So assuming 250+ jeeps with an average of 3 tourists inside enter Yala National Park in Southern Sri Lanka daily, there are 750 people in the park every day. And that’s just the morning tour. Which, by the way, means pick-up at 4:30am, i.e. getting up at 4:00. Not sure why all cool things in Sri Lanka require getting up early – must have something to do with nature.
In any case, out of those 750 people in the park each day, I doubt many had the experience we had.
Having done some research, we picked a driver who is renowned for sighting the elusive leopard (of which there are only a handful left in the park).
He does that by picking up people earlier and being one of the first in the line-up entering the park. Imagine 200+ jeeps standing in line. We were in position #5.
At 6:00 am the gates open and the race begins. Yes, it is literally a race, or at least for our driver it was. Promptly we were in the pole position, as our plan was to „not stop for the common animals“.
This strategy paid of big time as we did indeed see a leopard chilling in the morning sun. We had this view for ourselves for about 3 minutes, when the next 2 jeeps arrived and the leopard felt that this was enough of a disturbance of his morning meditation, so he gave us the finger and went off to hunt. (I could tell by the way he walked, in case you were wondering how I know these things)
So, we are off to a good start, right?
Well, it gets better. A few minutes later, he puts the car in reverse and we wonder why we are going a few kilometres backwards when we suddenly see a bulk of cars coming at us, followed by a gigantic elephant – with tusks. Tusks are rare among elephants in Sri Lanka (they are sought after and only 7% of males have tusks). This one is pretty old and dangerous, he tells us.
Him being dangerous doesn’t prevent our driver from placing himself right between the elephant and the other jeeps in front of us – and it now started to make sense why we went in reverse before. If you’re facing that beast head-on and you need to get away fast, well…you are shit out of luck. (a dozen other jeeps followed him and would have had to deal with exactly this situation…a disaster waiting to happen)
To get you into the mood, here is a picture that illustrates how close we were to said elephant:
Some info on Ceylon-elephants. Elephas maximus maximus can grow up to 3.5m in height and weigh up to 5.5 tons. At full speed they can be 40km/h fast.
Well, here is the thing with old, giant elephants apparently. They hate having idiotic jeeps block their view during their morning walk. So while this wonderful creature was at first slowly taking a stroll and having a bite of greenery here and there, at some point he became really pissed with us being so close.
So he starts running at us and trumpets furiously.
Before our driver hits the gas, he gets about 3-4 meters close. This is a screenshot from the video one of us took.
Here is an eternal truth: Don’t mess with an elephant.
We didn’t leave it at that though. Near death experience not withstanding, our driver decides to go where no other jeeps go. Why they don’t go that way became apparent when this happened:
We were stuck. After just having been chased by an elephant and having spotted a crocodile a few hundred meters early, you can call me a sissy for having a queazy feeling exiting the jeep as long as you want. The situation resolved after a few failed attempts of freeing the car when we were dragged out by another jeep 45mins later.
At this point, I had all the adventure I could have possibly hoped for that day and was extremely grateful for still breathing… and things did indeed become a little less heart attack-inducing in the following hours. Another highlight was the mother-baby elephants we saw bathing.
By the way, there are only a few thousand elephants left in Sri Lanka. Most of them live in the national parks, but some roam free. As their natural habitat is increasingly used for agriculture by humans, conflicts are unavoidable. The loser, as you can imagine, is the elephant. The Elephas maximus is considered an endangered species because more than 50% of its population has vanished over the last 3 generations (about 60 years).
I am not sure these safaries are a good thing. Certainly they need to make the experience more expensive and thereby exclusive. (currently its around 26 euros). Being around 20 jeeps at the same time in almost any given spot is a. not fun and b. probably not that great for the animals. We at least should be able to use electric vehicles in the future to reduce exhaust and noise.
I will leave you with a few other impressions of our journey.