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Four leopards. FOUR LEOPARDS!

(Day fourteen + fifteen)

Does anyone else say leo-pards when they're typing leopards?

It’s 9pm. I’m not long back at the hotel after a somewhat hair-raising cab ride back to Wattala from Negombo in the dark. Mind you licking fourteen stamps and fixing them to postcards during the journey wasn’t the smartest idea, distracting yes but I feel a bit sick now. I can’t wait to write about today but I’m still way behind so it’s time to think back to last week.

I’d say I’ve got about two hours before my eyes glaze over. It’s my last night in Sri Lanka and I’m taking no chances with the early morning flight this time, my alarm is set, I have a wake up call booked and, I’m actually packed! I’ve got this. 

I haven’t thought much about going home. Since I’m still talking with friends and family most days I don’t miss anyone, I do really miss easy access to a washing machine and I do have growing concerns about the Tasmanian winter. I realised tonight that I’ve been turning the aircon up to 26 because the standard setting is too cold. Anyway - I’m in bed, warm and ready to write.

On the morning of day fourteen I slid into my seat on the bus, flipped down the foot rest, stuck my water bottle in the holder and chatted with Anura and Nalaka until we were all accounted for and on the road bound for Yala National Park in the South East. 

The day’s first stop was a little surprising, Ella is a peaceful small village in the middle of beautiful green countryside. In a valley at about 1000m elevation and surrounded by even higher mountains its become somewhat of a tourist town, don’t be put off - it’s not a tourist town in the sense you and I might envisage, it’s just that there were a handful more tourists, more cafes and therefore - coffee. You know, as in coffee served by an actual barista. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m never going to be the kind of person whose jaw drops and mouth waters at the sight of a McDonalds in a country where you’ve come to avoid just that kind of institution. Still, my eyes did pop a little at the Lavazza sign, so too at the barista. Until he opened a zip lock bag from which he poured milk into a jug to expose to the high pressured steam from the espresso machine. As far as a coffee fix in Sri Lanka goes, it was satisfying. What wasn’t was the milk on the couple hours of windy roads that followed - but that’s the price you pay to be caffeinated so you can write on the bus. 

The scenery was incredible and I would like to acknowledge that both incredible and amazing are two words I have, and will continue to overuse during the writing of these posts. Sometimes it’s just too hard to sum this place up on the fly with a word that will do it justice, these two are my failsafe. So here’s the thing, if it’s ‘amazing’ or ‘incredible’ you probably should experience it for yourself because I rate it so highly emotion has overcome me and my ability to locate the appropriate words has been lost. 

Sri Lanka is amazing, just incredible. What?

Where was I. That’s right, balancing milky stomach contents on a windy road. This was broken by a stop at Ravana Falls, I love a waterfall but they’re difficult to photograph. I tried numerous positions, crouched roadside trying to capture it without being taken out by a tuk tuk and gave up. Benefits of being on a tour - Rose snapped a photo of me in front of a third of it and was nearly taken by a van. Others were calling out for her safety but I was pretty sure she still had time to click the button AND move, the drivers here have very good reaction time. 

I was looking forward to a ‘light lunch’ at the hotel. We’d not had a ‘light’ meal in such a long time. And truth be told I was hanging out for a sandwich. I lost track of time on this day but at some hour around the midday meal mark we arrived at a rather stunning location in Tissamaharama where some enterprising human built a hotel, plenty of others have since followed suit. This place would remain my favourite, it’s difficult to explain why but, endeavouring to avoid resorting to ‘amazing’ or ‘incredible’ so soon after acknowledging their overuse I will give it a shot:

This hotel, I feel - exists due to its proximity to the Yala National Park and Yoda Lake. It has a distinct ‘safari’ feel. Like I’d know - given the closest I’ve been to a safari before coming to Sri Lanka was a drive around Dubbo Zoo in New South Wales, nevertheless I am standing by this. That’s it. I’m not taking this any further for fear my description will sound like something out of an Ikea catalogue. Admittedly a safari feel really comes down to timber and patterns but let’s not reduce this to materials. It was the chilled feel that had me fall in love instantly, and, I mostly blame the lake. 

