Reza Amirinia explores the Yala National Park one of the most important wildlife conservation centres in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka to me is like a ‘mini Africa’. There are national parks dotted throughout, in the north Wilpattu National Park; in the centre, two parks Minneriya National Park and Maduru Oya National Park and down south you have Yala National Park.
When I arrived, I had three choices of location. To stay in one of the towns, relax at a beach resort or take a hotel next to one of those parks. I chose the third option and the Cinnamon Wild Yala Hotel which is right on Yala National Park’s doorstep. On the way there, my driver stopped to show me the crocodiles in the lake. It seemed my Safari had already started.
Yala National Park sits in over 98,000 hectares of land and is a sanctuary for rare animals such as the leopard, one of few places on earth where a large concentration of these cats have a safe and protected home. It is also home to many species of mammals, avifauna, birds and types of fauna.
A walk around the lake helped me recover from the flight and it took me close to where crocodiles resided. They had obviously had their evening meal and concentrated on sleeping rather than watching me. Just in case, I kept a safe distance.
These weren’t the only animals I saw on my walk. A family of wild boar passed in front of me. I always thought they were dangerous creatures but I was told that they were used to humans and that providing I didn’t get close to the youngsters as that might make the mother a little aggressive, I would be fine
I wandered down to the nearby seashore by way of sand dunes. On the beach were several abandoned fishing huts. It looked great but I was told it was dangerous to swim as the sea could get rough very quickly on this part of the coast.
As it was too late in the day for a safari trip I settled instead for a visit to the ancient Buddhist temple of Kirinda in Palatupana which was about 12 kilometres away. Out of respect of a holy place, it is usual to approach a temple barefooted. That walk taught me that my feet need toughening up as I limped across the stony ground.
Situated on top of a rocky ridge, the temple is devoted to Queen Viharamahadevi, the heroine of a local legend from the 2nd century BC. According to myth, she was a princess who was sacrificed by her father King Kelanitissa at a time of hardship in Ceylon. The King ordered her to be cast adrift on the sea. As luck would have it, her boat floated to Kirinda where she met and married King Kavantissa, the ruler of Ruhuna. A statue of her stands on the site.
The Kirinda Temple is a point of pilgrimage throughout the year. From here there’s a great panoramic view of the ocean, the rocky shore and the sandy beach.
There are road signs warning you of animals crossing but those animals can be elephants. On my return journey, I passed one by the side of the road. Unconcerned by me it stood there, posing like a model, while I took its photograph.
Yala National Park
Next morning, I was up at 4 am as I wanted to see Yala National Park by dawn. This is the time (and at dusk) when you are most likely to see the animals. The Yala is divided into five sections. Sadly, the popular section one next to the Cinnamon Hotel was closed due to major maintenance work so we headed the 90 minutes to enter section Five.
There were many other safari Jeeps all in search of a glimpse of the leopards. We saw monkeys playing in the trees, monitor lizards and a large group of buffaloes in the lake, but no leopards. The guides talked amongst themselves to see if anyone else had been lucky in spotting leopards but no leopards today.
Elsewhere in the park is the Weheragala Reservoir Dam, such an important landmark that it appears on the back of the 5000 rupees note.
We entered a dense tropical forest through which a river flowed. I saw a peacock and several deer but none of those elusive leopards. My guide explained that in wild you only get to see animals if they wish to appear. Today the leopards stayed hidden.
The Cinnamon Project
My hotel helps run the Cinnamon Project which protects the leopards from being hunted by local farmers. Previously the big cats used to kill their cows. The Cinnamon Project found a solution by providing farmers with free-of-charge, portable steel-fenced pens to protect the domestic cattle safe from hungry leopards.
Later that morning, my guide took me to a farm to show the fencing provided by the project. We arrived as the farmer had just started milking his cows. There was an open field where cattle were feeding on the grass and several fenced sections placed next to the field for animal protection. All cows are owner branded so that the farmers can recognize and return their cattle to the protective enclosures before dark.
Sithulpahuwa Rajamaha Viharaya
We continued our journey into the heart of Yala and close to the Buddhist pilgrimage town of Kataragama. Here there is the second-century monastery of Sithulpahuwa Rajamaha Viharaya. You need to climb a steep and stony path to reach the top of the high rock where the large white stupa is located. Some people were praying in front of the statue of Buddha, others were taking in the view of the valley below.
Centuries ago, the popular pilgrimage site of Sithulpahuwa, was a great monastery where thousands of Buddhist monks used to live in caves and shelters. The summit is called ‘The hill of quiet mind’ and it is the quiet and tranquillity that I will remember most from this visit. I also entered into one of the rock caves which was decorated with wall paintings, inscriptions and a large statue of Buddha.
Descending into the valley I found a natural lake where crocodiles were snoozing but always with an alertness that belies their apparent laziness. My luck in seeing other animals was still out: no elephants and deer today!
This was a great experience to spend a few days in the heart of freely roaming wildlife and see animals in their natural habitat. It was great to see the occasional elephant but another trip will be needed to see those elusive leopards!
Tell me more about the Yala National Park
Visit here for more information about the Yala National Park.
The Cinnamon Wild Yala Hotel offers B&B from £200.00 per night for 2 persons (from April 2021).
(The lower rates are available during February and March 2021).
The hotel normally offers half board and special full-board rates plus Jeep Safari for guests.
Sri Lankan Airlines offers direct flight to Colombo from UK from Heathrow Airport. British Airways, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways offer flights from Gatwick and Heathrow via Doha and Abu Dhabi. Fares from £580.
Visit here for further information about Sri Lanka.