Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Epic weekend with unexpected roadtrip- Tuskers, leopards and more

This was one of the most epic and memorable adventures I have done in a long long time.

With the new facility of booking bungalows online my friend Raveendra managed to reserve two nights at the Warahana bungalow located deep within Yala National Park.

Despite being to Yala over 50 times I have never booked a bungalow inside the park. I have camped inside or stayed in accommodation outside. I was keen to visit Warahana because this is in the far corner of the park and hence has less visitors. Also the sightings of leopards have been quite frequent in this area in the recent past.

With everything organized by Raveendra, we decided to leave Colombo in the wee hours of Friday morning in order to reach the park by 6.00 am. The drive was tiring and despite being extremely sleepy we managed to reach the park office in one piece. My three other friends Chandika, Sudheera and Ganindu joined us from Galle.

Meeting up with out tracker Ruhunu and driver Amare we entered the park at around 7.00 am. Driving around the park we came across the usual fauna like wild boar, crocodiles, elephants etc. By 12.00 am we were allowed to go to the bungalow. We saw a leopard in the distance at Sudu weli mulla but the fellow didnt come out to the road.

It wasnt as big or spacious as the bungalows I am used to in Wilpattu, nor did it have much of a view which was merely a big rock on the opposite side. We noticed a massive infestation of eye flies (Konduruwo in Sinhalese) who were flying in their thousands around our faces and eyes. It was hard to keep our eyes open.

The evening safari was pretty uneventful with few a sleeping leopard, the same one we saw in the morning sleeping while facing his back to the vehicle.

Returning back to the bungalow we were in for a painful and unpleasant evening. I came out after a shower to be peppered with thousands of sand fly bites. These nasty critters inflict painful bites and are so fast and numerous you cannot simply swat them away. Initially I was fearing that these were ticks or mites from the chair, but later realized what they were. The entire night was hell, I was in pain fro the bites and bad itches thereafter. The bites left large welts on me and by morning I was covered in welts from head to toe.

Fearing it would get worse I took an antihistamine before the morning safari. We had some pretty good sightings of leopards in Darshana wewa and Medha Para. The sighting in Medha para was of a massive male with a female. But I didnt get a clear shot as I was blocked by Raveendra.

Back again in the bungalow we were tormented again by eye flies and by evening I was glad to be out on safari rather than staying in the bungalow. We ventured further South towards Buttawa and came across a herd of elephants with a young tusker. Raveendra stayed back as he was tired and ended up doing a small round on his own near Warahana in his own jeep. He has come across a bear in Darshana wewa and a big leopard. Heading back to Warahana we came across a large bear right next to the road, but the light was so low there was no chance of a photograph.

That night as well we were attacked by the sand flies. This time around I used the mosquito net while sleeping, but yet was bitten when we were having some drinks and dinner thereafter.

The highlight of the trip came thereafter, where by around Friday I got a call from my Kaudulla tracker that the giant tusker known as "The Enigma" has appeared in Minneriya National Park. I was initially sad knowing hes out there and I am down south in Yala. But my friend Raveendra being the adventurous sort suggested we do a crazy drive on our last day to try our luck. I had already got a call on Saturday from few of my friends that the big boy had arrived that day as well. Feeling excited yet not too optimistic I made up my mind to head there on Sunday. With little access to information we decided on a route to take to go there from Yala. Being so close to the Katagamuwa exit we decided to go out from there. Leaving at 6.00 am we headed out. It was only myself and Raveendra who would be doing this crazy trip. Our other friends Chandika, Ganindu and Sudheera continued their morning safari.

From Katagamuwa we took the route from Kataragama-Buttala-Moneragala-Bibile-Mahiyangana-Kandy-Katugastota-Matale-Dambulla and finally reaching Habarana. Total of 360 Km and 8 hours of driving we reached Habarana hot and tired.

We had a well deserved iced cold beer at the Habarana rest house and prepared for the safari. We were very nervous as we were getting worried that our risk taking will be for nothing if we dont see the tusker. With hesitation and nervousness we entered Minneriya with our driver Baba. On the way we came across many friends who had also arrived all the way to see this amazing tusker.

Driving to the far corner of the lake we waited till the sun came down and the elephants to come out. The sky was cloudy but there was fair amount of sunlight. Suddenly at around 3.00 pm we got a call that the tusker has come out from the other corner of the late. I was getting worried that we might miss seeing him as he had stayed only for around 20 minutes day before. Driving along the winding roads we finally saw some elephants in the distance. Initially we couldn't see the big guy, but as I had seen him before in 2012 I quickly identified him from his back view and asked the driver to position the jeep the way we wanted.

