Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Safari in Yala National Park

Upon reading about Sri Lanka's famous Yala National Park in one of my favorite travel magazines, I knew we had to incorporate a mini safari adventure into our two-week itinerary. From Ella we hopped on a bus heading south to Tissamaharama (Tissa) where we based ourselves at My Village for a few nights. 

Palm trees, rice paddies, dagobas, jeeps, and a serene man-made lake complete the landscape in Tissa. It was stifling hot and humid. And the entire town is obsessed with Bob Marley, even drivers have built-in subwoofers in the back of the tuk-tuk blasting "No Woman, No Cry." Welcome to Tissa.

The real reason for coming to Tissa was to use it as a base for our safari drives into Yala National Park. Bright and early at 5am, our driver from Sugathe's Yala Safari picked us in his massive canopied green Tata and we were off for a full-day dawn to dusk safari.

Entering the park was a bit chaotic as there are no limit to the number of vehicles inside the park, but the crowds drop significantly after10:30am when the morning only safaris exit the park, leaving the handful reminding jeeps to roam freely about. The park itself is strikingly beautiful and pristine with thick scrubs, stork-clad lakes, dune-covered coastline, and majestic rock formations. Simply stunning.

Our first order of business was to track down the elusive Sri Lankan leopard, Yala's most famous resident. The driver explained to us that these insanely shy creatures are most active in the early mornings and are generally spotted near massive rocks or on large tree branches. We were lucky to see three leopard-sightings throughout the day: 2 in the morning and another in the late afternoon. The first leopard was lying in the shade behind a rock; the second was sleeping peacefully high up on a large shady tree; and the third was also found on a tree but made a quick move to the ground before the other jeeps arrived. I am amazed how well camouflaged these animals are! 


The entire park is teeming with wildlife from herds of buffaloes, wild boar, spotted deers, macaque (red-faced) and langur (black-faced) monkeys, jackals, rabbits, elephants, monitors, crocodiles, and more. In fact we probably saw more animals in one day in Yala than our two days combined in Kruger National Park. If you're into bird-watching, then you'll fall in love with Yala. There are no fewer than 130 different species of bird from the ubiquitous peacock, storks, egrets, kingfishers, herons, ibises to name a few.
Wild Buffaloes:
Spotted Deer
Monitor Lizard
Langur monkey
Wild Boar

Peacock looking for a mate
Pretty bird

During the height of the afternoon heat, we spotted two large groups of female elephants with their young babies on separate ends of the park. In total, we probably saw two dozen elephants inside of Yala including one lonesome male elephant walking on top of a large cliff. These creatures are amazing and huge! As my favorite wild animal, I couldn't help but to take a million pictures of them -- they were just too adorable. We spent some time watching the group of elephants feeding on grass, interacting with each other, and even cross the croc-infested lake. This was definitely one of my favorite safari moments.

It was truly a rewarding day to be fully immersed in nature and taking in the stunning scenery. A full-day safari is exhausting, but is highly recommended if you want to increase your chances of seeing all the wildlife Yala National Park has to offer. It may seem impossibly busy in the morning but I promise it will be more relaxed in the afternoon. Do remember to bring sun block, reading materials, snacks/food, and plenty of water as there are no tourists facilities inside the park.  

Crocodile Island:

The next day, we had a leisurely day of sleeping until noon, followed by an afternoon bicycle ride  through little rice paddies and around Tissa Lake. There is not much to see in terms of sights in Tissa, but the scenery is pleasant enough. Most tourists take a sunset cruise on Lake Tissa but seeing that locals use the lake to bath and wash clothes, we didn't see the appeal of it. In terms of dining, you're better off eating at your B&B and for that I recommend My Village for their excellent Sri Lankan cooking.

Having missed the puja in Kandy, we wanted to attend the evening puja in the temple town of Kataragama, another holy site to Sir Lankan Buddhists and Hindus, located half an hour from Tissa. The main road leading up to the Sacred Precinct was lined with shops selling colourful garlands and fruit baskets used as offerings to the god Kataragama. Inside the atmospheric main complex, there are several temples dedicated to different deities which were built around the a large Bo tree. Pilgrims descend bearing fruit platters, while others break a coconut which is considered the purest form of offering to a god according to Hinduism. It was interesting to quietly observe the pious rituals of the world's oldest religion.

From Tissa, it was time to move on to the beach for some sun and relaxation.

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