Saturday, November 26, 2016

Minneriya National Park- My initial experiences

Minneriya National Park is the home of the now world famous “gathering” of elephants. Every year hundreds of elephants from around the region congregate on the banks of this massive man made tank built by one of the greatest kings in our history King Mahasen, to feed on the sweet grasses. Nowhere on earth will you see so many elephants in one place at the same time.

Even though I had heard so much about the place, I only managed to visit this park in August 2008 whilst at University. I had finished my semester exams and whilst on my break I joined with Nirmal Sir and the boys from School on our first venture into Minneriya. Sir had received permission to camp on some forest department land adjoining the park. The camp grounds were a beautiful open area adjoining a small lake. (Name of the lake). We were advised to keep the fires going at night as elephants tend to come to the lake to drink.  The sky was overcast when we arrived despite being in the dry season. With so much open group available to us, we made the mistake of selecting a shady spot under a tree to set up our tents thinking that it would protect us from the rain. The soil under the tree was like clay and once it rained that night we were covered in thick mud. I remember going to sleep with mud between my toes, and it wasn’t a very good feeling. The next day, despite being in a quagmire of mud, we carried on with our normal camp work and by evening set off on our first visit to the park.

 On the way we realized that one of our vehicles wheels and body were not aligned and from behind it looked like it was going diagonally. We went ahead and stopped the driver and asked what was wrong, and he was just as surprised as we were because he did not notice this issue. Upon closer inspection we realized that the differential has been damaged severely. With further questioning the driver came out with the truth. During the afternoon he had been off roading in the mud near the campsite, and had got a large log stuck underneath, and instead of stopping and getting this out by hand, he had pressed the gas and tried to push through. The log had damaged everything on the underside of the Land Rover. We hastily sent him off to Habarana for repairs and loaded another ten boys into our already crowded Land Cruiser. Charith Aiya did a head count and we had 25 boys in one vehicle.  We were so tightly packed that I could not move my head to see the outside. That whole park trip I saw hardly anything because I was in such a tight squeeze. I do remember coming across a massive bull elephant in musth that did a few mock charges at us, besides this we came across only a few herds of elephants as the place was still wet and muddy, and the dry season still had not arrived. During this trip I met Sumedha, the head of the jeep drivers in that area who would later become a very good friend of mine.

 I visited the park again in 2009 with Sumedha to search for some tuskers. I was finally at the right season and the park was full of elephant herds. This truly was an amazing gathering. After many hours of searching we saw in a distance a slight glint of white, which had to be ivory. We slowly approached two elephants, which were facing their backs to us. Upon closer inspection, we found a young tusker about 15 years of age, with a pair of beautiful, long, straight tusks quietly feeding. Upon our discovery of this magnificent creature, many jeeps started flocking to the same location to catch a glimpse of the tusker. Elephants with ivory are very rare in Sri Lanka and tuskers account for only 5% of the wild population. The tusker clearly not amused with the attention, made a hasty retreat into the forest.

During June 2010 we visited the park once again. This was during the Poson Poya long weekend, and the drive up to Minneriya took us almost six hours. The delay was due to a long traffic jam all the way from Kurunegala to Habarana. Pilgrims in their thousands were heading on the same day to Anuradhapura, and their vehicles were stopping on every wayside “dansala” or almsgiving they could find, thus causing a massive traffic block. I was extremely frustrated and worried that we would not make it in time for our evening park round, but we somehow managed to make it just in the nick of time, and headed our way into the park with Sumedha. We came a cross a very large herd of around fifty elephants on the far corner of the park. We were surrounded by a few bulls that have joined the herd to find a mate. My friends were getting a little worried but Sumedha assured us that if we remain quiet and still, no harm would come to us. I forgot the camera and simply sat and observed the family life of these magnificent creatures. There was a young calf who decided to enter the water without its mother. It joined a group of slightly older youngsters who were far too boisterous for the little ones liking, and I still recall it squealing and running back to its mother. The family and social structure of these elephants was reminded me very much of humans. There is an old saying that it is very lucky to be born as an elephant as you will be looked after by the herd at all times, even if ones mother is killed or injured. These herds consist strictly of females and young males. Males join these herds only when the females come into season, during which time most males too come into a state called musth which is a heightened state where the elephants are very aggressive.
By 2.30 PM we were starving and so we stopped at a secluded wildlife beat office in the forest bordering the lake for lunch. We were peacefully having our delicious meal when I suddenly spotted a large black figure moving towards us through the forest. It was a massive bull elephant, and we hastily dropped our lunch and retreated to the small beat office for cover. The ranger at the office told us that this elephant had the nasty habit of attacking people on foot and loved to sneak up on these officers through the dense forest. Realizing that we were safe and out of reach, the elephant moved on. During the rest of the day we counted over 200 elephants scattered around the massive Minneriya Tank. This tank built by King Mahasen in (cite the date) is one of the largest man made lakes of our ancient history. The engineering skills and knowledge required to achieve such an amazing feat thousands of years ago is still a mystery to us today. This lake provides water for all the agriculture for the entire region even to this day, and the people of the area still worship King Mahasen for the gift he has given the people. This gift has also become a haven for the elephants that throng to this area every year to feed on the nutrient rich grasses.

