After reading an article in Action Asia and missing the sight of a leopard during our South African safari, Yala National Park was a must as encounters with the agile spotted cat is almost guarantee (as safari guide claims). Descending from chilly Nuwara Eliya snaking down mountain slopes and onto wide open roads, the trip to Tissamaharama, a small town 24kms from Yala, was smooth one. The weather gradually changed from cold and dry to hot, arid and humid. Yala reflected the weather in the deserts of Dubai leaving a knot of dryness in our throats and trickles of sweat on our skin.

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At Tissamaharama, we checked into our hotel, treated ourselves to a serve of rice and curry and curd for dessert. We retired early that night to reserve energy for a pre-dawn start to our safari experience. Yala National Park covers a vast area of 97,878 hectares mostly covered with dry vegetation of short thorny shrubs with patches of secondary forest interspersed between. The park is well known for it’s wildlife. Dubbed by Action Asia magazine as the “asian safari” spot, this national park is home to Asian Elephants, sambar deer, mongoose, water buffalos, sloth bear, crocodiles, pangolins and over 120 species of birds. The park’s coastline is a beautiful sight with historical significance and blocks of half torn buildings standing as a solemn memory of the 2004 tsunami.

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We hired a safari guide who brought us into the park in his jeep at about 530am to beat the growing queue of jeeps rushing to go in. The atmosphere was tense, guides waited to purchase permits to enter while guests wait patiently in respective jeeps. This was incredibly different from the South African safari experience we had in Kruger National Park. As soon as we got the permit, our guide rushed into the driver seat and drove rapidly pass the park gates.

“What was the rush?”, I thought. Eventually I found out that every visitor who enters the park has an unspoken expectation to see the elusive leopard. Guides who manage to ‘show’ their guests the leopard will be paid a higher tip. Our guide’s handphone rang, he picks up with a few words exchanged, we were sped off to an apparent sight where a leopard has been spotted. About 5-6 jeeps parked bumper-to-bumper and intrusive camera’s snapped away. To add to my annoyance, the engines of the jeeps were still puffing away while we ‘enjoyed nature’!

Disappointed at the lack of responsibility and respect these guides had for nature, I silently wished the leopard episode will soon come to a halt. As if the leopard heard my cry, she stood up and trotted away leaving the invasive crowd of human paparazzi.

Thank goodness the rest of the safari was conducted in a more respectable way. We cruised along quiet plains, stopped at water banks and simply observed nature – as is. We managed to catch a glimpse of a family of spotted deer lapping water in a bed of crocodile infested pond.

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We watched the solo elephant gallantly stroll pass swinging his clumsy trunk right and left. And we caught a peacock parading his fan in the bushes as we munched on our roti for breakfast. Yala is a pretty sight and the local guides need to learn how to respect it for what it has to offer, less nature and wildlife take a back seat.

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