Day three and the third early morning start. We were heading back into Wilpattu NP for another half day before moving on. Once again, because we’d be entering the park at 06:00 we had been given a packed breakfast. After yesterday’s dismal packed food and tepid water, expectations were not high.
Our full day in Wilpattu yesterday had failed to bag us a Leopard (Panthera pardus). Since the safari organizers regard no leopard as a failed safari, that would be the main target that we’d concentrate on today. Francine and I had failed to see a Leopard 20 years ago in Kenya. My expectations were not high this time, either. It was known that a Leopard had been seen at one particular waterhole yesterday but there was no sign of one when we had arrived. Today, we made straight there thinking the earlier the better. When we did arrive, it was obvious every other 4×4 driver had had the same thought; six vehicles were lined up side by side with a single gap of only half a vehicle between one pair. We positioned ourselves to try and peer through the gap. (Try mentally to bolt these two photographs together side by side.)
To be honest, I find this kind of safari tourism unseemly. There are thought to be 30-40 Leopards in Wilpattu as a whole. Given modern communications, word spreads rapidly from driver to driver when one is sighted and 4x4s rush to descend like a pack of baying wolves. Don’t forget that this happens day in, day out. The animals must feel hounded and, where predators are concerned, I can’t help but feel that it puts more stress on their hunting ability.
There were two Leopards at the far end of a small clearing. The 4x4s were not allowed to advance more than they had. Joe Tourist was craning his collective neck to try to catch a glimpse. Occasionally, about 50m away, the top of a spotted back could be seen through the long grass but there was no chance of any photograph worth having. Were it not for the spots and the fact that Cheetahs don’t live in Sri Lanka, recognition would’ve been tricky. This status quo was maintained for about 30 minutes with the only entertainment being the shuffling of a 4×4 or two.
I think one of the Leopards began moving. Our guide then made a brilliant call; he ordered our driver to return to the approach road. It seems the Leopard was heading that way. We took up position on the right hand side of the road – the Leopards had been to our left. Then magic happened; a beautiful, sleek Leopard calmly wandered out into the road and lay down, staring at a rather worried looking Peacock that stood in the road between us and the Leopard.
The road was wide enough for only two vehicles and, given the curve in the road, we had pole position for the clearest shots. Another two 4x4s were on the track beyond the Leopard looking towards us. I’ve got 57 shots of this situation, mostly essentially the same but with the Leopard’s head at slightly different angles. You really only need one. Here’s my favourite close up, I think.
Eventually the Leopard got fed up with staring at the Peacock or feigning disinterest and sauntered back into the bushes. Later another crossed the road making for another water hole on the right of the shots above but it never got into a favourable position. We’d broken our Leopard jinx and went back to the safe toilet-equipped picnic spot for breakfast.
Our surprise breakfast today was revealed to be a bag of cooked chickpeas with a few shreds of coconut mixed in for variety. Clearly the monkeys had more of a taste for chickpeas than they did cheese(less) sandwiches. We had to be more vigilant as one monkey made off with someone’s breakfast box. No great loss, was the considered opinion. I actually like chickpeas but a bit of moisture would’ve made them easier on the throat.
I was alone in finishing most of my chickpeas and wandered off near the lake stalking dragonflies. This caused some consternation. Apparently there was a danger of those good ol’ Mugger Crocodiles lurking about. Visions of Crocodile Dundee sprang to mind. I was keen not to become an item on a reptilian breakfast menu, so reluctantly had to leave my unidentified dragons and sauntered back. Not a completely safe picnic spot, then.
It was time to head for our exit gate and move on. Our next stop would be at the Lakeside Hotel at Anuradhapura. That name sounded promising to an odonata enthusiast. My anticipation grew.
My expectations fell off a little as we arrived. The hotel was actually very nice but the lake was HUGE. Big water is often not very good for dragonflies; we’d just have to see. Before we could check-in, though, Sam keenly led a few of us off into some trees where he pointed out a little seen Scops Owl. European Scops Owls are terrific, sounding like a submarine’s sonar equipment. I was actually quite thrilled to see this Indian Scops. I was hoping we’d hear it overnight but sadly it remained silent so I don’t know what the Indian cousin sounds like.
Eventually I got to the lake. There were no crocodiles, at least, so I could get down to the water’s edge safely. For big water, it proved better than I thought. The margins were shallow with vegetation and I started by seeing Rapacious Flangetails (Ictinogomphus rapax) perched on grass stems and flying off to feed. Most of the critters were a little way out over the water but I had shoes I could wade in and, like the drinking water in our 4x4s at Wilpattu, the lake water here was warm. At first I thought these Flangetails were a species I’d seen in Singapore/Cambodia but no, it was very similar but different, according to the books, so another lifer to add to my collection. These characters really do look deadly, don’t you think?
Everyone but me went off to find their second Buddhist temple and, the trip notes say, the original Sri Maha Bodhi tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. As a teenager, I vaguely remember gaining enlightenment under some trees near my childhood home [ask no questions] – maybe I should start a new religion myself. The temple was huge and our visitors were treated to an education witnessing something of a Buddhist funeral.
Enlightenment being of little use to me these days, in preference to wandering about barefoot, hatless and increasing my Buddhas collection, I chose to increase my collection of odonata friends so I returned to the lake and notched up a total of 9 species, one of which was a dusk-flying specimen in the hotel hall. Not bad considering I had initially harboured doubts about the size of water.