This morning I duly struggled to get up at 4.30am to leave at five for my safari in Yala national park. Yala is famous as being the best place to see wild leopards in Sri Lanka, and so is the most visited park on the island. Sure enough, my safari jeep and its specialist guide/driver were waiting for me at the hotel entrance, as was my packed breakfast. The early start ensured we were the second vehicle in the queue to enter when the park opened at six, which was also when the sun rose.
My driver went along well-established trails of red soil that led through the jungle. As it became light, I could admire the scenery, with its mix of red (the soil) green (the jungle), brown (large rocks on the horizon) and blue (lakes) colours.
The guide said that sightings of leopards, elephants and bears were rare, but that there would be lots of other animals and birds to see. Sure enough, we saw bee-eaters (small brightly coloured birds), eagles, deer, crocodiles, and a jackal. Sadly, my mobile phone camera proved woefully inadequate for taking pictures needing a zoom, so most of my photos are not worthy of my blog.
After an hour, my guide got excited. The guides keep in touch with each other by phone, and one of them had spotted a leopard. We rushed around the park to be the second jeep to arrive on the scene, and sure enough, lazing in the sun on a distant rock, was a leopard. The view was partly hidden by trees, so it took me a while to spot it, with my guide’s help. I just had time to take a (rather poor and fuzzy picture) when more jeeps arrived.
The peace of the scene was shattered as vehicles jostled for position and tourists squeeled with excitement. One newly arrived jeep pulled up just in front us, blocking my view. The vehicles all kept their engines running, and soon the air filled with the stench of diesel fumes.
Somewhat disappointed by the “circus” of a leopard sighting, I asked my driver to move on – which proved difficult, since he had been blocked in by the other jeeps. We finally got free and continued our exploration of the park alone, which I found much more enjoyable. We saw lots more smaller animals and birds – my favourite was a mongoose and her baby, who came up close to investigate us.
Our driver was heading to the park exit, when he got another message on his phone, turned his jeep around and rushed to a spot where elephants had been heard. When we arrived there were a couple of other vehicles watching a small group of the animals through thick jungle. We waited, and our patience was rewarded when they broke cover and crossed the road.
After the elephants, my driver took me back to the hotel, happy that he had delivered the top two attractions – leopard and elephant – and could therefore expect a good tip. It is a shame that the park’s bears are very rarely seen – I would have liked to greet a distant relative.
I spent the hot afternoon catching up on sleep and then lazing by the pool. I texted my regular guide that in the evening I would like to visit Kataragama, a holy town and pilgrimage site with some temples. My guidebook said at this time of year there should be a major religious festival happening there, and that pilgrims walked the entire length of Sri Lanka to attend. However, it was impossible to find any more details about this on the internet, or the exact dates. My guide texted back with great excitement to say that today there would be a big procession, which only took place once a year, to mark the end of the festival.
We made the short drive to the temple and found that a large but well-organised crowd had gathered along the procession route, and saw the last of the performers entering the temple to take up their places.
My guide found me an excellent space, from which even a short little teddy bear had a good view of the route. I sat down like everyone else to enjoy the show; one of the other spectators lent me a plastic sheet to sit on. The procession exceeded all my expectations. It started with a group of men cracking huge whips (sounding like firecrackers or gunshots).
These were followed by a group of men juggling fire. Fire was a recurring theme, with men bearing flaming lamps walking by the side of the route. There was even someone with a big cylinder of fuel to refuel them as they went.
After that, wave upon wave of dancers in elaborate costumes filed past to the sound of drums and various wind instruments. Each wave was completely different to the preceding one.
The guide said the procession was Buddhist, but then changed his mind and said it was Hindu. It seemed to have elements of both – the temple was definitely Hindu, but the performers also often carried Buddhist flags.
After each five groups of dancers, there would be a processional elephant covered in brightly coloured cloth.
I lost count how many groups of dancers there were – maybe around thirty, meaning that there must have been around six hundred performers. Not only were their costumes magnificent, and their dancing elegant, but they all seemed to be having a good time and smiled broadly.
The procession closed with a large richly dressed ceremonial elephant carrying a sacred relic (my guide couldn’t explain to me what exactly). The crowd rose to throw flowers over the animal.
I had sat, captivated, for over an hour – this unexpected event had been one of the highlights of my trip. It had been the polar opposite of touristy Yala park – I think I was the only tourist present.