The jeep stopped abruptly. Hands clammy with excitement, I looked quickly around in anticipation. Sure enough, over to our left, a leopard had stopped in the middle of the path. I gasped – it was only a few metres away. The leopard, chest rising and falling slowly, looked right at us with insouciance. My heart racing, I stared back it with wide-eyed disbelief.
It had all started so differently.
To say that I was excited when I was told that I was going to Sri Lanka was an understatement – since I was a young girl, I have always been fascinated by Sri Lanka and its leopards. Even the gentle teasing of the office could not diminish my anticipation. My excitement reached fever pitch on arrival in Colombo and continued to soar off the scale when we arrived at Yala National, famed for its leopards, in the late afternoon.
All that pent-up enthusiasm came crashing to the ground when Hari, my guide, briefed us on timings for tomorrow. He wanted us to leave at 06:30. Like any self-proclaimed leopard expert, I know that leopards are crepuscular and that the best chances of seeing them are very early morning or late afternoon. I was crushed.
The next morning – at Hari’s time, not mine – my mood only worsened as we headed off in a different direction to the other jeeps and proceeded to drive around for over an hour without sight of a single animal. That was until Hari’s aforementioned cry of leopard.
I held that leopard’s gaze for a full magical minute before the silence was broken by the sound of another jeep arriving. The leopard, being a solitary animal and not one for crowds, startled and darted into the bushes. I had my moment.
The other jeep took the left fork in the road, the one that best followed the direction in which the leopard was headed. Hari, being Hari, drove the opposite way then stopped and turned off the engine. “The leopard will cross over our path in a few minutes,” he said confidently. I had no idea how he knew this, but this time I trusted his judgement.
We sat in silence waiting, ears straining, eyes scanning the undergrowth. Of course, Hari was right: every now and then we were treated to thrilling glimpses of the leopard prowling through the bushes. Then, best of all, it emerged into full view. Hari explained that it was a two-year-old male and we were incredibly lucky to see it so close, especially on the open path. Reappraised of Hari, I knew it wasn’t all done to luck.
It was my first visit to Sri Lanka and I can say with confidence, it is my favourite country I have visited. The leopard remains my favourite animal. And Hari, one of the resident group leaders at Chena Huts, is my favourite guide.