On Safari at Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park
While getting ready and planning for our trip, visiting Yala National Park was my most anticipated part of our program. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint! We were dropped off at the meeting point for Kulu Safaris, as they are located within Yala National Park. They picked us up and drove us into camp. I climbed into the front seat with Conor and the driver, and Danny hopped up into the back and rode along with the naturalist guide. Even just the drive to camp was exciting, we saw birds, lizards, and a mongoose. Once at camp, we sat down and had a quick briefing on the camp and discussed our schedule for the next few days. Afterward, we took the long way to our tented camp and came across the treehouse. I held Conor tight as we climbed up the steep steps to the top. Curious grey langurs watched as we walked around the platform looking out at the lake and surrounding area. Danny made it up to the top as well, as we all looked out from our perch, we knew it was going to be a unique few days
Both Danny and I have camped many times in our lives, but never in a luxury tented camp. We took our shoes off on the porch, opened the door and were greeted by a pleasantly cool, air-conditioned room. Inside was even a crib for Conor. There was a separate door to the bathroom, that included: toilet, shower, and sink. We were camping, but we sure weren’t roughing it. We all changed into some lighter colored clothes and headed back to the main area to load up for our first of two safaris.
This time all of us climbed up the ladder and into the top of the safari jeep. With plush seats, sidebars to hold, and snacks and refreshments, it was a very comfortable ride. Our naturalist guide talked to us about the different blocks of Yala, there are 5 in total. This afternoon we were heading to block 1. As we drove to the entrance, the driver and guide worked together spotting and pointing out birds, mongoose, a wild boar, and birds. As we arrived at the entrance to the block, there were no other jeeps. We truly had this area to ourselves. Not even five minutes into the park, and we were greeted by a family of elephants. The mother trumpeted as we drove slowly up, our driver quickly cut the engine and gave them space as we watched her and her baby cross our path. As we drove slowly passed them, they turned toward us, giving us one last trumpet as we drove off. It was quite the greeting into the park. With the excitement of seeing elephants so quickly we were on the edge of our seats as we continued on, deeper into the park. It was barely ten minutes later when our guide called out to the driver to slow down and back up a little. He had spotted eyes in the rocks. As we crept back a little in the jeep, he pointed to the rocks and told us where to look.
Sure enough, a leopard was resting on the cool rocks. No binoculars were needed, as he soon stood up and stretched, then sauntered down to the base of the rocks. As he neared the jeep, Conor let out a little yelp of excitement, the leopard looked right at us! We were so close to him; we could see his whiskers. I was thankful Conor was in the carrier and not freely roaming around the jeep. As Danny took photos, the leopard made a show of marking a tree and then made his way back into the bushes. The guide and driver worked so smoothly together, using hand signals and keeping the engine in idle to not frighten him. We got so close to the leopard, but there was such respect for him by the Kulu team, they were just as excited to see him but remained calm and in control of the situation. They kept both us, and the leopard, safe from each other. All that and only 15 minutes into our drive! We continued through the park, watching deer and peacock run and play. As we got deeper in, we came up to a lake full of water buffalo, crocodiles, deer, and so many birds. A huge rock formation in the background made it a spectacular scene and photo opportunity.
Once back at camp, we climbed down the ladder from the jeep and were handed drinks. Gin and tonic. A great ending to the perfect evening. As we sipped our refreshing drinks, we followed the lighted lanterns leading the way to our tent. It was a surreal day.
A soft rap on the cloth door the next morning, and we were greeted with tea and coffee service (chocolate milk for Conor) on our porch. As we sipped our morning drinks we got dressed and ready to see what the day would bring. This morning we were surprised to see a gorgeous breakfast table set up right at the base of our tent. We filled our stomachs with all the delicious fruits, hoppers, a few curries and scrambled eggs for Conor. We learned from the Kulu team that earlier in the morning a few elephants had come through the camp, and headed down to the water. This morning would be the first time that Conor would kayak. We loaded into our kayaks, having Conor in the carrier in the kayak was a little tricky, so I let him just sit on my lap. He wasn’t a huge fan of his life vest, so he would wiggle around, shaking the kayak, a few times I thought we were going into the drink. The guide took extra care to stay close and help calm poor Conor down. We were able to stay out on the lake and spot adult and baby crocodiles, birds, and monkeys swinging in the nearby trees.
This afternoon we were set to see block 5. As we loaded back up into the jeep, the team also send along all the makings for a picnic lunch. We headed to the entrance, and along the way we had to frequently stop or slow down as elephants were crossing the road. Once in the block, we headed for our lunch spot. We pulled up along a secluded river, Conor was carried by the driver across a log and onto the rocks where the table and chairs were set up. Keeping true to its ‘no plastic’ policy, all the plates, and utensils used were biodegradable, and we drank from reusable cups. So many monkeys came out to visit us while we had lunch, they sat curiously around us as we enjoyed our sandwiches. After lunch, it was time for a dip in the river! Danny and Conor cooled off and splashed in the water as the Kulu team pointed out different types of vegetation and played and giggled with Conor in the water. Such a magical lunch.
After such an amazing sighting the day before, Danny and I both were happy to drive through block 5 with no expectations. As we drove, we saw, elephants, deer, and birds, then just as we rounded a corner the guide made a signal for the driver to stop. He pulled out the binoculars, and there in the dense grass was a leopard! So unexpected, we watched him as he licked his paws, and groomed himself for a few minutes, then just like that he disappeared back into the trees. As it was getting toward evening and dusk was setting in, we began heading back to camp. We were on the exit path to the block when we came upon a handful of jeeps. We hadn’t seen many jeeps all day. We idled up to the group, and sure enough, another leopard! We honestly couldn’t believe it! Laying out on his back and sunny his belly, he reminded me of our dog at home. Happily, sprawled out and enjoying the sunshine. We sat and watched him for a while until he got up and lumbered back into the thick brush. We all laughed and were in shock at the fact that we were so lucky. The Kulu Safari team was amazing and showed us Yala in a way only they could, truly amazing.
The camp was all lit up again with lanterns on our arrival back. A special BBQ was being held for us for dinner. As we sipped our drinks and got ready for dinner, both Danny and I agreed that Yala and the Kulu Safari team was a highlight of our trip.
After dinner, we sat around the bonfire and soaked in everything. From the respect Kulu Safari shows to the animals and land, to the level of service we received, to the kind and gentle ways they had with Conor, we loved every minute of our time there. The evening ended with a sparkler send-off, and we headed back to our tent for our final night. We hope to visit again when Conor is older, and we do believe that he will have the same wonderful experience.
We’re heading back to Colombo on the final leg of our Sri Lanka vacation. We’ll share more photos as we arrive at the historic Galle Fort area. If you would like information about Sri Lanka, or questions about planning your next vacation, please contact us at [email protected].