During this trip I was determined to find the legendary one tusked bull elephant who many people were talking about. Sumedha described this elephant as being a massive mature bull and I was determined to find him on this trip. We looked everywhere and covered all corners of the park to no avail, and time was running out. Sumedha suggested we give one last try and go across a water channel to the furthermost corned of the tank to see if this guy was hiding there. No vehicles have gone on this route for some time. In fact there were no roads visible and the ride was very rough, so bad to the point that Rohan Uncle who joined us on the trip was thrown out of his seat and onto the floor. Even the front buffer of the jeep came out due to the rough ride. I had given up by now and was very disappointed, when Sumedha suddenly shouted out “there is your tusker!. And there he was indeed in the far corner of the lake, bordering the forest the single tusker or One Tusk John as some call him was feeding peacefully. I started clicking away with my camera, not realizing that he was slowly making his way towards our jeep. I keep zooming back as he was getting closer and closer by the second till he was only a few feet away from our jeep. Suddenly he charged and thanks to Sumedha’s experience he kept the engine running and we managed to avoid him by a few inches and we moved aside. The tusker was in the height of musth which made him very aggressive and we could see the secretion dripping from the side of his face as well as the strong musty smell which reminded me of a cigar smoke.

 One tusk John started moving away from us and started feeding again. We decided to leave him alone as we have had our share of photographs and narrow shaves with him, and also it was getting late and the sun was setting so in a triumphant mood we headed back out. This amazing gathering is a must see experience for anyone who visits the country. This truly is an amazing and wonderful spectacle of Mother Nature. 

My ventures into Bundala through the years

Bundala was one of the first National Parks I visited as a small child. My parents and few other family friends headed on a trip in October 1991, back before anyone had heard of the place. We booked the Lanka Salt Bungalow which was a very basic place bordering the park. I was only five years old at the time and I only have vague memories. I remember heading out by jeep and coming face to face with an elephant in a thicket. I did not understand its significance back then, but it was my first wild elephant encounter. I also remember a large number of crocodiles. The second trip was during the same year in December where my entire family from my mother’s side including my grandparents visited the park. I remember getting marooned in the bungalow for few extra days due to floods because the roads were underwater. I remember dozens of crocodiles on the road, and we had to spend a good two or three extra nights till the water level came down. We had no food, and had to resort to Maggi noodles and a small tin of sardines.

I revisited Bundala in April 1998 with the Wildlife Society. We camped facing the large lagoon which was teeming with crocodiles. Nirmal Sir made sure that the small boys including myself who was 12 years old at the time were not taken close to the water. I remember Sir taking a bucket and bathing me far from the lagoon. One of the drivers who accompanied us became a little bold and decided to squat on the bank of the lagoon and bathe using a bowl. He slipped and fell into the water, which triggered an immediate reaction from the crocs on the other bank. They all jumped into the water and started swimming towards our side of the lagoon. We immediately pulled him out of the water and made a hasty retreat back to camp.

We had another close shave when heading back to camp after a visit to the park office for a lecture on the park and its fauna by the park warden. We had two vehicles, one was a Land Cruiser which was driven by Rohan Uncle and the other a Land Rover also owned by Uncle which was driven by the driver. Rohan was up front and we were driving faster than usual, when suddenly he hit the brakes at a bend. I was in the vehicle behind him, and the driver without knowing started shouting at Rohan as he was reversing back. The two vehicles collided with a bang, and then we could see beyond the jeep in front, what had made Uncle reverse so hastily. A massive bull elephant was walking towards us with bad intent both vehicles reversed all the way back, till we came to an opening with a water hole. The elephant diverted from us and headed towards the water and started drinking. It was obvious that the jeep had startled the elephant and his reaction was to charge us in defense. Relieved that we got off in one piece we headed back to the camp, thrilled with our encounter.

