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.
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.