“Leopard back that way,” yelled a safari driver. He gesticulated wildly, and Nelson wrestled with the stick, struggling to engage any gear in his 40-year-old Jeep.
Grinding and clunking abominably – second gear was painfully absent from the box – we turned around noisily, enveloping Yala National Park in a cloud of acrid, noxious exhaust. This vehicle was exactly the fauna-disturbing rust bucket I’d hoped to avoid.
We’d taken the bus to Tissamarama. The lemonade bottle had been unfastened from the rear bumper, our precariously wedged rucksacks falling unceremoniously from the luggage compartment. That’s when I saw Nelson’s Jeep – a shell of a vehicle, utterly bereft of functioning gauges. As if on cue, it slid backwards into a tree.
The jeep’s rear axle was kaput. Nelson frowned and began knotting together two bicycle inner tubes. Ah, a makeshift tow rope! And so our safari began, flouting all my eco-friendly intentions.
“Leopard won’t care about noise,” shouted Nelson above the din. Much as I hate to admit it, he was proven right.
Axle fixed, we approached the National Park gate, passing rice paddies peppered with fan palms. Sri Lanka’s lush expanse looked freshly painted. “Leopard footprints,” exclaimed Nelson, as a land monitor changed its mind about crossing in front of us.
A regal peacock sat sentinel; water buffalo, surrounded by hopping cattle egrets, gazed listlessly from a drinking pool; hoopoe birds – like mini zebras wearing skull caps – went about their morning business. All seemed unperturbed by the engine’s roar.
“Careful – branches,” warned Nelson, driving us deeper into the Park. Foliage brushed our cheeks as we spotted samba deer, monkeys and mongoose, purple swamphens with their ravishing red legs, and a Malabar Pied Hornbill in a leafless tree.
Pelicans flew in formation above; huge painted storks barely glanced at our dilapidated chassis on wheels. A middle-aged elephant swirled his trunk, coiling and uncoiling it lazily. But by lunchtime the fabled leopard – the big draw – had remained elusive.
A Lucky Afternoon..
We relaxed, taking time to contemplate a plaque to the tsunami victims of 2004, a harrowing reminder of the death toll here.
The Indian Ocean crashed seductively nearby; we grew soporific from the tropical heat and mountain of curry. Suddenly all hell broke loose. Radios crackled, engines gunned. Leopards were to feature on the programme after all.
Its tail twitched. Its legs hung insouciantly either side of a branch, head lolling and yawning. We each jostled for optimum viewing position, necks craned. Remarkably, however, this wasn’t the piece de resistance. Twenty minutes later, driving pell-mell along dirt tracks, we found what the other safari driver had been yelling about.
There, a few yards away, was a bobbing yellow head, her spots all but hidden in the bush. She walked purposefully and powerfully, seemingly unfazed by the Jeep’s pernicious emissions. We snapped away, hearts soaring at this magical beast.
Let’s hope a leopard can change its spots, though: Nelson certainly needs a greener Jeep..