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The Mexican staring frog of southern Sri Lanka


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Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka
Wednesday, 6 February 2019

I set my alarm for half past three, I got out of bed at ten to four, and after a quick breakfast and change of clothes I was out the door at a quarter past four eagerly anticipating my wildlife adventure.

As I walked down the stairs and through the frontyard to wait for my jeep, I encountered my first wildlife of the day - an aggressive, snarling dog that was the owner's pet. The dog, who looked like a cross between a border collie and a rottweiler, thought I was an intruder as he snarled and barked at me between where I was standing and the front gate. I don't have a fear of dogs - quite the opposite, I have always loved doggies - but my doctor in Sydney put the fear of God into me when he talked about rabies in Sri Lanka. He advised me to include the rabies vaccine with the five other travel shots I got, but at something like $700 I decided against it. Now I sort of wished I had spent the money.

The barking of the dog and my shouts of "get away from me, you stupid dumb mongrel!" awoke Sanjiva who came out in his underwear to calm the dog down. I apologised for waking him - I shouldn't have, it was the stupid dumb mongrel's fault - and waited in the cool, misty darkness to be picked up at 4:35am.

The jeep finally arrived - actually, a Mahindra four-wheel drive pick-up truck with seven seats in the tray enclosed in a roll cage with a sheet metal roof - and the driver continued his rounds picking up other Yala National Park safari-goers at various hotels. There was me, a friendly and intelligent young Austrian couple, Jurgen and Helena who were chemical engineers back home; Alison, an aloof and no-nonsense American master's student who was studying in China, and a dirty filthy smelly feral Dutch hippie couple who showed no interest in socialising with the rest of us and spent the day behaving with astonishing disrespect, putting their feet on seats, treating the driver like a slave and smoking in the jeep without so much as asking the rest of us if we would mind.

After everyone had been collected from their hotels we headed east for about twenty minutes until we got to the Yala National Park entrance. As we were waiting in the queue of jeeps dawn broke on a cool, cloudy morning. As we waited the driver served breakfast on a tray - hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes made of fermented rice and coconut batter) and coconut roti flatbread with bananas and various sambals. We passed the tray around the back of the jeep so we could all have our share. There was plenty of bottled water too to keep us hydrated throughout the day.

We soon entered the park after the driver had handed over the paperwork and paid for the tickets and our safari began. Yala National Park is huge, even by Australian standards it would be big. The park is divided into several blocks. Some blocks are completely off-limits to everyone except park rangers and authorised scientists. In other blocks, tourists are allowed but their numbers are strictly limited and managed (I think the current limit is two hundred jeeps a day). I think the block we explored was Block I, the southwestern most portion of the park.

Yala is in the heart of Sri Lanka's dry zone. It is mostly flat with occasional stone monoliths protruding through the plains, and the vegetation consists mostly of stunted little trees, shrubs like acacias, and thickets of twisted, scrawny wood. The scenery reminded me a good deal of the countryside in Queensland's Dry Tropics around Bowen and Townsville.

There is a spiderweb of red dirt four-wheel-drive tracks throughout each block which the jeeps use to get close to the animals. Despite being commercial competitors, all the jeep drivers communicate with each other using mobile phones. When there is a significant sight - a group of leopards drinking at a waterhole, say, or two male tusker elephants fighting - word spreads like wildfire and all the jeeps race each other like a Formula 1 race to get to the place to get the best viewing spots before the animals leave.

The first mad race was to see a male tusker elephant. There are a few dozen elephants who live in Yala and only a small minority have grown tusks. The jeep raced over the rough, rutted tracks at breakneck speed. We occupants in the rear bounced, rattled, jolted and swayed around over every single corrugation. There was only one thing to do - hold on tight!

Soon we came to our first significant sight - a male elephant happily munching away on a shrub, the twigs snapping off as his trunk tore them off the plant. The elephant didn't even seem to be aware that there were dozens of curious eyes looking at him and dozens of cameras snapping. This old fellow had only one tusk. The driver explained that he had lost the other in a fight with another dominant tusker.

We then saw our first herd of spotted deer. These deer have tan fur with dozens of bright white spots on their sides. These deer are probably the most numerous and easy-to-find large mammals in Yala National Park. They looked cute, they looked friendly, and they also looked delicious. I don't blame the leopards and crocodiles for wanting to eat them. Unfortunately fresh venison was not on our lunch menu!

We passed Elephant Rock, a massive monolith that surges hundreds of metres above the plains. It is so named because from a certain angle it actually does look like an elephant.

