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Thursday 2 May 2013

3BM in Sri Lanka: Yala

Another day, another dose of Sri Lankan Sunshine!

After elephants and shopping in Colombo and cocktails and beachbumming in Galle, we set off for the third part of our Sri Lankan adventure, a leopard safari in Yala.

As we waved a forlorn goodbye to Galle from a car laden with bulging suitcases and far too many shopping bags, we felt an odd mixture of massive overexcitment and growing dread about the next leg of our trip.

From the second we'd booked our flights there was one part of the itinerary that was never in question. While a jaunt up to the Tea Country slipped off the agenda and the Cultural Traingle was vetoed, a safari in Yala National Park was a firm fixture. None of us had ever been on safari before and the chance to see leopards, elephants, bears and monkeys in their natural habitat was even more exciting than the prospect of getting to do a Supermarket Sweep in Paradise Road...

So, huge overexcitment for spotting lurking leopards and cruising around in an off-road jeep seeking out new ellie friends, but less love for the fact that the next three nights would be spent sleeping under canvas... yes, that's right, we were camping...

After wildly underestimating the journey time from Galle to Yala, we finally pulled up in our car at a junction just outside of the Kulu Safaris campsite two hours late. Gingerly stepping out onto the red, dusty road we attempted in vain to hold our completely inappropriate maxi dresses up with one hand while dragging our Mariah Carey-style excess luggage out of the boot with the other. Quicker than a flash, two super friendly Kulu hosts dashed to the rescue and, although they looked slightly baffled by the volume of bags, tossed our cases and shopping into a big Kulu jeep, helped us in and zoomed off down a bumpy track towards the camp.

As anyone who knows us, or has ever read this blog will know, we're not the most outdoorsy of girls. We may love a quick muddy ramble in Devon or a couple of hours hiking Hong Kong's trails, but generally not unless there's a long hot shower and a strong Hendricks & tonic at the other end... To say we're not natural campers is a little bit of an understatement. As we pulled up at the campsite we nervously looked around us - we appeared to be slap bang in the middle of nowhere, the chances of there being gin or hot water anywhere even vaguely nearby were looking slimmer and slimmer. 

It turns out that we couldn't have been more wrong... The Kulu campsite is set just back from a spectacular sweep of deserted beach amoungst shady trees and jungly vines studded with bright yellow flowers. After hopping over the red hot sand dunes in the scorching midday sun, we came to a stop in front of a perfectly shaded spot of sand where a pretty palatial-looking tent was pitched. Things were looking up! Set in it's own little area, our new canvas home was far enough away from the other campers to feel private and secluded but, we were assured, was close enough to the staff camp, that anything we needed was just a shout away.

Four poster beds and rain showers may have been just a distant memory but this was by no means hardcore, rough and ready camping. Our tent had two separate bedroom pods complete with real beds decked out with Paradise Road bedlinen, a spacious living area (big enough even for all our luggage...) and an outdoor space with three comfy deck chairs and a dining table. Camping may bring to mind back-to-basics bathroom facilities, but thankfully this wasn't the case at Kulu - our tent had its own toilet tent and a separate shower tent where we were informed, with just five minutes' notice, we could be showering under blissfully hot water... Score one! Now we just needed to loacte the gin... 

All tent nightmares dispelled, three grinning Mice breathed huge sighs of relief - this was glamping, we could definitely cope with glamping! At this point, our own personal Kulu guide for our stay, Manju, introduced himself and asked if we'd like a cold beer. Not needing to be asked twice, we happily accepted and settled back in our deckchairs to sip our icy Lions from chilled mugs. This was even better than glamping, this was heaven! And then Manju casually waved towards the paraffin lamps dotted beside the tent, "to keep the animals away" he said matter-of-factly. Animals??? What animals??? We were camping on the beach not in the park... Manju shrugged, "dogs? elephants? leopards?..." and then laughed seeing three girls with eyes the size of saucers. "It's fine, they're scared of fire" he said, and with that he was off to make us our lunch while we sat nervously sipping our beers while casting around for stray packs of leopards...  

