Sri Lanka is a myriad of different colors, and the people in Wilpattu especially love to stand out. Women wear t-shirts with long skirts, often patterned with different colors. The younger women sport narrowly shaped skirts while the older Aunties stick to floral or rainbow colored patterns. The men too, explore different options from pink shirts to yellow sarongs. School children, however, stick to white uniforms, strikingly white, against their beautiful dark-colored skin.
The animals you find in Wilpattu National Park don’t lose out against the people. Wilpattu is a birders’ paradise, and even our faint interests in birds were piqued when we saw the striking blue Kingfisher, the rooster-like Jungle fowl. Watching the hornbill balance on a tree branch over the lake while he spread his feathers out to dry was a real treat. Our earlier conversation with Suraja, an experienced safari tracker, was kept at the back of my mind, and I mindfully paid detailed attention to the small critters who came to greet us.
During our evening safari drive, we passed several other jeeps with customers who look disheartened. They had spent a full day and saw less than what they had hoped to. We smiled and went on our way, holding on to our hopes to see the big three animals — the sloth bear, leopard and elephant. After two hours of spotting deers, monkeys, and buffalos, we were getting restless. “ I want to see an elephant so badly, that the trees are starting to morph into elephants”, Lina said. I have seen leopards and elephants before, in Kruger national park, and so wasn’t as desperate, but her eagerness spread to me, and I wished harder on her behalf.
The sceneries in Wilpattu help to ease your mind as you pass through long roads of old trees on either side, and come across clearings marked by lively lakes. There is an infectious calmness that Wilpattu exudes. We spotted two wild dogs laying by a lake taking a nap, and it makes you envious of these wild animals, whose only worries of finding shelter and food don’t seem to affect their state of mind as much as we allow our worries to affect our happiness.
It takes a good hour from the western entrance of the park to reach the usual sighting spots, and so opting for a full day safari would be wisest. They charge 3000 rupees (+ or — 500 rupees) for a single entry ticket per Jeep, so they definitely don’t adopt a night club’s policy, where you get a stamp on the wrist and get to go in and out of the place. Once you’re in the park, the usual sightings of peacocks, gray langurs, spotted deer, and different species of birds will greet you. And then begins the eager search for “George” (I named the elephant we later spotted).
I started to think that searching for “George” is like when you badly need a taxi. When you’re 30 mins late for a meeting, taxi drivers seem to smell that desperation and suddenly disappear to play tricks on you. When you haven’t a care in the world however, they appear everywhere. So, I kept telling the universe I didn’t need to see an elephant, who cares about an elephant, I just want to see a leopard.
My theory was proven right, because just as we were about to finish our evening safari drive, and were on the way back to the entrance, a Jeep tipped us off in the direction, and we found a leopard. This leopard was curious and fearless. She stood only meters away from the 4 or 5 jeeps that have gathered around to see her. She strode back and forth, in gracious strides, unguarded and relaxed. She looked right back at us, as if trying to figure out what kind of animals we were. When she couldn’t be bothered anymore, she slid away quickly in a matter of seconds, and off we went too.
Leopard Trails was hosting us at their luxury safari campsite for a night, and like royalty did they treat us. We noticed lanterns on either side of the dirt path while entering the campsite, and then the most romantic view greeted us. Lanterns were lit everywhere along the paths, some on the trees, and a bonfire had just begun to crackle. They handed us cold lemon grass scented towels to wipe the dust off our face and ushered us to our outdoor bar. Two deck chairs were placed to face the fire in the distance, separated from us by a small pond with frogs leaping from pebble to pebble.
Dhanu, our guide from Leopard Trails, had graduated from the top university in Sri Lanka, with a degree in zoology. While we sipped on our gin and limes, he told us how he got to be a safari guide. He had always loved the outdoors, and studied hard all throughout his childhood so he could pursue his passion in state-funded university. He told us that he’s Buddhist and does not drink, because he promised his grandfather that he never would. The passionate way that Dhanu talks about Sri Lanka, his values, and his interests, is not so different from many other Sri Lankan people we’ve met. I begin to wonder why I haven’t met many Sri Lankans before, and realized I feel a warmth with them, one that I only get with close family.
That night over dinner, Lina and I shared some of our personal stories with each other. The food was delicious, the environment was beautiful, and the service from the Leopard trails staff was impeccable. There was little to fan any worries we had in our minds, and instead, we were filled with anticipation and excitement for our morning safari drive the next day.
That morning, still dizzy from the pampering, I figured it wasn’t that bad even if we didn’t see an elephant. We had already seen heaps, including a herd of buffalos and lady leopard “Lana” (She looked like a Lana to me). We drove around the park, to different lakes and saw a tiny crocodile as well. You could sense our driver was motivated to show us the best parts of his playground, and perhaps find us that elephant before we left that day. Eventually, we gave up, and Dhanu apologized even though he didn’t have to. We were headed to our breakfast spot, where the only toilet facility is in the park, when “George” appeared right in front of our eyes!
He had been waiting for us all along! There he stood, twirling a bunch of leaves with the end of his trunk before placing into his mouth and taking satisfied munches. He seemed completely indifferent to the hoard of people who started to crowd around him. He could see us from the corner of his eye, I’m sure, but he was unfazed, and even posed quite a few times for our cameras. I couldn’t believe his presence, and so I stood there for quite a while, just admiring his graceful movements. He would twirl a bunch of leaves, smacking off insects, dirt and sand, put them into his mouth and chewed, while he got the next bite ready. Elephants eat about 150kg worth of food everyday, and eat for roughly 20 hours a day, sleeping very little. No wonder he couldn’t care less about us, “George” had work to do if he didn’t want to wake up hungry.
I stood about 30 meters away from him, eating my coconut-filled pancake, and pretended we were having a picnic together. When he got tired of leaves, he waded through the lake and had some water-weeds instead. When I was done with my coconut pancake, I moved on to some papaya. In my mind, “George” was telling me all about his bachelor life, and how he’s choosing between a couple of ladies. Bachelor elephants travel alone, until they decide to find a mate.
I guess you could say Lina and I were one of the few lucky ones, who got to see 2 out of 3 big stars in Sri Lanka. The sloth bear will be our next lucky find, but until then, the glimpses of “George” and “Lana” will make me feel like the luckiest girl in the world. Wilpattu is a good alternative to the hustle and bustle of Yala National Park, and there, we found passionate guides, extremely experienced drivers and beautiful sceneries.