I had a sandwich for lunch, added a cap to my outfit of thongs, shorts and a tee and flew up the bus steps ready for our next safari, this was my chance to see a leopard and while I silently had everything crossed we wouldn’t see anymore elephants I wasn’t going to miss this just because I was the most fearful of the group when it came to large game. 

We disembarked bus and embarked purple jeep (do elephants like purple, I hoped not, and since have not researched if they can see in colour preferring to remain ignorant). 

As we approached the entrance to the park I, in attempt to disguise my trepidation announced at an appropriate volume that I’d just sighted our first elephant.  “WHERE? Where? Where? WHERE?” said everyone. *insert appropriate pause for maximum effect “There.” I said pointing.   *very big sign to the right of the jeep, with a lovely photo of a very big elephant. Suckers, I think, feeling momentarily tough. So fleeting.

We saw variety of birds for our first twenty minutes into the four hour safari. With all due respect to bird watchers, I personally find birds a little boring. My favourite birds in order of size are; blue wrens, kookaburras, wedge tailed eagles, macaws and jabirus. I despise plovers and do not have an affection for seagulls, nor magpies. So as you can imagine, while we’re looking at birds in a game park, I’m pretty calm.

Next minute our guide gets a radio call and our jeep turns into a go-kart. We’re leopard tracking. After holding on like it was 2011 when I had the unfortunate experience of being on the back of a racing camel I saw my first wild leopard. He was having a GOOD day. I put him at 50-60m from the jeep on a rock ledge snoozing in the shade. With the lens I had after the first attempt I gave up getting a shot and sat back to watch him do absolutely bloody nothing. It was hot - if there’d been room I’d have stretched out on the back seat and shut my eyes too. Right, leopard - check. Still, with hours to go I was optimistic, not desperate to capture this creature having a nap at distance. Let’s be honest, we don’t travel to share EVERY moment. That would be weird.

AND THEN! Quite literally within minutes THREE LEOPARDS. I’ve got to say this in capitals because I’ve since learned how rare it is to see leopards, as in one leopard, let alone four in the one trip. I had enough zoom to nail this shot after which I genuinely would have been happy to pack it in and resume my position at the hotel overlooking the lake. But no, this was a group tour and in spite of my own levels of (solely perceived) discomfort, being ‘stuck’ there was a virtue because I overcame my fear of charging elephants. 

This safari was different to the first - you weren’t going to see herds, more likely a loan elephant and not in open plains, instead, on narrow dirt roads. In my mind this accounted for any rouge drivers keen on capitalising on the experience. It allowed for a more natural experience, we stop in respect, they wander by. The first time this happened was at a reasonable distance, meaning I wasn’t too perturbed. The second time it was so close I could have stuck my hand out of the jeep and touched this impressive,  massive, naturally non aggressive giant - but I didn’t, I didn’t really want his attention.

We saw a sloth bear next. We had struck gold on this safari. Admittedly Yala National Park has the highest population density of leopards in the world and if you want to see a leopard, there is no better place - but it’s still not guaranteed, nor to see a sloth bear - not to be confused with a sloth, sloth. They are not related to sloths, and they are not slow moving. In fact, they’re agile bears that can run faster than a human and will attack if surprised. 

It was a European zoologist, George Shaw, who named the sloth bear for its long, thick claws and unusual teeth. He thought that the bear was related to the tree sloth due to these features - not the case. This is a sloth bear, bear not a sloth sloth, sloth. Got it? Maybe just go to Sri Lanka and see for yourself, it’s ‘amazing’. 

Kevin, a respected tour member had been asking me for advice about which camera would be a good next purchase. After returning to our chilled digs post safari he confided he’d taken 90 top notch photos of his own leg. A true asset on safari is a Kevin with a camera. I’m not sure my advice on a camera upgrade is going to reward the duo of images worthy of a modern day slide show - Sharon? I mean ask Rose and Fred. Kevin, or an element of Kevin features in most of our images, an elbow or an ear, Kevin is almost our Sri Lankan mascot! Lucky we love Kevin. And have access to a crop function.