The next major sighting was a herd of buffalo. These are also a common sight and easy to spot. They are mostly black all over though I saw a few during the day that were brown, tan, or black with white markings around the head and neck. We came across one who was laying on its side in a large mud pool. We all thought it was dead, then we saw that it was breathing. Someone said she thought the buffalo was stuck in the mud but the driver assured us that it was just enjoying a nice mud bath.

The jeep continued its aimless ramblings in the cool morning air. This place is nowhere near as humid as Colombo and Galle. It was cloudy and I guess that the temperature was about 25 °C. It was unexpectedly pleasant weather.

The driver got a message on his phone - there was a leopard drinking at a watering hole! There was yet another mad dash over the rough roads to this little pond. By the time we got there, a driver of another jeep said the leopard had retreated into the bushes. Sometimes leopards get thirsty again and come back for another drink so we waited for twenty minutes to no avail.

We went away, then got another message - the leopard had returned! But when we got back to the watering hole, the leopard had once again disappeared.

We were not to be deterred. The driver drove to the next track behind the bush where the leopard had retreated. His thinking was that the leopard's family was behind the next track. So we parked on that track and - hallelujah! We saw the leopard, casually strolling across the track. It was some distance away, maybe fifty metres, and it was only visible for maybe ten seconds at the maximum, but we saw it. We all snapped our cameras like crazy. I managed to get three photos with my iPhone, on all of which the head was obscured. But I got photos! I saw a real leopard in its natural environment yesterday and you most likely didn't. So nur nurny nur nur.

We then checked out some of the less charismatic species in Yala National Park. The park is home to thousands of wild pigs, big, black, bristly things that are so huge I kept mistaking them for buffalo from a distance. They looked quite fierce and resentful, they were nothing like Babe.

The driver received another message - there was a bear sighting! Yala National Park is home to a very small number of sloth bears. We raced to the place where it was seen and we saw it, a shy, retiring fellow with cute fuzzy fur and a furtive look on its face as if it were concealing a secret. These are small bears, not much bigger than a mature merino sheep, and they look very cuddly and friendly, nothing like that most stereotypical of ursids, the North American grizzly bear.

I am a dreadful pun addict. My colleagues, my friends, my family, people who follow my social media accounts all despise me for it. My addiction to puns is so bad that I have now branched out into different languages. So I told the following joke to Helena and Jurgen:

Me: 》In welcher Stadt in Deutschland wohnt dieses Tier?《 (In which city in Germany does this animal live?)

Helena: 》Ahhh, ich weiss es nicht.《 (Ummm, I don't know.)

Me: 》Bär-lin!《 (Bear-lin!)

Helena and Jurgen: 》Hahahahahahaha!《 (Hahahahahahaha!)

It's great to know that of all eight billion human beings in the universe, two appreciate my humour.

We saw the same tusker elephant we had seen earlier and then it was time for lunch. The block is closed to visitors between midday and two o'clock, this allows those diurnal species who don't like the presence of humans time to drink at watering holes or cross the tracks or catch prey or generally just roam around. During this period visitors are restricted to small designated areas.

We spent those two hours at Patanangala Beach. There is a large parking area where the jeeps congregate and the people have lunch. The driver spread out a rice and curry buffet with plates and cutlery - proper ceramic plates and stainless steel cutlery. The rice and curry were cold but was still nonetheless delicious.

Patanangala Beach was beautiful. It was a lot like beaches in New South Wales, the main difference being the golden sand was coarser and the water was more opaque. It was a long, gently curving beach that ended at a rocky outcrop on a peninsula to the west. Swimming was prohibited; the water was very deep and the currents were very strong.

As beautiful as Patanangala was, there wasn't much to keep one amused for two hours. It started to rain again, cool, refreshing drizzle, and I retreated to the jeep with Jurgen and Helena from Austria. We talked about the universities we went to, all of us having degrees from technical universities, chatted about the unfolding disaster that is Brexit, and compared notes about our countries and all the travels we have done. This is one of the reasons I love travelling - I meet more people with whom I feel I have things in common than if I were back home. Travellers on average tend to be curious, adventurous, open-minded, free-spirited and, most importantly of all, intelligent. I have such fond memories of all the conversations I have had like the one I had with Jurgen and Helena on my trips around the world.

Next to the jeep parking area was the Yala tusnami memorial, an art installation consisting of three sinuous pieces of sheet metal representing the deadly wave. Forty-seven visitors to Yala National Park died on Boxing Day in 2004 with several more reported missing. Next to the memorial is a large concrete platform decorated with floor tiles and steps leading up to the platform. Many of the jeeps, including ours, had set up our lunch spreads on the platform. The platform was once a beach bungalow guest house. The tsunami wiped the walls and roof away leaving only the concrete foundations and steps and the floor tiles. You can still discern the floor plan of the house where the internal walls used to be.

