Yala is the most visited National Park in Sri Lanka. It’s remotely situated in the southeast corner of the country, a long day’s drive from Colombo, and covers almost 1000 square kilometers (378 sq mi). Originally a hunting preserve, it was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and became one of the country’s first national parks in 1938. Yala is known for its large variety of animals and is the best place in Sri Lanka to spot wildlife, especially herds of Sri Lankan elephants, but also deer, crocodile, boar, and aquatic birds; it has one of the highest densities of leopards in the world but these are elusive and only rarely seen. The wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk so these are the best times to go on safari.
Yala is situated in the dry semi-arid region of the country and because of drought it may be closed to tourists from early September to mid-October (check before you go). The park is mostly in a natural state similar to the state you’d expect in an American park. Topographically it is fairly flat.
During the height of the Civil War and Tamil rebel insurgence (a conflict which has been resolved) visiting Yala could at times be dangerous as the west coast of the island was a sanctuary for the rebels. A number of conflicts between the army and navy occurred in the immediate region of Yala. Visitation to the park has understandably risen since the security situation has improved.
One of the closest communities to Yala is Tissamaharama (or Tissa); this is a good place to stay when you want to visit Yala or explore the Great Basses Reef during it’s limited diving season. Tissa is surrounded by rice paddies and has some ancient temples, but no major tourist attractions itself. We stayed at the Tissamaharama Rest House which was familiar to me from the writings of Arthur C. Clarke, who used this very Rest House as his base from which to dive the Great Basses Reef as recorded in his wonderful (and true) sea adventure book, The Treasure of the Great Reef. The Rest House is comfortable and located beside a large tank (a reservoir known as Tissa Wewa) which dates to the 3rd century B.C. This tank is home to many wild birds and crocodiles and provided us with fine views of the sunset.
We were up at 4:30 a.m. for a four wheel game drive into Yala Park. The vehicle rental with driver was $100.00 for four of us (I was traveling with friends Lester and Pamela Thompson and Neil McAleer). Park admission fees were $70.00 a person — quite steep but this included a mandatory park-assigned game tracker. The ride is rough, the morning cool and the sunrise beautiful. We saw dozens of different types of animals, some in large numbers. And we were lucky enough to come very close to a wild elephant although we did not encounter a herd. Please refer to the attached slide show for examples of some of the wildlife we were lucky enough to view. While it’s not in the same league as the better parks in Africa, it was exciting to see so many wild animals and we all felt the journey was well worth while.
We returned to the Tissa Rest House by 11 am., showered and rested, then in the afternoon drove to Kirinda. It’s a small coastal town from which, on a clear day, you can catch a glimpse of the Great Basses Light House precariously built on a small island many miles to the south (and which we could barely see with binoculars). It was close to this light house that Arthur C. Clarke and his business partner Mike Wilson discovered a sunken treasure ship as reported in Arthur’s The Treasure of the Great Reef. During their dives they found stacks of a unique silver coin from India thought to be minted in 1701, called the Surat Rupee. To learn more about these rare coins click here. There are a few short but worthwhile videos showing Arthur diving and providing further info about the treasure, so click here for those. The book is no longer in print but makes for terrific reading so if you’re interested in this story pick up a used copy somewhere (try www.bookfinder.com). Also, the diving on the Great Basses Reef is said to be magnificent but its season is limited to just a few months because of dangerously strong ocean currents.
While at Kirinda I climbed a large shore-side rock up to the dagoba where Arthur spend many days writing and resting as he was recovering from polio in the 1960s and took a few moments to enjoy the view of this lovely coast. I could see why Arthur had chosen to make this island his home.
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)