How would you like to experience the excitement and adventure of a leopard-spotting safari in Sri Lanka along with the finest creature comforts and delicious food? If you want it all, look no further than Leopard Trails in Yala National Park!
As you all know I travel through Sri Lanka regularly for a number of reasons; visiting family, filming, tours with World Expeditions and working with Dilmah Tea and their MJF Charitable Foundation. Occasionally, I even get to enjoy being a tourist, as I did when my family and I recently spent 3 amazing weeks there. People often tell me that my TV show and cookbooks inspired them to explore Sri Lanka and I’m regularly asked for advice on the best places to go, eat, and explore.
Which is the reason I want to share with you the incredible safari experience we had with Leopard Trails Bespoke Tented Safaris near Yala National park in Sri Lanka’s South East.
Travelling with a family of 5 can be tricky at times, since you have to cater to each persons tastes and wants. The kids want action and adventure (I’m counted as one of the kids) My wife, Karen, loves a bit of action and adventure herself but after a hectic year, she was equally looking forward to some luxury and relaxation. We all love nature and great food so we are all good there.
I can easily say, Leopard Trails satisfied all our needs and left us with an unforgettable experience that was one of the highlights of our trip!
Arrival: This is NOT your usual campsite! Glamping at it’s finest
As pre-arranged, we were met at a nearby small town by a brand new, surprisingly comfortable, Toyota Hilux safari vehicle. Game ranger and naturalist, (and as we later found out; wildlife photographer, surfer, story teller and children’s entertainer) Arran accompanied us on the 20 minute ride to Leopard Trails camp, filling us in on what to expect on the way. We were met with ice cold King coconut juice and cool hand towels before being shown to our “tents”.
Karen breathed a sigh of relief as she checked out the comfortable mattress on the large bed, beautiful furnishings and linen, power points, private flushable indoor toilet and outdoor shower, all cooled by a huge fan. Karen happy. Tick!
Giant squirrels and Hanuman Langurs played in the trees around the tents. Boys happy. Tick!
I was brought an icy beer to sip in the shade of our awning. PK happy. Definitely Tick!
This truly is luxury in the wilderness. Happy campers!
Food – No safari on an empty stomach! Eating is definitely a highlight at Leopard Trails
This really is a place after my own heart. Before we get down to the serious business of animal spotting, we are called to lunch.
Most safari camp accommodations play it safe for the overseas tourists with very nice but predictable BBQ meals to suit the western palate. This is where, once again, Leopard Trails takes a more authentic approach. A feast awaits us in the dining pavilion of 6 different traditional Sri Lankan curries, sambals & pappadums.
Over our 2 days we enjoyed such a range of tasty local dishes –
unusual vegetarian curries of Ash plaintain; Bitter gourd or eggplant moju; tasty meat curries; fried chicken; stringhoppers; thosai; wattalapan….The list goes on…
Chef Siri is careful to ensure the curries are mild enough for everyone with spiciness added by the individual in the form of sambals and condiments. One guest arrived not feeling well and chef catered with a simple plain meal. Nothing is too much trouble here.
The communal table in the dining pavilion may seem a little unusual to some people but it really works here. After all everyone is here because of their love of nature and adventure and the swapping of animal sightings and travel stories becomes pretty lively after a safari and a glass of wine!
Ready for Safari!
Now we were ready for action! Our family had a jeep to ourselves with Arran, our trained ranger and guide, on hand to inform us all about the animals we spotted and keep us entertained with stories of his experiences while we drove along. It is a 30 minute drive to the National Park from Leopard Trails, which is on the edge of the buffer zone for safety reasons. Arran explains it is forbidden for guests to leave the jeep once in the park. His tale of being chased up a tree by a sloth bear and held hostage for 6 hours had us convinced us this was sensible.
On the way, Arran, a keen wildlife photographer, gave us photographic advice and even lent us his fixed 400ml Canon lens. My eldest son is now hooked on photography! With cold drinks and snacks at the ready, camera in hand, and the beauty of the bush around us, it wasn’t long before we starting spotting wildlife.
Wildlife in the afternoon
Wild boars digging along the road, wild buffalo lazing in waterholes, and Mongoose running through the grass.
A multitude of pretty bird species – kingfishers, bee eaters and Mark the peacock hanging in his tree by the lotus lake.
A roadside weir complete with Painted storks, Grey heron and fish jumping into the mouths of 3 sunning mugger crocodiles.
Then our driver got the tipoff on the leopard!
