We took a van from Ella to Yala. It was an easy drive with a short detour to Buduruvagala, a giant Buddhist rock sculpture more than 1000 years old. We settled into our new hotel, hung out at the pool and went to bed early.
The next morning, we were out the door at 5am. There are 3 types of safaris options: early morning, afternoon or full day. The all day trip wasn't too much more than the others, so we went with that option. The schedule was loosely that we would look for animals early morning, then eat, rest and swim mid day followed by more looking.
Our tour included a driver and an animal tracker from the National Park Service. These two were a pretty amazing team. The animal tracker could spot things from the truck that I couldn't see when the truck was parked and he was giving me explicit instructions on where to look. Animals are so sneaky with their camouflage. In the morning we saw a lot of animals, water buffaloes, crocodiles, elephants, various birds (including an eagle and lots of peacocks), mongooses (or is it mongeese? mongi?) and iguanas.
We stopped for the morning break by the beach. We ate our snacks and got back out. We passed another safari group who had seen a leopard. By lunch, we had seen many more of the same animals, and they continued to be amazing, but some people in our family really wanted to see a leopard (it was Jim). Going in to this it is understood that this is not a zoo, and that there is no guarantee that you will see a leopard in the wild. No one was allowed out of the jeeps, the jeeps stayed on the roads, no one is riding or feeding or interacting with the animals at all. (We have done all of those things with elephants over the past few years and each time left feeling a little ethically compromised.) This setting was more natural, which is good, but it also means the animals have lots of room to hide if they want to.
For lunch we stopped by the beach and we ate at a place that looked like it used to be a house. All that was left was the tile floor. I pointed out that you could see where the toilet, shower and sink had been. The guide told me that it used to be a bungalow but that it was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. Just off to the side of it was a memorial that the people of Japan had built for them (you can see it in the video).
Instead of resting and swimming after lunch, the guide and the driver were anxious to see a leopard, so they got us back in the jeep. We drove around for hours. At some point each of us fell asleep. We saw fewer animals, mid day is the time when all the animals are resting in the shade. We were wondering why we'd booked the full day at all. Then there was a large line of jeeps and using binoculars we did see a leopard up in a tree a few hundred meters away. This is how it goes: one jeep sees a leopard and radios to their friends and everyone races to the location to see it. We were one of the last ones to get there. So technically we saw one, but it was not entirely satisfying.
August had to go to the bathroom by then and we were almost out of time, just 90 minutes left and we said we should probably just head to the exit. The tracker, though said that we were near a watering hole and that a leopard might be coming out soon. So we kept driving around slowly. AND THEN! They spotted one, and we were driving by ourselves, the first ones to see it. He was around 100 feet off the road. At first we could just see his silhouette, and then his tail sticking out of the grass. Still, it was incredibly exciting.
As the leopard kept moving our driver raced about a quarter mile down the road to a clearing. We waited there as a few other jeeps arrived. We spoke with some of the other people there and then quickly we turned around and drove back toward where we had originally seen him. The jeep was turned off and we waited silently. Five minutes passed as we were staring into the brush desperately looking for any movement, then ten minutes, and we knew there was a chance he had gone in a different direction. Afraid to blink we just kept scanning back and forth. Then we saw him again, less than twenty feet from the jeep, walking parallel to the road, and then he turned and crossed the road directly in front of us. We have seen animals like this in the zoo, bigger animals, lions and tigers, but it was not at all the same, absolutely extraordinary, after a long day it was all worth it for this one minute. From there the leopard went back into the bushes and then came out climbing up steep rocks to a ridge line where we saw his silhouette again as the sun was going down.