We enjoyed dinner at the hotel that night as the sun set over the lake and I realised - having settled into holiday mode to such a degree I’d come out without 40+Deet and went back to my room with 4+ bites.

We started the morning with breakfast overlooking Yoda Lake where fisherman cast their nets and another boat collected lotus flowers having launched his two counterparts out in rubber inner tubes to paddle among the crocodiles. I think if I was given flowers sourced from a crocodile infested lake they would mean a lot. There’s not a great deal of effort associated with loading up a website and plugging in your credit card details. 

Having just had breakfast it made sense that only moments down the road that it would be time to eat again. Still, there was absolutely no way I was passing this up. Pradeep Kiri Hala in Pallemalala is where authentic buffalo milk curd is made. Ohhhhhh yeah. 

We were welcomed by a Mother and Daughter duo who would run us through the process, though first informing us that only the day before they’d had an elephant walk through their backyard. I was good with elephants now but not entirely sure I wanted to share my second breakfast with one. 

The buffalo milk was heated until it started to boil, then a long handled spoon with a coconut shell head was used to stir the milk. As it boiled a spoonful of milk was taken and drawn out and stretched. This has to be repeated to make a total of four cycles. This entire process took about half an hour but would vary depending on the heat of the fire. 

We ate some that had been made earlier with treacle. It was so good I thought about asking about a summer job. As I was finishing my last mouthful the milk was taken off the heat and carried to another room where new hatti (clay bowls) had been laid out (they don’t reuse these bowls, well they do, but in a different sense - they use them to make fences). From a small jug the steamy milk was poured into the into the bowls to set and be sold in their shop.

Heading South to the coast I could almost smell the ocean so when we stopped at a seaside town for a break I took all the bus steps in one and raced to the water. The surf was PUMPING, the sun was shining, the palm trees were positioned postcard perfect and there was a rustic cafe overlooking the beach serving Fanta in the old school tall glass bottles.

Feet and legs covered in sand (high tide see, it rushed up the beach so fast I had no chance) I reluctantly got back on the bus, last - some 30 minutes later. 

We were off to have lunch with a local Muslim family. Such a heartwarming experience, a beautiful, humble family, delicious food and a chance to discover the Muslim influence on Sri Lankan food with dishes like biryani, a spicy Indian dish of rice with meat or vegetables, flavoured with saffron or turmeric and falooda; a cold dessert, traditionally made from mixing rose syrup, vermicelli, sweet basil seeds and pieces of jelly (maybe strawberry) with milk and topped off with a scoop of ice cream.

That afternoon we arrived in the town of Mirissa, our hotel was quite surreal, beautiful. I threw my gear in my room, grabbed my camera and headed for the beach where I got the full effect of the high tide. This stunning crescent beach has a string beach-side cafes near the surf break and on this day - well they had the swell on their door step. Outdoor seating was washed away as I walked directly through the cafe areas so I didn’t go with the tide myself. I went back to the hotel and high-tailed it to the third floor bar and restaurant where I gave serious thought to spending the night on the couch. 

Dinner was epic, there was so much to choose from that the buffet looked more like a room from MONA and if you’ve not been to Tasmania, been to the MONA museum then replace ‘MONA’ with ‘unfathomable gastronomic exhibit.’ 

Unfathomable also describes the Sri Lankan acoustic guitarist singing Ed Sherran but good on him. 

Everyone went to bed accept Kevin and I who ordered another round of gin, possibly two. Kevin, if you and Sharon are reading this, I miss you two. You made me level up Kevin, there is a wisdom to you, behind that dry wit.

Tip: If the sound of waves has you imagining a tsunami sample the local gin and pop your noise cancelling ear phones in. DO NOT travel without these. Sorry, unless you are total extrovert. 

I’d made the mistake of putting my hand on the glass window in my room before dinner and each time a wave crashed the glass shook. I figured since there was apparently no danger of a tsunami and this was just an ‘unusually high tide’ I needed to silence my imagination and sleep through it. It worked, and I woke up to hotel staff sweeping the sand from the pool edge. Yes, overnight, the waves, they were in the pool.

Track: D.D Dumbo - Tropical Oceans

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