Wilpattu day safari, part 5
Our alarm dutifully rings at 4:30 a.m., and I scramble out of the warm bed into the chilly morning air. I flip on a couple of solar/battery-powered lights, and hustle into the clothes I laid out last night. I pull a fleece jacket on and then wash my face with cold water. Yikes, that will wake you up in a hurry. Paul is dressed in short order too, and we wait for Indika to arrive with tea. He is fifteen
minutes late so we hurriedly slurp our tea, to the chant of Buddhist monks broadcast over a loudspeaker, from the village below Palpatha.
Paul and I follow Indika, who uses a lantern to illuminate our path, as we walk to headquarters. Saran and Lahiru are waiting by the truck to greet us. We climb aboard and Saran drops a piece of heavy plastic down between the cab and the bed of the truck. Thank goodness for that, as I wasn’t looking forward to a windswept ride on this cool morning. We arrive at the park just as a hint of light is showing in the east. Once again the proverbial paper work must e filled out. The good news is that there are no other safari vehicles in sight. There also is no one manning the gate, so Saran must run back to the office to get the key. Saran returns with the key, along with a smile on his pleasant face. He pulls the gate open as the sun throws a red cast along the horizon.
We are trundling down the same road as yesterday, and the area is in deep gloom as the sunlight has yet to penetrate the forest. I’m not even looking into the undergrowth because it is just so dark in there. Lahiru stops and says something to Saran. Saran, in turn, tells us that there is an Oriental Scops Owl perched in a tree. With pointing and explaining, we finally make out the dim outline of the owl. Good grief, how the heck did our driver see that bird, in the dark, while driving?
Shafts of light begin to penetrate the forest, turning the landscape into a subject for a Kinkaid painting. To make it even more magical, there is no one around but us. We drive over the dam of a tank (pond) and see very fresh elephant poo, but no elephants. They must have heard us coming and took cover in the forest. We continue on our wildlife quest, and are rewarded minutes later when we see a robust, jackal standing in a grassy patch near the road. As the healthy canine pauses to take a look at us, the early morning sun makes his thick fur glow, adding to the surreal feel of the morning.
The word Wilpattu means the land of lakes, and we arrive at one of these natural lakes at the edge of the forest. This lake, like the lake we visited yesterday, and all the other lakes we will see, is teeming with birds. This morning, besides watching the myriad of water birds, we are entertained by three Green Bee-Eaters. The trio is having a quarrel over something, a female or territory, I suppose. The winged jewels, fly about chasing and fussing at one another, and then come sit on the ground next to our truck. Once they are rested, they square off again, but eventually two persevere. When the loser vacates the premises, the winning pair poses for a victory photo.
We drive along the lake, until we reach the designated area where people are allowed to step out of their vehicles. There is also a restroom, thank goodness, and I don’t even care that it is a long drop! There are two other safari groups having breakfast, as we will soon be doing too. Saran and Lahiru, find a wooden bench to use as a table and bring a couple of containers of food from the truck. There is fruit and some type of grain cake (I can’t even find anything to compare it with), which is wrapped in huge leaves instead of plastic. The mealy cake is tasty but as usual there is way more food than Paul and I can eat. We tell our guides to help themselves, but they will not eat until we are finished.
We also have other creatures eyeing our breakfast. A troop of Toque Macaque monkeys are scrambling around in the trees above us and the other diners. Paul and I put the lids back on the containers and make sure we are not standing directly under any branches where the uninvited guests are hanging out. All the guides keep an eye on the monkeys, and occasionally a yell or a well aimed stick, thwarts a would-be thief that makes a dash towards someone’s food.
We walk down to the lake when we finish breakfast. We can’t go far but it sure feels good to stretch our legs. Saran points out a pair of soaring, white-bellied sea eagles, and identifies a Sri Lanka grey hornbill by its goat-like call. I would love to actually see that bird. We climb back in our safari truck and drive down the sandy road to see what we can see.
We have been up and down various roads, stopped at more lakes, until I am so turned around that for all I know we may be going in circles. We see plenty of spotted deer, birds galore, and some wild boar tilling up the ground. As we approach the noon hour we are driving down a shady road in the forest. Paul and I are peering into the scrub when Saran calls out “leopard”. Sure enough, a short distance ahead of us is a large leopard walking in the road. I am so impressed when Lahiru doesn’t gun the motor and try to catch up with the big cat. We follow along, keeping a respectful distance until the leopard has had enough of us, and leisurely walks into the forest.
