Traveller’s Tale: Top Things to Do in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka offers extraordinary wildlife viewing opportunities, including the highest density of leopards anywhere in the world. Regular contributor Marianne Diaz spent a memorable morning with the furry and feathered locals.
The silence of the humid pre-dawn air is broken by the frantic whispers of our tour guides.
I’m sitting in the back of a safari jeep, in a line of many, waiting for the opening of Yala National Park — one of Sri Lanka’s most popular natural attractions. One of the guides translates the muffled exchange for us. They’re talking tactics to ensure they get us as close as possible to the shy Panthera pardus kotiya — Sri Lanka’s native leopard.
Yala sits on the south-eastern Sri Lankan coast, about 243 kilometres from the nation’s capital Colombo. The 130,000-hectare region was designated a national park in 1938 and is home to around two hundred bird species and 44 different mammals, including a significant number of the protected leopards. I have everything crossed that we’ll see one today.
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The gates open at 6am and we’re off. We pass water buffalo wading in the marshes, elephants wandering through the scrub, and a herd of deer grazing by the roadside. Other than your typical Australian zoo, this is as close to wild animals as I’ve ever been. The anxiety of not knowing what we might encounter next, how big it might be, or how close it might get, is heightened by the drive in an open-sided jeep!
Booking your visit to Yala National Park with a reputable tour company is the best and safest way to go. We’re travelling with Isle of Smiles Experiences, which employs a tracker on a bike to radio back to our convoy with details of animal sightings.
Our driver gets a call and suddenly picks up speed. We reach the tracker and spot a leopard in a tree devouring a recent kill! Our guides warn us to be quiet. No one says a word. The only sound is the click of camera shutters. Finally we move on, and I wonder how we’re going to top that experience.
A short while later our driver comes to a sudden stop behind a line of jeeps. We’re not sure why, until we hear lumbering steps. An elephant has decided to share the road and is walking alongside the procession of vehicles.
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All the excitement — not to mention the early start — soon sees us longing for lunch, and a Sri Lankan feast is served at Patanangala Beach. There’s a memorial nearby commemorating 250 people who lost their lives in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. One of our guides shares the story of a tracker who saw animals in Yala moving to higher ground that day. By gathering his family together and following the animals’ lead, everyone was saved.
The rest of the safari sees us come close to monkeys, sloth bears, elk, prancing peacocks, and even the odd crocodile (not too close). Although I’m a little more comfortable with the proximity of the animals by the end of the day, I’m glad to return to the safety of our hotel.
If you’re the adventurous type, there are bungalows inside Yala National Park where you can spend the night. Sleeping in the wilderness means you can be out exploring the park before it officially opens in the morning.
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Do you have any tips for top things to do in Yala National Park? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock/Photodune
About the writer
Marianne Diaz is a research scientist by day and a freelance travel writer by night! She has travelled to Sri Lanka to explore her children’s part-heritage, and enjoyed research trips to Japan, and Bloomington, Chicago and Boston in the USA. Marianne’s main travel goal is to get to the Italian Aeolian Islands to check out the other half of her children’s background. She also loves exploring history-laden Australian country towns.