Approximately five minutes later, lunch was served. Although to call it lunch doesn't really do it justice, this could really only be described as a feast. An endless procession of dishes of traditional Sri Lankan curry deliciousness served at our dinner table set with napkins folded in the shape of peacocks and yet another round of icy cold beers. As we sat back with tummies fit to burst, we all agreed that this was the best meal of the trip so far.

Seconds after pushing our knives and forks together, our plates were whisked away and we were told that the first game drive of our stay would be departing in ten minutes. Scrambling out of our maxi dresses and into more safari appropriate shorts and t-shirts, we grabbed our cameras and were out of the tent and into the jeep quicker than you can say leopard... 

Manju hopped in beside us and on the short fifteen minute drive from the camp to the park, he animatedly filled us in on the animals he'd seen on drives over the last couple of days and told us all about his favourite naughty elephant with a penchant for putting his trunk in the jeep on the hunt for suncream and perfume...

Breezing through the entrance to the park, within five minutes we'd stopped and were face to face with an alligator roughly the size of all three of us combined, which was leisurely basking on the shore of a lake. But all illusion that this was a menacing wild killer crumbled as we watched a water buffalo edge round the lake behind it sending the alligator scuttling into the water like a terrified rabbit.

The next few hours passed in a madly exciting blur of bumping along rocky paths, dodging branches and hanging on for our lives as we tracked footprints and dung and followed other animal's warning calls.

By sunset we'd had a glimpse of a yellow, furry patch in a tree which Manju assured us was a sleeping pair of leopards and we'd seen countless birds, monkeys and deer.

On the drive back to camp, Manju called ahead letting the rest of the staff know when we'd be back which meant that we returned to a shower full of hot water, a set of fresh fluffy towels, flaming paraffin lamps (phew!) and a tray of gin & tonics... Score two! We had gin!

Gins downed, refills finished and three hot showers later, our stomachs were just beginning to feel a bit hollow when we realised that our dining table had mysteriously disappeared from in front of our tent... Moments later, Manju was back and leading us out through the trees onto the beach where a candlelit table had been laid out on the sand surrounded by flaming torches. Pulling each of our chairs out for us, Manju then hurried off and returned bearing a chest filled with a selection of wines for us to choose from. Gin and wine... this place was a true 3BM Paradise!

Another great feast of a dinner followed. Kulu staff appeared from nowhere bearing heaving trays of curries and rice - having thought that lunch couldn't be topped, we were completely blown away by dinner! Just as we felt full to bursting, a tray of roasted bananas with jaggery arrived and we realised we had just enough space for this complete and utter heaven in a bowl! Dinner finished, Manju bowled over with a bottle or Arrack under one arm and a camera full of photos he'd taken on recent drives under the other. Wincing as we sipped the throat-singing Arrack, we sat enthralled by Manju's stories of leopard cubs and elephants wandering along the beach that we were sitting on.

A day filled with travelling and first time safari fun, had left us crushingly tired and with a 5am start hanging over us, we reluctantly agreed that it was time to hit our tents... We brushed our teeth by torchlight and zipped ourselves into our sleeping pods where we each lay anxiously listening out for every twig snap and rustle until we fell into fitful sleep punctuated by strange animal noises and ciccada chirrups.

A few hours later we were wrenched awake by a super cheery "Goooooood Morning" and emerged from our tent into the inky darkness to find a tray of coffee set on the table just outside our tent. A quick hit of caffeine later and we were back in the jeep, sleepily barrelling towards the park as the sun peeked above the horizon.  

After such a brief leopard sighting the day before, Manju was on a leopard mission for us, and the morning was spent zooming around the off road tracks that no other safari operator seemed bold enough to venture down leading to the odd branch having to be cut back to let us through and even a spell driving through a metre deep river...

We saw monkeys...


...and more monkeys...
...but not a single whisker of a leopard.
Despite the lack of spots, we were more than thrilled with our action packed morning of wildlife and were even more thrilled to head back to camp where a breakfast of tropical fruit, chilli spiked Sri Lankan omelettes, coconut pancakes and toast and jam was waiting for us.