Leopards of Yala
Yala National Park, particularly the quieter Northern end that Leopard Trails is located, has the highest density of leopards in the world! This has been long known but Leopard Trails’ Managing Director, Radheesh Sellamuttu, wanted irrefutable proof and to know more about their leopard families way of life. Radheesh spent countless hours sorting through thousands of photos and applying the spot pattern ID technique used in Africa. As stories begun to emerge on lineages, who mated with who, territories, ages, sexes, siblings, it truly became an addiction his guiding team was quickly hooked on. It became obvious that Yala’s leopards had smaller home ranges and did, in fact, have the highest density of leopard anywhere in the world.
This painstaking study helps Leopard Trail guides locate animals, interpret sightings, tell stories and hopefully, help protect them from habitat loss and poaching in years to come.
So this is how we know we were looking at clumsy, playful young Ellie, resting in a tree after feasting on a nearby kill. There were only 4 other jeeps watching too, which is very different to leopard spotting in the busy Southern end of the park. We watched her for an hour and after the other jeeps left, she rewarded us by jumping to a nearby branch and stared straight at us. Such a beautiful creature! She was so at ease, stretching, yawning and catching flies. This is what it’s all about!
Evening under the stars
When we arrived back at camp, lanterns lit the way to our luxury tents. A hot shower under the stars is an experience in itself. Fresh and invigorated we head to the bar tent.
We had evening rain during our stay so were unable to experience a usual highlight of drinks around the campfire and dining under the stars by the lake. We were, however, more than happy to relax in the colonial-safari themed lounge with it’s soft lanterns, bar table and an old gramophone. The service staff were as attentive as ever, keeping our complimentary drinks refreshed while we all swapped stories. We were serenaded by the raucous symphony of nature while fleuro green fireflies drifted past. We were well and truly relaxed and animated by the time our next tasty feast was served.
Warning. It’s an early start! The teenagers were groaning for a while. A gentle 4.45am wake up call (not so gentle for the teenagers) to ready waiting Ceylon tea, biscuits & sugar bananas and we were off.
It was so quiet and peaceful watching the sun rise over the lake on our way in.
Herds of spotted deer and huge-antlered bucks, mongoose, purple-faced langurs and even more species of birds than yesterday – Serpent eagles, yellow hornbills (Cousins of Zazoo, as Taj says).
Then more leopard excitement! A mating pair crossing the road ahead into the undergrowth – a very unusual sight. Peacocks were parading their plumage everywhere we looked. They seemed not to care what species they tried to impress.
Finally we came across Karen’s favorite, a young male tusker elephant, meandering along the road in no hurry at all. Arran informed us that only 5% of male Asian elephants grow tusks. So beautiful to see in the wild, happy, instead of chained in a temple.
Our crocodile friends were still fishing at the weir alongside Snakehead egrets and Open-beaked storks. The only thing left unchecked on our list was the elusive sloth bear. It was so peaceful watching all of this from the comfort of the vehicle. I couldn’t believe 5 hours had passed; I never sit still for that long!
We were met with cold towels and watermelon juice while our breakfast of bacon and eggs was cooked to order (Or vegetarian local pol roti, luni miris, and purrapu for me!)
Yes, safari in Sri Lanka should definitely be on your agenda!
Why we chose Leopard Trails
While there are other wildlife parks in Sri Lanka, it is Yala that is known for it’s leopard sightings and widest range of species.
It is also known as the busiest and most popular park for tourists. This is particularly true of the Southern Entry gate on the coast, where there are sometimes many jeeps queuing for position.
We did our research and soon realized the Northern end of the park is not only far less busy but also has a higher concentration of leopards.
With so many safari camps on offer, we wanted to make sure our short experience was one of the best.
This led us to find Leopard Trails, which is located very close to the Northern Entrance Gate near the famous pilgrimage site, Kataragama Temple.
Aside from the appeal of 5-star glamping and dining, it was really important to us that trained professionals who were knowledgeable and sensitive to the animals and environment guide our safari experience. We had heard this was not always so.
We could see from the website that Leopard Trail’s took their guiding seriously. Our guide Arran, received professional EcoTraining in South Africa and is FGASA qualified (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) Not only do the guides have extensive knowledge of the environment, conservation and animal behavior but they respect the animals and give them space.
We always had a trained spotter, an enthusiastic driver and a National Park guide to ensure ethical standards were adhered to.
Along with the intimate knowledge of the local leopard families through their ID work, we couldn’t have had a more informative experience.
So there you have it. I never get tired of shouting the wonders of Sri Lanka so thanks for letting me share this truly memorable experience with you.
Adventure, wildlife, luxury and fine food.
This is one to add to the bucket list!