“Do you hear that? Those are deer alarm calls. There’s a leopard somewhere nearby.” Noel is pointing into the predawn gloom as his foot pushes down on the gas pedal. “Be like a statue if we see one,” he adds as we drive deeper into Yala, well ahead of the crowds. “The first 10 to 15 seconds are crucial so we don’t scare him off.”
Fear does not belong to the first animal we meet, however, but to me, as we come eye to trunk with a large male tusker in our path. The elephant makes a series of mock charges at the jeep before vanishing into the bush. Noel is unflustered by the display. Me, I’m frazzled, but thrilled at the same time.
My heart rate drops back to normal as we drive along. A few spotted deer cross our path. Crocodiles slither in and out of water holes. A black-headed oriole flies past, one of about 150 bird species at Yala, and is quickly followed by a blue-tailed bee-eater then a bluish-green starling. Eventually some other jeeps pass us, and we stop to help one that gets stuck in the mud. But even this fails to distract me from studying the sandy earth for animal tracks and listening for deer alarm calls.
We drive on through the Jurassic landscape until a gap between two giant boulders reveals the Indian Ocean. A pair of white-bellied sea eagles traces circles in the sky above. We also spot a carefree group of deer at play, which delights me, until Noel points out that this can only mean there are no leopards in the vicinity. Still, I’m happy just driving around and soaking up the views until he says it’s time for lunch. We head back to camp for my favorite Sri Lankan dish, kottu roti, made of chicken, vegetables, and flatbread finely chopped together.
My second drive is with Noel’s camp manager and naturalist, Sajith Withanage. It doesn’t take him long to spot a big male leopard lounging on a high branch once we’ve reentered the park that afternoon. We observe the big cat from a discreet distance, but our commune with nature is short-lived. As our sighting is along a well-used road, there is no keeping it a secret. Within minutes, other vehicles begin to arrive. Withanage says we should move on or risk getting stuck in one of those jeep jams I read about. As he navigates away from the impending melee, he promises that I’ll “feel freer to enjoy the whole environment now too.” He’s right. With that would-we-or-won’t-we-spot-a-leopard question out of the way, my eyes roam across the park’s mostly untouched landscape of low-lying lakes. Kingfishers, Indian pond herons, and a Malabar pied hornbill perched in treetops overhead. Withanage points to where an elephant is almost completely obscured by a stand of trees; all we can see is its trunk curving greedily around some quivering branches. More deer prance past us even after we drive out of the park gates, but I hardly notice: I’m too busy e-mailing Noel to book my next Leopard Safari, at Wilpattu National Park up north.