Friday, January 11, 2013

Yala - Bounty of the Leopard Gods


My leopard saga. Ten years. Of frustrating, eluding and defeating me. Of brief glimpses and distant sightings. Of decent sightings but in poor light. Of sightings for everyone else but me. Watching someone else's leopard picture felt nothing less than torture. And all through my Wildlife Wander, it was the one sighting that always just got away. It almost seemed like there was a leopard god who I'd angered, maybe while praying at the altar of the tiger god. Whatever the reason, the beautiful spotted wonder always managed to get away, leaving me craving for  ONE mouthwatering, high quality sighting.  Just one, I say!

And then Yala happened. And more than made up for the 10 years. And even left, I dare say, a little bit in credit for the next year or so!


Our (my brother's been an equal victim) burning desire to see a leopard took us out of India to arguably the world's finest leopard destination, Yala National Park in South-Eastern Sri Lanka. With the spotted feline at the apex of the food chain there (the tigers probably didn't make the boat as the island drifted away from the Indian peninsula) Yala legends center around leopards strutting their stuff on the roads in broad daylight, much like the tigers in India.


Our first trip produced a leopard and drama. As we drove around, we came across a large congregation of jeeps near a waterhole and it was obvious that there was a leopard around; he was lying in thick bush a fair distance away, seemingly impervious to all the hoopla. And then the drama began. A jackal trotted up to the waterhole and posed for some pictures. Then, amazingly, he ran full speed towards the  bush where the leopard was resting. We watched as the leopard quietly but quickly raised his head and got into position. In the nick of time, the jackal saw the danger, halted in his tracks and turned and ran for his life!! And the leopard got up, looked balefully at the crowd and walked deeper into the bush and out of sight. Our first trip and a sighting, if not a great one for pictures.


The next day, we saw leopards on both morning and afternoon safaris, all fleeting glimpses and no real photography. we saw elephants, a buffalo wallowing in the water and some beautiful brahminy kites, changeable hawk eagles and sea eagles. But that night, the heavens opened up. And it poured and poured all night. The next morning dawned clear and bright, but our spirits had been dampened by the rain. All prior experience told us that rain really messes up sightings, and this was corroborated by Rajesh, our guide and Sachitra, our driver. Was our leopard luck ever going to change?? But this rain would eventually prove to be our biggest ally.


We set out on an all day safari, all provisions packed and ready. And as soon as we neared the landmark Elephant Rock, we heard from another jeep's tourists that we'd missed a mating pair by less than a minute! We drove around without luck for the next couple of hours till we passed another jeep who told us there was a leopard on a tree, near the beach, around 4-5 kms away. Fingers crossed, we raced there and a cluster of jeeps told us that he was still there. And sure enough, on a massive tree branch, at a distance, sat a beautiful leopard. Sachi maneuvered the jeep into position and we got our first proper pictures. Then he came down and vanished into the bush and we quietly waited at a clearing while all the other jeeps raced to and fro. 




And sure enough, in a few minutes the leopard walked up to the edge of the road and sat there, waiting to cross. Till another jeep screeched up. That, he decided, was it. He disappeared back into the bush and emerged later, much further down the road. My first real quality sighting of a wild leopard! And that pretty much opened the floodgates.

We drove on, looking for a nice place to stop for lunch. And came up to a few jeeps queued up near a mating pair in the bushes; they were audible but not visible. As the rest gave up and moved on, we decided to pitch there for the afternoon. And every now and then, we would hear them growling as they mated. No sighting, but still thrilling to be so close to mating leopards. And they rewarded us for our patience by coming out and mating once at the edge of the bush! Too far for quality photography but to be able to watch leopards mating itself was an unbelievable treat. Post that, they seemed to have a lovers' tiff and the male moved further and sat by himself for the remainder of the afternoon. He sat with his back to us, facing the bush, in the (vain) hope that the female might come back.  And that marked the end of a record-breaking day - 3 leopards, with a mating pair to boot! For the leopard starved Sarathy brothers it seemed impossible to beat. At least that's what we thought.


