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Nine years ago, David and I had a wonderful experience on safari in South Africa – this is well before Starry Horizons and our 6-year circumnavigation. We loved the safari trip, and thoroughly enjoyed spotting the big five game animals – elephants, lions, rhinos, wild buffalo….but no leopards!
In researching Sri Lanka I was amazed to find that Sri Lanka is the best place in the world to spot leopards. In Africa, the leopard shares its territory with other large predators like the lion. African leopards spend a lot of their time up in trees, where they often drag their prey to deter scavengers. In Sri Lanka, however, the leopard is the apex predator and it doesn’t spend much time up in the trees.
Wilpattu was established in 1938 but the government shut it down for many years due to the Sri Lankan Civil War. The park had to close due to terrorist activity in the area, and when it reopened, landmines left behind from the war destroyed a safari truck. Again, the park was shut down and scoured for mines before reopening again.
There is still limited access inside the park. There is one main road at the entrance that runs for at least an hour before it branches out. The rest of the roads are closed down due to their condition.
There are three main parks in Sri Lanka; Yala, Udawalawe, and Wilpattu. Wilpattu is the largest of the three, but also the least touristed. Although there is a higher population density of leopards in Yala, we didn’t want to deal with the crowds of vehicles. Plus, Wilpattu is closer to our home base in Trincomalee.
After picking our camp, we chatted with our guides about the differences. Wilpattu is a local community, where all the drivers know each other and are neighbors. Yala is more cutthroat, and due to the cell phone coverage in Yala, drivers communicate about spottings, surrounding whatever it is that has been sighted. Not that that didn’t happen in Wilpattu too, but also, there are fewer cars in Wilpattu than in Yala – a tenth of the trucks!
There are three five-star rated overnight safari companies in Wilpattu: Leopard Trails, Leopard Safaris, and Wilpattu Safari Camp. The pricing is pretty much the same. I went with Leopard Trails because they were quick to respond, and in the end, I’m really glad I went with them.
Leopard Trails at Wilpattu is a small camp, just five tents. Our first night we had the whole place to ourselves, which meant two private safaris! Leopard Trails was founded by a group of Sri Lankan men, best friends who have taken the brand to a really impressive place; they started the first Ranger training program in Sri Lanka, have greatly reduced disposable plastics, and perform exchange programs with safari camps in Africa.
Like many luxury safari experiences, our tent was two rooms; the bedroom and bathroom. We even had a nice big shower, his & hers sinks, and air conditioning!
*knock knock knock*
“Good morning, sir.”
The staff knocked on our door at 4:30 am. We were always up and dressed already, with just fifteen minutes to go before the truck left the camp and headed to the park. Our bags were packed with camera gear, so we just had to sling on our jackets and go.
Once at the park, we sat in line for about an hour. Even with our early wake-up call, we were second in line. The park opens at 6:15 am, but we don’t mind waiting too much; the park office has the most reliable cell phone signal, so it was our one hour of internet a day. Our ranger, Krishan, served us hot tea and biscuits while we waited.
Once the park opened, we zoomed off down the road. For most of our safaris, we were focused on finding leopards, so we quickly made our way to the center of the park where there are more open fields and watering holes, and we were more likely to spot a leopard. Plus, the land around here is very dry and dusty. By being one of the first in the park we could enjoy the drive with less dirt kicked up and blowing in our faces.
We drove around, keeping our eyes peeled and asking any trucks we saw if they’d spotted any. It’s tough work, but we got very lucky!
Around 9 am we would stop for a drive breakfast; fruit, juice, and buttered bacon sandwiches. This was about the time that I would finally take my jacket off. There were restrooms available (squat toilets) and monkeys to entertain the guests.
After breakfast, we would drive back to the entrance. We would return to camp around 11 or 11:30. A staff member greeted us at the driveway with a cold beverage and a cold small towel to wipe the dust off our faces and quench our thirst. Then it was siesta time! The Leopard Trails staff served lunch at 14:00, and it was usually a curry dish with rice and multiple sides. Once lunch was over, it was back into the truck for our second safari.
On our last morning, we had a more laid back morning safari. We woke up at 530 instead and took a leisurely drive around the closer sections of the park. We returned to the camp at 0900 for a big breakfast and to say our goodbyes.
We’d drive around the park as it cooled off, once again really looking for leopards. The jeeps absolutely had to be out of the park at 1830, otherwise, the driver would get fined and banned for a few days – or a month, depending on how late they were.
Back at the camp, the staff opened the bar at 1930 and served dinner around 2030. Our first night, with just us and Krishan, we had a traditional Sri Lankan meal; string hoppers, curry, and the accouterments. Krishan showed us how to eat the Sri Lankan way: with our hand! The next night was a barbeque dinner, with a wide variety of grilled meats and sides. Our third night we got a special treat. The staff prepared a seven-course Sri Lankan street food dinner for us. The courses were small but all delicious!
Every night, we crashed hard and woke up ready to go again the next morning!
If you want great photos, a zoom lens is absolutely essential. Most of the photos in this post were taken at maximum zoom (250 mm) and then further cropped.
Read more about the cameras and gear we carry.
The temperatures around midday are pretty warm, so light clothes are best. Most of us wore long sleeves or pants for sun protection. Definitely pack a jacket or a fleece for the colder mornings.
Hats are a great idea – if you have secure ones. The Jeeps move pretty quickly and my visor blew away. Snug hats with a chin strap are a much better option.
We wore sneakers all day every day.
Returning from the drive we were dusty and sweaty. You have the opportunity to shower after each drive, so if you don’t want to wear dirty clothes, pack accordingly.
Binoculars are a GREAT idea if you don’t have a big zoom lens. We have a great pair of Steiner Binoculars on the boat that we absolutely love.