He was in full musth and was walking along the herd from female to female to find one receptive to mate. Most of the non estrous females would run away when he approached. His long strides took him along several groups of females and using his trunk would sniff out receptive ones.

The herd we observed was very big, with around 100 individuals, and we were immersed in a sea of elephants. After awhile we suddenly saw a female running out from the forest, followed by a male. Suddenly the male mounted and started to mate with the female. Sparking excitement the young females screamed out loudly at this spectacle.

Myself and Raveendra jubilant after a great sighting of a tusker. Photo credits Saranga Deva De Alwis

The tusker kept walking around providing perfect moments for some great shots. Finally satisfied with over 64 GB worth of photos we got news that a single tusker is spotted somewhere else. Deciding to try and find a new tusker we headed that way. Along the way we asked several jeeps of his whereabouts and we came across the single tusker. This was not "One Tusk John" who I photographed in 2009. This was a new tusker, much younger who has come during the gathering to find females. He was observed mating with a receptive female the day before. He was peacefully feeding on the grass impervious of our presence. After awhile a few jeeps approached and got the tusker excited. The tusker threw dust in the air in annoyance and walked into the forest after a slight mock charge.

Elated and exhausted we drove back home with the most amazing feeling of accomplishment and the risk of such a long drive being worth it.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

New Year Holidays- "What a Blessing"

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year Holidays are here, and as usual practice the organization I work for gives us one full week off as our factories shut down. This year I didn't make any firm plans until the last moment.

Firstly I was to head for three days to my estate in Rozella with the family and dogs. Leaving early morning on the 12th I had to drive our double cab with the two rascals Ozzy the labrador and Bella the Rottweiler up to Rozella which is few miles before Hatton. The ride was pretty bumpy and I was feeling very sleepy but managed to take the cab up to our small bungalow in one piece. We had a great family time, but by the second day I was feeling a little out of sorts and not feeling 100%. Despite this, I was planned to head to Wilpattu with my friend Hamid on the 15th for a one day trip. This was a last moment plan, but I was determined to do so as I had promised to Hamid.

WE departed from ROzella on the 15th and WHich would be one of the best pleasurable and fastest drives back home as all the streets are empty due to the auspicious times of the New Year.

Hastily packing and recharging my camera, I left that day itself at around 10.00 PM with Hamid and his son Naasir to Wilpattu. We reached there by around 1.00 am and had a few hours of sleep at my usual spot named "Dolosmahe Rest Inn" which is run by Athula who is a very hardworking jovial fellow. He had prepared breakfast and lunch for us the next day to take inside the park. We met up with my usual driver Senevi and headed inside my favorite park of all. Driving along the villus till mid day there seemed to be no signs of a leopard, but coming out of Eriyakkulam Villu into Mahapatessa we noticed a few jeeps parked on the far end of the villu. Driving towards the location we didn't realize it but ended up driving right next to a sleeping leopard which was around 5m away from us. Not wanting to disturb it, we drove a little further and maintained a good distance. My 200-400mm F4 lens with the new 5D mark III worked beautifully in this distance which was paired with my 1.4x built in converter of my lens. I clicked away like mad taking advantage of the good light, and the high speed 160mbps CF cards which I had got which gave me almost 50 continous shots. The marking of the feline revealed that this was the original Panikkavillu cub which is now roaming between Illandamottai, Kudapatessa and Mahapatessa along with his one eyed brother.
Being the most photographed leopard in the park, he was completely oblivious to the number of jeeps which were lining up.

 Peacock in all his glory
 Pin Tailed Snipe
 Soft Shelled Terrapin
Motion Blur of a Common Kingfisher

One thing I noticed and really liked was how well behaved and orderly the jeep drivers were in Wilpattu compared to Yala. They all maintained a good distance and ensured the animal was not disturbed.

After around 1 1/2 hours the lazy cat was awoken by some grey langurs who started giving out an alarm. Clearly annoyed the cat got up and slowly walked back into the jungle.

I had used up a full 32GB card with over 1000 shots of the cat. I was very happy and fully satisfied with the sighting and glad that I made the trip.

The rest of the day was pretty quiet but I got some interesting sightings of a dancing peacock, pin tailed snipe in good light and a soft shelled terrapin.

Driving back at night, I reached home by around 11.00am and immediately re packed my stuff for my next journey the following day. I was to head to Habarana and spend two days exploring Minneriya and Kalawewa.

I was picked up at 7.00 am by my friend Raveendra, and we headed to wards another familiar haunt of mine. We reached Habarana and settled down in my friend Sumedha's eco lodge deep in jungle. This lodge is one of my favorite places on earth and the location is to die for. Giving instructions to the bungalow keeper Siri, we headed towards minneriya with a new driver named Manju.

