Stay in the south and west, they said. In November the monsoon is in the east and north, they said. Well, the Yala National Park is pretty far south and yet the rain was so heavy that it even made spotting elephants difficult. If Dian Fossey had studied Asian elephants in Sri Lanka and not mountain gorillas in Rwanda, instead of Gorillas in the Mist, they’d have made a film called Elephants in the Rain … in Yala the rain was the real star of the show.
Things started quite positively, there were ominous clouds in the distance but the sun shone and the humidity suffocated as we set off looking for some of the iconic critters that roam the park. One of those iconic animals is the leopard. Yala has the highest concentration of leopards anywhere in the world, and we were told that sightings are fairly regular. Cue huge excitement when our guide pointed out leopard tracks in the red earth.
That tantalizing moment of expectation-raising was as close as we’d get … not twenty minutes later, the heavens opened and our chances of seeing pretty much anything was gone. I grew up in one of the wettest parts of the British Isles, where you either learnt to live with the wet weather or to never go outside. The rain at Yala though, was so intense that even elephants vanished behind the grey curtain of water belting down to earth.
Trapped in the back of a Land Rover, not only did we not see a leopard, we also didn’t see the mongooses, wild boar, porcupines, jackals, pangolins or crocodiles that live here. That though might have been true even on a day that didn’t require Noah’s Ark to ensure the survival of several species. We were glad that we got to see spotted deer, wild buffaloes, a range of birds and in the end, a large number of elephants.
One of the most pleasant aspects in Yala National Park is the landscape, there are an array of scenic lakes, open grasslands, and jungle. It isn’t the vast open expanses of African national parks like the Maasai Mara, but it was still pretty special. Under other circumstances it might even have been a peaceful place to visit, less so when the canvas roof you’re sat under has become like the skin of a drum with rain pounding on it.
Yala marked a transition on our trip, we’d travelled from Dambulla through the highlands to get here, our trip now became coastal. Ahead of us we had a week of slowly beachcombing our way along the coast to the former Dutch city of Galle. We were excited by the prospect of seafood, sand, surf and hammocks.
The south coast was a relaxing experience, but leaving Yala National Park behind, I wished we’d had an extra day to explore this unique habitat more. I mean, who wouldn’t want to match a leopard to its footprints?