Saturday, November 26, 2016

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. 

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