Sunday, August 30, 2020

Yala National Park - Look what we (caution: bad pun ahead) spotted!


Yala National Park borders the Indian Ocean

We took our first road trip in Sri Lanka, even if it was only for two days. What's been stopping us? First, we needed to be allowed out of the port. Check. Second, we had to figure out how to leave the boat safely.

Sea Eagle

This second requirement turned out to be mostly a mental barrier borne of past chafed lines, popped fenders, and a marred hull paint job. At times big surges would come into the harbor and toss the boat around. But the forecast predicted calm water and a friend on another boat here generously agreed to keep an eye on our boat. So we felt comfortable enough to leave Perry for a couple days and one night to take a trip to Yala National Park.


Water buffalo

Yala is one of the top attractions in Sri Lanka for good reasons. It's a bit smaller than 400 square miles and is filled with wildlife, including one of the highest densities of wild leopards in the world.


Asian elephant enjoying water lilies

Yala is one of the best places to have the chance to see a leopard in the wild, but you still have to be pretty lucky to spot one. You can tell that finding leopards is the main focus for the drivers/guides. They all keep in touch with each other on their phones and when there is a sighting, it's a mad dash, with tires screeching and dirt flying.

There were a dozen-plus jeeps at our leopard sightings but on the weekends there can be a few hundred jeeps in the park

We did an afternoon safari on our first visit and a morning safari the next day. In the chaotic zooming around at the news of our first leopard, our driver went too fast over a big bump. Conrad and I both flew up and hit our heads on the roof of the jeep (I managed to get 3 pretty good sized knots in various spots on my head). The next day, one of the guides/trackers from another jeep said that people have actually cracked their skulls in the past and suggested that we should tell our driver not to speed (because there is a speed limit in the park).

Spoiler alert: We saw a leopard.

We felt bad that the leopard was seemingly chased non-stop by the the jeeps, but he seemed completely unfazed by the hullabaloo. I'm not sure if that's because the dozen or so vehicles were actually a much smaller number than usual or because he is just used to it. The apparent harassment is a double-edged sword because the tours and visitor dollars (the entrance fee on the website is literally in U.S. dollars) help ensure that the park will continue to provide protection to the animals. But maybe one of these days a leopard will go all Sean Penn on its 'paparazzi'. If so, there will be someone there with a camera to record it.

We were lucky enough to see a leopard on both our safaris. Our driver said it had been a week since he had seen one, so he was excited too (we think it was the same leopard both days because it was in the same general area). 

On the second safari (which came with an unpopular 5 a.m. pick-up), a leopard was spotted sleeping in a tree. Promising something more interesting than just a hanging tail and some half-obscured fur, our guide suggested to wait. We waited about an hour for the leopard to come down out of the tree (did you know that teenage boys can be impatient about waiting around doing nothing? and in this case, their mom too...). Finally, the gamble paid off as it got warmer and the sun started to creep onto the leopard. He got up to get a drink from the grimy-looking pond nearby, before strolling off into the underbrush.


We were glad that we waited, but who knows what else we missed. At least my headache from literally hitting the roof is mostly gone now.

Malabar Pied Hornbills


Purple Heron

We also spotted this Spotted Deer

Mom and baby

Carpenter bee - about the size of a pecan

Our hotel had its own wildlife. Matt was surprised (he may have shrieked a little) as he was resting on the bed when a tree frog dropped next to him from somewhere. We figured out later that they like to sit in the air-conditioning unit above the bed. After we turned the AC on and the unit started cooling down, they were less happy inside and wandered out. And then--gravity. 

That evening, one fell on my foot while I was sleeping (I definitely shrieked). I'm glad I decided to move my head to the other side of the bed. The kids loved the frogs ('they're so cute') but we all had to be extra careful not to squish them when going to the bathroom in the dark and it is disconcerting to turn on the lights and see five of them staring at you from various places in and around the toilet.


  1. When we were in Botswana with the Deckers about 15 years ago we saw 5 leopards doing their things during 4 safaris over 4 days. One was a she-cat with male kitten way up in a "cave-like" hole in a 30m high cliff over the dry river bed. Point being, the local Sri Lanka leopard hype is exaggerated just a wee bit.


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