29th November 2012.  The day when the leopard gods decided to make up to us. And they laid on a mind-numbing, head spinning spread, something even our experienced guide and driver had never seen before. 10 different leopards. And it could have easily been more. It was almost like they were determined to give us everything we could ask for. And more. Anyways, enough of the superlatives, but here was 'that' day.

We drove into the forest on another clear, crisp day and hear our first spotted deer alarm calls of the trip. And as we stopped to investigate, a leopard crossed the road well in front of us. And disappeared. A little further down, we round a bend and there's a leopard walking on the road. He disappears too, into the bush. We then stopped at a beautiful lake-side for breakfast and spent a lovely hour watching teals, storks and a beautiful white bellied sea eagle put on a show for us. We drive on and then hit pay-dirt. Right next to the road, was a huge male leopard marking his territory. Rajesh said he was Hamu (or Sarkar) the dominant male of this part of Yala. I sat on the steps of the jeep, watching this magnificent animal cross the road behind us. Even a fresh scar under his eye didn't take away from how beautiful he was. He walked off, without even bothering to give us a look. A true king indeed!


Still tingling from that sighting, we headed towards the beachside for lunch. We saw the tsunami memorial, built as a tribute to the 40+ people who died as 20 foot waves lashed the forest bungalow there. Notably, not one animal carcass was found, pointing to their incredible 'sixth-sense' which pushed all of them into safer, higher ground. As we polished off a superb Sri Lankan meal of brown rice, dhal curry, papads and sambol, we were hungry for more.... leopards.

And as we drove on, we saw another cluster of jeeps looking at a sub-adult leopard on a tree, at a distance form the road. And it seemed in no hurry to come down. And I felt lucky... so we told our guys to carry on and try our luck elsewhere. Such audacity from people pining for any leopard sighting only a couple of days earlier! And as we drove on, my brother said he wanted to see a leopard with a cub. As if on cue, Rajesh said 'leopard'! And we looked as he pointed to the bush, but couldn't see anything. Till the leopard moved slightly, and even then we could just about see something with spots. Incredible how he managed to see her from a moving vehicle! And then we saw her cub as well a few metres behind. The cub dashed off into the bushes and the mother strode forward and joined him a few minutes later. We waited for them to emerge, but they chose to head away further into the bush. A superb day already, but it was going to get even better. 

Further ahead, and we all see a large male leopard zip across the road to our right. And as we moved back and forth looking for him, another jeep drove by and animatedly pointed to our left. And there was another leopard, a female. She was waiting to cross and join her mate. So we gave her enough room and she strode up and zipped across, right in front of our jeep. And a few minutes later, we heard their mating growls. Then, amazingly, on a tree right above where she crossed, we saw yet another leopard. A timid sub-adult, he must have been terrified by the presence of the mating pair so close to him. And he dared not step down. We had to reluctantly head back, since we had a long way to go to get to the gate. And we were buzzing.... 9 leopards in one day, with some great pictures too! Turns out we weren't done yet! 


One thing we still hadn't seen was the quintessential 'leopard on a rock'. And as we zipped towards the gate, we saw a queue of jeeps on the main road. Which could only mean a leopard. And sure enough, there was a large male perched on a rock! Too dark for pictures, but hey, I'd only asked for a sighting! And we still had time to squeeze in a sloth bear sighting that evening. I should have probably asked for a million dollars as well that day. 

As we headed into our last morning, completely sated, I said to myself - 'how cool would it be if I managed to spot a leopard myself?' And as we sped past a large tree in the distance, I saw something on a branch and stopped the jeep. And guess what, it was a leopard! And two other jeeps had driven past and even their guides hadn't managed to spot it... One more wish fulfilled and a little bit of a boost to the old ego as well.  We watched as the leopard climbed down the tree and escorted by a volley of spotted deer alarm calls, disappeared into the bush. And that ended the most incredible wildlife trip ever - 19 leopards (and at least 4 near misses) sloth bears, elephants, eagles, kites.... and everything else in between. The trip of a lifetime.

Now this is going to be hard to beat!

