Sleeping in a tent, let alone one that hadn’t been designed for the FourSeasons or Amanresorts, was not on my original itinerary, but my Englishgirlfriend 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-founderof Leopard Safaris. “This is the only way to see the leopards.”
Somewhere between our rendezvous at the entrance to Yala National Parkon 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 inRodrigo’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 anychances and immediately sent two search teams out into the twilight. But Imight have been more interested in my missing wardrobe had I not been on thephone – to change my onward transfer. Within two seconds of meeting Rodrigo, Iknew that one game drive would not be enough.
After sundowners served with luscious chicken-liver paté, homemade byRodrigo’s wife, followed by a BBQ dinner of fresh Negumbo jumbo prawns, porkchops and garlicky baked potatoes, the guides returned triumphant. I, however,was engrossed in Rodrigo’s laptop slideshow of the resident big cats. “Be likea statue, so we don’t scare them off – 95 per cent of our guests spot at least one,” hepromises as I zip into my South African canvas tent for the night, asurprisingly swanky abode with a comfy queen-size bed, elegant linens and snugglyblanket.
Fear did not belong to the first animal we saw, but to me, as we cameeye-to-trunk with a large male tusker elephant that mock-charged our jeep justmoments after we entered the park at daybreak. I preferred the next massivepachyderm we saw, almost completely camouflaged by tropical shrubbery, exceptfor 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 myteam,” he explained before my second drive with his deputy, SajithWithanage, who proved Rodrigo’s point by spotting a leopard less than 10minutes 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-timelandscape of low-lying lakes awash with crocodiles and alighting paintedstorks. 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 Rodrigoto book my next Leopard Safari, this coming June at Wilpattu National Park upnorth.