Six months later, I’ve returned to Sri Lanka in order to spend my birthday on safari, this time in a park that, for now at least, has been spared the jeep jams. Wilpattu, the largest national park in the country, was off-limits for 16 years during Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, and only reopened a few years ago. And while the Tamil Tigers are gone now, they have yet to be replaced by the tourist hordes, leaving nature as unspoiled as anyone could wish.
“Elephants may come to drink by the stream in front of your room,” Noel tells me as he walks me to my tent. “Don’t run or scream if you see one.” Without any particular conviction, I promise to do neither.
I’m traveling lighter this time, and once my knapsack is zipped into my canvas tent, we drive up the road to the park’s gates, passing emerald rice paddies and bungalows painted happy hues of violet, orange, and pink. Located 180 kilometers due north of Colombo, Wilpattu means “Place of Lakes” in Tamil, a reference to the more than 40 lakes and water holes found within its vast perimeter. It’s along those shores that Noel says we’ll encounter the most wildlife, and I plan to record each and every sighting in my notebook. Wilpattu also proves to be more densely forested than Yala, though poaching is said to be more prevalent; the deer herds we spot don’t seem quite as numerous as they were down south.
Still, my notebook quickly fills up: crocodiles, a bright blue kingfisher, barking deer, monitor lizards. As it’s my birthday trip, Noel lends me his fancy Swarovski binoculars, through which I immediately spot a great egret in the distance. This is followed by a serpent eagle and a crested hawk eagle, Noel identifying each one as its flies into sight. Then an indigo-winged butterfly flutters past. Scribbling constantly now, my eyes are darting from page to sky to treetops: a pair of common emerald doves; four black-headed ibis and dozens of hornbills; a white-breasted kingfisher and a common bee-eater with uncommonly vibrant blue and orange feathers; countless jungle fowl. And that’s just the first two hours.
The bird life is certainly dazzling in Wilpattu, but I begin to worry that I might not see anything bigger. I needn’t have. We return to the park that afternoon with Noel’s wife along for the ride. In no time, Cecile spots a mama sloth bear with a cub in tow. “So black they look blue,” I jot down as the shaggy creatures, looking for all the world like a pair of stuffed animals, frolic together at the edge of a dense tangle of tree roots and branches.
We return to camp and find a cocktail bar set up under the jungle canopy, which is almost as welcome as a hot shower complete with Ayurvedic soap. Refreshed, I join the crew for a candlelit dinner of prawn curry and string hoppers, a local starch. Noel says that ours was one of only 10 safari jeeps in the park that day. I take that happy bit of news with me back to my tent, and, after satisfying myself that there is no thirsty elephant lurking outside, promptly fall asleep.