The Sussex Wildlifer
Sri Lanka Wildlife Trip Report: 14-27 February 2006

Sri Lanka Trip Report: 14-27 February 2006

We wanted a break, some respite from the cold, dreary English winter and to feel some sun on our backs and I wanted to get close and personal to some wildlife with my camera. We had visited Sri Lanka twice in the past and were upset at media reports that so much money donated for the benefit of the tsunami victims was not being spent and by other reports about wastage. We are generally unattracted to all-inclusive deals, as so little of the money spent filters back into local communities and decided to book direct with a Sri Lankan tour company, Adventure Lanka Tours. Our choice could not have been better. Whilst I had some concerns about dealing with a travel company in a foreign country, these soon disappeared. The service was incredibly professional and efficient and before we knew it an itinerary had been agreed and everything was booked and paid for.

Friends expressed their fears about the political unrest in Sri Lanka and urged us not to go. We replied that we were not going to either the east, or the north, of the country and really could see no difference from the other times we had gone. Neither could we see any difference between the problems there, or the ones we had suffered for so long during the IRA bomb threats in England. There was simply no good reason not to go.

Day 1: Colombo

Don’t let anyone tell you that a day in the heat and humidity of Colombo is a wasted day from a wildlife point of view. We stayed in faded colonial glory at the Galle Face Hotel, our room having views straight along the green. It was a great experience and made us realise just how good it would have been to stay there when it was the finest hotel in the capital.

Around the corner there is one end of the Beira Lake complex, the one where a temple is located on an island in the lake. You will never get closer to white pelicans than this location, or for that matter great, intermediate and little egrets and the many other small herons that live there. Indeed, although the water is heavily polluted with an alarming colour, the area is heaving with wildlife. The day before there had been a big religious festival at a nearby temple and we were able to see Rajah, one of the country’s great male crossed tuskers before he returned to Kandy – walking all the way, of course.

In the evening we were treated to dinner by Ruban, one of the owners of Adventure Lanka, at a restaurant specialising in north Sri Lankan food, and what a delicious experience that turned out to be.

Day 2: Colombo to Wasgamuwa

It’s a long drive to Wasgamuwa National Park and we didn’t get there until nearly dusk, but what a gem in the crown of Sri Lanka’s national parks. En route we did our mandatory stop at a spice garden near Matale to top up with goodies for home, taking in some good birds, of course. Wasgamuwa is stuffed full of wildlife, most of which was extremely human-tolerant and thus offering really great photographic opportunities. Willy’s Safari Hotel turned out to be comfortable, with great views over the extensive wetlands. We were warned that because there was so much water, we would be unlikely to see any elephants. How wrong can people be, as we found out next morning when a disgruntled male attempted, unsuccessfully, to charge us! We lived to tell the tale and will dine out on this story for a long time to come.

Day 3: Wasgamuwa to Nuwera Eliya

We were in the safari jeep and the reserve before daybreak and enjoyed being the only people there. Shadows flitted in and out of the trees, as elephants, or perhaps even sloth bears, casually went about their business; it was impossible to be sure, but the moment the light improved we were treated to the spectacle of several elephants gambolling in the wetlands, trunks and tails straight out and squealing with enjoyment. A nightjar was reluctant to leave her one egg unattended and despite getting great photos, no one has been able to say if it was a Jerdon’s or an Indian nightjar. They are not that easy to tell apart.

This is not the place to list all the birds we saw that morning, as there were so many species and several very close indeed to the jeep, but it is an outstanding location to see the lesser adjutant storks close up and personal. Our only regrets were that we had to stay in the jeep at all times, had to stay on the tracks and could not stand up.

Before we knew it, we were back in the car, setting off on another longish journey to Nuwera Eliya along some pretty dreadful roads, but with absolutely glorious scenery all the way and where the splendid comfort of the St Andrew’s Hotel awaited us. What a shame we could not have stayed longer at Wasgamuwa, as this location would repay a much longer stay. This day turned out to be a good one for crested serpent eagles and Indian rollers, several being seen perched atop telegraph posts and wires and we arrived at Nuwera Eliya in good time to have a walk in the park, where we saw the often difficult to see Indian Pitta and a number of other endemic birds.

Day 4: Horton Plains and on to Kitulgala

Horton Plains is one of those special places that live in your mind for a long time. The fact that we were being led by a botanist called Lal de Silva added greatly to our enjoyment of the area; he is an absolute mine of information and a great wildlifer. I was so impressed by the way he would suddenly stoop to scoop up a black-lipped lizard, or the even more interesting rhino-horned lizard.

Once again we were up before the sun, but what a treat it was to drive up into the mountains, watching the mist disperse in the valleys below. Just before the park entrance we got out of the jeep for a walk and were immediately treated to the sight of an alpha-male bear monkey looming above us in the canopy, as though he was a gorilla. Not for long though, as he let go and dropped through the branches with a great crash and hurtled off into the distance with his large family.

