The Dastardley and Muttley Yala safari

It’s the funniest, craziest, maddest safari that I’ve ever been on. Not that I’ve been on that many except when I was young and we visited Luangwa National Park, in Zambia, and we were chased by elephants and lions, but that’s another story.

My idea of a safari, as a result of watching lots of nature documentaries on television, is a sedate expedition with a jeep and maybe a David Attenborough voice over as we wait patiently in our vehicle on the African veld for leopards or lions to appear; or we sit silently in a hide in the pitch dark for over 24 hours awaiting the appearance of one of the species of big cat.

Well, this safari certainly turned those ideas on their head as it did my utter cynicism about tourism and tourists.

The safari began with an early morning rise and out of the hotel by 5:30am to queue up for tickets. Then another queue at the park gates which open at 6am. And then it was on for young and old!

Jeeps queueing at the entrance to Yala National ParkDSC06882 (2)

A mad dash in a specially configured jeep, along with all the other jeeps that have managed to get through the gates of Yala National Park in Sri Lanka’s south-west corner. Fly down a red dirt road then veer sharply to the right and continue apace till we stop amongst other jeeps taking part in this early morning safari. It turns out that there had been mention of a bear sighting hence the mad dash.

And so it continues in the early hours of the morning. Jeeps madly scrambling to see the next reported wild animal. Careering along dirt roads, reversing at speed. Appearing and reappearing like the keystone cops, or the police in Pirates of Penzance, a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera. All done with the greatest good will and good cheer to ensure that the “guests” (tourists) have as much opportunity as possible to spot the wildlife that lives in the Yala National Park.

The drivers know each other and are constantly telling each other where the next animal sighting is. At times the safari has all the hallmarks of the Paris to Dakar rally (not that I’ve been on that either). Actually, it’s more like the Wacky Races cartoons with Dastardly and Muttley and Miss Penelope, where Dastardly and Muttley are constantly sabotaging each other’s ability to win, whereas here the safari drivers actually go out of their way to make sure that they pass on information and directions.

In the midst of all the madness there are opportunities to just stop still and watch the animals, listen to the birds, watch the elephant bathing in a lotus covered lake, while an eagle flies off with a freshly caught fish and a black headed ibis and an egret wade nearby.

Elephant bathing in a lotus filled reservoirElephant bathing in a lotus filled reservoir

The park is beautiful and full of all sorts of wildlife, water buffalo both tame and wild, wild boar, peacocks, Sri Lankan junglefowl, eagles, and more.

Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Our driver, Hiran, was born a rally driver, with his expert handling of the deadly weapon that he drove at high speeds over bumpy dirt tracks and reversed at the same Mach speeds. At the same time, he was knowledgeable about the park and its animals quoting statistics about elephant feed, pregnancy and family structure. He was also very aware of what was happening outside of the jeep and very good at spotting the little birds that are hidden away, like the Green Bea Eater, as well as the big animals.

Even without having seen a single animal, the experience would have been worth it for the sheer exhilaration of being thrown around dirt roads at high speeds through the Yala National Park.

It’s certainly a good way to lose weight as you hurtle through the bush at a million miles an hour, it feels as if you are on one of those machines with the belts that go around your waist and shake you up and down in the name of losing weight (yet another activity I have yet to experience).

At one point, four vehicles and their occupants stopped to look at a leopard hidden in a bush many hundreds of metres away. A guest’s binoculars were borrowed and passed among the drivers to get a location on the leopard and then guests in other jeeps were offered the binoculars, then finally the binoculars were passed back to the original guest who had waited patiently; and that’s something else, the guides enthusiastic gentleness is passed onto the guests who do wait patiently as a million jeeps mill around. Or they sit there in perplexed bewilderment wondering what exactly they have stopped to see.

So other guests tell them, “Oh, it’s a crocodile. It’s not in the water but half hidden on the near bank with its head behind a sand ridge”.

“Thank you!”

And off they go again!

In all the milling around not one guide will get out of the vehicle and they make sure that guests don’t either.

The way the drivers used their vehicles did not seem to differ whether the jeep had ‘eco’ written on it or not.

I’m not sure why this method of safari has developed – whether it’s as a result of tourists wanting their money’s worth and wanting to see animals, particularly the elusive leopard and the Sri Lankan sloth bear or whether the drivers themselves feel that it is important that guests get what they have signed up for. Either way, I’m sure that if guests are educated they won’t mind not seeing these endangered animals, but then again, maybe they would.

While it was fun, it would have been just as important an experience at low speeds and with no animals in sight.

Green Bea Eater, Yala National ParkGreen bea eater, Yala National Park

Is it sustainable?

Probably not. Our driver told us that there were 1,000 jeeps licenced to enter the park.

Our ticket gave us permission to drive through Block 1 which is around 14,000ha. Our driver said Block 1 had 25 leopards and 10 bears.

Contrary to what I thought the animals did not seem phased by the mad antics of the jeeps and their drivers. It’s possible that they are so used to the jeeps and they know that no one is going to hurt them. At one stage we were within touching distance of a mother elephant (cow) and her baby (calf) as they fed and walked along the side of the road.

Speaking to someone who worked for another tour company, they told me that what was happening in Yala was not sustainable and the tour company that he worked for had lobbied for the Yala National Park to be closed during leopard mating season. He also said that many tourists when they realised the way the drivers operated asked for their money back. He said that his tour company recommended that guests go to a different national park where the number of jeeps were limited and where practices were more sustainable. He said that once tourists had done their research they more often than not went with his tour company’s recommendations.

When you look up online whether the Park is closed during leopard mating season, the information that you get is that at times it is closed due to drought or for maintenance purposes.


We travelled through Sri Lanka from February 14, 2016 to March 6, 2016

© Suganthi Singarayar

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