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.
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.
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.