When I researched Sri Lanka, I found that it has the largest safari outside of Africa for big game. Since I’m in Sri Lanka now and I’m unlikely to go to Africa in the near future, I figured I might as well go see the Safari.
Yala is the top national park for safaris, and you have to hire a Jeep to enter the park. From what I could find online, the starting price of a Jeep was pretty steep (5000LKR, or $33.33, and up). The cheapest offering of Ajith Safari, the top-rated safari company on TripAdvisor, was 13800LKR or $92 (?) for a 4hr safari for one person. That was a pretty penny indeed. As with Sigiriya, I hoped I might be able to find a group to join, and I figured I would work it out when I got there.
The closest city to Yala is Tissamaharama (or plain “Tissa” for short). There unfortunately isn’t a direct bus from Ella to Tissa, but the men at the info area advised me that I could take get to Tissa in 4ish hours if i took a bus and transferred. So I arrived at the bus stop in the morning and steeled myself to potentially stand for 4ish hours if I couldn’t get a seat.
At the bus stop, a local man asked where I was headed. Upon hearing that I wanted to go to Tissa, he said that I could get a ride for 2000LKR. The cheapest direct ride I had heard thus far was 4000LKR, so this was actually a pretty good deal. And he also didn’t give off a creepy vibe, so I could believe that the offer was real.
As more tourists started arriving and the bus looked like it was going to be even more crowded, I agreed. The man called his friend, who was driving a van that other tourists had already booked to go to Tissa. And just like that, I joined three English people on their way to Tissa. They thankfully didn’t seem to mind that the driver had literally picked someone up off the side of the road!
When we arrived at Tissa, as luck would have it, the driver took us straight to the Ajith Safari, the place that I had looked up before. My companions wanted to do a full day safari, and graciously allowed me to join them for another day. Yes, safari problem solved! It came out to 11,500LKR ($77) per person, which is more than double the rate that the hotel quoted for a safari…but then again, it was double the time plus a little on top for (hopefully) a better experience. Anyway, when $77 is a big splurge, that’s not half bad.
Alright, enough with the arrangements and on with the Safari itself!
Yala national park opens at 6am and it takes about 20 minutes to get there from Tissa. However, every morning a massive swarm of Jeeps descend on the entrance, so it’s better to leave early. The standard pick up time is 5am, and the hotels pack you an egg/cheese sandwich breakfast to take on the road with you.
Sunrise at Yala:
While we waited for the driver to get an entrance ticket and for the park to open, car after car after car (what everyone refers to as “Jeeps”) appeared. The Jeeps themselves all look the same, trucks with 3 rows of seats staggered upward so that everyone can see. We were told that we had “luxury” Jeeps that were quieter (so as not to scare animals away) and more comfortable. But from what I could observe, there wasn’t really a tangible difference between the Jeeps. Does a quieter engine even matter if there are 4 noisy Jeeps bearing down the road behind you?
Once the gate opened, we were off to the races. The drivers were all very competitive, veering sideways off the road to pass each other (but first peering over to see if the slower Jeep was looking at anything worth seeing).
Leopards are the rarest and most coveted animals to spot, and we lucked out 2 minutes into the park! Almost as soon as we drove in, we spotted a black shape slinking across the road. Just like that, it was gone, before we could even register what we saw. That sort of counted as a leopard sighting, right?
Here are some animals we did definitively spot:
Tusker elephant (though there are about a hundred elephants in the park, there are only about 10-15 Tusker elephants. Only a small percentage of male elephants have tusks, which is also what’s saved them from being over-hunted).
At one point we were ambling slowly down the road, when all of a sudden our driver made a U-turn and booked it in the other direction. We were all bewildered, but it seemed like he was on a mission. We soon discovered what it was:
An group of elephants, on a family outing to the water hole:
Look at dad’s protective glare in the back. After he made sure mama and baby were safely done drinking, it was his turn.
And then all three of them turned turned to put their rumps in our faces and never turned back. Guess that was the end of the photoshoot. We got there just in time!
Turns out that our driver had received a call from one of the other drivers, who tipped him (and about 10 other cars) off about the elephants. That’s a nice collaborative system, to ensure that everyone gets higher tips.
Most of the other cars that were doing 4- or 7-hour safaris left before noon. But as we were on a full-day safari with lunch included, we pulled into a picnic area near the beach for lunch. I’m not sure why it was okay for us to roam about outside the vehicle in that particular area and not others, since I didn’t see a fence or any physical barrier between us and the animals. But I guess it must have been alright, since we were soon joined by all of the other Jeeps that were having lunch.
The driver laid out a delicious spread of curries:
After about an hour and a half, we were back on the road. This must be a hard job on the drivers, who must navigate for 7 hours straight while also looking around for animals to point out to their guests. And then to have to do another 5 hours of the same thing with just a brief break…ooof.
Our driver wanted us to see a leopard for real, so we drove to a clearing where a leopard was reportedly supposed to cross. We turned off the engine and waited for 30 minutes, but still no leopard. So we drove out and up another side of the clearing, when all of a sudden a squawking, flying peacock crossed the road. The driver turned off the engine, and then pointed out the screeching noises that the monkeys were making, which apparently was reserved for whenever a leopard was nearby.
And then we saw it, crossing the road about 50 feet away from us:
So we ended the day with a proper leopard spotting. Mission complete!
I KNEW I brought those telephoto lens for a reason.
It was lots of fun, but also a long day bumping along in a Jeep. I think a half day ending at noon would probably have been sufficient, but I’m glad we got to see everything that we did!