In 1999 we revisited the park and we had a very good tracker named Gayan. I remember us walking along the lagoon with him, and Gayan took us deep into the jungle where we heard a loud rumbling noise. He asked us to crawl on all fours through the thicket till we came to an opening close to the water. It was a large crocodile and we were only a few feet away from it. The croc was making this unusual sound, and we observed this for a long time. Suddenly it realized that it was being watched and slipped speedily back into the water. We continued our walk for around two more Kilometers till we came across a massive spotted dear lying dead near the bank of the lagoon. The crocodiles had eaten the back half of the deer, but the antlers and head were still intact. I had never seen such a large deer before, and the antlers were the largest we had ever seen.

Nirmal Sir spotted a small python living in a hollow in one of the trees at the campsite. Everyday it used to pop its head out of the hollow and remain for some time, but we never saw it fully out of the tree.

In our last night we were sitting and chatting with Gayan about jungle stories when he received a radio call that a leopard which they had radio collard was heading its way close to camp. Later on Nirmal Sir was flashing his torch to the other corner of the lagoon about 200-300m away and we caught reflections of crocodiles and buffalo, when we suddenly caught the eyes of an unknown animal, it was moving towards the camp, and we gauged the hight at around three feet, and after walking straight towards us it paused and remained still for a few minutes. Sir had seen enough, he did not want to risk anything, and got all the small boys which included Myself, Virantha, Podi Muththa, D.R and his brother Dillon into the tent and he made sure the tent was zipped up safely. We were getting afraid now, and back then I was not used to leopards, and we had been watching too many movies and reading books about man eating big cats. Suddenly the tents flaps flew open and Charith Aiya, Rohan Uncle’s Son Jumped in and made a big noise to scare us. I was startled but calmed down when I saw him, but D. R couldn’t take it and had to run out and vomit due to the shock. Pranks were a regular thing at camps, and Charith Aiya was one of the best at it. The next morning I needed to go to answer the call of nature, and unfortunately the toilet in our camp was occupied. Thus I had to walk to the campsite next to us, while passing where the “so called” leopard was last night. I was very scared and kept on getting the feeling that I was being watched. But I went about my business and while walking back to camp observed paw prints and a tree with claw marks. I sprinted all the way back to camp and told everyone the story. Many years later I realized that it was a prank played by the seniors where they had made the paw prints and made scratch marks on the tree with a knife. The eyes which the torch reflected may have been a buffalo or a jackal, Nirmal Sir just wanted us to go to bed as it was getting late. In the morning we did all the cleaning up, and Virantha while cleaning some pots, pans had dropped a spoon in the lagoon. We asked Gayan to get in the water and try and find it. When he got down, something suddenly bit him and he shouted at us to pull him out. One he got out a small crocodile about two feet long came to the surface. Gayan may have stepped on it or startled it in some way, as it had bitten him on the leg and let go immediately. The bite mark had left about two or three puncture wounds. 

It would take another ten years for me to return to Bundala. It was September 2009 and I had just graduated from University. My father, his best friend Uncle Stephan and I went on a road trip which lasted six days. We spend on night in Galle, and three in Yala. On the final morning we headed to Bundala with Jagath as our Yala driver. He brought along his Mahindra jeep which is usually his back up vehicle. We saw many species of birds but the  most memorable moment was when we within sight of the park entrance on our way out, and we saw an elephant come down to the main road, and asked Jagath to stop the engine. The elephant was slowly making his way towards us. We photographed him for a while, and realized that he was walking with bad intentions. He flew some dust in the air while steadily making his walk towards us. The tracker got worried, and said that this elephant had a nasty reputation of attacking vehicles and said that it had slammed into a van few days ago. We got worried and asked Jagath to start the jeep, but the vehicle refused to start. Jagath kept on trying but the jeep just wont start. Now the elephant was about 50 feet from us, and after many failed attempts the jeep engine started, and Jagath raced all the way to the gate. 

Wasgamuwa- Myexperiences in this little known park

Wasgamuwa as one of the first parks that I had the privilege of visiting during my early years at school. I have a particular fondness for elephants and this place was an instant hit for me. We did not see many elephants during my initial trip in 1997 due to the severe drought. There were hardly any animals around, but I do recall coming across a large herd during one of our evening park rounds.

