Waking Val up before 9am can be a dangerous endeavor. Waking her up at 4:15am is downright suicidal. I was willing to take the risk to see Yala National Park.
Without much fuss we found ourselves upright on the dark street at 4:45am. A jeep collected us. At the park gate our driver ushered us to disembark and visit the museum, none of us could be bothered. We used our time instead to enjoy an improvised breakfast (Happy Cow processed cheese on crackers yum!). We were the 3rd jeep in.
Inside the park the jeeps roared. We quickly to a divergent path and found ourselves alone. Peacocks were everywhere, preening magnificent plumes for day ahead. Crocodiles lined the banks of water holes, occasionally plunging in to avoid the hooves of water buffalos. We drove along at a slow pace, our driver sometimes stomping on the breaks to show us something special.
About a half hour into our journey Val exclaimed “elephant!” but none of us could see it. Our driver trusted her and waited. Then, out of the thick underbrush, emerged a lone young male. As we watched him an entire family arrived from the other direction with a small baby in tow. Then another group of five elephants converged on a nearby water hole, uprooting a twenty strong family of wild boars.
The show continued with numerous deer families and troops of monkeys. Bird species were too numerous to mention and included most colors of the rainbow. After a few hours our driver got a call that a leopard had been spotted. He quickly turned the jeep around and raced to where he’d been instructed. The drive was exhilarating. We bounced in every direction, feeling every contour of the primitive road. We were quickly at the scene with only two other jeeps but the leopard had already retreated 30 meters into the bush, dragging a small deer along in its jaws. We could make out its general outline and see it moving through the brush. It wasn’t a great sighting but catching any glimpse of this elusive creature was spectacular. More or less every jeep in the park (maybe 30) soon showed up and we had to wait for them to make room for us to get out. The drivers’ mastery of their vehicles is incredible and we were able to squeeze past other jeeps on a road that seemed barely wide enough for ours.
The rest of our time was spent cruising between water holes and visiting the nearby beach. The 2004 tsunami hit very hard here. A simple memorial honors the dead. The serene setting and abundant wildlife make it hard to believe how destructive nature had been only 8 years ago.
For such a short time and minimal expense we felt very lucky to have seen so many different animals. Yala National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s treasures and we seriously debated making another trip.