It was October 2015, the tail end of the rainy season. We woke to a cloud burst emptying on to the roof of our veranda, splattering the mango trees and leaving spreading puddles in the grass. It was hardly a promising start to our much anticipated trip into Wilpattu National Park, but if we’d learned anything over the last week we’d spent in this verdant land, it was that although it rained EVERY day, it only rained for HALF of it. Therefore we were guaranteed a sunny afternoon, or so we hoped, grabbing our cagoules and splashing to meet our driver Rowland, who was grinning at us from under a sober, black brolly that would not have looked out of place in London’s square mile on a drizzly Monday morning (although his flip-flops would have caused a few raised eyebrows). In the rainy season (*)everyone in Sri Lanka carries an umbrella:, from the women selling fish arranged on swathes of burlap by the river in Negombo, the old man out for a solitary walk, dressed in a colourful sarong, the fruit sellers hawking green coconuts and pineapples at the side of the road, and alarmingly the cyclists, holding their umbrellas aloft as they cheerily weave an erratic path along uneven dirt roads, dicing with oncoming traffic.
In Wilpattu National Park, settled in our open-sided jeep, we passed the biscuits around (it had been an early start – there were five of us, my family of three, Rowland and Sampath, the ranger we’d hired to drive us through the park.
We shifted under our cagoules and peered eagerly into the jungle forest either side of the bumpy track, seeking signs of life. The bush glistened wetly, and dripped water into the puddles on the ground. At least the downpour had settled into a misty drizzle, but if there were animals, would they venture out?
But the last few days had seen a lot of heavy rain, and Sampath was eager to explain, with lots of nodding and grinning and not a little interpretation from Rowland, that this fact would work in our favour: the animals hadn’t been able to hunt. They would be hungry and would brave the drizzle. As if to prove his point, he jammed on the brakes and pointed out a serpent eagle perched on a branch.
This cheered us hugely and we scoured the forest, competing to be the first to spot wildlife – and it didn’t disappoint; another raptor on the ground wrestling with a small mammal or amphibian, wings flapping to balance. We greeted each new encounter; a jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka), bee eater and peacock with the excitement of small children.
The game was afoot, and we abandoned ourselves to the hunt, cameras poised. The pace was erratic, one moment we were speeding along, like passengers in a rally car, pitching and bouncing in our seats, clinging to the metal rails and roll bars, peering into the undergrowth and then someone would see something and we’d come to a bone-jarring halt.
We saw monitor lizards, spreadeagled upon abandoned termite mounds, their grey stomachs stained with the red mud of the region, and spotted deer, creeping delicately from cover and grazing only feet away.
Splashing about the park in our jeep, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. By now the rain had almost stopped, and the forest was gently steaming. When the engine was turned off, we were transported to a world of peaceful silence, and then gradually we became aware of the background noises, the constant chatter of birds, the rustle overhead of a scampering monkey, the distant bark of a deer, or the bellow of a water buffalo, and the rich perfume of damp earth and jasmin.
Wilpattu is famous for it’s natural fresh water lakes, known as villus (Wilpattu means ‘Villu-area’ Lake-land) and they are quite beautiful, unfolding before your eyes as you unravel from yet another shady jungle track, so that for a moment your breath catches in your throat through sheer amazement. Herons stalk the shallows, and flocks of white plovers lift off in unison, and then settle again a few metres further on, and on a little green island, smooth as a golf course, we saw a mugger crocodile basking in the slowly emerging sunshine, and, astonishingly to us, oblivious to any danger, an ibis had decided to forage right alongside it.
After eating our packed lunch, (tip – never leave your food unattended because a monkey will steal it),
we discovered an entire froggy civilisation existing on the fringes of the lake in the mud and as we walked along, they sprang into the water in a plethora of plops as numerous as raindrops.
If Wilpattu is famous for its natural lakes, it’s even more famous for its leopards, sloths and of course elephants. In fact Sri Lanka has around 5000 wild elephants, and the best place to see them is in a National Park (rather than an ‘elephant orphanage’ where they are captive and shown for profit). We spotted a bull grazing at the edge of a lake, tugging up weed with its trunk. It was a spell-binding sight, majestic and we watched him for over an hour, even climbing to the top of a viewing platform for a better look – a real treat.
By now we were getting blase about crocodiles, we had seen so many, to say nothing about peacocks, bee-eaters (so cute) and kingfishers, eagles and deer, but just as our day was drawing to an end, we had one ambition left – to see a leopard.
Wilpattu has the densest population of wild leopards in the world, and is one of the best two places in the world to see them (the other being Yala National Park) but that doesn’t make them easy to find. The Park is 75% dense scrub jungle, impenetrable for vehicles, so there’s only a small are in which to see an animal that specialises in remaining invisible!
However the sun was finally out, and the leopards would be hungry and likely to hunt. However the afternoon was creeping towards evening so we didn’t have long before we’d have to leave. It was tight, but Sampath had a good idea of where to look. We drove through some rough terrain, rutted and water-logged to find an area of grass and scrub cover, ringed with white sand – here he found what he was looking for…fresh tracks:
We parked up and waited. Nearby a herd of deer had stopped grazing and were staring nervously into the bush. One barked an alarm call and a pair of fox cubs popped their heads above the grass. We hardly dared breathe as we peered into the scrub, willing the leopard to slink into view. I was convinced I could even smell it: a musky odour that hadn’t been there before.
Twenty minutes slid by and the deer settled again; the leopard had moved away. Sampath started the engine and jammed the jeep into first gear, throwing it over the pitching ground as we clung to the sides, scouring the undergrowth willing our leopard to appear.
We made several lurching circuits of the sandy trails, glancing anxiously at the sinking sun. We were pushing the clock….
Sampath braked one last time, more tracks. this was our final stop, one last pause before he’d have to hit the accelerator and get us back before dusk. Across a narrow belt of water, a herd of spotted deer were on alert, staring raptly into the undergrowth. The matriarch barked an alarm. We waited, twitching with anticipation, but time was against us. The sands had run out. We could not wait any longer. The leopard had eluded us.
An incredible day I will never forget, and every reason to return….
*The rainy season varies depending on which part of Sri Lanka you visit when. Suffice to say, it is always the rainy season somewhere in Sri Lanka. As a rule, it can rain everywhere in October and November. The South West of the island gets rain May -September, the dry season being December to March. In the North-Eastern coastal region of the country, the rainy season falls between October and January, dry season being May – September. As we discovered, it rarely rains all day, downpours being short and heavy, and despite getting sodden once or twice (notably atop Sigiriya) we were never cold. Visiting in October meant cheaper flights, cheaper accommodation and less tourists. Also, if booking a jeep safari, bear in mind it can get very hot and dusty in the dry season. The period between December and April is considered the peak season to travel to Sri Lanka.