Once the animal leaves the road, Lahiru speeds up until we reach the approximate spot where the leopard left the road. He continues driving down the road several yards, then he kills the engine, and we sit in complete silence. After a few minutes, Saran leans forward, cupping his ears. He sits like this for a while, then whispers, I hear her. Is he serious or pulling our leg? We sit as Saran concentrates, and then he says, she is coming (they determined it was a leopardess somehow). Saran is now staring into the jungle, as are we. Pretty soon, he hisses, “there she is”. Sure enough we watch as the leopardess glides into view for a brief moment before she disappears into thicker cover. Holy Moly and I was feeling smug for spotting a wild boar. How do you “hear” a cat walking in a forest! To say we were blown away is putting it mildly. Did I mention that there are big smiles on all our faces after encountering the leopard?
It is time to eat lunch, so we drive back to the lake where we ate breakfast. There are five or six vehicles here, and the few places set up for dining are full. Saran pulls two chairs out of the truck for us, and Lahiru sets our lunch on the vehicles tailgate. Hey, we are tailgating in Sri Lanka! I don’t know how many dishes of food were lined up on the tailgate, but it is enough food to feed six people. There is chicken, potato curry, a variety of vegetables, and watermelon for desert. When we finish, there is enough food left that Saran and Lahiru, share it with some of the other drivers.
The day that started out so cool is now quite hot, and Saran says we will stay by the lake for another hour, as most animals will not be active at this time. I wander down by the lake to watch the birds and snap some photos. Paul has pulled his mesh topped hat down over his face and is sleeping. At least I thought he was until I took this photo of him. He says his hat is great for watching people who think you are sleeping. The rascal.
I have just settled down in the chair next to Paul, when Saran strides up to report that an elephant is coming to drink, on the far side of the lake. Evidently, this is unusual behavior for an elephant in the heat of the day. We and one other vehicle are all that remain here, so it is a small group that walks down to the lakes edge to observe the bull elephant. The big fellow wades into the lake, and begins to pull up some of the grass that is growing along the edge of the lake. We watch as he gathers the grass with his trunk, knocks the grass against his foot, swishes the grass back and forth in the air, and then puts it in his mouth. Occasionally the elephant will pull the wad of grass out of his mouth, and shake it off again. When I ask Saran why he pulls it back out of his mouth , he explains that it probably still has dirt on it, so he needs to shake it some more. Well duh, I should have figured that out on my own.
We notice the other 5 tourists don’t have binoculars, so we offer the use of ours. A woman and her daughter (I assume) gladly accept them, and the older woman actually gives a gasp when she sees how the binoculars pull everything up close and personal! What I take to be the older woman’s husband declines our offer. There is another young couple who refuse to use our binoculars. I noticed when I acknowledged and smiled at them when we joined the group, they did not return that courtesy. When the two use Saran’s binoculars shortly after rejecting ours, it is rather obvious that they are snubbing us. Hmm. In all our travels, Paul and I can’t recall this happening before, and yes, Paul noticed their attitude towards us too. Since we have had no contact with them, we can only conclude that it is because we are U.S. citizens. We don’t know what nationality they are, but they are Europeans. It was interesting to say the least.
We leave the elephant and lake behind, and Paul announces to Saran that to make this day complete, we need to find a sloth bear. Saran knows by now that we are well aware when on safari you take what you get, and he just laughs. Saran had told us while we were watching the elephant, that in Wilpattu, you had a 20% chance of seeing a leopard, a 10% chance of seeing a sloth bear and a 5% chance of seeing an elephant. With those odds we have already been darned lucky.
We are happy to return to the shady forest to get relief from the sun and heat. I swear we have not been driving more than 20 minutes, when Lahiru slams on his brakes and speaks a word in Sinhalese to Saran. Saran turns to us and says sloth bear”! I am so astounded that I rest my forehead against the back of the seat for a brief moment. O.K. I admit an “I’ll be damned” slips out of my mouth, in disbelief of our luck. The really astounding thing is how Lahiru saw this sow and her cubs. We only see bits of the black bears, which are deep in the woods, and we know where they are! The bears are on the move and we catch glimpses of one large shape, and two half-grown shapes, here and there, among the trees. At one time I see the head of the mother clearly enough that her grey muzzle is apparent. In another instance, I see the paw of a cub with its long claws, swipe at something on the ground. There is no chance at a photo unfortunately. This is a sighting that will have to be committed to our memories.
