Wilpattu National Park – Camping Sri Lankan style

We get to within 5 minutes of Wilpattu National Park and Bodhi pulls over to the side of the road.  “I’ll phone the camp and ask them to pick you up” he states.  A few minutes later a safari jeep appears from a side track that seems to lead to nowhere.  Bodhi transfers me and my luggage from his car van into the jeep and the new vehicle bumps me off back down the side track to get to the Big Game Camp itself https://www.srilankabiggamesafaris.com/big-game-camp-wilpattu.html

As a child the main family holiday tended to be camping in some, usually wet and damp, tent park.  Back in the 1970s campsites were fairly basic and it was this that developed my pathological dislike of camping.  However, here in Sri Lanka it seemed one of the best options to really get a flavour of the true safari experience.

I was met at the camp entrance by Bimsara who then reeled off the camp’s rules to keep guests safe and the amenities they could provide.  I was surprised to find that they had a router so Wi-Fi was available although how they were connecting to the internet was anyone’s guess as we really were in the midst of nothing apart from jungle.  He then showed me my tent.  It was not quite glamping standards, but it wasn’t far off.  It had a basic but clean bed and a separate attached cubicle which held a serviceable shower, a flushing western toilet and sink.  Running water was provided, plug sockets that took British plugs and electricity though the latter was to prove a bit off and on.  To say I was astonished would be an understatement.  “Keep your tent zipped up to stop bugs or worse getting in” Bimsara advised before striding off.

There was nothing or rather nowhere to unpack so I just got used to the campsite areas I had been shown.  It wasn’t too bad at all and I thought “I can cope with this”.

Wilpattu National Park – my first taste of jungle camping

As evening fell kerosene oil lamps were lit around the site as well as coconut torches.  A camp guide called Sanjay appeared and said he would show me to the dining area.  We wound our way around the raised dirt pathways that wriggled in ways I couldn’t see in the dark and, though they had provided me with a torch, I was very glad Sanjay was in the lead.

We eventually popped out into a clearing that had been cut out of the vegetation.  In the middle was a huge camp fire roaring away and to one side was a barbecue area where staff where busy preparing that nights food.  Around the rest of the clearing were chairs at small tables where you could enjoy an aperitif before dinner in front of the fire and then tables and chairs set back a little where you would eat.  Again I was surprised at how it was all managed so well.

This particular evening was ‘Poya’ which is the name given to the day of the full moon.  Every month at each full moon Sri Lankan’s get a day off. There are no schools, stores run by Buddhists are closed and nowhere is supposed to serve alcohol, not even the large hotels.  Everyone observing Poya dresses in white and congregates to chat and discuss matters relevant to Buddhism.

The camp seemed to be an exception to Poya as gin and tonic was available and the manager, Milanjan, came over to introduce himself and chat for a while.

My starter arrived and for the first time since arriving I was a little disappointed.  It was a chicken and noodle soup.  The main were barbecued meats but again with no discernible difference to barbecues at home, served with grilled vegetables.  Not a sign of Sri Lankan food anywhere and this was to prove the case for my entire stay.  Maybe barbecues are more western than I thought.  However, the general atmosphere was lovely and I half expected some of the other guests to start singing ging-gang-goolee-goolee-watcha or kumbyar (which thankfully no-one did) though the 2 children did get to roast marshmallows on sticks in the fire.

An early night was in order as the start of the safari necessitated a 5am start.

Wilpattu National Park- going on safari

At 5am the following morning I dressed in the dark, mainly by feel and guess work, packed my back-pack in the dark and yawned my way over to the entrance to meet my safari guide and driver for the day, Chandra and Manja.  We bumped our way back on to the main road and then hurtled along as the morning mist started to lift and the sun peeked its head up over the horizon.  I was sleepily surprised to see immaculately uniformed school children already queuing up at bus stops waiting for their rides into school and decided I was obviously a wimp when it came to early morning rising.

