A Guide Exchange to Sri Lanka

It is nearing a month since I returned home from Sri Lanka and I feel like I can still smell the aroma of spices and feel the vibrancy of the people, their kindness and see the diverse but yet strangely familiar wildlife.

Some of you may be wondering what this exchange was and how this came about. Almost exactly a year ago I met and guided a passionate naturalist Amrith De Soysa, director of Leopard Trails. A simple conversation about Sri Lanka and its wildlife while patiently waiting for a leopard to walk onto a granite boulder blossomed into the idea of a mutually beneficial guide exchange. What intrigued me most was the way in which Sri Lanka and its diversity of wildlife was described to me; this passion sounded familiar and I thought it needed to be investigated. I had heard about the exceptionally high densities of leopards in Sri Lanka and I will never forget watching a documentary called Night Stalkers, which was based on the leopards of that country and their activity after dark. This wildlife documentary specifically highlighted the leopards in Yala National Park. I never thought I would get the opportunity to go visit Sri Lanka let alone the world-renowned Yala National Park.

However, a few discussions, emails and telephone calls late the wheels had been set in motion for the establishing of a guide exchange program between Yala and Londolozi, of which I was destined to be the first.

Anxiously I arrived in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, and was met by not only the warmth in the air but the warmth in every person I came across. My hosts from Leopard Trails went out of their way to make me comfortable and for me to see as much of Sri Lanka as possible. My itinerary was based around seeing a variety of parks in the four different climatic zones before finally returning to Colombo to do a lecture to the Wildlife Protection Society of Sri Lanka on the Londolozi model. I spent a week in Yala National Park being privately guided by Avi Fonseka, the exchange guide, whilst sleeping in Leopard Trails luxury tented camp. This was an incredible insight into Sri Lanka and Yala.

 

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I learnt quickly that despite its small size, Sri Lanka possesses one of the highest rates of biological endemism (16% of the fauna and 23% of flowering plants are endemic) in the world and is included among the top five biodiversity hotspots across the globe There are nearly 433 bird species of which 233 are resident.
Sri Lanka holds 20 endemic species while another 80 species have developed distinct Sri Lankan races, compared to their cousins in Indian mainland.
Meanwhile the ocean around Sri Lanka is home to large families of cetaceans including the mighty blue whales, sperm whales and lively dolphins. Altogether 26 species of cetaceans rule the waters surrounding the country, making it one of the best locations for whale and dolphin watching. Although less celebrated, Sri Lanka has one of the richest diversity of amphibians in the world, containing over 106 species of amphibians, over 90 of which are endemic.

 

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The climate and weather of Sri Lanka during the middle of the year is perfect for exploring the jungle and for viewing animals in the Arid Zone. The weather in Sri Lanka is influenced to a considerable extent by its location. Presence of sea around the country renders it free from temperature extremes, and influences humidity to a great extent. However, myself and all of Sri Lanka were not prepared for the biggest flood in 20 years that hit during my stay, courtesy of a cyclone called Rauna. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes by floodwaters and landslides after a major storm hammered the whole country. What amazed me is how the whole country pulled together to help one another during this time. The flood impacted my trip and me positively just by seeing the effort and care everyone had for others.

 

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Being travel-restricted because of the flood meant I was able to explore Yala National Park even further. Yala combines a strict nature reserve with a national park divided into five blocks, two of which are accessible. One of the blocks in particular doesn’t have a high density of vehicles. The park has a protected area of nearly 130,000 hectares of land consisting of light forests, scrubs, grasslands, tanks and lagoons. Situated in Sri Lanka’s south-east hugging the panoramic Indian Ocean, Yala was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and was designated a national park in 1938. Ironically, the park was initially used as a hunting ground for the elite under British rule, similar beginnings to Londolozi.

 

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Naturally I had preconceived ideas before arriving in the tiny island nation south of India in the Indian Ocean, however I decided to let my experiences shape my ideas. The unknown led me to a place of wonder that widened my perspective.