As the midday heat set in, we decided a swim was in order. Minutes after clearing our breakfast plates Manju was back at our tent with an armful of beach towels trying to persuade us that a swim wouldn't be complete without a cold beer. Minimal persuasion was necessary and off we trotted for a paddle in the pounding surf of the endless, completely desserted beach.

Refreshed, we wandered back to camp where we discovered a litter of teeny, tiny puppies scampering around outisde our tent. Mini Mouse fell completely and utterly in love at first sight and one in particular fell head over heels for her right back. We christened her Scrappy and she faithfully skipped along beside our heels for the rest of our stay whenever we were back in camp.
We filled the next couple of hours with snoozing, sleeping and eating a little more food while Manju charged up our camera batteries ready for the afternoon's drive. And thank goodness he did.
What followed was quite possibly the drive of our stay. After a couple of monkey and alligator sightings, a driver from another company made the hand signal for bear and pointed off in the opposite direction. Lightening quick, Manju had jumped from the back of the jeep into the driver's seat and was zipping, racing car fast, in the direction of the fabled bear...
As we passed other drivers Manju stopped to check for anyone else with knowledge of the bear but everyone shrugged blankly. Eventually after a hair-raising twenty minute drive, completely deflated, Manju turned to us and said that the first driver had clearly been playing a trick on us. But shortly after a rustle of the leaves beside the road caught Manju's attention and we glimpsed an elephant and her baby looming through the trees.

And as if this wasn't enough of a silver lining for having been sent on a wild bear chase, moments later, Manju suddenly stopped the car and gleefully gestured at a dark shape lying in the road ahead. Rolling the jeep forward as noiselessly as possible, we suddenly realised that we were metres away from a huge male leopard. At the sound of the car he was up and prowling but stayed on the road just long enough for us to draw virtually alonside him as he cooly glanced back over his shoulder to check us out before dissappearing into the undergrowth. It was by far the most magical moment of our whole holiday and something we'll never forget.

Elated, we made our way back to the camp for another feast of a meal and much reliving of our amazing leopard encounter. That night, as our plates were cleared, a crew of staff from the camp escorted us up to the very top of the nearby sand dunes where our deckchairs had been laid out next to a table laden with wine and Arrack. Manju explained that the sweep of beach just below us was where giant sea turtles often emerge from the water to lay their eggs, so working our way through a bottle of wine, we sat under the starry sky watching for turtles and happily chatting about our safari adventures.

The rest of our stay continued in a happy routine of eating, napping and animal spotting. During our six drives we saw seven leopards, two sloth bears, eight elephants and too many crocodiles, monkeys, birds, land monitors, deer and buffalo to mention. Many of the other safari companies seemed to work in packs which meant that an animal sighting drew a fleet of vehicles. The really lovely thing about Kulu, was that the trackers were skilled enough not to have to follow the crowd and so the majority of our sightings were just us and the animals on off-road tracks.





Animal sightings were obviously the highlights of our safari, but they weren't the sole focus of the staff's attention. What made our safari adventure so perfect were the incredible staff, their passion and enthusiasm for their work and their total attention to detail.  Each and every member of the Kulu team were superb, working together to make the day run seamlessly. Upon your arrival back at camp after each game drive as if by magic, the camp was in perfect order - beds were made, outside areas raked and swept, and tables beautifully set. After a tour of the camp we discovered that each mouthwatering meal was prepared in a small, modest kitchen with a couple of gas rings - totally incredible given the five star quality of the food.

Overall our four days in Yala were completely unforgettable and far exceeded our very highest hopes for our safari. It was the highlight of our amazing Sri Lankan holiday and something we'd urge everyone to put on their bucket list.

As we repacked our cases on the final afternoon and tearfully gave Scrappy a last pat goodbye, we realised we'd somehow survived three days under canvas without getting eaten by a leopard or trampled by a stray charging elephant. More than that, we'd actually rather incredibly, enjoyed every single second of it. While we weren't quite ready to swap our Louboutins and lipgloss for cagoules and camping stoves, our tent phobia had certainly been cured. Irrespective of that, we couldn't contain a shimmer of delight at the prospect of the next part of our trip back in a four poster bed in a colonial corner of Tangalle...

1 comment

  1. A wonderful experience. Thank you for sharing this amazing experience.