Our second day and our second early start; even earlier this morning at 05:45 to be precise. We’re heading into Wilpattu National Park itself, which should my main event. Wildlife is mainly active in the earlier morning and again later in the afternoon, so we’d been given the option of going out for the whole day or coming back for lunch then returning. The latter would burn some time driving so as a group we opted for the whole day in the park.
Our accommodation up at Wilpattu is at Backwaters Lodge. It’s intriguing; the rooms are converted shipping containers raised on stilts. That may sound weird but they are anything but shabby including an en suite bathroom and a very necessary air-conditioning unit, shipping containers being very hot. The establishment is into being eco-friendly, which is refreshing. All the furniture in the rooms, including the bed base, is made from palettes. It was very comfortable. No plastic is used. Our shower includes gel in a reusable glass bottle, for example. Of course, if your wet, soapy hands slip and you drop the bottle in the cubicle, it’d most likely break and cause something of a problem. Happily, that didn’t happen.
Much less refreshing is the apparent shortage of refrigeration facilities in the establishment. Yesterday evening after our tardy arrival we had struggled to get cold beers to slake our thirsts and the water (from a reusable glass bottle) at dinner had been served tepid, if not warm. Yummy. Given today’s pre-dawn start we were now provided with a packed breakfast which proved to be pretty dreadful, part being a skinny English-style sandwich requiring a search party to locate the supposed cheese filling. Being out all day, we also had a packed lunch with very similar sandwiches of the now familiar sorry design. Our two 4×4 vehicles carried drinking water for the day but, assuming it had been cold to start with, had it been kept in a cool box? No. Come lunchtime most of the water on board was warm-ish. Not good. Someone needs lessons in catering for wildlife tourists. It can be done; our hired guide, driver in Cambodia six years ago came in a jeep complete with an on board chiller for the plentiful supply of cold bottled water.
Our guide, Sam, bought our entrance tickets and we began our journey down the various tracks of Wilpattu. The area appeared to be a collection of water holes connected by dirt tracks through bush/forest. We’d bounce along down a track, then emerge into the open by a water body. It was a very different experience from the open savannahs of the Maasai Mara in Africa. We saw birdlife along the tracks and the occasional wild pig but most of the larger animal action was around the water holes. For those keen on statistics, there are 65 holes in total but they are seasonal and many dry up; 27 of them contained water now.
Everyone loves Elephants. Fever pitch was reached when, as we emerged beside a very attractive water hole, we were treated to two elephants feeding in the water. Both jeeps stopped followed by a constant rattle of cameras in machine gun mode. Well, first the nearby unused lodge overlooking the water was visited by our female contingent for obvious reasons. Then the cameras began firing. These are, of course, Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus)
As morning continued our team became aware that a Leopard (Panthera partus kotiya), one of Wilpattu’s holy grails, had been spotted by another jeep at one waterhole. As a safari in Sri Lanka is considered a failure without a Leopard sighting, we made for it. What we found on arrival was one jeep parked with two guys snoozing inside, beside a pool containing Mugger Crocodiles [no, I’ve never heard of those before, either]. Here is one, though. What we didn’t find was any Leopard.
Our lunch, including warm-ish water, was taken near another water body equipped with a toilet shack and a whole host of marauding Macaque monkeys. The sandwiches weren’t, in truth, really worth protecting against the monkeys but one feels one has to. Maybe they could find some cheese in ‘em. Throughout the vast majority of the park, with elephant and leopard roaming about, one is not allowed outside the jeeps but here it was apparently safe. There were some dragonflies for me to distract me from the warm drinking water and monkeys.
As we did our best to forget lunch, our drivers made the trip to the coast and Kudiramalai Point. On arrival, I began to wonder why we had bothered. OK, we were atop a serious cliff but the view was hardly photogenic, being just sea. Every boring piece of rock has a silver lining, though, and my silver lining came in the form of about half a dozen White-bellied Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) soaring above. I clicked away happily. Only later did I realize that many of my pictures including a fish grasped in an eagles’ talons. What a stroke of luck.
We had to make a 90-minute journey on very cratered roads to beat curfew and get out of the park by 18:00. We clambered back into our two 4x4s and hit the bumpy dirt track back towards Backwaters Lodge. Traffic was still going the other way so presumably there was another gate in that direction. Several buses passed us but I was very surprised to see tuk-tuks going the other way, too, and not sparing the horses. Those little three wheelers are amazingly versatile and were making what appeared to be light work of some seriously bumpy and pot-holed terrain. I want one but it has to be red.
We arrived at the gate with about 30 minutes to spare. Once back at the lodge I went and asked for a beer, then sat waiting. Nothing happened. Nothing continued to happen. I asked about the beer again. “Now?”, said the waiter. “Yes, very much now”, I replied, incredulously. Surely he didn’t think I wanted to wait for the dinner gong? “Five minutes”, he said. Oh Darwin, it’s not cold, is it? For the love of Pete …