Thursday, April 2, 2015

2015 February 26: DEAD SLOW


Nothing quite brings dread to one's heart like seeing these words on the road sign directly in front of you.

We were about to enter Wilpattu National Park, located in the Northwestern part of Sri Lanka. It is the largest and one of the oldest national parks in the country, having been declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1905, and is world-renowned for its leopard population. The park has close to sixty willa (lakes), giving it the name of Willa-pattu, or Wilpattu. It is also famous due its long cultural history.

According to the park's website:

Wilpattu National Park and its surroundings are of history that runs as far as back to the arrival of Prince Vijaya in Lanka from East India in 543 BC. The landing beach of prince Vijaya is believed to be the area today known as Kudriamali. Kali Villu is said to be location of the palace of Kuveni, a princess of a native tribe in the island.

Wirandagoda and Galbendi Niyara located north-east of Maradanmaduwa at Wilpattu are believed to be two of the locations where prince Saliya, who forfeited his right to the crown of Lanka, lived with his low caste wife called Asoka Mala a couple of millenniums ago.

At Pomparippu of Wilpattu, several urns containing human remains have been found. The urns are believed to belong to period prior to the recorded history of Sri Lanka, i. e. prior to the arrival of Prince Vijaya in Lanka.

In the eastern part of Wilpattu are remnants of breached tanks left over from agricultural systems of ancient Sinhalese civilizations. Also between Palangaturai and Kollankanatte are the remains of an old harbour.

But back to our adventure....

It was February 26th. We decided to go to Puttalam for the day, a mere four hour bus ride up the coast north of Negombo, another thirty kms beyond Chilaw.
On the way we saw all sorts of wildlife. Our bird list can be found at my eBird site, but we were also glad to see lots of cows on the road, goats, and Steve even saw wild macaques as we passed by. 

We finally arrived. Elanor was just happy to be off the bus. Wanting a window seat so she could keep cool during the long hot ride, she sat near the front by herself. At one stop an old woman sat behind her, and, fascinated with Elanor's light brown hair, began stroking Elanor's head. The colour is a novelty here, as most Sri Lankans, even the very old, have rich ebony locks. When it dawned on Elanor that someone who was not me or her dad was rubbing her head, she slowly turned around to see who it was. The woman began smiling and talking to her in Sinhalese, and Elanor began talking back to her in English. The conversation continued for a good ten minutes or so, with neither speaking the other's language, but it seemed as though they were having a good chat from where we sat!

Arriving around 2 pm, we quickly found a place to grab some lunch. After some traditional Sri Lankan food at a Muslim restaurant - Steve had seafood fried rice and sambol; Elanor and I had some unknown but delicious vegetarian dishes - we decided to walk to a little seaside park with benches for viewing the 327 square km (126 square miles) of Puttalam lagoon. We were hoping to see some shorebirds and waterfowl, to add to our growing list of Sri Lankan bird species on

But, we got sidetracked. And went an additional 35 km or so further north to Wilpattu National Park. 
And the sign that read:

We soon found out why.... About a hundred yards beyond the sign was a security check point. And about a hundred yards beyond that was the entrance to the park.

Picture this:

A river.

With a dam.

With water flowing over it.

On one side, the road leads into the river on top of the dam.

On the other side, the road leads out of the river on top of the dam.

In between.... river. On top of the dam.

This is what we had to drive through to enter the park. Go too fast, and the water sprays into the engine of the vehicle and it stalls. On top of the dam in the river. Go too slow, and the river pushes you over the edge of the dam in the river. Go at just the right speed, and maybe the river will not be deep enough to cover your feet with water.

We were lucky - the water came to the very brink of soaking us. (And we didn't get swept over the dam.)

We spent some time driving slowly through the park, careful to watch for critters of all kinds, and mindful that we did not want to become leopard food or upset a pack of elephants into rampaging us or get eaten by a crocodile.

We saw all sorts of wildlife. And lots of poopy. Lots and lots of poopy. Mostly of the elephantine variety, but also Sri Lankan hare buttons.

Our critter list included:
Painted storks flying overhead 
Bluetailed bee eaters
Brown headed barbets calling in the trees
Grey herons
Toque macaques playing near a stream 
Eurasion collared doves roosting on the roadway
Bush larks flitting through the air and sitting in the bushes
White bellied sea eagles soaring overhead
Elephants browsing in the meadows in the late afternoon sun 
Several herds of spotted deer, including a buck with huge majestic antlers 
Jungle fowl calling in the forest
Two mongooses - mongeese? - walking on the road
Leopard tracks - we went a little faster through that section!
Palm squirrels
Termite mounds 
Indian monitor lizards 
Weaver finch nests 
Wild boar 
Malabar pied hornbills - a bird that Steve has always wanted to see 
Flocks of small green bee eaters taking their evening dust baths 
Grey langur monkeys
and the best of the day, Asian paradise flycatchers. 
A terrible picture, out of focus and too far away - but that white line in the middle of the picture? That is the long trailing tail feathers of a paradise flycatcher!

I also saw an Oriental magpie robin, and Steve saw a grey wood shrike, ioras, terns, and a crested hawk eagle. 

We arrived back in Puttalam shortly after dark, and quickly jumped on a bus headed back to Negombo.

Our driver was crazy.

He was in a rush to get to wherever he needed to go, and he made sure that everyone knew it. Driving down the middle of the road, forcing vehicles in both directions to pull over, speeding over bumps as though they did not exist, not stopping completely for people to get on or off.... I was actually surprised that he pulled over and came to a complete stop to let an elderly blind man off the bus!

I am sure you think I am exaggerating, but it took over four hours to get to Puttalam in the morning, and less than two hours to get back to Negombo!

The return journey was anything but DEAD SLOW.