The dust in the dry season is really bad. Thankfully Krishan supplied us with masks for our faces if we wanted. By the third drive, my throat was dry and irritated from the dust, so I happily wore a mask.
If you are into birding, I highly recommend Birds of Sri Lanka. It’s similar to the guide book Krishan had.
While Africa has its Big Five, Sri Lanka has the Big Three: leopards, Asian elephants, and sloth bears. We were very lucky to spot all three!
Our first safari was a boon for leopard sightings; we saw two! Other Jeeps had spotted these leopards while driving along the road.
The first one was in the bushes less than 5 km from the park entrance, lying on the ground and napping. She was very well camouflaged. While most trucks gave up after a few minutes, since we were the only guests in our truck we could do whatever we wanted. We took the risk and waited to see if the leopard would get up and come our way. We kept an eye on her, watched her roll over through the branches and stretch her paws occasionally. Sometimes, even if you were staring right at her, you’d lose sight of her; the camouflage is that good!
Unfortunately, our patience did not pay off, as the leopard got up and walked away from us after hours of waiting.
The next sighting was even closer towards the entrance. This time, the male leopard was laying in a wide open spot with only a few branches between us and him. We were there with perfect timing to watch him for a few minutes before he got up and stalked away.
The spotting on our second safari was the best one. Since this was a long morning safari we got out to some of the watering holes, and I spotted this leopard drinking from a small reservoir. We watched him for a bit until other trucks joined and he slunk into the bushes. He was in a very small area – surrounded by water or the road, but we quickly lost sight of him. We waited around until he finally darted out of the bush and across the road.
We had one other leopard sighting on our fourth drive, but I did not see the leopard, but David did.
We only saw two Asian elephants the entire time we were in Wilpattu! It’s a great thing we saw so many at Minneriya. Compared to African elephants, Asian elephants are smaller. Their skin is more of a brown than a gray, and Asian elephants rarely ever have tusks – just 3% do, and are called tuskers.
Finally, we were on our last evening safari, deep in the park and driving through the forest when we spotted the dark, furry body lumbering through the woods. We watched for a little while as the bear walked parallel to the road, but eventually, we had to leave. We had a lot of ground to cover to get back to the entrance on time.
While making our way back, we found a small crowd of trucks that had spotted another bear! This one came much closer to the road and really posed for the camera, all cute and adorable.
Krishan explained that the water buffalo we are seeing are not true water buffalo, but hybrids who have mated with the local livestock. Compared to the water buffalo we saw in Kruger Park in Africa, these buffalo have slender faces and are leaner.
These small deer are very plentiful and live in small herds around the park. The males have magnificent antlers, fairly long compared to the size of their body.
These are some of the largest deers, weighing up to 280 kg. This one was a “small” male.
This small tusked deer (yes, tusks and antlers) is pretty common but shy. Apparently they can jump up to ten feet!
This little guy posed for us!
We only saw these guys once, up in the trees eating leaves.
The picnic area we stopped at for breakfast in the mornings was full of these little monkeys trying to steal some food. Unfortunately, some tourists did feed the monkeys. They are cute and very playful; we’ve seen them all over Sri Lanka.
We saw a few large herds of wild boars around the watering holes.
We saw several peafowls in Minneriya Park, including a dancing male. With three days in Wilpattu we saw SO many peafowls! Krishan told us that tits the end of mating season and the males are starting to molt off their long tail feathers.
Hornbills are always interesting to see in the wild, with their casques.
There was a flock of pelicans crowding one tree in the lake.
Look at those eyes!
We saw tons of kingfishers, their bright teal bodies flashing here and there.
We saw two of these. The second one was really close to the road. I spotted him while we were on the move so we stopped and backed up. The eagle was not concerned at all.
I am OBSESSED with this bird. It might be the most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen in the wild. The males that we saw are predominantly white with a black head and crest. Their tails are very long and have two streamers at the end. The birds would rest in a tree, and then dart down to pick up an insect off the surface of the water. Then they’d quickly flutter back up to the branch. The whole time they do this, their streaming feathers are dancing! It was incredibly hard to capture both photos or video, and I can’t find the slow-mo, National Geographic version I’d love to see.
“Is that a chicken?” I asked Krishan. Thankfully he laughed.
“No, this is a Sri Lanka Junglefowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka.”
In my defense, it does look like a really pretty chicken.
Despite spending seven months cruising up the east coast of Australia into crocodile-infested waters, we never actually saw a crocodile. That changed in Wilpatt, when we saw several crocodiles – some pretty big!
What a beautiful shell.
These lizards were absolutely everywhere! They’re like mini versions of the Komodo dragons.
Our South Africa safari that we took in 2009 is one of the best trips we’ve ever done. While you can’t beat the amount of megafuana in Africa, the more intimate experience we had in Wilpattu made it incredibly memorable for us. Due to the different landscapes (Wilpattu is more forested) and different animal behavior (leopards stay earth-bound), it’s definitely a different experience.
Timing matters; Wilpattu is good to visit all year long, with February to October being the peak season. In South Africa, the wet season in summer means that the vegetation is lush, providing cover for animals, and it’s incredibly hot. We visited Kruger Park in the winter. Trees have dropped their leaves, making it easier to spot animals. The watering holes are reduced, so the animal density around the watering holes increases and there are better odds of seeing interesting animals at your campsite if it has a pond or lake. And finally, the temperature of Kruger Park in the winter is mild; in the mornings we bundled up but by mid-day we were in shorts and teeshirts.
In the low season, the prices for the two safaris we have done are about the same. However in the high season, the price in Wilpattu skyrockets.
We will be going back to South Africa this year, but unfortunately, it will be in the low season, so I’m not sure we are going to safari again.