Unfortunately, the mist had still not cleared when we arrived at World’s End, but it was still an eerie experience gazing over the lip of the precipice. More good birds, then back to check out of the hotel and on again through mountainous scenery to Kitulgala, of Bridge Over the River Kwai fame. We left with memories of that bear monkey, the lizards, some more great birds, giant squirrels, elk and much more besides.

Rafter’s Retreat at Kitulgala is a pretty basic type of eco lodge, nonetheless an interesting experience! That evening we were entertained by the antics of some members at the Tea Planters’ Conference being held there that day.

Day 5: Kitulgala to Sinharaja

Early to rise and instead of rafting through the rapids, we opted instead for a trip across the river in a dug-out canoe and a walk through the rain forest before the heat and humidity of the day made life too uncomfortable. Many more birds, but the real treat were three beautiful butterflies back at Rafters. These very large creatures had intense blue wings, but when closed up they looked just like leaves. Indeed, they were rare oak leaf butterflies and caused a lot of excitement when the digital images were shown later in the day to one of the country’s leading ornithologists.

Martin’s Eco Lodge, near the gates to the Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve, is another offering basic accommodation, but the food, all freshly cooked on the day, is simply delicious and the scenery outstanding. Sinharaja offers the keen birder the chance to see almost all of the endemic birds in that one location, but don’t expect close-up views. You also have to take precautions against the many leaches that abound in this area, but there really is no need to become paranoid about them. I was leached just the one time and it caused me no problems whatsoever.

Day 6: Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve

Our itinerary told us that this is one of the least disturbed and biologically unique lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka. Indeed it is and offers some great walks. It was really good to be out having a good walk for a change. Lots of birds today, many endemics but the two really outstanding creatures were a green garden lizard and the Serendib Scops Owl.

The closer I approached, the lizard flushed redder, but did nothing more than eye me with interest. On the other hand, just how the forest trackers found the rare owl is beyond me. It was roosting deep in the rainforest, down some difficult muddy, slippery slopes and across some even muddier streams. I was worried about my camera gear, but managed to negotiate the obstacles without too much trouble. Even though perched at eye level, the owl was still really hard to see, but once you knew where to look, there it was. Newly named to science in 2004, we were one of a small band of people fortunate enough to see this beautiful, golden coloured, spotty breasted bird. It made our day and our tracker deserved the large tip we gave him!

After that the rest of the day was something of an anti-climax, but in the afternoon we had another long walk, enjoying the vast bio-diversity of this great reserve.

Day 7: Sinharaja to Uda Walawe

After the basic accommodation of the past three nights, the Selara Eco Lodges at Uda Walawe were wonderful and the food some of the best we had on the whole trip. Situated along the banks of yet another great river, there was, as usual, plenty to see of interest. The afternoon jeep safari was one of the very best, as we were able to stand up in the back, as we drove through this outstanding national park. Nowhere else in the world have we ever got so close to so many different species of eagle in a three hour period and never have I photographed them from as close as I did that day. We rated this reserve equal second, after Wasgamuwa and alongside Bundala, of which more later.

If you want to see elephants, then this is the reserve to visit. We saw well in excess of a hundred, one herd comprising over fifty individual, amongst which were many babies. Then there are vast herds of water buffalo and too many species of birds to list here, although the buttonquails provided a lot of interest and there were, of course, the wonderfully coloured Malabar hornbills in abundance.

Then a moment of great drama; we had stayed on in the reserve to the last moment, then stopped for a king coconut by the roadside. This meant we got back to Selara after dark and as I entered our lodge I felt along the right hand wall for the light switch. Unfortunately, I had forgotten there was a step inside the room and the next minute I had tripped and my big lens had landed front down on the ground splitting the casing badly. After five minutes of really bad Anglo-Saxon, I was relieved to discover that the lens still worked, but an expensive repair job awaited on our return to England.

Day 8: Uda Walawe to Yala

As we departed Selara we had an early morning visit to the Elephant Transit Camp, where we enjoyed seeing the orphans being fed, some of them being very small indeed. Human contact is kept to a minimum in the hope that these elephants can be released back into the wild when they are older. Having seen the set-up at Pinnawela on previous visits, this transit camp seemed a lovely place for these beautiful creatures.

There are great lakes, or water tanks, on the way to Yala, all of which afford excellent close viewing of waterbirds and eagles. It would be nice another time to arrive in these places earlier in the day and before the heat starts to build up, when photographic opportunities could be spectacular.