I remember the time when I went there with my family during the April holidays of 1999. I had management to convince my father to make a bungalow booking, and he had booked the Gale Bungalow outside the park. We were joined by two of my mother’s very good friends and keen wildlife enthusiasts Aunty Prithiva or Leggy as we all call her and Aunty Shyami. Also among our group was Uncle Mahesh who was a very good friend of my father and his wife and daughter. This was only the second time I am visiting the park, and none of the others have ever taken this route. Thus we took our time in finding our way, and we ended up driving through Variyapola, via Matale and through the beautiful Riverston area down to Rattota and finally to our destination Gale Bungalow. What I remember of the place was that it was situated next to a big rock, hence the name (Gale of gala means rock in Sinhalese). The place was unbearably hot due to the rock heating up during the afternoon sun and reflecting this heat to the bungalow. We were infact in misery as this was the height of the dry season. We had a white Nissan Serena Van back then as we decided to venture into the park in this vehicle as we did not own a four wheel drive vehicle back then, and finding a safari jeep was difficult in this area. The first round was to combine with a dip in the Mahaweli River inside the park in order for us to get out of the heat. I remember coming across many elephants along the way along with a few mock charges which were quite alarming for my parents. 

My father was very cautious, as it was the first time he was driving around in elephant country, and with the reputation of the Wasgamuwa elephants of being extremely aggressive we did not want to take any risks. But we did have a near miss when driving along the Medha Pitiya road I suddenly saw a large elephant facing us inside the forest just few feet away from the road, and asked my father to immediately stop. The problem was that he stopped right in front of the angry elephant and he came charging at us, and missed us by inches, as my father raced a few meters ahead to avoid him. If not for my father’s reflexes he would have hit the window where I was sitting first. We noticed several bullet holes in him which was a reminder that this was one of the worst hit places in the country for Human Elephant Conflict. The poor elephant would have been maddened by the pain of the infested wounds.

We spend the daytime of our stay walking around the village of Handungamuwa bordering the park. The villagers in this area are all chena and paddy farmers, and are facing unimaginable hardships due to the conflicts with the elephants. Due to the lack of sustainable food in the park and the temptation of an easy meal at the expense of the villagers, the elephants wander into the villagers at night, raiding and destroying month’s worth of hard labor by these poor farmers. In one night these people lose a livelihood and sometimes even their very lives as the elephants kill many villagers during these conflicts. In retaliation some have resorted to poisoning vegetables and leaving them for the elephants to eat. The gunshot wounds on the elephant who charged us was also a reminder of the methods used to chase away these giants. The park has an electric fence around its border which they turn on at night, but these intelligent animals have found ways of breaking these down. The villagers have set up tree huts spread all over their village where they spend all night on vigil, waiting for these raiders. During the nights sitting on the verandah of the bungalow we could see fire crackers going off and people shouting alarm calls warning every one of the arriving pachyderms. I remember the elephants coming very close to our bungalow on the last night of our stay. We used our torches to try and spot them, but they were deep in the bushes behind the bungalow. In the morning we discovered our door mat outside the back entrance of the bungalow, torn to pieces by elephants during the night.
I visited the park a few more times after that through the wildlife society.

 I recall in particular one trip during December 2002 where we set up camp at the Mahaweli Campsite bordering the river. It was the height of the rainy season, and the river was full and very rough. I remember that we could not bathe there safely and Nirmal Sir ensured that none of the junior boys were allowed to venture near the river. I was vice president of the society then, and had a very good team who were well coordinated and organized. Gihan was my treasurer who organized all the finances, Sisira was the camp master who took care of all the lanterns and lamps for the night, Tinesh was the quarter master who was responsible for all the food and provisions and Senaka who joined us newly was indispensable around the camp as him being a senior scout was very useful and innovative in organizing the camp chores. His experience played a great role in making the camp a success. By the second day the rain was becoming unbearable, and upon returning from a park round we found our entire camp flooded. The rivers water level had come up and our tents were all wet. We immediately moved camp to higher ground and by next morning we could find no trace of where we had camped earlier, as the river level had reached much higher than the previous day and had engulfed that entire area.