I left Sri Lanka not only overwhelmed with the leopards I saw, but overwhelmed but the diversity of wildlife, kindness of the people, the beauty of beaches and the delectability of the unbelievable cuisine. This holistic experience left me with a special feeling of having truly explored and made me truly feel the gift of travel, something that I am sure many guests feel when traveling to Londolozi.

Enjoy the following photographic highlights:

 

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A Sri Lankan food safari with Leopard Trails!

American chef and tv personality Anthony Bourdain once compared a plate of rice and accompanying curries to an artist’s palette because different ratios of each curry mixed into a mouthful can give rise to completely varying flavours on the tongue. Eating Sri Lankan cuisine is both art and science, and managing this collision of flavours on your plate does take some practice to master!

Sri Lankan food is underrated, uncommercialised and waiting to be discovered by the global foodie. At Leopard Trails, our jungle kitchens remain simple and authentic. At Wilpattu, a utilitarian contraption of welded steel and canvas serves as a kitchen. Racking and other facilities are built by the chefs themselves within a matter of days but this does not detract from the authenticity of the food made within its canvas walls. Fresh curry leaves, freshly grated coconut and a host of different spices are married together in various forms to produce an endless array of colourful and fragrant curries and sambols. The smell of frying spices starts to emanate from our kitchens as early as 7am and the unhurried labour intensive preparation continues throughout the day to prepare the best local food, not just for our guests but also for our hungry staff. It may seem counterintuitive but a diet of spiced foods complements the relentless equatorial sun. Spicy foods increase circulation and ultimately cools you down!

Here’s a quick look at the fresh intensity of Sri Lankan food prepared at Leopard Trails! It is best enjoyed by eating with a new adventure on every plate.

 

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Steamed yellow rice

 

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Deviled chicken

 

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Lentil curry with coconut milk

 

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Papadam

 

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Eggplant moju

 

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Cucumber and pineapple salad

 

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Sweet and sour eggplant

 

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Luffa cooked in coconut milk

 

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Bitter gourd salad

 

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Beetroot curry

 

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Sauteed okra

 

 

“Through a guide’s lense” – June episode

The month in pictures, as captured by the Leopard Trails team.
Enjoy….

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A rose ringed parakeet peers into her nest hole to keep an eye on her young (ISO 400, F- 6.3, 1/2500)

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An alarm call in the distance stops this grey langur from quenching his thirst as he looks around for any danger that lurks within the bush (ISO 400, F- 6.3, 1/800)

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The blue sky creates the perfect canvas to view the magnificent malabar pied hornbill in all its glory. In flight this giant bird seems almost prehistoric. (ISO 200, F – 6.3, 1/640)

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Adding colour to the jungle this oriental scarlet dragonfly takes a break from flight as it rests on a twig by the water edge (ISO 320, F – 6.3, 1/120)

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The 2:3 Meda Para male is seen here taking a break from his afternoon patrol. This male is in his prime and is believed to be between 4 – 6 years of age. (ISO 400, F – 6.3, 1/160)

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It is the time of year that the Palu trees all begin to bear fruit (no pun intended) and this is indeed the best time of the year to witness the elusive sloth bear in all its ruffled glory. (ISO 100, F – 6, 1/60)

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Amidst the midday heat a herd of elephants comes down to the water’s edge to feed and more importantly to drink. Elephants require a large amount of water and need to drink on a daily basis. (ISO 400, F – 5.6, 1/1250)

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After the unusual midyear rains areas of the park are still very green, this created the perfect setting for a large stag to take reprieve during the scorching midday sun. (ISO 400, F – 6, 1/800)

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Darters swallow their prey whole. They have an excellent digestive system that takes care of their food efficiently, leaving only bones, feathers, exoskeletons and fur that get regurgitated as pellets. (ISO 500, F – 6.3, 1/3200)

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A leopard silhouetted against a white sand gives a unique photographic opportunity! This individual turned to face the vehicle as we silently rolled up into position. (ISO 1250, F – 7.1, 1/800)