After we were finished exploring the beaches and sights of the western and southern coasts, we headed inland (slightly) to visit a couple of Sri Lanka's spectacular national parks- Yala and Bundala. From Tangalla we caught the bus to Tissamaharama (Tissa)- a convenient base to reach the parks and a pleasant town in its own right. You knew upon arrival in Tissa that you were wedged between a couple of Sri Lanka's best parks. Mongooses and monitor lizards cross the roads among the throngs of three-wheeled rickshaws, the cries of spotted deer trump the horns of buses, kingfishers and parakeets share power line real estate, and monkeys monkey-around in the trees overhead. A short walk from our guesthouse brought you to a small lake with impressive granite outcrops off in the distance. The lake is home to crocodiles and serves as an important stopover for migratory birdlife. On the cultural side of things, Tissa hosts a lively market twice weekly (Sundays and Thursdays) where you can get your fill of delicious Sri Lankan “short eats”, and, Tissa is also home to a couple of massive 2000-year-old dagobas (stupas).
However, people come for the national parks that encircle Tissa, and we were no different. Yala is known for its prized big game such as elephants, wild bore, sambar, spotted deer, water buffalo, and with any luck, Yala remains the best place in the world to spot a leopard. Bundala is more renowned for its diverse birdlife but that's not to say that there isn't anything else lurking amongst the lakes, plains, and forests of the park.
But Yala National Park was first on our itinerary. The day before our 'safari' we hand-picked our own jeep and driver in town. Doing this affords you more control over the quality of vehicle you're getting and you can also assess your driver/guide's proficiency in both English and wildlife knowledge- but for the most part, I'm sure they are all reasonably competent. Half-day safaris in the park is by far the most popular choice but we opted for a full-day out and shared the expenses with another couple.
Right from the get-go there were animals everywhere. Peacocks by the dozens, many mongooses and monitors, lots of spotted deer, sambar deer and wild boar, and too many water buffaloes to count. The birdlife in the park was crazy too. We came across a tree at one point that had about 50 or 60 yellow hornbills in it. As well we saw eagles, storks, parakeets, an owl, and many others that I don't have the knowledge to name. Of course we saw plenty more crocodiles as well. By the day's end we probably saw at least a dozen elephants- a couple of them within a few meters distance from our jeep.
But the undeniable main attraction are the leopards. We were fortunate enough to see two. The first one was a little disappointing. Our guide and driver got the call as to where the leopard was spotted. When we arrived at the location there were many other jeeps clogging-up the road. Everyone was squinting and straining to see the cat high up on a branch in a massive tree and wondering why they were unable to see what was so obvious to the guides. Yet nobody really could. That was the only leopard sighting that most guests in the park got that day.
The second leopard we saw came about an hour later, after all the half-day safari goers were already out of the park. Our lone jeep turned a bend in the road and there, lying in the shadow of a tree, was the leopard. We switched off the ignition and just sat there parked a few meters away and watched. The leopard watched us back. After about 10 minutes, it got up, stretched, and wondered off into the trees. We found it again a minute later up on a low branch with its eyes still fixed on us. We were the only people in the park that day to have such a personal interaction with a leopard. It was amazing.
Regardless of the incredible array of wildlife, Yala is simply a stunning park. Even without seeing any animals, Yala is a feast for the eyes. There are so many diverse ecosystems packed into such a relatively small area: jungle, lakes, swamps, beaches, mountains, savannah, and massive granite monoliths all make up the collective Yala landscape. It was a spectacular day and definitely a highlight of our trip so far.
The next day we took a half-day safari to Bundala National Park. The focus in this park is on the birdlife, but in addition to hundreds of birds, we saw wild boar, tonnes of grey langurs, crocodiles, and water buffalo. We even had the chance to see a few male peacocks performing their mating ritual dance- an awesome sight to see. Bundala is a gorgeous park that's worth a visit, even if you're like us- not the birder type.