It’s about 150km (95miles) from Galle to Tissamaharama and takes 5 hours in the bus, assuming no delays when changing buses in Matara: luckily in both directions there was very little wasted time at the bus stance. The journey alternates between hair-raising speeds, accompanied by obligato horn, and slow crawl with similar accompaniment. The change of tempo is effected with tooth-jarring braking and screaming of metal or, alternatively, by laboured chugging, crashing of gears and clouds of black smoke.
That’s how I spent Thursday morning and early afternoon, as well as similar times today.
Once in Tissa, I found a place to eat – noodles and a fried egg – then started out to Tout Corner where the Jeep Drivers’ Association is based. It was a hot couple of kilometres and when I got there it was closed until Friday. A “helpful” accredited Jeep Driver offered a deal – the Guidebook quoted a price and said the Association fixed these – of a day’s trip in Yala NP at 19000/- (about £95). This was a bit more than the book suggested, but not wildly out if one allowed for likely inflation, so I agreed. He took me to Lake View Cottage (LVC) and asked for a deposit of 5000/-, to get fuel, provide lunch etc.
LVC, whilst not what we might think of as a cottage, was great. It’s right out in the sticks, beside the almost two and a half thousand year old artificial lake of “Tissa Wewa”. My room was spacious, I was greeted with a complimentary Pineapple and Banana Smoothie and all was perfect, especially after a long bus journey. The place only has five rooms and – as someone said on TripAdvisor – it’s like staying with friends. The communal area is partly glazed, partly al fresco, and very comfortable. The grounds abound with banana trees, wading birds etc. strut their stuff on the lawn, there’s a superb view across the lake to Tissa’s huge white temple and, later, the night sky was superb. I liked it a lot.
The information sheet in my room indicated that LVC would organise Yala safaris, using their own staff, for 9500/-. This would be less than half what I’d signed up for, given that Plan A would not have included entrance fees. I rang my “helpful” driver and pointed this out and he dropped his price, but it was still way too high so I cancelled and he said he’d return my deposit. I had it in mind to let him keep a bit of it as I’d let him down and he’d bought fuel as well as driving me to LVC etc. It will come as no surprise to the more cynical of you – and not much of a shock to me – that I didn’t hear from him again. Losing £25 was disappointing, but what really galled me was that he was getting it for doing nothing, other than running me to my accommodation.
About 4:30, the owner of LVC offered me a trip on the lake: I was in the process of politely declining when he told me it was free, so of course I went, accompanied by a young English couple and a Swedish mother and daughter. It was fascinating: the lake is very shallow and the boatman had to wade once or twice when the outboard caught on the sandy bottom. We tootled around for an hour and a half or more, seeing lots of exotic birds such as pelicans, ibises etc. At 6:30 it was quite dark and the bats arrived: huge great fruit bats in clouds over the lake. All this for a small tip to the boatman.
Back at LVC, the owner asked if I’d be willing to share my jeep with the two Swedes if he knocked the price down to 8500/-, so I agreed to that. Neither of the females were what probably springs to mind when you think of Swedish women. The mum was probably about my age and pleasant enough, though a bit precious. Her daughter – late twenties / early thirties? – had a rather grating American accent and spent a lot of time playing games on her mobile phone. Neither was blonde and slim. I didn’t ask them for their impressions of me, so my account is a little one-sided!
I joined them for an evening meal at LVC and I opted, in my wimpish way, for grilled chicken and chips. It was served with a hot chilli sauce, which rather defeated the purpose of my choice.
The safari started from LVC at 4:30am, so it was early bed for me (and the Swedes who had travelled straight down from Colombo after getting off the plane and had not slept for 28 hours). I can’t say I slept all that well, having eaten more than I’ve been accustomed to of late.
We set off in good time in the jeep and raced along the road to Yala. The gates opened at 6am and when we got there there were dozens of jeeps already and more arriving by the second. We sat around a while whilst our driver / guide queued for tickets etc., then we were off into the park.
Within minutes, someone reported seeing a leopard and suddenly we were in a queue of goodness knows how many jeeps, crawling forward at snail’s pace and then stopping, starting again… By the time we were near the head of the queue the blasted animal had got bored and left. All the jeeps were reversing, u-turning etc. and I was beginning to regret the whole thing as it seemed like sheer chaos and massively overcrowded.
However, it perked up a lot after that. Our driver / guide was very knowledgeable and had good English (and Swedish). He’d been doing this guiding business for about 25years and was a thoroughly nice guy. He knew the park like the back of his hand and was able to second guess where we might see various beasts. Whilst we were certainly aware of the other jeeps, the manic crowding dispersed and a lot of the punters had only signed up for a half-day, so the tracks became quieter – but no less bumpy! – as the day went on.
We had a brief view of a leopard as it ran across the road in front of us. I didn’t get a picture but the young Swede caught it on her mobile and has emailed it to me. We had trunkfuls of elephants just feet from the jeep, fully aware of us, but paying no attention. Wild boar, deer, water buffalo, monkeys, land monitors (I was right all along, not iguanas!), mongoose, elk and masses of incredibly bright birds made for a fascinating day. From time to time the younger Swede got bored and played Candy Crush! Her mother fell asleep at times, but was soon jolted awake again.
Yala borders the sea, so we had our packed lunch near the beach – it was too hot to sit in full sunshine – beside the ruins of a hut where almost thirty tourists and guides were killed by the tsunami. A memorial marks the spot.
We left the park at the closing time of 6pm and headed back to LVC. My grilled tuna was overdone for my taste, but that didn’t make a lot of difference as it had the chilli sauce again.
This morning’s breakfast was superb: I ate alone – today’s safari-goers had long gone and the Swedes were presumably having a long lie. I was presented with five plates of fresh fruit (pineapple, watermelon, grapes, bananas and papaya), omelette, two sausages, some sort of grated spicy coleslaw-ish thing, processed cheese, banana and papaya smoothie, toast and jam, along with copious cups of tea. I couldn’t eat half of it, but it fair set me up for the day.
I settled up – excellent value for 25000/- (£125), including accommodation, food, a couple of beers, meals and the whole safari experience. I was very lucky to have chosen Lake View Cottage: it got a good, though not rave, review in The Rough Guide. I only saw the very positive comments on TripAdvisor – to which I will add my tuppenceworth – after I’d booked.