national park is my least favourite park because of the difficult access road. It is actually the first on our itinerary of a series of safaris!
The 45-minute seemingly endless journey into the park from the lodge, in a low-roof jeep, is a bar-gripping, bucking horse ride that threatens to land us in hospital with concussion.
We stop at the Information Centre to buy our entry tickets, some leech socks and pamphlets. Our guide here is Ranjit, a small sized but strong guy who knows the park like the back of his hand. He also agrees to double as my porter, carrying my camera equipment, scope and tripod. This is going to be a walking safari!
We start walking at 10am at the guard post. We pass a green keelback water snake sitting on a rock, staking out for fish in a small pool. Our first snake sighting! Later that day we are lucky to see a green pit viper too.
The star bird in this area is the blue magpie, a gorgeous, 30cm-long bird. Three specimens greet us at a road junction and stay around to be photographed from every angle, oblivious to the many camera-toting visitors, gleefully clicking away.
At 1pm, we take a brisk walk back to the guard post and a private home serves us a delicious local meal of rice, chilli dried prawns, canned mackerel, vegetables and fruit.
The afternoon session yields the nesting hole of a pair of crimson-backed woodpecker providing many hours of observation and photography.
The friendly jungle fowl, with many “wives” in tow, also entertains us with a willingness to come within centimetres if we offer food! Then it is a slow bumpy ride back to Green Shadow Lodge. I must say the service and meals at this lodge are good despite its humble set-up.
The next morning, we do the bucking horse ride again into the national park. The huge boulders on unsealed roads which our 4WD has to negotiate have to be seen to be believed.
This safari is not for the faint-hearted or older visitors. Birding around the lodge proves rewarding when, at about 6pm, we sight the Indian pitta, one of the birds on our wish list.
The common kingfisher, which is not very common in Malaysia, also makes an appearance, to our delight. On our first evening here, we are also taken to see a pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths, incubating eggs in a nest the size of a champagne glass, in a leech-infested rubber estate.