Lions and tigers and… wait! Leopards and Elephants and Bears, Oh My!

On the morning we left Ella, we planned to head to Haputale, to base ourselves for the 9.5km round walk to Hortons Plains and World’s End. Sipping tea from “our balcony”, as had become our daily routine, we “rock, paper, scissored”, and let fate (and Jake’s cheating!) change our plans.

We’d asked Sujatha, the cook at ‘our’ restaurant, if she could prepare us some roti for breakfast – we’d bought ourselves an avocado from the markets and wanted to eat it with roti. Declining sugar for the avocado (as Sri Lankans seem to eat it only with sugar), Sujatha was shocked at what these two weird westerners were eating!… so shocked, that she’s quickly added it to her menu!

That’s right. We started a new trend in Ella – and possibly Sri Lanka. Fresh, hot roti with avocado, salt and pepper… Try it; it’s our new thing, and it’s bloody good.

After tea, and roti and avocado, we decided that since it’s our last day in Ella – home of the specialty food buffalo curd and kittul – we better get some curd “for the road”… In the curd shop, our plans changed again with the help of a local guy who explained the bus system and the complex “some buses is direct, some buses is not, all is not direct – must change the bus, most is direct, sometimes direct, sometimes not” time tabling.
Helpful yes, but of course at the same time, he tried to coax us into going via taxi, very cheap – of course, with his “brother driver friend” who was leaving Ella and heading back to Tissamaharama, the same route we were now planning on going.
3,000 rupees was too much for us to part with, and instead we took the 300 rupee direct bus which came with added bonuses; the threat of a cardiac arrest and through-the-roof stress levels.
At 1014 meters above sea level, Ella is situated in the hill country area – surrounded by mountains and valleys and big, big cliff edges – of which our bus driver seemed to thoroughly enjoy driving through at record breaking speeds. Sri Lankan buses don’t seem to be able to close the bus doors, and lucky enough for me, my seat was opposite the open door – revealing the cliff edge way too close for comfort. As the bus breaks squealed every time they were slammed into use at the last second, just before the bus nearly hurtled over the cliff face, I banned myself from looking anywhere but ahead at the flashing-light neon gods and overflowing flower garlands stuck to the front of the bus, above the driver’s head.

I may not be religious, but during that bus ride I prayed to every neon god that we would get through this journey – without hurtling over the edge to our deaths; in return for saving our lives, I promised the flashy neon gods, and myself, that we will never again compromise our safety for the sake of a few thousand rupees.

Once the nightmare journey was over and I was able to remove my white-knuckled grip from the seat handles and my backpack, we were no longer in the hill country, and instead, way down south in Tissamaharama. Try saying that name fast 5 times over.

Tissa, as it’s referred to by tongue-lazy travelers like ourselves, was to be our ‘base’ for a safari trip to Yala National Park – one of the big parks in Sri Lanka, and known for the highest density population of leopards in the world. Yep – stuff the lions and tigers and bears, oh my! – no, no, we were going so see some big, spotty cats… And actually, hopefully a shaggy sloth bear or two.

The hype for this park was massive, and the town of Tissa is brimming with rust bucket (and a few not so rusty) safari jeeps, all driving into town mid afternoon carrying hoards of daggy hat wearing, sun-burned and tired looking tourists. What an exciting prospect to think that we too, the following day, would be one of them (minus the daggy hats – we’re not that tragic just yet… give us time.)

Our guest house owner was a bit of a weirdo; very pushy for us to pay some ridiculously over-priced amount for his safari tour, in which we would get to ride in one of his glorious rust bucket jeeps. We turned him down and went for a highly regarded tour company, decked out with a new, luxury Mitsubishi jeep – for way less money. Mr. Guest House owner was not too happy, and basically kicked us out at 4:30am the following morning before our safari began – gloating that if we aren’t going with him, we’re obviously going to have a shitty time. Proudly, he promised us a glorious afternoon of fun-filled happy times on our return, where he would make us read about “how terrible independent jeep companies are” on his lap top.

As lovely as that sounded at 4:30am, that was not high on our list of priorities for the afternoon, and we had to politely decline.

A 4am start was the beginning of a very, very long day. Seeing as I don’t do early mornings well, and reserve these sorts of ungodly hour wake-up times for only the most important occasions – “we better see a leopard!”

Bleary-eyed, we climbed into our luxury jeep and drove off to Yala National Park, leaving behind Mr. Guest House owner who was trying to quickly repair his jeep before take-off.
The cold air rushing through the windowless jeep reminded me quickly of, firstly, what it felt like to be cold, but more so, that this was to be our first real safari experience…

In the park we spent around 6 hours bouncing around in the back of the jeep, and whilst we saw a lot of deer, water buffalo and peacocks, elephants, crocodiles, coloured birds and some fluffy mongoose-animal, we did not see a leopard or a bear. A little disappointed, we reminded ourselves that this is nature, not a zoo (although some of the jeep drivers drove around as though they were a bunch of crazed animals at times), and we were overall very happy with the fact that we got to see anything at all. The elephants we did see, including one very gorgeous baby, were the highlight of the tour.

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On exiting the park, we passed our guest house’s jeep, which proudly sported a large “INDEPENDENT JEEP COMPANY” sticker on it. What was that Mr. Guest House owner said about them all being terrible?

Driving back into town at 12pm, after having already been awake for 8 hours, we had become those sun burned, tired looking tourists. Eager to get out of Tissa (Mr. Guest House owner ruined the vibe of the place a bit) we got our bags, paid and marched slowly down the road towards the bus station in the heat, with our bulging packs on our front and back.

Exhausted, sun burned, dehydrated, head-achy and sore-bummed (after 7 hours of bouncing around in a jeep), we boarded a bus headed for Galle, our next destination. I hoped – oh, how I hoped – that this four hour journey would be a peaceful one…

It was not to be.

The next three hours – yes three hours – should’ve been four, but our driver drove at speeds I did not know buses could do, and wiped off an entire hour by breaking the speed limit the entire time. Within the first five minutes of the trip I’d lost count of the near misses, my neck was starting to ache from whiplash – caused by the slamming of breaks, my ear drums were about to burst from the combination of incessant horn beeping, break screeching, and incredibly loud Sinhala music that blared through several speakers, and I was struggling to breathe from all the pollution being blown into my face through the open window.
Jake found it to be a real life example of Einstein’s Relativity Theory – Relativistic Speeds really do appear to slow time down; three hours (although better than four) felt like an eternity.

Five minutes in, and I was reminding myself of the promise I’d made on that terrifying bus journey just one day earlier. Five minutes in, and we were planning at which stop we would just get off at, in order to save our lives.

But we didn’t get off, and we survived again to tell the tale – along with every other local passenger who slept their way through that entire ordeal.

We arrived into Galle, absolutely shattered with exhaustion, wrecked from the stress of the drive, covered in sweat, sun screen, dirt and pollution, and with really sore bums. Instantly hassled by a surge of quick thinking tuk tuk drivers, we were easily ripped off by a driver who would not agree to my excellent bartering deal, but were too tired to care.

Driving into the Galle Fort, it was an effort to keep our eyes open, but we did – we were here, we’d made it, and now, all we needed to do was find a budget room in one of the most expensive, touristic places to stay in, in Sri Lanka – without any prior reservations…

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