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March 18, 2016, Sri Lanka

Just relax, if you cannot spot a leopard

Ben Lerwill

I DIDN’T see any leopards. There. I’ve said it.

I had gone on a safari in Yala, the Sri Lankan national park renowned for having the world’s highest concentration of leopards.

But, even after spending more than 10 hours rumbling through the park’s forests and grasslands in a jeep, I did not see a single spotted big cat.

I was far less bothered than I thought I would be.

It helps that the Yala park teems with other exotic inhabitants, from elephants, sloth bears and peacocks to jackals, crocodiles and sea eagles.

The region, which lies along Sri Lanka’s south coast, has plenty more to offer – so much so that a lack of obliging leopards seems fairly trivial.

The coastline is lined with surf beaches, palm trees and sun-splashed villages. Its main settlement, Galle, is a bona fide Unesco-listed wonder.

RICH CULTURE

My explorations began in the colourful coastal city of Galle, settled by the Portuguese in 1589 and later ruled by both the Dutch and the British before Sri Lanka became independent in 1948.

The city’s best-known feature is its sturdily handsome colonial fort, which today encloses an entire town’s worth of streets, hotels, shophouses and restaurants.

“You should try to take a walk around the ramparts right about now,” advised Yatawara, my jovial driver for the week, when we arrived in Galle just before sunset.

“It’s the best time of day for it.”

Yatawara knew what he was talking about. Three sides of the fort look out into the Indian Ocean (the fourth gives a fantastic view of Galle’s famous cricket stadium), and the sunset panoramas, glowing crimson and orange in the dying light, were spectacular.

Later, I found a rooftop restaurant that served classic vegetarian curries and basked in the luxury of having nothing to do but relax and eat.

The food in Sri Lanka features various culinary influences that are imported from the Arabs, Malays, Indians and Portuguese. Coconut milk, garlic, chilli and fish are some key ingredients.

Just as Sri Lankan cuisine is diverse, so is the country’s religion.

Theravada Buddhism is the most prominent faith, with Hinduism, Christianity and Islam figuring significantly too.

Despite its relaxed vibe, Sri Lanka has witnessed some torrid events in recent decades.

Not only was it sucked into a long and brutal civil war, a conflict which finally halted in 2009, it was also one of the countries worst hit by the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

The south coast was tragically affected although most of the animal inhabitants of Yala – which sits adjacent to the shoreline – managed a near-miraculous escape.

“It seems as though they sensed the tsunami before it arrived,” explained Sarath, a safari guide at the national park.

“The waters came inland for more than a kilometre, but when they receded, we found just a tiny number of animal carcasses. They had all headed away from the coast before it hit.”

OUT IN THE WILD

The Yala park, which covers an area of almost 1,000 sq km, is the country’s most visited nature reserve.

Its landscapes include dense jungle, low wetland and open vistas of rocky outcrops. I stayed at Chena Huts, a new upmarket retreat in the buffer zone on the outskirts of the park.

I had an inkling my stay would be a memorable one when I opened my curtains on the first morning and saw a peacock strolling around my plunge pool.

Half an hour later, a wild boar wandered past while I was having breakfast.

The main appeal of being at Yala was the chance to take two daily game drives.

Each time we entered the park, different wildlife mini-dramas unfolded.

There is a tendency in Yala for jeeps to cluster in the areas where leopards are most likely to appear, although it takes the gloss off a safari when you are bumper to bumper with 15 other vehicles.

At Sarath’s recommendation, our jeep instead made an effort to steer clear of the crowds. We found a secluded waterhole and looked on as storks stepped past crocodiles and buffaloes lazed under ironwood trees.

On another drive, we came across a family of elephants, the youngest of them vigorously tearing branches and foliage.

The next morning, we watched a crested hawk-eagle devour a fat monitor lizard, then rounded the corner to see two competing peacocks strutting around a lone peahen, tail-feathers in full glory.

Leopards will always be Yala’s poster- boys but, in my case, they remained elusive.

The creatures that will stick in my mind are the elephants. I spotted at least two on every game drive, and they always made for an imposing sight.

The animal occupies a special place in Sri Lankan culture. When a renowned elephant died in 1998 – a male known as Maligawa Tusker Raja – the government declared an official day of national mourning.

Sri Lanka is a hugely rewarding travel destination.

The pace of life is heavily conducive to relaxation, and the island’s blend of different creeds and cultures helps create a visitor-friendly environment.

If you’re looking for a fine introduction to the place, you could do far worse than combining Galle and Yala.

And if you see a leopard or two?

Consider it a bonus.

6 other spots to explore in Sri Lanka

KANDY

Sri Lanka’s second city is surrounded by hills in the centre of the island and provides a vivid contrast to the sand-fringed resorts of the coast.

It is home to a number of absorbing sights, not least the Temple of the Tooth, the most significant Buddhist shrine on the island.

The city’s main landmark is Kiri Muhuda, the lake at its centre, and you can take short cruises.

But perhaps Kandy’s greatest gift is its role as a gateway to the dramatic scenery of tea plantations.

WILPATTU NATIONAL PARK

Set in the north-west of the island, this is the largest of Sri Lanka’s national parks.

Before the civil war made the region dangerous, it was also its most visited.

Today, its charm lies in the fact that it draws relatively few visitors while also offering excellent opportunities to spot leopards and sloth bears.

The birdlife is world-class too.

COLOMBO

The capital is a busy city, with around three million people calling it home.

Its most obvious attractions for visitors are the buzzing bazaar quarter referred to as The Pettah. Most of the goods on sale are practical items rather than souvenirs, however.

You can also head to the historical district known as Fort, where you will find a good selection of museums and colonial buildings.

KATARAGAMA

If you are looking to get an insight into just how deep religion runs in Sri Lanka, this is the place to go.

The small southern town is considered a profoundly important spiritual site not just by Buddhists, but by the Hindus and Muslims too.

It is best experienced in the evening when the main puja (show of reverence) takes place.

Most of the action takes place in an area known as The Sacred Precinct where musicians, dancers and pilgrims combine to create a heady scene of devotion.

JAFFNA AND THE FAR NORTH

The vagaries of the civil war were fiercely felt in the far north, which is home to the majority of the country’s Tamil population.

The area holds rich rewards for those in search of a cultural contrast to the rest of the island. The largest town is Jaffna, which sits on a peninsula at the uppermost tip of the country and has a thick Indian influence.

Thanks to improvements in the rail network, it is now possible to go there by a direct train from Colombo.

UNAWATUNA

Hugely popular with independent travellers, Unawatuna sits on the south coast close to Galle and made its name as somewhere to surf and unwind.

You will find activities like snorkelling, yoga, diving and nightclubbing.

Its postcard-friendly setting is helped by a scattering of green rocky outcrops offshore. There is also a vast selection of places to eat and drink, from rice-and-curry houses and seafood restaurants to Italian bistros.

CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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