Soon after the trip, I decided to go again, privately to try and photograph more elephants. I did not have a proper camera back then, and I borrowed an old manual camera from Senaka. Sadly due to lack proper knowledge and experience in using a fully manual camera, I ended up ruining all my photographs. But the trip as a whole was very memorable. I hired Rohan Uncles jeep and camping services, and headed back to the park with Tinesh, Sisira and Dharshan. Due to the bad experience few weeks ago we booked the Medha Pitiya campsite which was very far from the river. This was the same place where I camped for the first time back in 1997. The campsite was next to a small stream which was fed by seven springs close by. Thus the water was clean and crystal clear and even good enough for drinking.

Rohan uncle was an excellent cook and we had some of the best meals during this trip. I still recall the taste of delicious roast beef which Rohan uncle’s wife had prepared for us. We thoroughly enjoyed our selves and I recall a few dangerous moments. I decided to walk along the stream to see where it leads. In my stupidity I ventured on my own, after venturing about a Kilometer I started getting a feeling that I was been watched. I was all alone in the wilderness, and I felt so stupid for making the decision. Suddenly I heard the grunt of a bear, I froze and chill ran up and down my spine. Bears are the most dangerous animal you could come across in the Sri Lankan wilderness. They have very bad eyesight and tend to attack without any provocation. This will be the first of two occasions where I came close to a bear all alone in the wild, the other being in Lunugamvehera National Park. Luckily Sisira and Dharshan had managed to follow me and the bear probably afraid of the human voices made a hasty retreat as I did not hear its angry sound again. I was so relieved to see my friends again, and feeling a little shaken up, walked back to the camp. Another close encounter was when Rohan Uncles Land cruiser started giving trouble while on safari. The engine went dead ,right when we were in the middle of an elephant herd. The herd had surrounded us and was now getting agitated. We were stuck in a vehicle which would not start. Uncle whispered for us to slowly get down from the jeep and try and give it a push to start the engine. The road was very muddy and slippery due to the rains, and with difficulty, and without annoying the herd we managed to get down, and we slowly started pushing the jeep to see if it would start. Dharshan was the smallest of us, and while we pushed he slipped in the mud and went sliding under the jeep. We looked around to see where he was but could not find him so we kept pushing till he appeared from under the jeep. We suddenly burst out laughing which alarmed the elephants whom we had for a forgotten about, and they made a hasty retreat into the jungle whilst we made a hasty retreat back into the relative safety of the jeep. Once the herd were out of sight we got back down and managed to push start the jeep.

I had seen very few animals other than elephants during all my visits to the park, but during the August holidays of 2003 whilst on a family trip to the park, we came across a leopard cub that darted across the road. It was a very quick sighting and lasted only a few seconds. But nevertheless I had finally seen a leopard in Wasgamuwa which is extremely rare.

Wasgamuwa has a unique personality to itself which differs from most of the mainstream national parks, perhaps due to its remoteness and the apparent scarcity of visitors. The animals always seem wilder and less used to humans. The park holds its own mystery of which I have only scratched the surface. 

My first venture into Wilpattu August-2003

Wilpattu in a place which I fell in love with more recently. At present it is my favorite national park.  The primary reason for not visiting the wonderful place earlier is because park was closed during most of my childhood, and was opened up to the public only in 2002 during the ceasefire agreement between the government and the LTTE. I have heard so much about this park from my parents as well as many older folk who talk of Wilpattu as the ultimate national park back then. As many would have remembered the park was world famous for its leopards, and a sighting was almost guaranteed many years ago. The more hardcore wildlife veterans always talk of Wilpattu rather than Yala as the preferred safari destination.

 Rohan Uncles Jeep in the Villu's
Flat tyre on the way

I had the opportunity to visit this legendary park for the first time during the August holidays of 2003. The park was newly opened and run my one of the most daring men I have ever come across, the late Mr. Wasantha Pushpanandha who was the park warden at the time. I was the Wildlife Society President back then, and we received special permission from Mr. Pushpananda to camp on the premises of the then abandoned Kokmotte Bungalow. This was a completely different park from what I was used to. Unlike the scrub lands of Yala, this was a forest with large to medium evergreen trees. The road to Kokmotte seemed endless, and after a few flat tyres we reached our destination.

