Sir and Madam Go on Safari

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Four thirty seemed awfully early, as a knock on our door roused us for the 5 a.m. start on our safari to Yala National Park. Our morning tea, served in the pitch dark, eased the pain somewhat.

We came to Tissa primarily to see at least one nature reserve, Yala being Sri Lanka’s most famous, and ended up seeing 2 1/2 — more about the 1/2 later. Our simple guest house with only 4 rooms was affiliated with the safari company we chose after a recommendation from the Ottawa couple we mentioned previously. We enjoyed it immensely. As most people come in from somewhere with a car, go on an afternoon safari, and leave the next morning, the young jack-of-all-trades and sole employee of the guest house, Suresh, became very fond of us after 4 days! His life story was extremely interesting, but I digress.

Sri Lanka has an exceptional number of nature reserves for such a small country. Yala is its most famous, and has a large number of resident leopards which all visitors are dying to see. Your intrepid correspondents got lucky, and were treated to the sight of a leopard skulking in and out of the jungle beside the track our open jeep was parked on. He was so close we could see his glittering eyes. His muscles rippled, his fur was so sleek you yearned to stroke it. We were very fortunate. Our little guide/driver had “spooky hawk eyes” like Andrew, but the only English he knew was the names of the animals and birds. However, we have been reading a bit, and have our trusty bird guide to hand at all times.

The park abounds in wild boars, which are the ugliest looking creatures, larger and more fierce looking than the feral pigs of India, but just as grotesque. There are also a large number of herds of wild buffalo, which are basically water buffalo who are not domesticated. There is some debate as to which one sprang from the other but they are feisty creatures, the males anyway, so not to be trifled with. You are forbidden to leave the vehicle of course while in the park.

Elephants also become a common sight after you see them foraging beside the road and then suddenly become aware that the one you saw is not alone — she has a number of family members with her. It is rather surprising how hard it is to see such a large animal (I know Andrew, pathetic isn’t it?) Female elephants are distinguished by their flat backs, and go about in happy communal groups of other females, infants, and juvenile males. They have babies every six years — 22 months of gestation (gulp) and 4 years nursing the infants. The poor males, with their rounded backs are sent off on their own at the age 12 and then are almost all solitary from then on. “Tuskers” as they call them comprise only about 10% of the population and can be either males or females.

An interesting fact which I learned in Kandy, is that there are certain criteria for choosing the perfect elephant. For example, the elephant used in the annual Perahera ceremony in Kandy every July whereby the Tooth is paraded through the city for 10 days, has to be of the highest type and elephant herds are combed for such a beast. The most famous one, Rajah served for 50 years and was declared a national treasure. When he died, the whole nation mourned, and they decided to stuff him and house him in a special house in the Temple of the Tooth. People come by in droves even yet to pray to him and make offerings. At any rate, such an animal must be extremely large and strong (to carry all the regalia and the tooth) and must have 7 things that touch the ground: four legs, its trunk, its tail and its penis. From our observations of many elephants now, the tail is the hardest criteria to fulfill. Use your imagination…. We saw both spotted deer which are fairly common, and we were lucky to see a pair of Sambar deer — they are huge, much like Canadian Elk with which the early tea planters confused them. The male we saw had an impressive rack of antlers, the female lay quietly beside it. Generally the male has a harem of females, but we just saw the two of them, relaxing beside a small pool, in the shade during the hot time of the day.

Crocodiles were numerous, though the guide usually had to say “Do you see the crocodile madam?” before we could actually pick one out (in our defense we were generally transfixed by the water birds in the pool at the time). They are remarkably hard to spot though, especially when swimming, but even on the banks, grinning their snaggle toothed grins, we often missed them until they were pointed out. No swimming in the park… They take down deer and even small water buffalo apparently. There were also a number of monitors both of the land and water type, much more lizard like than the crocodiles, and considerably smaller.

Mongooses turn out to be particularly attractive little animals, and we now know what the bushy tailed rats we kept seeing in the tea plantations were. Of course the langurs and monkeys are so commonplace to us now that we hardly noticed them. There are many other small mammals, but they are hard to spot, often being nocturnal.

