Friday, 7 February 2020

Sri Lanka January 2020. Part 5 Yala, the Good the Bad and the Ugly.

Our safari to Yala block 5 started no later than it would have done to go to Block 1, if anything, slightly later in fact despite it being a much longer drive.
Because no one else was at the entrance gate when we arrived just before opening time at 6.00am.
This was more like it, we had the whole of the park to ourselves it seemed!
Not far from the entrance you arrive at the dam and the fast lake it has created behind it.
Block 5 Yala N.P.
A huge area of land was taken , presumably from the national park, in its making. I think it's been there about 20 years now.
Our driver stopped the vehicle below the dam and we searched the surrounding terrain for what might be there. Just the driver today, but we had every confidence he'd find whatever was about as he'd demonstrated his ability at Bundala. He told us he'd seen a Leopard at this very spot just a couple of days ago.
Leopard? Yes, it would be nice to see one but he knew the reason we were there was to avoid those Leopard jams that make wildlife viewing so unpleasant.
We started quite well with some good bird sightings even if they were mainly distant. Birds like Pygmy Woodpecker were a first for me
Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker  Picoides nanus

and within 30 minutes I had added quite a few species previously unseen on this trip, such as Jerdon's Bush Lark.
Jerdon's Bush Lark  Mirafra affinis
Moving on we descended into woodland before emerging up above the bed of the river  flowing from the dam.
Block 5 Yala N.P.
The scenery was quite spectacular and better still, as we drove alongside the river we came across this not so handsome bird!
Lesser Adjutant   Leptoptilos javanicus
No doubt the Lesser Adjutant's mother thought he was beautiful though.
Further downstream we stopped to have our picnic breakfast overlooking some rapids, small waterfalls and lots of birds fishing.
Block 5 Yala N.P.
Back in to the forested area we tried quite a few different tracks only to turn back where they had become judged impassable as vehicles had churned up the mud. We didn't seem to be getting much joy and the day was getting hotter and hotter. 
I suggested to our driver that maybe we should find some shade and park up for a while but he didn't take note and just carried on driving alongside what appeared to be a man made channel of water. We stopped to look at a Mugger Crocodile resting on the bank.
Marsh Mugger Crocodile
On we went and the early start and lack of action was starting to take its toll. I was sat with my eyes closed when the vehicle lurched to a stop.
"Owl!" Cried the driver.
And there it was, no distance away whatsoever.
I rattled off some shots.
Brown Fish Owl  Ketupa zeylonensis
Checked my camera to see that they were over exposed and quickly adjusted the settings.
However, in my torpid state, I turned the dial in the wrong direction and added to the problem!!
Brown Fish Owl
Fortunately for me, despite the bright sun reflecting off the top of the Owl's head, the shots were recoverable if not perfect.
I would have been as sick as the proverbial parrot otherwise.
The Adjutant and the Owl were without doubt the highlights of the day. Mammals are very hard to find in Block 5 it seems due to the nature of the terrain and the lack of traffic making them shy when they do come in to contact with humans.
We saw a few Spotted Deer here and there.
Spotted Deer
Some Water Buffalo
Water Buffalo
and the odd Ruddy Mongoose.
The one animal that wasn't shy was this Sambar Deer which appears at the lunch time picnic spot to get fed any spare fruit on offer.
Sambar Deer
He's extremely confiding and very placid but has, as all wild animals seem to have, an incredible sense of smell. Having polished off a few bananas offered by the driver of another vehicle he headed directly to me as he could smell the watermelon juice on my hands.You have to be careful of those horns which could inflict a nasty injury quite easily even if no malice was intended.
Block 5 reminded me of Wilpattu. Scenically even prettier but similar in wildlife opportunity. We did see things that we didn't find elsewhere but the photo opportunities bar the best two sightings were mostly difficult because of proximity, light and vegetation.
What I did like was the lack of traffic, even if the arrival of another safari jeep had flushed the Owl.
During the course of the day we saw maybe 10 individual jeeps, and most of them later in the afternoon.
There was a reason for this it appeared. Come the hour we turned off the main route in to the park and headed off down a side road where to my amazement there were about 10 vehicles all parked up.
 Block 5 Yala N.P.
It was pretty obvious what was going on. You could hear the alarm call of a monkey that signalled the presence of Leopard.
There was near silence bar the people in one jeep laughing and chattering. Idiots!
Suddenly one of the jeeps fired up his engine and the next minute all hell let loose. Our driver who had been so careful in his choice of routes and avoidance of getting stuck, was calm and collected in his driving on public roads, suddenly become a leading contender to win Whacky Races as he cut up his rivals and jockeyed into his preferred position.
It was a moment or two of madness before everyone stopped and turned off their engines again.
We sat patiently for 15-20 minutes but there was no sign of the Leopard and the warning cries of the monkey stopped. One by one the assembled jeeps gave up and left although our man stayed to the bitter end. In fairness he gave it his all and we were the last jeep to leave the park at exactly 6.00pm closing time, 12 hours after entering.
Was it judged a good day? Not exactly. Wildlife watching involves a lot of luck. Finding the Owl was indeed outstanding luck as the Brown Fish Owl is largely a nocturnal hunter but the rewards for $165 and 12 hours could not be described as outstanding.
Would I go again? Probably not, in fact having made the southern end of the island my main target area on this trip I may well never go back now and if I do it will be to discover previously unseen parts of the island. 
I gave our driver a R3000 tip and bade farewell. I wouldn't be taking any more trips, not through our hotel at that price anyway.
The next couple of days were spent in the hotel in Tissa, much of it spent processing shots taken over the last couple of days but we did walk in to the town and I had the odd foray to the edge of the lake with my camera. Opportunities were not the best though so I came away with little to show for it.
In the back of my mind though I had a nagging doubt. I'd come all this way to Sri Lanka, would spend around £3500 in the process and was in danger of going home wondering"what if?"
On one of our wanderings into "suburbia" we passed a simple house with a jeep parked outside. I decided to ask the question.
How much for an all day safari to Yala, pick up at the Cinnamon Wild hotel? This of course needed no further description of which part I meant. Everyone goes to Block 1!
"R9000 for the jeep plus R4500 per person entry tickets" was the reply.
" I'm going to book it" I said to Claire and to my surprise after the 12 hours in Block 5 she said count me in.
18,000 rupees is the equivalent of  nearly £80 or $100. Half what I had paid previously.
It was Friday and I booked for Monday. I didn't want to be in the park at the weekend, it would be far too busy. 
I asked him for assurance he wouldn't let me down and not turn up and the deal was done. He was obviously as nervous about us not showing and took details of Claire's What's app number as we didn't have a Sri Lankan SIM card.
Back at the hotel we discovered a message asking if we wanted to be provided with a packed lunch but we declined. Still, looked likely he's turn up at the agreed meeting time of 4.45am.
What the hell, I was prepared for the worst.
Bring it on! Traffic or not.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Dave! Thanks for your candid report. Yala, though great and beautiful, unfortunately suffers from popularity, hence the congestion. The prevalent attitude is geared towards “elephant safaris”, “leopard safaris”, you get my drift (although Sri Lanka is the best for leopards because there’s no competition).
    Greetings from Sri Lanka!