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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

'In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks' - John Muir

After three days at sea, we are eager to disembark and explore the Yala National Park, situated near enough to the newish port of Hambantota. Our ship docks finally after our 11:00 AM scheduled arrival. Apparently, communications were unclear and the pilot, who should have met the Azamara at 10 AM did not materialise until 10:20. We finally make it into port albeit a few minutes late, and we are ready and waiting to join our tour as soon as we are able to leave the ship. We are finally on our way. We embark upon a ninety-minute drive from the port to our destination of Yala National Park.

In 2019, just about a month before the Pandemic was announced, we toured Sri Lanka. Not on a bus with a dozen other tourists as we expected, but in a small car with a driver. On our second-last day of that journey, we were meant to visit the Yala National Park as well as drive past stilt fishermen and visit the southern fortress of Galle – all in one day. Despite its small size and relatively short distances between fantastic sights, the logistics of getting from one to the next are challenging as the secondary roads are filled with all sorts of vehicles, making it very difficult to assess the amount of time it takes to go from one place to the next. So, to cut a long story short, we cut Yala from our itinerary. We had seen elephants in Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka a few days prior.

So today, in 2023, we are excited about visiting this large, iconic National Park for which Sri Lanka is famous and to hopefully see not only elephants, but leopards and sloth bears.

There are approximately 6000 elephants in Sri Lanka. These are the smaller Asian elephants and specifically native to Sri Lanka. They are a nuisance because their numbers are large and not all of them live within the confines of a National Park. They wander at night, smash up rural villages and terrorise the villagers. As we travel along the road, we notice electric fences – a line of thick wires that will give an elephant or any other animal that touches it a nasty shock. Some may say that people are encroaching on the elephant’s natural environment, and whilst that is true, Sri Lanka is a small country with a population comparable to Australia. The elephant doesn’t have natural predators – not even humans as they are protected and there does not appear to be an issue with poachers in that part of the world. Therefore numbers are not only healthy, but are growing.

Our journey takes us through rural farm lands and villages. Apart from the salt farms and processing plants near the port, the main crops planted here include rice and coconuts. The rice paddies are lush and green; their boundaries are marked by small hillocks made from heaped earth or even stones. According to our guide, many of the paddies are run by small farmers cooperatively helping one another out. He didn’t say whether these were cash crops or whether they were for the consumption of the farmers themselves. There have been some issues with the use of chemical fertilisers in Sri Lanka, which resulted in famine last year. Today, we do not see evidence of famine in this region.

The villages are small, overrun with tuk-tuks, which are made in and imported from India. Bicycles and hand carts share the narrow, pot-holed roads. As we pass by, people wave at us from their homes and from the streets. Perhaps after such a long time not having visitors to their country, the people are waving in welcome. Surely the resumption of tourism can only improve the economy. Lanterns decorate the streets, houses, and shops. It is a Buddhist festival, and the people celebrate with food, lanterns, and fairy lights. It must be lovely to see these villages lit up at night.

Despite our proximity to the coast, we can see it on the right side of the bus, we are now entering the dry zone and the vegetation is designated dry mixed evergreen forest.

I am glued to the window of the bus as we travel along the road. Scrubby plants whose branches are covered with long sharp thorns, not at all appetising to eat, are in abundance. Many of them are snapped off at ground level and I wonder whether they have been trampled by stampeding elephants or simply cut by local roadside workers. I suspect the latter.

After a buffet lunch supplied by Jetwing Yala, we get into waiting jeeps for our trip into the Yala National Park. We are much closer to nature as the windows are non-existent, although there is a roof to protect us from the searing heat. With six people per jeep, we speed out of the Jetwing hotel and along partially graded red earth roads. Full of potholes filled with water from last night’s storm, the driver weaves around for our comfort or perhaps to preserve his vehicle. There is a strange tinkling sound coming from the back and our driver gets out of the jeep to check the back tyres. I hope this isn’t a sign of anything yet to happen.

Faces turned towards the scrub and wind and speed stirring up red sand we try to spot native wild animals. At the entrance of the National Park, we collect a park ranger; another set of eyes to assist us on our quest for the elusive elephant. It is midday, the hottest part of the day.

We drive in convoy with the others from our bus, but eventually take a turn and suddenly we are on our own speeding down a bumpy track. With no windows we can hear the loud bird calls, smell the pungent odour of fresh elephant scat that indicates that they are not too far away. A strange chattering is heard above the usual chorus of bird noises and the jeep grinds to a halt as we are treated to a performance by a family of monkeys high in the trees. Young ones swing from branch to branch whilst the older ones look on, screeching every now and then. I wonder whether it is mum or dad shouting to the young ones,

‘Be careful! Look after your sister! Look at those idiots below watching us!’

One would never know.

Our jeep stops several times; the National Park guide points to buffalo, wild boar, and to deer. Ho Hum! I have not come to see mere buffalo, boar, and deer, none of which are protected or specific to this region. But the biggest insult was when we stopped to view a rabbit. I think it was at this point that I lost interest in the pursuit of animals. Perhaps the guide should provide information about the unique flora to the region, which I found intriguing. We bump through little tracks, red earth lifting from the ground from the whirring of the jeep’s wheels. More deer, more buffalo.

We stop at a water hole in which a crocodile’s eyes and back are visible; a freshwater croc, which would pose no risk to us in our vulnerable positions in the jeep. But I did enjoy the antics of the hornbill on the water’s edge. His lanky, collapsible legs went this way and that as his open beak searched for food in the mud along the shoreline. Beautiful, graceful, but awkward, I could have watched him for ages. I am perhaps more interested in the flora surrounding the freshwater lake; lotus, and a purple flower that I later find out to be Calotropics Gigantea, the crown flower. I am fascinated by the shapes of dead trees, bleached white and standing regally in the water and on land. There is a blue flower that I would love to identify. Its bright blue fuzzy petals cling to its branches and it adds colour to the otherwise lush green vegetation. There are other plants, small white starry flowers, giant pale yellow flowering cacti… so many plants.

But no elephants. Or leopards. Or sloths.

But we do see a mongoose rattling through the bush, alarmed by the growl of the jeep’s engines and probably of its occupants’ loud exclamations of

‘What is that?’

I think our time must be almost up when our driver does a U-turn on a track that is both too narrow and with too many deep crevices. But we make it, despite the jeep leaning alarmingly at almost a 45 degree slant – fortunately not on my side!

Back along the track we go. The other jeeps that were in our original convoy are joining this main track leading out of the National Park. Our driver is impatient as those in front of us stop, obviously to view animals. On one such occasion, we see ‘foxes’, which are later identified as jackals. Oh well…. Our National Park man is probably still in training because it was another tourist who properly identified it.

We regroup at the spot where our buses are waiting.

‘We saw an elephant,’ someone says, ‘but it was a long way away.’

I secretly I think it was actually a buffalo. I hope it was a buffalo.

I wish we didn’t elect to sit in the front seat on the way back to the ship. It was a harrowing ninety-minutes watching our driver straddling the middle white line, disregarding whether it was dotted or double. He wove dangerously around trucks, tuk-tuks and cyclists and at one stage three vehicles, us in the centre, passed on a two-lane road.

Our excursion to the Yala National Park was interesting, but despite the disappointment of not seeing an elephant or a leopard or a sloth, I enjoyed my day immensely. Perhaps our National Park people should have used a drone to find out where the 6000 elephants were hiding today.

Or perhaps we needed to visit at dusk…

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