It’s dark. I’m lying on bed, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the Sri Lankan night. Crickets chirr, frogs croak and from time to time there is a rustling noise from above the tent roof – monkeys jumping from tree to tree. The jungle lulls me to sleep.
It’s my first night in a spacious tent in the jungle, just outside the borders of Yala National Park, in the southern east of the island. Block I of the park is famous for its high leopard density – one of the highest worldwide. It’s estimated that island-wide 600 to 900 wild leopards live in Sri Lanka in total; hence it’s not surprising that several tour operators offer safaris and overnight stays here.
As I always wanted to explore the wild, my trip to this beautiful island was the perfect opportunity for this adventure. The online review site TripAdvisor helped me chose one tour operator – Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris who are ranking number one. After the first night in the camp it’s time to get up very early.
After enjoying the morning coffee before sunrise it is time for my first ever safari. Together with the small group of friendly other guests I board one of the half-open vehicles, huge Toyota Land Cruisers.
It’s still dark, when our adventure starts. Already driving to the national park is fun, as everybody is excited about what we will experience today. The park welcomes us with a splendid sunrise. The sky turns red, orange and yellow and the first sunrays announce another wonderfully warm day. On the thrilling ride on the sandy and here and there bumpy road I can watch and hear the morning turn to life. Bird and monkey sounds make me curious about seeing more. Having stopped at a waterhole, our tour guide and personal wildlife expert Sajith shows us numerous bird species – egrets, painted storks and the colorful bee-eaters bustle on the waterhole. The guide points at the water and says: ‘Look! Can you see the crocodile over there?’ No, we can’t. Suddenly a trunk in the water begins to move and opens its mouth. What a surprise – everybody giggles.
On our further journey we pass some more water holes which seem to be a real relief for the thirsty animals. I learn many interesting facts about the park and its inhabitants, for example that not all of the waterholes here are from a natural origin. Some got built by the wildlife department, others were privately funded. These artificial waterholes get filled with water during the dry season and ensure that less wild animals die during the period of dryness and heat.
Being glad about the variety of animals, I enjoy watching different wild creatures that I have only known from magazines and zoos. It is nearly impossible to count the species I see during the thrilling game drive: a trustful wild boar family stands at the way, hundreds of beautiful butterflies raise themselves into the air, lazy water buffalos stare at us calmly and a nervous flock of spotted deer grazes beneath the road. Nature displays itself in all its beauty so that I overlook the fact generously, that I didn’t see a single leopard so far. Provided with snacks and drinks in the jeeps, I nevertheless look forward to the breakfast that awaits our group at the peaceful campsite. Protected from the shimmering heat by a shade-giving tree I indulge in sumptuous delicacies. I shall notice that a meal in the wilderness is everything but Spartan. Not only the fresh and fruity breakfast, but also lunch and dinner are freshly prepared and made from local products and taste exotic and delicious. The time between morning and afternoon safari flies by. I talk to interesting people from all over the world, have a rest in a hammock and enjoy the service of the friendly camp staff.
The highlight of my day is the evening safari. Not only due to a dancing peacocks and a hole-digging land monitor this safari tour will stick in my memory forever. Also the bull elephant that suddenly breaks out of the bushes and blocks the road is something I will never forget. On top of this we were very lucky, because this specific bull had long tusks, what is rare to see. Only 5 to 6 percent of the male Asian elephants still have tusks. In former times the number of tuskers was much higher. The decrease of this number was effected by humans, who hunted for the ivory tusks as trophies, whereby the gene pool of the Asian elephants carrying tusks got smaller and smaller. Fortunately, the tusker stayed for a quick photo before he disappeared into the vastness of the jungle.
Already slightly discouraged to see a leopard, our experienced guide told us that it’s slowly time to return to the camp. I gave up hope of ever seeing a leopard in the wild. But then the car got faster, so that the dust swirled up and we stopped at a sunlit rock. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the most gracious living being looked straight into the direction of the car: A leopard basking in the sun. The successful day ends with a barbecue and a tasty glass of wine at a bonfire at the campsite. The perfect mix of adventure and relaxation makes me sure: This was my first trip to Noel’s camp in the jungle, but certainly not my last.