The trio of sloth bears disappears from sight, but our guides think they may be heading towards a small tank to get a drink. We drive down a road that isn’t traveled much as tree limbs are hanging over the road. The encroaching limbs slap and scratch at the vehicle, but we make it to the watering hole. There is nothing here. Lahiru turns the vehicle around, and we wait for a few minutes. I’m not sure why Saran concludes they aren’t coming but we head back towards the main road.
Lahiru drives back to where we saw the sloth bears and I see the guides looking down at the road. The guides often check the sandy roads, because animals that are traveling the road will leave clear imprints in the sand. Suddenly, Saran groans, slaps his forehead and tells us that a leopard has been here since we left. His action is so dramatic, yet sincere; I have to stifle my urge to laugh. Saran points out the big cats paw prints that are superimposed over the tracks of our tires. To make it a little more painful, there are two places where the leopard has laid down in the road. He obviously was in no hurry to get where he was going.
We follow the tracks, oh yes we are in reverse, until they leave the road and go into the bush. Since we have only been gone 15 or 20 minutes, we continue traveling backwards for a 1/4 mile and then we sit. The hope is that the leopard is still traveling in this direction and we might catch a glimpse of him. Saran, Lahiru and I are intently staring into the trees, but Paul has decided to watch the road behind us. After a few minutes we hear “Guys, I think I see something moving”, “I think it’s a leopard”. I whirl around so I am looking over the back of the seat and bring my binoculars to my eyes. Sure enough, way down the road is a leopard moving away from us. The leopardess we saw this morning was good-sized, but this leopard is really big. It’s a good thing Paul was staking out the road or we would never have seen this cat.
The problem is we are headed the wrong way, and because the road is so narrow, there is no room to turn around. Lahiru sends our vehicle speeding down the road until he finds a place to make a three-point turn which actually turns out to be a five or six point turn! We rush back in hopes the leopard is still trekking down the road but no such luck. The guides find the leopards tracks, and follow them to a point in the road where the feline has made a U-turn and is walking back the way it came. After a short stretch, the leopard’s tracks leave the road for the jungle. We all search the area, Saran listens, but we see and hear nothing of the elusive leopard.
Our safari ends with the search for an injured leopard, that another guide told Saran about, when they stopped to exchange information along the road. The guides are excited about seeing a third leopard in one day, but Paul and I aren’t really disappointed when our search for the disabled cat turns up empty. The injury they described probably means the leopard won’t survive and that would be a depressing way to end the day.
We are back at the lake where we ate our meals, and we have a close encounter with the lone elephant we enjoyed watching earlier. At our approach, the huge male turns and fans his ears in a warning, but when he sees it is just a vehicle full of humans, turns away and minds his own business. We enjoy watching the pachyderm for a while as he continues to browse.
The sun is beginning to arc towards the horizon, so we must turn towards the exit gates. We have one more interesting encounter before our day is over with a sambar, the largest deer in this park. The doe is standing like a statue by the side of the road, head high, ears pointed and eyes focused on a spot of thick undergrowth. Lahiru stops the vehicle next to the beautiful sambar. She doesn’t look at us or even flinch. As we watch, the doe curls her leg up toward her body in slow motion, and then slams her leg to the ground, sending a sharp sound reverberating into the air. Our white tail deer do the exact same thing when they feel threatened, by the way. The sambar repeats this leg thumping ritual over and over, as we use our binoculars to try to find the creature that is upsetting her. Saran is fairly certain it is a leopard. After several minutes, the vexed sambar lets out two sharp barks, (the best description I can think of) and then turns and walks away. Huh. Was it a false alarm, was she pulling our leg, or did the perceived threat melt away into the forest? We will never know but her exhibition was worth seeing regardless.
We must be on our way and we make it through the gate as the sun is slipping out of sight. What an excellent day we have experienced! Tomorrow we will spend the morning in Wilpattu and then it is time to move on to our next destination.
Next installment, morning safari in Wilpattu, Dambulla caves and Wild Grass resort.