Such a per­fect spot

Wildlife ga­lore in Sri Lanka’s south­east

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - KEN­DALL HILL

Leop­ards can be found any­where, ac­cord­ing to our guide Hari. On the ground. Sprawled on gi­ant gran­ite boul­ders. Loung­ing in trees. Even bask­ing on the beach, some­times. But on a morn­ing sa­fari into Yala Na­tional Park, the 100,000ha wildlife sanc­tu­ary be­side the In­dian Ocean in Sri Lanka’s south­east, leop­ards are nowhere to be seen.

The only spot­ted crea­tures in sight are deer. There are pos­ing pea­cocks, a still-life sam­bar with mag­nif­i­cent antlers, croc­o­diles, buf­falo and ser­pent ea­gles, a lone ele­phant and, just as we’re about to head back, a sloth bear. The most re­mark­able thing about our bear sight­ing is that we are all alone on the Yala plains when it hap­pens. This is Sri Lanka’s most vis­ited na­tional park; in peak sea­son there can be 500-600 sa­fari ve­hi­cles wait­ing im­pa­tiently at dawn for the gates to open. To­day there are maybe 200 and not one dis­turbs our mag­i­cal bear mo­ment.

Sloth bears are sweet-look­ing crea­tures with pale snouts and white ruffs on black fur coats. Ours is cuter than most be­cause he has a limp, a legacy of that time a few years back when he got so drunk on fer­mented rosewood berries he fell out of a tree and broke his leg. The sight of a wonky sloth bear cheers me so much I for­get all about leop­ards. Se­nior ranger Haritha Pi­lapi­tiya seems pleased with the sight­ing too, and he’s in this park ev­ery day. I ask him what’s the most in­cred­i­ble thing he’s ever seen at Yala. “An eight-foot croc­o­dile be­ing eaten by a python,” he says, putting our quaint lit­tle bear into star­tling con­text.

Hari and I and a Syd­ney cou­ple are game-drive bud­dies at Chena Huts, an ex­clu­sive 28-guest prop­erty that is both sa­fari camp and beach­front lodge. Chena opened a year ago on sev­eral hectares tucked be­tween the In­dian Ocean and Yala. If guests are lucky they may see, from the stilted deck of the lodge restau­rant, an ele­phant lum­ber­ing down the beach or sea tur­tles lay­ing their eggs by moon­light. If un­lucky, they might en­counter a co­bra. That’s Sri Lanka’s great out­doors for you — wildly un­pre­dictable.

The re­sort takes its de­sign cues from na­ture and its low thatched roofs, teak board­walks and fences of cin­na­mon twigs merge into the bush­land. Lav­ish sheets of glass in huts and com­mu­nal spa­ces show­case ocean and wa­ter­hole views. “Huts’’ is a mis­nomer be­cause Chena’s 14 jun­gle suites sprawl across 105sq m each, in­clud­ing a pool deck, and are her­met­i­cally sealed against bugs and beasts.

Coolly chic in­te­ri­ors fea­ture vast sleep­ing plat­forms with or­na­men­tal wood­pile bed­heads, rich-grained teak floors and a vaulted dome frame that lends a faint ec­cle­si­as­tic air. With com­pli­men­tary mini­bars, ev­ery bath­room amenity imag­in­able, flat-screen TVs and Blue­tooth speak­ers, these are among the best-equipped and best­look­ing sa­fari lodges imag­in­able.

The re­main­der of the re­sort com­prises a two-room spa, com­mu­nal pool and the Basses Restau­rant on the shore. The restau­rant is named af­ter two light­houses off this ship­wreck coast; one of which, Great Basses Reef, is vis­i­ble from the din­ing room and ter­race. (There’s a per­ma­nent blue whale pop­u­la­tion that lives in a chan­nel be­side the reef. Boat char­ter op­er­a­tors prom­ise guests a 95 per cent chance of spot­ting the world’s largest an­i­mal.)

All meals are taken in the restau­rant. Room ser­vice is banned to avoid wild an­i­mals — es­pe­cially wily lan­gurs that lurk in sur­round­ing trees — as­so­ci­at­ing the ac­com­mo­da­tion with food. Restau­rant meals are three-course af­fairs of western, Sri Lankan and in­ter­na­tional dishes and are well-pre­sented and ad­e­quate, and the seafood is fished straight from the ocean out front.

The only down­side to be­ing this close to a pris­tine beach is that guests are not al­lowed to walk on it un­less ac­com­pa­nied by a ranger, for those rea­sons stated above (see: ele­phant, co­bra). So there are no morn­ing runs or moon­lit strolls to be had, and the sea is too dan­ger­ous for swim­ming. But Hari leads a pleas­ant sun­rise na­ture walk along the coast­line into the na­tional park, though vis­i­tors should not ex­pect to meet any an­i­mals. In-room com­pendi­ums specif­i­cally ad­vise, “The aim of the walk is not to get close to an­i­mals.” Hari car­ries pep­per spray in his util­ity belt just in case a drunken bear picks a fight.

Chena’s prox­im­ity to Yala is a gift to guests. It’s the clos­est lodge to Gate I, which of­fers some of the park’s best wildlife sight­ings and the largest leop­ard pop­u­la­tion. Re­sort driv­ers depart very early each morn­ing to se­cure pole po­si­tion at the gate. We leave camp at a more leisurely 5.15am and drive straight to the front of the pack, pre­sum­ably to the envy of the many dozens of open­sided jeeps queued out­side.

“It’s re­ally nice be­ing the first per­son in the park be­cause you get to see a lot more,” Hari says. But we are first for only a fleet­ing sec­ond. When gates open at 6am, all hell breaks loose. Dare­devil jeeps fly past like a South Asian leg of the Dakar Rally. We mo­tor along calmly as the scrum roars ahead down the red dirt track. “We try to take the Chena stan­dard into the park,” Hari ex­plains as I stare slack-jawed af­ter the pack. Af­ter­noon game drives are far less feral be­cause vis­i­tors can come and go as they please.

The land­scapes in­side Yala, a for­mer Raj-era hunt­ing ground, are sur­pris­ingly di­verse. There are plains car­peted green af­ter re­cent rains, and meta­mor­phic boul­ders strewn about like the ru­ins of some an­cient civil­i­sa­tion but not to be confused with the ac­tual an­cient ru­ins of Bud­dhist monas­ter­ies still found in the sanc­tu­ary. There are wet forests, dry forests, thorn forests, marshes and empty stretches of golden shore­line. The air echoes with

Leop­ard in the Sri Lankan wilder­ness, top left; thatched jun­gle suite, above; ele­phant in Yala Na­tional Park, above right; ranger with Chena Huts guests, be­low

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