The place we stayed at on our last visit to Yala was swept away in the tsunami with great loss of life and so we were booked into the comfortable and well-equipped Yala Village Hotel. This is really just a tourist transit camp for the hundreds of people who come to visit this famous reserve, all hoping, of course to see a leopard. An afternoon on another jeep safari yielded great numbers of birds, elephants, spotted deer, land monitors, grey langur monkeys, but no leopard. The main problem here is that as soon as our jeep stopped, we had another twenty around us within minutes. No one wanted to miss a thing, but we did manage to give most of them the slip for quite a long time and as a result we suspect we saw many more birds than the others. Another great plus was that being on our own, we did not have to worry about pleasing other people in the jeep and could spend as much, or little, time in any location as we wished. That made my photography much easier!

The accommodation at the hotel is really good: the food is standard tourist buffet style and we ate better at Sinharaja, but that is the price you pay to come to such a popular location such as this. After dark we had to be escorted to and from our room by the hotel staff, just in case any wild elephants enter the compound and attack the guests. It all adds to the excitement!

Day 9: Yala and Bundala

Another early morning jeep safari in the morning in different parts of the reserve yielded yet more great birds, including the jabirus (black-necked storks) and thick-knees, but still no leopard. Were we destined never to see a leopard in Sri Lanka? I managed to get some great images of all three species of bee-eaters.

In the afternoon, Lalit (our driver/guide) suggested a visit to Bundala Bird Reserve. Although not on our itinerary, we so very nearly missed one of the greatest birding experiences of our lives. We saw 107 species of birds in three hours, something we have never achieved before and which must place Bundala as being of the best birding locations anywhere in the world. Not many people know that!

In fact, the whole afternoon was exciting from the moment we arrived at this marvellous destination. We had problems entering the reserve, as there were two male elephants in musk by the guardhouse at the entrance. Eventually they did deign to move aside and let us in, after which we were treated to such a birding extravaganza, we will never forget. The lakes hold such an amazing diversity of waders. In fact I think we saw all the species we were ever likely to see in Sri Lanka in just this one location. It was not that these birds were there in vast numbers; just the diversity of species astounded us.

More extremely close encounters with the wonderful painted storks and eagles and then we moved to an area heaving with yellow bitterns and even a cinnamon bittern, only the second that our outstanding tracker had ever seen in the reserve.

As dusk started to fall, sated, we headed for the park exit, only to find it blocked by the same two recalcitrant bull elephants. Why can’t someone organise a couple of females to calm them down? They had comprehensively smashed up the guardhouse, breaking all the glass on all four sides and splintering the wooden window frames. It was only after several thunder flashes had been hurled at them that we managed to escape, but what incredible memories to take home with us. We will never forget the experiences we had that afternoon.

Day 10: Yala to Bentota

We were just about to go for an early breakfast when Lalit phoned us in a very excited manner to tell us to get to the top of the watch tower as quickly as we could, as a leopard was basking on a rock about a quarter of a mile away. Guess what! We did get to see our leopard after all. Not a close view, but a good view and it was a fully-grown adult. What a creature!

We had opted to spend a few days on the coast at Bentota, staying in the marvellous small boutique style hotel called Club Villa. This is such a beautiful small hotel, exquisite food and the service provided by the staff would make any top hotel in the world envious.

It was a long, long drive and we were worried about our driver Lalith, and by now close friend, because he still had to drive on to Colombo at the end. Needless to say, we saw a lot more great birds. I took several more great images of wildlife, we visited a gem shop and bought a necklace and visited the turtle hatchery at Bentota.

Day 11: Bentota

We had not expected to see much wildlife at Bentota, but a visit to the Brief Garden yielded several pleasant surprises and the coastal fringes yielded some of the best colonies of large butterflies imaginable, including the really beautiful blue tigers. So, there you have it, we have even seen tigers in Sri Lanka!

We returned to England with so many great memories and I have never captured so many quality images on a single trip before. We return with memories of the devastation caused by the tsunami, of the resilience of the people, of smiling faces, lovely hotels, excellent food, great service and our driver, guide and factotum, Lalith, who did so much to ensure that our every need was catered for. What a great guy!

Our verdict on the trip? We have no hesitation in recommending Adventure Lanka Tours, which provided us with an outstanding tour and a trip we will remember for a long time. Sri Lanka is an amazing location to get close and personal to nature.

We really do seem to have lost the plot in England, where it is so difficult to approach wildlife without it immediately departing in the opposite direction. This has to do with the attitudes of the general public. Although attitudes are starting to change, there are still far too many people who pay no regard to our wildlife. Does it have something to do with Buddhism? It seems to me that the Sri Lankans have learned to live better in harmony with other creatures. My close encounters with so many eagles were simply amazing. There were even times when the birds were so close I was having to back away to allow the lens to focus! Compare that with trying to get close to any bird of prey at home.

Three national reserves were simply outstanding: Wasgamuwa, Uda Walawe and Bundala and I would be happy to return to all three and spend a lot more time in each. There is a good diversity of wildlife and outstanding photographic opportunities abound.