Keen to jump aboard a jeep and track down elephants, sloth bears, mugger crocodiles and leopards? Look no further than Sri Lanka’s largest and most surprising nature reserve: the freshwater wetlands of Wilpattu National Park. Protected since 1938 but closed to the public during Sri Lanka’s long, war-torn years, Wilpattu reopened in 2003 and has rapidly gained a reputation as one of the best places in the country to spot elusive leopards.
This fact alone should lure big crowds. Yet the travellers who do make it to Wilpattu National Park regularly report the serenity of sharing their visit with only a handful of other jeeps, and we can vouch for that! Located far off the beaten track on the country’s northwest coast, it’s a difficult spot to reach and the low-key tourist scene in the neighbouring towns of Saliyawewa and Kala Oya keeps Wilpattu off most people’s radar. The clincher is that you’ll need to pretty motivated to get there yourself!
Our epic bus journey from Negombo to reach a tiny two-room guesthouse at Saliyawewa near the park entrance was an all-day affair. Despite significant language issues, the friendly guesthouse owner managed to find us a jeep and driver for the next day and put together a humble menu of meals. His spacious, albeit basic rooms might have been something to recommend if it were not for the bugs that devoured us overnight.
Our big Wilpattu safari began under the cover of darkness, and after handing over pricey park entry fees and picking up our compulsory guide, we bounced off into the wilderness. At 10852km – about the size of Australia’s Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – Wilpattu is an enormous destination to explore in a single day, so there’s no telling what you might encounter.
Jungle fowls kick-started our spotters list, a proud and attractive looking bird that Sri Lankans love to point out is their country’s national bird. We stopped counting them when our tally hit 15, hungry to see creatures that looked a little less like a chicken. A hush fell over the jeep when we spied our first pair of spotted deer grazing in the undergrowth, and soon, a promising pile of elephant dung and footprints across the track. We followed these into the scrub, spooking a big herd of wild boar and sending monitor lizards scrambling up trees.
There was a big, solitary sambar, tiny, flighty barking deer that disappeared quickly into the scrub, and lots of birds – serpent eagles, pond herons and black hooded oriels – but no prized leopard in the hours before we pulled over for breakfast. Stopping at a scenic lakeside clearing alongside a handful of other tourist jeeps, we unpacked our Sri Lankan breakfast of steamed hoppers, dunking the little nests of thin, rice noodles into still-warm bowls of curried potato and coconut soup while gazing across the lake, hoping to spy elephants on its distant shores.
Suddenly our jeep was buzzing, arms were pointing and we jumped up to catch sight of a big, lazy cat sleeping out the mid-morning heat under a nearby bush
With plenty of ground to cover and a rather slim spotter’s list so far, our driver eagerly moved us on, searching down track after track for that one creature everyone silently yearned to see. Suddenly our jeep was buzzing, arms were pointing and we jumped up to catch sight of a big, lazy cat sleeping out the mid-morning heat under a nearby bush. Immediately sensing our presence, the leopard stretched and yawned, revealing its spectacular dentition and long, slender limbs, then rolled onto its back and resumed its slumber. When it finally rose and stalked slowly away, we gushed, awestruck by its brilliant spotted physique: the defining moment of our Wilpattu wilderness experience.
Lost in the exhilaration of our leopard encounter, we exited the national park past distinctly rural scenes of farmers drying corn and grains on the hot bitumen road and green rice in sodden fields. Past bungalows that might provide a convenient base for safaris, we returned to our guesthouse to recount the experience over cold Lion beers.
Some naturalists say Sri Lanka’s once war-torn interior can offer wilderness experiences that rival any East African safari. That might be raising expectations a little high, but Wilpattu certainly provides ultra-affordable, utterly memorable safaris that can be organised with ease and shared with few.
What really shines about a visit to Wilpattu National Park is what you don’t see: the hundreds of jeeps that compete for wildlife sights elsewhere in the country, and the carnival atmosphere this invariably creates. There’s no denying the diversity and density of animals and birds you can discover at Wilpattu, but what really thrills is the sheer pleasure of exploring its pristine lakes and grasslands in perfect, near-solitude.