Onto Tissamaharama for Yala National Park

We’ve seen temples and jungles, mountains, rocks and cities during our time in Sri Lanka and after all this it was about time to experience one of their national parks. We cut our time short in Ella in order to make time for a safari and decided to stop in Tissamaharama to be close to Yala National Park.

Although we’d planned to get the bus down, we were approached by a taxi operator who agreed to halve the usual price for us in order to get his driver back down south. This turned out to be an excellent decision as it meant we had loads of room in a taxi with a driver who didn’t waste any time getting back home. We also got dropped off at the door of our next accommodation which was a nice little luxury we’re not used to on our budget trip.

The owner of the hotel we stayed at was really lovely and helped us book our safari for the following morning. He provided the weirdest breakfast for us on the day of the safari (tuna and onion toasties) and some tasty coconut pancakes on our return, and also washed our clothes for us for free. I never thought I’d miss the smell of clean clothes this much but it was so nice to have fresh things to wear.

Our safari day began just before 4am due to the limits the park sets on how many jeeps can enter the park daily. We were up and in the jeep before 4:30am with a driver who was a pro at overtaking people at high speeds while dodging around speed bumps in his way. When we arrived there was a wait of around an hour before the actual park opened, but we were near the front of the queue having arrived so early.

The next six hours were spent driving around the park trying to spot animals with sudden detours whenever our driver got a call that one of the elusive leopards had been spotted. At one point there were 15-20 jeeps crowding around trying to see a herd of elephants cross the road, which was when I started to feel uncomfortable about the experience. We’d seen the elephants and we should have left them to their business but instead the driver had to wait as the jeeps in front gawped at the beautiful creatures which were clearly uncomfortable with the whole thing.

Spotting the smaller animals was fun, especially the pretty little green bee eaters or the groups of deer in the distance.

There were a couple of mishaps during the day when some other jeeps collided and the passengers had to combine into one. We had a spare seat so we took on one of the guys from another jeep so they didn’t have to sit on each other’s knees. Not long after that we stopped our tour to tow another jeep out of a lake where some clever driver had tried to take a shortcut.

Throughout the day I’d been keeping my eye out for a leopard, desperate to spot one of the 25 in the whole park. We’d chased down leads and in the last half hour it looked like we were going to leave without seeing one. Despite feeling tired and ready to sleep (I’d almost drifted off a few times) I forced myself to stay alert and was rewarded when I spotted a gorgeous leopard having a drink by some water. I shouted out and our driver quickly stopped so that we could take a look.

It was fascinating seeing such a powerful animal just slink around like it didn’t care about us, then wander off an climb a tree for a nap. We got about five minutes to look at the leopard before the network of jeeps responded to the news from our driver and soon enough vehicles started appearing from every angle. As we left the area we saw multiple jeeps reversing down one way roads to catch a glimpse of her.

I’m glad they’re gradually reducing the number of jeeps allowed into the park per day. This rush to all see the same thing rather than hunt for something else was disappointing, especially when jeeps appear in high volumes. While the park is fascinating, if you’re an animal lover like me I wouldn’t recommend it as an experience you’ll get much joy from.

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