At two o'clock we resumed our safari. Yala National Park is also home to many reptiles and a colourful variety of birds. We saw sunbirds, little tiny black and blue things that darted around the trees like a hummingbird, and bee-eaters. These striking small green birds choose a perch. When they see an insect flying nearby, the bee-eaters take off from their perch, swallow the insect mid-air, and return to exactly the same spot. They will then repeat the process every time they see an insect fly past.

The most famous bird in Yala is the peacock. They are everywhere. The females are appealing enough but the males, even when their fan isn't showing, are resplendent with an irridescent blue-green neck. Whenever a lady comes within their view, the gentleman shows his fan. If the angle is right the sun glitters on these fan feathers.

Many different water birds can also be seen at the many watering holes, some of them migratory. Among the species we spotted were grey herons, white egrets, sandpipers, spoonbills and black-winged kestrels all enjoying themselves in the water.

We mustn't forget the reptiles. Freshwater crocodiles can be found at every large watering hole. Some are in the water with only the eyes poking out of the surface, while others sit motionless on the ground just outside the water like so many sunbathers at Bondi Beach. Some of the crocodiles will have their mouths wide open. I always thought this was so prey would walk in seeking shelter and the crocodile would then close its mouth and swallow the prey, but the driver disabused me of this fallacy and said they are "drinking the breeze". The open mouth faces the direction of the wind, and it's all about thermoregulation. Much like an air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle.

There are also monitor lizards, large, slow-moving reptiles, one of whom we saw eating a pile of dung. Another unusual mammal we saw was mongooses, large, dark ferret-like mammals that run quickly along the ground with bristly tails that curl upwards. The mongoose is famous for being one of the few mammals that preys on snakes. Mongooses will fight snakes and actually win.

Towards the end of the safari we saw our last major animal we had not yet seen, the shy and reclusive sambar, an antelope-like creature with dark brown fur and impressive long, curved, sickle-like antlers. We saw only one, browsing half-hidden in the bush on higher, rockier terrain.

Visitors to Yala National Park have the option of booking either a half-day or full-day safari. I had booked a full-day safari, which is advisable because there might be an animal that doesn't reveal itself in the morning but will come out in the afternoon. Nonetheless towards the end we all sort of started to regret buying a full-day safari. It was a long, tiring day and towards the end most of the animals were those we had seen many times throughout the day. Many of us openly expressed to each other that we all just wanted to go back to our hotels and sleep.

Yala National Park closes at 5:45pm sharp at which time all vehicles must already be out of the park. We left the park at about 5:20pm. We were all dropped off in turn at our respective hotels and I got back to the Hotel View Point at 5:40pm.

I had intended to walk into town, grab some dinner, stock up on water and top up my toiletry supplies. But I was too tired. I did need some water though, I had run out of bottled water and desperately needed some more. My hotel is on the outskirts of Tissamaharama and I had to walk a fair way until I found a shop that was still open that sold water. What things we take for granted in the West - drinkable tap water! In wealthier middle-class and upper-class neighbourhoods in Sri Lanka you will see fleets of water trucks delivering brand-name water to households in those big twenty-litre water cooler canisters. I don't know what poorer households do. Maybe they spend a fortune on electricity or fuel to boil the tap water, or they just drink the tap water straight (I have seen someone, a very poor older man, do this at a tap on the platform at Galle railway station which other people only used to wash their faces).

I went to bed at seven o'clock. That is not a typo. I went to sleep exhausted but happy that I had seen every animal I wanted to except for the dreaded Mexican staring frog of southern Sri Lanka. I want my money back.

Sambar

Sambar

Peacock

Peacock

Mongooses

Mongooses

Yala Tsunami Memorial

Yala Tsunami Memorial

Spotted deer

Spotted deer

Monitor lizard

Monitor lizard

Yala National Park safari jeep

Yala National Park safari jeep

Sloth bear

Sloth bear

Buffalo enjoying a mud bath

Buffalo enjoying a mud bath

Beach bungalow at Yala National Park destroyed by tsunami

Beach bungalow at Yala National Park destroyed by tsunami

Tusker elephant

Tusker elephant

Jungle fowl

Jungle fowl

Patanangala Beach

Patanangala Beach

Leopard

Leopard

Elephant Rock

Elephant Rock

Posted by urbanreverie 15:53 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged safari national_park sri_lanka yala tissamaharama tusnami Comments (0)

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