However, it was really the bird life that was most spectacular. We laugh now to think of Doug running through the marsh land at Suraya Lagoon to photograph wild peacocks. We are so used to hearing their meowing cry each morning that we don’t take notice any more. In Yala we saw so many peafowl that we became almost ho hum about them eventually, but a male doing his mating dance is a spectacular sight no matter how many times you see it. When peacocks are ready to mate, their tails are glorious, full fans of colour, which coupled with their startlingly vivid bodies gleaming bright (peacock) blue in the sunlight are a gorgeous sight. They raise their tails, then fold their speckled wings back behind them, revealing a rich russet red underside. They then clap their wings together and stamp their feet, rotating to show both sides of their tails in a stately dance which reminded me of a flamenco dancer in its seriousness and grace, an effect heightened by the comb like fan of feathers on the tops of their heads. When endowed with the tail, they can hardly fly, and we often saw them roosting in low branches with their beautiful tails folded and cascading down. After mating, their tail feathers all fall out, and they look like blue peahens, flying much more easily. The hens are a drab brown, and don’t seem to be terribly impressed by all the dancing males, but something must happen, there are an awful lot of them in that park!

The water birds are just a treat. Doug has sent an awful lot of bird pictures, but we have become quite addicted to adding to our species list — we have now seen more than 85 different birds, I say more than, because we often find it hard to distinguish between sub types within a group, since if they are on wires or up in trees, we can’t pick out the colour variations. The small birds are the hardest. However, the waders wade about, looking for food, and we can figure them out more easily. We love the painted storks, so spectacular in colouring and size. We were lucky to see a Lesser Adjutant – a huge, very homely type of stork, Sri Lanka’s largest, and probably ugliest, bird. We have become blase about all the types of egrets (often sitting on the backs or heads of buffalo, and even crocodiles), cormorants and herons, and can distinguish them easily. The spoonbills are really cute as they stride maniacally through the water, spooning away, while others like the herons and storks stand majestically waiting for their chance to pounce on something. The plovers, sandpipers, and stilts are fun to watch too. I particularly admire the grace of the ibis. Pelicans sail by, as sober and serious as judges, seemingly ignoring the hullabaloo around them.

We paused in our jeep by a huge rookery, and I so wished our guide could explain as there were nests and nests of many varieties of water birds there, seemingly sharing the same pond habitat. You could just sit and watch them for ages. I can actually use binoculars now that my cataracts are done and I no longer need glasses, and Doug uses the telephoto on his camera.

The next day we decided to go to another sanctuary, Bentota, renowned for its flocks of flamingos in the salt lagoons. This is the 1/2 I mentioned. When we reached the gates, in the pitch dark, at 6 a.m. we found the park workers had called a wildcat strike. This has happened 3 times that we know of here, first the train, finished just in time for us to take the Kandy to Ella run, then the park, and when we left Tissa, the buses had been on strike the day before. Rising prices have everyone in a tiz here. Fortunately the owner of the safari company, Ajith had decided to drive us that day, as it is a cheaper trip and he didn’t want to waste a Yala guide (I think) so he took us all around the park edges, and since his English was excellent and he had a very good bird book, we made lots more identifications. Couldn’t get to the flamingo lagoons though. We last saw flamingos in Kenya 25 years ago.

Seeing our enthusiasm about the birds, Ajith suggested we go to another park the next day, Uda Walawe, renowned for its large herds of elephants but also for its many raptors. Since, aside from the Brahminy Kite which is huge and easy to spot, we have not had much success distinguishing the raptors, we had a great morning there. You have to take a “tracker” in the jeep with you, included in the park admission (these parks are fairly pricy but certainly worth the price) and he was wonderful. He had the same bird book we have, and though his accent sometimes puzzled us, he would just find the bird and show us. We saw sea eagles feeding their young in a nest and many other wonderful hawks and kestrels we would never have picked out without him. The elephant herds there were large, and encompassed all ages of females from tiny babies to aged grandmothers. They are such cool animals to observe as they go about constantly eating. To get the requisite 250 kilos of food they need a day, they have to eat for 18 hours! My very favourite birds are some of the most common: the five kinds of brilliantly coloured kingfishers we see around ponds and on wires everywhere and the bright lime green and red bee eaters of which there are several types, all equally vivid. One of the prettiest birds in flight is the Indian roller, and there are many lovely coloured parakeets too.

Well, I hope the non naturalists among you are not too bored. We have had so many contrasts here: from archeological sites to hill station hikes, temples to game parks. We have now headed down to the beach at Tangalle. It will be interesting to see if we can stand 11 days of relaxation, though not all in the same place — however we are heading out to a 3rd century B.C. archeological site tomorrow, so will mix it up a little. More to follow, Love D&C Sent from my iPad

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