A Naturetrek Holiday – Who, Me?

Anne Murray travelled on our 'Wild Sri Lanka ... In Style!' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Leopard, Sri Lanka (Rob North)

Although retired, this was my first wildlife holiday. When suggested by a seasoned Naturetrek friend, I probably had a visibly negative think-bubble above my head, populated with a list of things which could go wrong. I have never been attracted to group holidays – what if the others in this small group were not ‘nice people’ (like us!)? Would it be too hot? As a fair-skinned Scot who usually wilts in hot or humid conditions, I tend to avoid even the comfort-zone of Europe in the hotter months. When more adventurous friends enthusiastically recount their wildlife trips, they seem more like endurance tests than holidays. Neither am I a natural bird-spotter – as someone with amblyopia (lazy-eye), binoculars are not ideal for single lens vision, and a monocular is tricky to steady. Tempting though the wildlife of Sri Lanka might be in theory, in practice would I just be a rather miserable encumbrance to my friend, rather than a travelling companion with whom he could enjoy the experience?

The initial dawn bird-spotting experience with the naturalist and his assistant did not augur well, as a combination of early light conditions and slight panic (mine) meant that I practically had to be introduced to a jungle fowl roughly the size of a Christmas turkey! However, once my lack of ability had been quietly noted, the patience and skill of the Naturetrek team was tactfully employed to make sure that I was not overlooked among the other eight more capable birdwatchers. Thus encouraged, I gradually gained in confidence, graduating from just seeing Indian Peacocks, Painted Storks, egrets and Black Eagles to being able to view smaller, well-camouflaged specimens.

Mammals, being larger, presented no such problem, and they were present in both variety and abundance; I particularly liked the elderly Indian Elephant standing knee deep in a lake, thoughtfully selecting and washing the grit out of his salad, supervised by the Cattle Egret on his back.

As a wildlife novice, I would have been content simply to see the more common mammals, but on the second day at Yala we had two amazing encounters. The first was with a female Leopard, just as we were leaving the grounds of our hotel at 5.45am. The other jeep had gone ahead to collect the entrance tickets to the national park, and our driver was alerted to the presence of a significant predator by the alarm calls of Spotted Deer. He switched off the engine and we sat motionless and silent. At first the shape of a Leopard was just distinguishable among rocks on our left but as the dawn rose there she stood atop a flat rock, looking down on us before turning and disappearing down the far side. Our knowledgeable local driver quietly took a small path, tucked in, and stopped. When she reappeared – crossing not far in front of us and seeming slightly smaller at closer range than when silhouetted by the rising sun – she was visibly powerful, sleek and glossy as she briefly turned her head and regarded us with some disdain. Unexpectedly, I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye at this first encounter with such a magnificent creature in her own habitat. I was hooked …

At the end of that day, heading for the gate by a quiet route not favoured by other tourist vehicles, our spotter noticed some activity at a termite mound to the left. A rarely glimpsed nocturnal Sloth Bear had woken early, felt peckish, and decided on an early snack; impressively solid, with huge curved claws part-concealed in the grass, its nostrils and smallish eyes were opening wider,  but as it raised its head to inspect the breakfast callers the demeanour was inquisitive rather than alarmed or threatening. I wondered whether the scent of human was wafting away rather than towards it, as it stood for some time, muzzle quizzically raised, before turning and lumbering off.

Our pleasant group of nine hailed from different backgrounds. I was surprised how quickly we settled down as a co-operative team, and by day four it seemed quite normal to lie recumbent over two seats in our air-conditioned bus to allow a comparative stranger to stretch across to take photographs from the window above. The ‘style’ bit of the holiday did not disappoint, and we enjoyed reviewing the day in five elegant hotels, each offering a distinctive ambience, and range of cuisines.

And the heat? Well, the itinerary was so interesting that I coped well even when climbing Sigiriya rock to view the 5th century rock paintings of well-endowed ‘damsels’ en route to the 200-metre-high ancient royal complex above. Mind over matter, or what? Suffice it to say that we are looking forward to another Naturetrek trip in October!

Read more about our 'Wild Sri Lanka ... In Style!' holiday.