Yala's wildlife has long been hailed as one of Sri Lanka's main attractions, and there's one particular celebrity that people all over the country flock to have a look at: the Lankan leopard (we got a chance to see it on our trip!). If you're new to safari-ing, here's a guide to your typical Yala safari.
The Yala National Park is the most visited park on the island, and covers an impressive 979 square kilometers. It goes all the way back to 1938 and like Wilpattu was one of our very first wildlife parks. It's important for the conservation of Sri Lankan elephants and leopards, and so you're likely to find plenty of anti-poaching, conservation-conscious signposts at whichever hotel in Yala you happen to be staying at.
Safaris aside, you're bound to spot some interesting animals during your stay in Yala, like the monkey (leaf monkey?) in the picture above, on the roof at Jetwing Yala. You can ask your hotel to arrange your safari for you (Jetwing Yala was our go-between, and it cost Rs. 4500 for the vehicle and Rs. 400 for an entry ticket) or you can also do your direct reservations on the park's official website.
Our journey began at 5.30AM, sunrise, which we are told is a very good time to spot the animals taking their morning walks. We left the hotel at this time in our private seven-seater safari jeep. About half an hour later on an orange dirt road the vehicle reached the Yala National Park's ticket station, where we paid our Rs. 400 each and picked up our tour guide. The tour properly starts at 6.00AM.
If you're new to the whole safari thing, it is not as exciting as you might imagine. The Lion King theme song was playing in my head as we saw the sky light up over the green land and birds flying in flocks overhead, expecting elephants and monkeys and leopards to simply prance through in choreographed unison – but actually this ride takes a lot of patience.
Of course, Bambi and friends are your most cooperative subjects during this safari. You'll find spotted deer everywhere, chilling out and posing for the occasional picture.
The other animals are usually busy doing their thang in their natural habitats, and if you are lucky, you'll get to see them. What we saw were plenty of birds, deer, wild board and crocodiles, but unfortunately no elephants or bears were out this time.
It's actually a lot of riding around dirt roads in a random fashion, and it's a very bumpy ride (early breakfast not advised), searching frantically for a sign of a leopard, drivers of different jeeps exchanging notes as we passed each other by.
Finally there was a commotion at the end of a pathway and we sped towards it – cameras were pulled out and tourists climbed on the rails of their vehicles for a better look.
The endangered Sri Lankan leopard was asleep in a tree, oblivious to the twenty cameras flashing at him some feet away. The guy is apparently under threat of poaching and human-leopard conflict, and only 250 leopards can be found at any time in any subpopulation. He is the country's top predator, usually hunting for deer in the area, but also known to attack everything from boars to monkeys and even fully grown buffaloes. This fellow was still sleeping in the same position an hour later so all we got was the picture of his back – lucky really, some people don't get to even sight these guys no matter how many times they visit Yala.
At about 8.30AM, we got tired of driving around – we'd seen some animals, and the lazy leopard, it was time to go back. Besides the wildlife, the park has some beautiful views of natural lakes, and even a long stretch of beach which is the only place you're allowed to get off the vehicle and maybe sit down and enjoy a bit of breakfast.
Colombo To Yala
It's a really long way to Yala, almost five hours on average. You can take the Kataragama Expressway bus from Pettah – 4.5 hours later it'll stop at Tissamaharama, which is about a 30 minute / Rs. 500 tuk ride from the Yala safari zone.
Yala is a must if you're visiting Sri Lanka. Whether you'll see the leopard or other interesting animals and birds is a 50-50 chance thing, but the ride is exciting. Stock up on sunblock, get a full night's sleep before, and bring your binoculars.