Kokmotte Bungalow

Happy after changing the tyre- Malik, Romesh and Mahesh Sir

 Kokmotte was a bungalow like nothing I have ever seen. It has a unique design which is seen nowhere else in Sri Lanka. The entire structure is built of wood and is built on a form of stilts. The building frame was intact, but the interior was destroyed due to vandalism and neglect. The park was closed for many years after a terrorist attack in (mention Year and date). For campers like us, this was heaven, and we took to the place immediately. The cool waters of the Moderagam Aru were very tempting, and after finishing all the chores we all spent a good few hours in these waters. Close to the time for the evening safari, I was given a message that Mr. Pushpananda wanted to meet myself and Nirmal Sir to discuss a project we were planning. I was very upset as I will be missing my first safari, but as I was the President it was my duty to represent the society and the school. Thus with regret I headed for the park office along with Nirmal Sir, Rohan Uncle and my quarter master Ashan Fernando.

 the boys at Kali Villu- Romesh, Gihan, Virantha, Jehan, Ashan, Malik
 at the abandoned Kali Villu Bungalow- Myself, Charith, Naveen
Myself with Rohan Uncle

 The warden was a wiry tough man, who seemed determined to bring the park back to its former glory. He was very enthusiastic, and keen that we school boys get involved in a project to help develop the park. Sadly he was killed by the LTTE a few years later. Wildlife of Sri Lanka lost a great champion that day. 

After our discussion and with some provisions which we missed out we headed back to the camp. When we reached Percy Bendhi Wewa close to the entrance, Rohan Uncle suddenly hit the brakes. There was a large elephant on the road, with its head in the bushes. I could also see a female elephant further down the road.  We noticed a peculiar large object in the elephant’s mouth and at first thought it to be a large branch of a tree. When he brought his head out into the open we realized that they were not branch but two large shafts of ivory. This was a tusker! And a massive one at that. I hastily managed to capture a few images from my film camera a Canon EOS 888, before he slipped back into the jungle without a trace. We were in shock, and we never expected to see a tusker in Wilpattu, and so close to the entrance as well. I felt so fortunate and lucky that I had forgone the park safari and headed to the entrance. In jubilation we headed back to the camp. Back at Kokmotte nobody believed when we told them what we encountered. Back then due to a lack of digital camera’s I had to wait till I developed the film to prove what I saw. 10 years later I would see this tusker once again outside Wilpattu. I named him "Wasantha" after the late park warden. We walked several kilometers to find him, and the sighting brought me great joy to know he was still alive. But he was quite old and seemed blind or partially blind. Sadly few weeks later we got news that some poacher has killed him and tried to sell his ivory. I was devastated, and extremely upset. This is the sad reality about tuskers, and how peoples greed ends up destroying all that is majestic and magnifficent in our wilds. 

 Wasantha the Tusker
 Wasantha the Tusker
 Wasantha the Tusker
Wasantha the Tusker

The next two days we saw nothing, not even a proper bird sighting other than a bold crested hawk eagle at Kali Villu, who refused to move out of the road. The rest of the boys were complaining and frustrated that they have not been as lucky as a few of us. Despite the lack of sightings we had a very good time at camp, bathing and relaxing, and overall was an excellent first impression, especially for us lucky few with the tusker sighting. 

 Nirmal Sir
 Nirmal Sir at the Park Entrance
 At Kali Villu- Sisira, Hafiz, our bus driver, Gihan and myself
Group photo at Kokmotte

My first exprience at Yala National Park in year 2000

Yala or Ruhunu National Park is the most famous Safari destination in Sri Lanka. The park was out of bounds for a few years due to a terrorist attack in 1996, therefore even after Yala was re opened to the public the school did not want take any risks by taking young school children into a place with another possible terrorist threat. I had heard so many stories about Yala, and had seen many old black and white photographs of my mother’s trip to the park. Finally during the April holidays of 2000, I was able to go to park which I have heard so much about. For me, this was a big step up from what I was used to. 

At the park museum with my friend Virantha

The parks I used to visit at the time, Wasgamuwa, Udawalawe and Bundala all had elephants, but we hardly saw other animals. Even the deer were very shy in these other parks, thus it was a big surprise for me to see so many spotted deer in such close proximity, and being so used to vehicles. It was also the first time I saw wild boar.  We camped at Jamburagala Camp Site, which had a small cement structure, thus not requiring tents. Water was supplied by a well some distance away for water. We were strictly instructed not to go to the well alone as the place was next to some rocky outcrops which were frequented by bears. I remember the well being very stale and the water was very brackish with small shrimp like crustaceans floating on the surface. That evening at around 10.00 PM we heard the unmistakable rumble of an elephant very close to the camp site. Mr. Rohan one of our school masters who joined us on the trip was sleeping in the jeep closest to the elephant. Nirmal Sir had warned us of the phobia Mr Rohan had of elephants. I slowly woke him and whispered that there is an elephant close by. He yelped in fright and scrambled from the back seat into the front seat of the jeep, and from there made a hasty retreat towards the building. The elephant clearly frightened by the noise went on it way. We were in fits of laughter, as Mr. Rohan on other occasions was a very tough individual.

