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