Wednesday, August 9, 2017

An unforgettable weekend in Yala

It was March 2017, and the season when most past pupils from my alma mater S.Thomas College and our rival school Royal College, get together for 3 days in what is the oldest cricket match on record which has been played since 1879. A time when men from all walks of life, from students to corporate CEO's get together in a large stadium for 3 days of meeting old friends, music, drinking and occasional brawls. 

This year (like most years of late), I decided not to go, and preferred to spend this weekend in the wilds. I have not had a change to visit Yala National Park for quite some time and a joke among my friends was about my bad luck with leopard sightings in the last few years. It was almost like a curse that I end up coming back empty handed from most of my ventures. 

With this in mind, I headed out to Yala for a quick weekend tour along with my good friend, colleague and fellow wildlife photographer Riaz and his wife Nidaal. 

Given the distance from Colombo to Yala was over 4 hours,, we decided not to lose too much sleep trying to race against the clock to catch th e morning 6 o clock safari but rather target the afternoon game drive. Hence we left at a leisurely pace, and added abit of work, given that we are both travel agents, inspected a few properties in the area. We chose to enter from the Katagamuwa gate instead of the main Palatupana entrance as we felt this would be less crowded and would invariable be better for sightings. 

At around 2.30 PM our safari jeep and driver Sumudhu arrived at our guest house and we ventured beyond the gates of Yala, without any expectations, just the simple enjoyment of being back in the wilds after a long time. As soon as we entered we turned off into a new road which has been cut out recently, and to my surprise for the next 30 min or so there were no other jeeps in sight. I was relishing being back in the wild. 

All of a sudden Sumudhu came to a halt, and I briefly noticed a large male leopard slinking into the bush in front of us. We drove up and peered through the thicket, and noticed the leopard walking deeper into the bush. After waiting for around 10-15 minutes, we decided to drive up ahead and wait it out for sometime before returning to the spot, given that with our experience of leopards, if we give them some time they tend to come back to the road. Hence we drove all the way to Darshana Wewa a manmade tank in the end of the road, and waited for around 15 minutes before turning back. 

While passing Modera Gala a large rocky outcrop by the side of the road, our jeep drive spotted a leopard on the edge high up on the rock, just seated, completely oblivious of our presence. After around 5 minutes we noticed a massive head appear from another corner, and realized that this was a male and female leopard who were clearly a mating couple. The leopard we had seen earlier on the road was the male, who had walked up to the rock and joined his female companion. The male was a magnificent specimen, and I was thrilled to see this couple together. We were the only vehicles around, and after what seemed like a long time filling up my CF card on my camera with images of the couple, the male got up, walked towards the female and started mating. The position was such that the view was blocked from us unfortunately. Yet we were thrilled to have witnessed this sight and Sumudhu assured us that the couple would move positions and keep mating for the next few hours. We waited patiently and as he predicted they did move their position and moved along the rock. Once again the male mounted but a small tree blocked our view. 

 The female leopard we initially saw. Notice the head of the male behind the rock on the right

The magnificent Male Leopard

By this time there were two more jeeps witnessing this spectacle. We predicted the couple would reach a certain boulder, and strategically parked our jeep expecting their arrival. Our anticipation paid off, and after around 30 min the female climbed the boulder, and the male followed suit. This was an amazing location as this gave myself and Riaz an amazing perspective in perfect light, with the rocky outcrop as a background for this amazing, rare scene. The couple kept mating around 6-7 times until it was time for us to leave to catch the 6.30 PM exit time from the gate. We left with a sense of triumph and disbelief at our luck, since both of us, and especially myself have not had any good leopard sightings for quite some time, and I was blessed to have witnessed such an amazing encounter which some may never witness during their entire lifetime. 







Thinking back, I am glad that I spend my weekend in the wilds, rather than in Colombo, which if I have done so, I would have missed a sighting of a lifetime. 

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