I also noticed vast swathes of red and white patches on the roadside every few metres, too neatly organised to be chance.  Upon asking Chandra advised me that it was the local women putting their chillies and rice out ready to dry in the coming day’s sunshine.  “But what if they get squished by passing traffic”, I asked to which Chandra just grinned, shrugged his shoulders and waggled his head in a ‘so be it’ way.  More alarming than patches of chillies were the domestic dogs lying in, on and across the road obviously deriving some heat from the tarmac. They didn’t seem to be in any hurry to move either so some frenetic beeping and swerving was undertaken by driver Manja.

Wilpattu Game Reserve is Sri Lanka’s largest spanning some 131,000 hectares.  It encompasses several Wela’s (natural lakes) and Tangs (manmade lakes).  It is home to a myriad of wild animals including Sri Lanka’s two most famous, the Sloth Bear and the Leopard.  The industry of tourist safaris is obviously an important way to raise revenue for the Reserve’s upkeep as there were a large number of similar jeeps with their incumbent guides and tourists and I have to applaud all the drivers reversing and over/undertaking abilities as they squeezed past each other.  However, throughout the day there were never too many to spoil the experience.

You basically roam around until you or your guide spots something at which you stop and gawp.  Taking pictures was nigh on impossible, apart from at watering holes, as the jungle foliage closed in around the beasts and birds. I did my best out of the spotted deer, hornbill’s, peacocks, jungle fowl, wild buffalo, iguana’s, kingfishers, egrets, crested serpent eagles, elephants, crocodiles and langurs.  However, the desired glimpse of the leopard was to elude me.

During one of our rest stops I spied Manja getting a package out of his truck glove box and rustling around with what looked like leaves, stones and something else.  When I inquired as to what he was doing he admitted that it was Betel nut (areca nut) and Betel leaf that the locals chew for the buzz it gives them as evidenced by a lot of the red stained smiles I had observed on my trip.  He then offered me some.  Being of a curious nature, and having ascertained that it really is like having several strong cups of coffee all at the same time, I gave it a go. Manja laid flat the leaf, smeared some slaked lime on it (apparently helps) and then the nut in the middle, folding it into a small package for me to put in my mouth.  I tried it…..I didn’t like it!  Firstly the taste was unpleasant to say the least, the leaf upon chewing was very bitter, the nut was quite difficult to break in to and tasted foul when you did and whilst waking me up a bit, was nothing extraordinary.  It may have had more of an effect had I persevered with it but I spat it out after only a few minutes.

Having driven around for hours and with dusk falling we drove back to camp.  That night at the campfire dinner I heard from the others about their days spotting which all seemed to involve the leopards I had not seen! I managed to smile and congratulate them though I will admit that it was with gritted teeth and internally a few ‘god-dammits’.  Had I been staying another day I might have got lucky however I was due to move on to my last destination in Kalpitiya the next day for some proper rest and relaxation.

During this last camp dinner I overheard another English couple struggling to find transport to their next destination which also happened to be in Kalpitiya. Doing the friendly thing I offered them a lift with myself and Bhodi and so it was that the 3 of us departed the next morning.

Leaving the Wilpattu National Park and off to Kalpitiya

Helen and Martin Price were a lovely couple and we chatted away happily en-route until we reached the far western coast overlooking the Gulf of Mannar.  Having dropped off Helen and Martin at their resort, Bhodi’s satnav then seemed to give up the ghost in finding my hotel.  We kept on stopping along the main road asking for directions and, in typical laid back style, were directed up and down the same stretch of road until Bhodi made an executive decision to trundle off down one of the dirt tracks that had some promising signs at the end.  It wasn’t the track we needed but after the time I have spent here I wasn’t too fussed and simply went along with things knowing we’d find my place in the end.  Poor old Bhodi then made another executive decision to pull into a small beach hotel’s forecourt to ask for yet more directions.  What he didn’t realise at the time was the forecourt was soft sand and we promptly sank in it!

What then unfolded seemed to perfectly encapsulate all I had witnessed about Sri Lankan’s and their approach to life.  I settled myself into the hotel’s café bar, ordered a long cold juice and watched…..