Boiling the kettle for a cup of tea at Jamburagala

The next day morning we were driving along Uraniya road, and while taking a bend came face to face with a tusker. This was my first tusker in the wild and I was extremely excited. This tusker was named Kublai Khan and I couldn’t believe my luck, a tusker on my first park round in Yala. We had a face off for a few minutes, and then the tusker went on its way into the bush. 
Kublai Khan

Still buzzing with excitement from the encounter I had a hearty breakfast and worked on the camp chores till evening. In the evening round while heading back to the campsite from an uneventful safari I encountered my first leopard on the middle of the road in Jaburagala. It was a large male, and after snarling at the lights of the jeep (it was pitch dark), it started walking along the road, and we followed it, for some distance before it slunk into the darkness of the forest. I was beyond words by then a tusker and leopard in one day was something I could never have imagined back then.  That night we were all in a jubilant mood, and Nirmal sir seemed to be a little at ease as well, and allowed us to bathe at the well for a little longer than normally allowed. I was given a small camp bed by my friend Bimantha, and I remember it being so flimsy that it would collapse down if I moved too much, and I slept very carefully because Rohan Uncle was sleeping on the floor next to me and as he was very irritable I did not want to upset him. I slept soundly and in the morning I tried to slowly get off the bed and quietly step over the sleeping Rohan Uncle, but suddenly the bed gave way and it collapsed with Rohan Uncle underneath. I believe he would have had the shock of his life and the bed with all my weight fell on top of him. I swiftly jumped off him and darted out to the open before he could catch me. I heard him loudly cursing back at the scene of the incident, and I hid from him for the rest of the trip.

The boys near the well, Lakmal, Virantha, Rukshan and myself

The next few days we saw the same tusker on the main road. It gave a small mock charge and thereafter remained on the road for more than 30 minutes, so we turned back and headed the other direction. We also took part in a small project where we put up sign boards along the Palatupana road warning vehicles of crossing animals and urging them to slow down. This was due to a request made by the park warden as many animals, especially small ones such as monitor lizards and black naped hare, were being run down. We were also given a lecture about the park by one of the senior rangers who visited our campsite. Back then I maintained a field book with notes on all my sightings, and learning’s from each trip.

Nirmal Sir nailing down a warning board we made

My first visit to Yala will never be forgotten and will be the first of many visits to this amazing park. 

Afternoon Full of Surprises

Today was a very goomy day, with overcast clouds etc. I was at home, being a Saturday, and as usual there was a long power cut. There was nothing to do at home, and after about 2 hours was getting ever so boring. So I decided to go out, and what better place than our usual neighborhood haunt Thalangama Lake.

It was afternoon, and usually I dont go during that time, due to the harsh lighting conditions and the heat, but being over cast today it was ok.

Initially while entering the small, lonely road I noticed a squirrel jumping up and down, and wondered why it looked so alarmed. Then noticed a Keelback Snake trying to cross the road. It was interesting to see the squirrels all coming and making a scene, but not really attacking the snake. After a while the snake crossed the road and went into a bush.

During this scuffle, I also noticed a Dark Fronted Babbler on a bush, but couldnt take a shot.

Thereafter moving to the open area I noticed a common kingfisher on a small stick in the water. The lighting was bad, and not ideal, but I thought I could get an interesting action shot. After waiting over 20 minutes the bird flew to the water and came back during which time I got a good shot of it landing.

Thereafter I moved ahead, and while doing so , met a friend of mine. We were having a chat, when I noticed from the corner of my eye a bird in the reeds. It was none other than the rare and elusive Slaty Breasted Rail. A very shy and elusive bird who is quite rare and only a handful seen in Sri Lanka. I was very lucky, and managed to get some images before it went back into the reeds.

So all in all not a bad day out in the small piece of nature we call Thalangama Lake.