Today I had booked another safari – but this time leaving in the afternoon. Two very early starts in the last few days were as much as I could take, no matter how many animals I might miss. My destination was Bundala National Park, which is also very near Tissa, but which receives a fraction of the visitors that crowded Yala does.
I spent the morning relaxing by the pool and admiring the lake, where a man was fishing, and some women were washing clothes. They seemed unconcerned by the sight of small crocodile sunning itself on a nearby rock – I would have been worried that it might have larger and hungrier parents.
My safari jeep arrived, and we set off at two o’clock. Unlike the modern road to Yala, the road to Bundala was in poor repair. I sensed that very few people went this way. The park entrance also looked uncared for and dilapidated. A few dogs came up to inspect us, but there were no humans around to ask us to pay the entrance fee, and my guide had to open the gates himself. We were clearly the only visitors.
Bundala is a wetland park formed out of many lakes lying just in from the coast, and a sign at the entrance announced that was ranked 287th in UNESCO’s list of wetland areas deserving protection. I had never heard of this list, and thought it was maybe better not to publicise appearing in 287th place. The first animals I saw were water buffalo. Unlike Yala, where multiple jeeps would descend on a solitary leopard, here the buffalo queued up to check out the unusual sight of a visitor.
Bundala is most famous for its birdlife and sure enough there were birds everywhere – large groups of peacocks, brightly coloured kingfishers, bee-eaters, egrets, herons, and eagles hunting for fish. There were also some species I had never seen before, like the purple swamp hen and the spoonbill. They all seemed more nervous of our jeep than the birds in Yala, and the peacocks would run away from us at great speed.
Bundala’s other speciality was crocodiles. I saw so many that after a while, I only paid attention to the very biggest ones. The reptiles often lay on the road directly in front of us and would only get out of the way when they were sure we were heading in their direction. Then they would scramble into the water and disappear, leaving only a train of bubbles.
Although I made fewer sightings of larger mammals at Bundala than I had at Yala, the experience of driving around a deserted nature reserve was much more rewarding.
The sense of being all alone increased when we reached a cliff overlooking the sea. Large waves rolled in and broke over the boulders below me. Ahead of me, the sea stretched to the horizon – looking south, the next land would be Antarctica, thousands of miles away. It felt like the end of the world – and in some ways, it was.
The afternoon was drawing on, and as the sun approached the horizon its light reflected off the myriad of small lakes that make up the park. A strong breeze from the sea kept me pleasantly cool. The park was quiet, except for the murmur of our jeep’s engine and the rustle of leaves in the wind.
I was rather sorry when the park gates appeared in front of us again, meaning the safari was over. This time, a park ranger was on duty. My guide gestured to ask whether we should sign our vehicle in and out again, but the ranger silently replied with a shake of the head to say that could go without any formalities. Words seemed unnecessary. I said a fond goodbye to Bundala, one of Sri Lanka’s least visited, but in my view best, national parks.