TRACKING WILD LEOPARDS
Words and Photography Danika Porter
and my alarm loudly pierces the darkness of my tent.
IT'S 5AM, and my alarm loudly pierces the darkness of my tent.
My Sri Lankan safari guide, Avinka, appears by torchlight to escort me safely to our Jeep. It’s a short drive from the Mahoora Eco Campsite to the entrance of Yala National Park. This remarkable and wild southern corner of Sri Lanka claims to be home to the densest leopard population in all of Asia.
A notoriously timid creature, the elusive native cat sleeps 18 hours a day and the cool dawn temperatures offer the best odds to catch a rare glimpse.
At first, Avinka points out every creature he sees that scurries in the darkness – a bird, a rabbit, squirrel, buffalo, deer – expertly spouting his knowledge at every chance.
“Are these all potential leopard snacks?” I ask him sheepishly. Sensing my fixation on the main attraction, he shifts into full leopard-spotting mode.
Avinka, our guide and Mahoora's safari vehicle, which looks as if it's been on an episode of MTV's Pimp My Ride.
It’s barely daylight as we suddenly come to a stop and Avinka urgently directs our driver in rapid-fire Sinhalese (native language). While I can’t understand a word, the excitement in his tone is unmistakable.
Even with our driver’s binoculars I can’t see the spotted coat until it’s moving. Its head is hunched and it cuts through the foliage like a hot knife through butter. The distinct orange and black print camouflages the animal so perfectly that it's only a few seconds before I lose sight.
Avinka predicts that our paths with the animal will cross again, and sure enough just a few metres up the road the leopard strolls directly by our Jeep again, giving us only a cursory glance.
This regal predator is magnificent in posture, strength and resounding beauty. Every centimetre of its coat is patterned like a child gone wild with an ink stamp. The encounter is over in seconds and we all hurriedly flick through our cameras for evidence that what we saw wasn’t paranormal.
A leopard on a morning stroll. Leopards can sleep 18 hours a day, so to see one in the (spotty) flesh is an indescribable thrill.
Without warning, our driver instinctively follows yet another animal’s honking sound, which we’re told are the distressed calls of deer warning of imminent danger. Avinka is nearly falling out of the vehicle to spot what he thinks is an offending leopard.
His infectious passion this second time around is as fresh as his very first. Sure enough, we find a large male draped over a horizontal branch like a floppy child’s toy. His legs hang down, counter-balancing the swollen belly of a recent feast. Yawning and panting heavily, he appears to have a bad case of leopard-style meat sweats.
There are less than 1,000 leopards left in Sri Lanka.
Yala camp - one of Mahoora's mobile luxury eco camps.
We return to our camp in darkness having spotted three more leopards for the morning, which the staff assures me is a very, very good day. Waiting outside my tent is a ‘Mahoora happy feet’ treat, which is a customary steaming footbath of lime and fragrant neem leaf. My feet have done little work today, but I’m not going to protest.
Mahoora Yala camp is a six hour drive from the capital, Colombo. I arrived safely thanks to my driver, Kuma, who calmly dodged vehicles, bikes, people and dogs like he was playing a video game. More than once I shut my eyes, flinching from all the close calls.
If you're trying to picture Sri Lanka, you could do worse than picturing palms and elephants.
Mahoora’s Eco Camps are a series of completely mobile luxury safari camps dotted around Sri Lanka which strive to achieve carbon neutrality in their operations. There’s no air conditioning or pool, but everything else in my canvas two-room castle — complete with ensuite and living room — is pure opulence all the way.
Every meal is a multi-course, culinary education, in Sri Lankan cuisine; Pakora, lavariya, wadai, string hoppers, sambol, pittu are all magically prepared in a primitive kitchen tent.
Ignoring all protests, the camp’s private chef, Wasanthalal seems determined to overfeed me. Each plate returns to the kitchen unfinished, as another overly generous course replaces it.
Ahaspokuna Camp, a series of stilted huts with open sides. There is a closeness to nature at Mahoora's places that isn't easily replicated.
Ahaspokuna Camp, meaning ‘pond in the sky’, is on the plateau of Mulgama Peak on a property of 10 hectares. It took six years to develop, which is unsurprising given every material was hauled in along the same path. Being so remote and, with only three guest tents, it is instantly peaceful.
Each tent in the camp is a stilted hut with open sides, separated into zones by two canvas cubes that provide privacy to your bedroom and bathroom. In my lounge I can read a book on the couch or use the grand telescope to peer up at the stars.
Overlooking the hazy layers of the deep Ha Gala Mountains, Arun outlines our bush walk for the next day while we scan the horizon and I’m nervous.
The next morning is oppressively hot and humid but I’m instructed to wear long sleeves and trousers. It’s 9am and I’m already a sticky mess of sweat, sunscreen and bug spray. It’s apparent very early on that we won’t be following any cleared walking tracks or trails.
Dwarfed amongst tall manna grass, I duck my head, and charge on, slashing a path with my walking pole like a crazed Sri Lankan ninja, my exposed hands taking a battering from spiky branches.
Cutting through swathes of tall manna grass.
Lost? Not a chance. Sri Lanka is a miscellany of terrain.
It’s a patchwork of contrasting habitat. Traversing one side of a mountain is through hot, dry and sparse savannah, and then the flip side is a dense, wet and cool Riverine forest.
It’s a patchwork of contrasting habitat. Traversing one side of a mountain is hot, dry and sparse savannah, and then the flip side is a dense, wet and cool Riverine forest. But the spectacular view from the ridge makes it all worth it. I’m a speck in 360-degree views of mountain peaks.
It's not long before we hear the roar of Gan Ella waterfall. A refreshing mist wafts over us from the thundering shaft of water above. By now my clothing is soaked in sweat and the water is absolute bliss. I fill my hat with the freshwater, recharge with a piece of fruit and begin the near vertical climb out.
Gan Ella waterfall. On a single hike in Sri Lanka you can encounter mountains, bush, tall-grass, rivers, wetlands...and waterfalls.
Arun moves like a grasshopper, effortlessly scaling all obstacles, while I’m much less graceful. As we climb he points out a bronze back tree snake hanging above our heads. The long, thin worm shape is well disguised in the branches. That is, until it starts jumping from tree to tree like a reptilian monkey going on the attack. It’s an impressive but terrifying show.
After five-hours of hiking, camp is a welcome sight. The term ‘bushwalk’ seems an inadequate description of my day, but I feel a proud sense of accomplishment.
This time I skipped the neem leaf foot bath in favour of the alfresco bathtub. Lying back with a book and a glass of wine, the warm water soaks away the tension from my weary body.
My stay at this camp includes two walks a day, but I’m happy staying right here for the afternoon.
There have been worse sights for weary travellers.
Lights are on, and there's somebody home at Mahoora Eco Camp.
Sleeping among the sounds of the Sri Lankan bush.