English | Dutch
A safari in Yala National Park
Mirissa Beach (Sri Lanka), February 18th 2011

A visit to Yala National Park is seen as one of the absolute highlights of every visit to Sri Lanka. Yala is a national park, where visitors are treated on trumpeting elephants, bands of jackals, beautiful birds and maybe even an encounter with the legendary leopard, which moves like a shadow through the undergrowth of the forest. So, this vast area of dry woodlands, with its open areas and small lakes is a must-see attraction in the south-eastern part of Sri Lanka.

For most travellers, a visit to Yala starts with the journey to the small village of Tissamaharama (Tissa). This is the most convenient base for independent trips to the national park. This is also the place where you can arrange your jeep safari at one of the many agencies or individual drivers. Travellers with a higher budget might choose to stay at Yala Village Hotel, and upmarket resort close to the entrance of the park. We decided to stay at Independent Travellers Inn, a small hotel near the bus station in Tissa. We had to overcome some troubles at this little place, before we could actually start our safari (see also the column: Safari maffia practices). At half past six in the morning, the gate of the park opened for us. It was time to start enjoying all the beauty that the park had in store for us.

A beautiful Painted Stork

One of the first things that we concluded was that the Yala is a busy national park. Don’t expect to have the park to yourself. Already during the 21 kilometre journey from Tissa to the park entrance, you will notice that it is some kind of a jeep race between the drivers to be at the park as soon as possible. After all, you don’t want to stand too long in the queue to get your tickets. Once in the park, you share the sandy paths with tens of other jeep, which means that you drive in columns once in a while. Every jeep driver wants to show his guests as much as possible, because that’s the way to maximise the tip. So, it happens once in a while that jeep drivers try to position their jeep as ‘good’ as possible when there is a sighting, neglecting the fact that the view of others can be robbed of.

But it isn’t all hatred and jealously. Some drivers tolerate each other and sometimes even cooperate with each other. If one of them spots an interesting animal, the mobile phones are used to communicate the sighting to their befriend colleagues. So, it happens that jeeps drive with top speed through the park to a sighting that might be in another part of the park. It is maybe not the real adventurer’s experience, but a reality in a modern society where people are not happy anymore when they don’t get the most out of their safari. We also brought a brief visit to the tsunami monument that is located at the beach in the park. This is the place where 49 tourists, guides and drivers died when the tsunami hit the coast of Sri Lanka during a similar jeep safari on 2004’s Boxing Day.

The highlight of the safari: the leopard
Eventually, we see a lot during our safari. The first group of animals that makes us always happy when we see them is the birds. We saw among other birds loads of Bee-eaters, Painted Storks, Asian Open bills, Black-headed Ibises and of course also the national bird of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Jungle fowl. We also saw groups of jackals that fed themselves on the carcasses of animals that died because of illness or old age, or who were the victims of one of the elusive leopards. We were also very happy with the different sightings of the elephant. The park still has a healthy elephant population which makes a sighting of an elephant in Yala NP substantial. And it was our lucky day, because we also observed two so-called Tuskers, male elephants with tusks. And that is more special, because the park authorities estimate that only eleven of them are left in the park. It is fabulous to see these huge animals on just a few metres from the jeep.

But the real surprise happened at the end of the safari. We had the small hope to see the leopard, which we saw never before. It is a possibility in Yala NP, but absolutely no certainty. Just before the end of the safari, our guide got a phone call about a sighting of a leopard in another part of the park. With full speed we drove to the destination, where the leopard draped himself on a big branch of a tree, under the vegetation, to protect himself from the burning heat of the sun. With the use of our binoculars and thanks to the driving capabilities of our driver who positioned the jeep as good as possible between the other jeeps, we had a good sighting.

After enjoying the leopard for twenty minutes, we decided to drive back to the park entrance. We were in the park already for almost six hours, and we also had the plan to take the bus today to the small beach village called Mirissa. Most jeeps left the park already, because most visitors only book a tour of three hours, based on the assumption that there isn’t a lot to see in the park during the hottest hours of the day. But we always say: “you definitely see more in the park, than you see in your hotel room”, and that’s why we always try to stay as long as possible. And that theory paid off today. On the way back to the park entrance we saw a leopard walking over the sandy path just in front of our jeep. We followed him as quiet as possible, and he didn’t really seem to bother our presence. Our lucky moment came when he decided to ‘use the toilet’ which was the perfect opportunity to make a picture of him. The sighting was tremendous! We looked at each other satisfied; a great safari ended with a fabulous climax.


Go back to home pageGo to Articles sectionGo to Columns sectionGo to Photos sectionGo to countries sectionGo to weblog sectionGo to about us