We made the mistake of keeping the canvas roof open and I forgot to take my hat. We were punished relentlessly by the searing heat and hot sun. I almost felt like passing out due to the sun. Using the beanbag as a measley shelter from the heat we had a quick lunch at the watch hut by the lakeside and drove towards the heard.

What we witnessed was out of this world. Over 200 elephants had come out into the open and were grazing on the green grass as well as bathing and drinking water from the lake. I noticed a big tusker among the group and asked the driver to go towards him. He was a magnificent specimen which looked in peak condition.

We spend over 3 hours among the herd photographing all the antics of the little ones as well as the social behaviors of the adults.

Driving back to the eco lodge, Siri had arranged a lovely barbecue for us. Enjoying the night in the jungle we went to sleep content with our day.

Getting up early in the morning the next day, we walked along the small bund of the lake bordering the eco lodge and settled ourselves besides the water to photograph some birds. We were surprised to find a make spotted deer walk towards us and drink water right next to where were were seated.

After a delicious breakfast of Kiribath (Milk Rice) and meatballs, we got ready and drove towards Kalawewa our next destination. Famous for tusker I have been wanting to photograph the great Walagamba once again, and our village guide called me that morning and asked us to come immediately as he had seen Walagamba. Rushing towards Kalawewa which take about an hour to get to from Habarana we came across the guide who had forgotten his previous rush and was taking his own cool time to open up the fence and take us around.

Reaching the lake, he took us towards a Kumbuk Tree forest and said that Walagamba is with the herd. Driving among the maze of trees we came towards a few elephants. He claimed that walagamba is the big elephant who was sleeping on the ground. Being doubtful of this unreliable guide I remained skeptical. My doubts were proved right when the tusker got up, I identified him as "Revatha" who is another big tusker who comes to the lake and not "Walagamba" whom my guide was claiming to me. I made the guide know that I had caught his bluff and feeling embarrassed he said that "Walagamba" was with the main herd which was some place else. After few hours of observing the tuskers in front of us, we walked closer towards them , and I managed to get some photos of  "Revatha" and a new tusker whom I have never seen before.

 New young tusker 

 Revatha the biggest tusker seen after Walagamba
 Revatha the biggest tusker seen after Walagamba

Afterwards the guide said he will take us to the main herd where he claimed Walagamba was there. Still in doubt we agreed and we took off on a wild goose chase which was an utter waste of our time. The guide seemed insane and was taking us in circles and on treacherous terrain. Walking in front of us he should look at the path condition and warn us if its futile, and yet in one spot he told to drive on and we ended up getting stuck in a quagmire of mud. We were in a pretty bad situation as the driver who we took was a young boy who didn't know how to use 4wd properly and we ended up getting miserably stuck.

I was really annoyed now, and we spend over 3 hours struggling to get the jeep out. Luckily I saw some men walking along the forest some distance away and I clapped and asked them to come to our aid. With an additional force of around 7 men we managed to push the jeep out of the mud. Now back on a terrain with no real trail we were taking in some more circles around and around the wilderness and ended up in the open lake area where this guy said the elephants are said to be. But to our dismay we found the entire herd of around 100 elephants out in the open on the other side of the lake where we were in the morning !

I was furious, this guy was either drunk or not right in the head, because he took us on a wild goose  chase to find nothing. In anger I told we've had enough and to head back home.
This guide unfortunately is the only man around that area and only guy who knows where the elephants are, hence dealing with his eccentricities is part of the journey. The day Kalawewa becomes a proper national park with trained park rangers would be the day this man runs out of business and ends his monopolistic claim to the lake.

Leaving Kalawewa we got caught to a heavy torrent of rain and thunder. Driving slowly along the slippery roads, we cam to our eco lodge for the night.

Having a drink at night, I heard the breaking of branches just next to where were were sitting. I knew at once it was an elephant, and told my friend Ravee. Being new to elephants he panicked and wanted to go inside, but I re assured him to remain where we were. Listening to the rumbling and munching of a pachyderm which was a few feet from us was an awesome feeling. Thereafter the elephant began to give out loud growls and calls from the opposite side of the bungalow. I returned a similar call and the elephant replied. I was thrilled at having communicated with an elephant, much to the horror of poor Ravee.

The next morning we headed back to Colombo at 6.30 am leaving behind a magical bungalow and location where we had such a great time. The experiences in Minneriya and Kalawewa were awesome and despite all the set backs we really had a good time.

Thank you to my office for giving such a great time off from work to enjoy this time in the wilds.