Bhodi and some of the hotel’s staff walked around the car van surveying its predicament, chattering animatedly but good naturedly all the while.  Having done that for 10 minutes, Bhodi revved it up and tried to reverse out – it just got stuck deeper.  Then some of the staff reeled out a long hose pipe and wet the sand all around the wheels trying to get the sand to compact hard enough for Bhodi to drive out – it didn’t work.  More guys turned up who happened to be passing and added their advices in.  Next someone got their 4×4, attached a rope to car van and tried to drag it out – the rope snapped and the car van settled back in its stuck position.  Some bright spark then organised a few men to grab some discarded building blocks from a nearby pile and use them to give the wheels purchase – that didn’t work either.  Then lunch appeared so everyone, apart from Bhodi, wandered off to eat and all of us sat and watched as Bhodi changed from his western clothing into his local sarong, grabbed a shovel and tried digging the car out – that might have worked eventually but it would have taken him a week. Suddenly, after almost 3 hours, someone else turned up with a proper off-roader, a strong rope and towed Bhodi’s car out forwards and around the car park back onto hard surface.

I just thoroughly enjoyed watching the fact that they didn’t give up but they did everything at their own sweet pace and eventually achieved the result everyone wanted.

And so, we trundled into my last hotel, half a day later than anticipated, but again, we got there in the end.

Finishing my trip to Sri Lanka- relaxation bliss

The Makara Resort Dolphin Beach https://www.dolphinbeach.lk/ is extremely relaxing and proved to be the ideal place to finish my trip.

If it’s rest and relaxation that you are looking for, your search ends at Dolphin Beach. The soothing throb of the mighty Indian Ocean and the gentle rustling of palm fronds, combine with the unspoilt golden beach.

Well, I say it was unspoilt however when you get to water’s edge you do spy a power station about 1km away on your left and the coastline is dotted by huge wind turbines but these can’t be seen from inside the resort and I found the low swish of the turbines quite comforting. I asked the manager why they would choose this spot to build the resort with what could be considered eyesores to which the reply was “our resort was here before they were”.  However, in true Sri Lankan style he added that since the arrival of the station and turbines the big hotel chains had lost interest in the area which meant no big establishments and crime was non-existent.  There is always a silver lining to any cloud.

I was a bit perturbed when I first arrived as the accommodation were tents again!  However, my fears were allayed when I found they were certainly not like the safari experience being huge, spacious, extremely comfortable air conditioned tents with verandas and an outdoor shower (there is an indoor one too if you are not keen on exposing yourself).

A soporific calm descended over me and I would fall asleep to the gentle swishing of the turbine, the surf breaking on the shore and….the occasional scrabbling of some animal or other on the roof of my tent.  I’d be woken gently in the morning by the muted sounds of the neighbourhood cocks crowing and the local bread van turning up with playing his Fleur de Lis chimes (that’s how locals know it’s the bread van) much like an ice cream van.

I very quickly embraced this restful atmosphere after all my dashing around and organised a sunbed in the shade under a coconut tree on the beach.  Here I installed myself with a book and didn’t move unless hunger/thirst necessitated a trip to the restaurant (the staff were very good at spotting when I might need sustenance and did keep coming to check so even then I didn’t need to move very often). I occasionally looked up to watch the local children playing in the waves or to watch the fisherman arrive with their hand nets and cast them into the sea but that really was about all I did.  It was exactly what I needed to recuperate before I flew back to the UK.

The peace was bliss.

The day finally arrived for me to travel back home.  I packed up my belongings and left Kalpitiya at 5am in the morning.  Arriving at Colombo airport imagine my surprise to find Lucky, the manager from the Notary’s House (my first stop when I arrived in Sri Lanka), there to say goodbye.  He handed me a small package which turned out to be a red scarf that he and the other staff had clubbed together to get for me as they had heard how cold it was in England!

It was with tears that I waved goodbye to Lucky, Sri Lanka and all that I had experienced as I entered the security gates.  In my time here, I had fallen in love with the country, it’s people, their generosity and the things it had taught me about their culture and way of life.  It is one of the countries I will definitely want to go back to in the future.

If you missed my previous travel blogs on Sri Lanka, you can find them here:

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Perseverance and bruises

Finding answers – within yourself

Travel Tips

Kandy

Sigiriya

Elephants

Touring Sigiriya