Sleeping in a tent, let alone one that hadn’t been designed for the Four Seasons or Amanresorts, was not on my original itinerary, but my English girlfriend living in Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo, must have sensed my inner camping enthusiast. “Don’t worry,” said Noel Rodrigo, an airline cabin manager-turned-founder of Leopard Safaris. “This is the only way to see the leopards.”
Somewhere between our rendezvous at the entrance to Yala National Park on the island’s southeastern coast and the safari wallah’s campsite in the bush, my suitcase rolled off the jeep’s back seat – but I was too engrossed in Rodrigo’s tales of leopards, crocodiles and sloth bears to notice my baby-elephant-sized Tumi go thump.
The world’s highest concentration of leopards, around 55 at the last count, lives within Yala’s 979sq km. While none of them was likely to be interested in my Marni sundress or OYE bikinis, Rodrigo was not taking any chances and immediately sent two search teams out into the twilight. But I might have been more interested in my missing wardrobe had I not been on the phone – to change my onward transfer. Within two seconds of meeting Rodrigo, I knew that one game drive would not be enough.
After sundowners served with luscious chicken-liver paté, homemade by Rodrigo’s wife, followed by a BBQ dinner of fresh Negumbo jumbo prawns, pork chops and garlicky baked potatoes, the guides returned triumphant. I, however, was engrossed in Rodrigo’s laptop slideshow of the resident big cats. “Be like a statue, so we don’t scare them off – 95 per cent of our guests spot at least one,” he promises as I zip into my South African canvas tent for the night, a surprisingly swanky abode with a comfy queen-size bed, elegant linens and snuggly blanket.
Fear did not belong to the first animal we saw, but to me, as we came eye-to-trunk with a large male tusker elephant that mock-charged our jeep just moments after we entered the park at daybreak. I preferred the next massive pachyderm we saw, almost completely camouflaged by tropical shrubbery, except for a snout curving greedily around some quivering branches.
I wondered whether any other guide could ever be as good as Rodrigo. “I don’t want you to feel any difference. That is the faith I have in my team,” he explained before my second drive with his deputy, Sajith Withanage, who proved Rodrigo’s point by spotting a leopard less than 10 minutes after we had re-entered the park that sultry afternoon. The “would we or won’t we” out of the way, my eyes roamed across the lost-in-time landscape of low-lying lakes awash with crocodiles and alighting painted storks. Hornbills, kingfishers and peacocks perched on treetops overhead.
Groups of spotted deer pranced past as we drove out of the park gates, though I barely caught sight of them. My inner camper was busy emailing Rodrigo to book my next Leopard Safari, this coming June at Wilpattu National Park up north.