Epilogue - Why the rain helped rather than hurt our trip. The torrential rain forced the authorities to release water from a dam nearby, which in turn flooded a part of the forest. And so, animals from the flooded areas (including leopards) moved into dry land, and with more leopards in a smaller area, they just became easier to see, especially because they were on unfamiliar territory and hence moved around more, making them easier to spot. Ergo, a flood of leopards!

Yala Trip Guide

Our trip was superbly planned to the last detail by our friends Nikhil and Aparna at Odyssey Travels (www.odysseytravels.net). And because they're avid travelers themselves, they understand individual travel needs like few other people do and always give you unique perspective, based on personal experience most of the time. From cruises and railway journeys to safaris and holidays, they have a wealth of experience and expertise.

They booked us with Jetwing travels in Sri Lanka (www.jetwing.com) who provided an end-to-end car and also made our hotel and safari bookings.

Getting there
Yala (Ruhuna) National Park is set in Sri Lanka's south-eastern corner, approximately 300 kms from the only international airport near Colombo. It's a 5-6 hour drive, so plan for a couple of breaks on the way. The closest town is Tissamaharama, 22 kms away.

From the airport, it's best to hire a car for the round trip. Sri Lanka has excellent driver-guides and they will be with you all through and arrange everything. Our guide-driver Mr. Udaya Dharmawansha was absolutely fantastic - always there with us, through all the safaris and sometimes even keener than us to spot something!

There is a new airport under construction in Hambantota, 100 kms from Yala. Expected to open in mid-2013, it will be a huge boon for Yala travelers. Can't wait!

Stay
Yala has a couple of hotels within easy reach. We stayed at the Elephant Reach at Kirinda, 12 kms from the gate. It's a really nice property, with comfortable rooms and pretty decent food. We ate only the Sri Lankan fare, though they served up a varied, multi-cuisine buffet as well. The service can sometimes be a bit challenging, but it's all very pleasant and smiling, so you're not really complaining.

The other luxury option is the Chhaya Reach, which is on the beach and less than 4 kms from the gate. From the outside it looks like a spectacular property and definitely worth considering.

The third and most interesting option are the forest bungalows. We visited the Buthawa bungalow, set just off the beach. It's a beautiful property, with two comfortable rooms (with ensuite bathrooms) and a large verandah with 8 more beds and a dining area. You have to carry the raw materials and the caretaker will cook for you. And the park entry fees are built into the bungalow cost.

Safaris
Unlike most Indian parks, there is no restriction on the number of vehicles entering Yala. You hire a jeep, get your permit and enter. Simple as that. And you pay $25 per person for every time you enter.

Also unlike Indian parks, Yala allows all day safaris. So you can spend the whole day driving around and given that leopards (unlike tigers and lions) rest on trees in the heat, sightings can happen through the day.

Jeeps can be hired from many sources in Yala, and your tour operator will usually book it. We were booked with Dickshon safaris (www.dickshonsafari.com) And please ask for Sachitra (Sachi) as your driver. He's young but absolutely fantastic! The way in which he maneuvered a big jeep around the forest was superb. And he's always willing to drive, always trying hard to get you a sighting, and always smiling. You can reach him on +94 778353932.

We were also fortunate to have the most unbelievable guide - Rajesh (+94 712107696 or +94 715351103) He is a superb spotter, knows the roads inside out and is otherwise great fun to be with.

Other tips
If you can manage an all day safari, I would definitely recommend it. You give yourself a much better chance of spotting leopards, especially on trees in the afternoon.

For an all day safari, please carry a proper breakfast and lunch,  a full day's supply of water and some fruit or snacks. You do not get anything inside the forest. The hotel can give you packed breakfast as well as lunch.

If you like local food, the guide/driver can arrange a local packet, which is delicious. The breakfast has string hoppers with symbol (coconut chutney) and lunch is brown rice with dal, curry, sambol and papad. 

The best time for sightings is in August, the Sri Lankan dry season. 

The closest town (for supplies, ATM etc) is Tissamaharama, 22kms from Yala.