I'm lucky to say I have had some pretty surreal experiences in Sri Lanka – from hiking through misty mountains to swimming with sea turtles, riding the blue train to watching the sunrise over the Indian Ocean – but by far the most magical moments were in Yala National Park. And, the best part? We experienced it all in style, with the best guides on the island, thanks to Leopard Trails bespoke tented safaris. We originally went down to work with the team on a digital marketing project, but we soon fell in love with the park, our guides... and the food! And suddenly, it didn't really seem like work anymore...
Yala is Sri Lanka's most famous national park. Forming a total area of 1268 square kilometres of scrub, light forest, grassy plains and brackish lagoons, it's so rich in wildlife that you're virtually certain to encounter elephants, crocodiles, buffaloes and monkeys... and, if you're with the right guides, you'll encounter a leopard.
Yala has this ancient, primordial energy about it that you can't shake off, and at sunset, as the park is about to close for the night, you can feel it more than ever. It was around this time, one quiet evening, that we encountered a leopard. As we turned a corner, around some scrub, she was just suddenly THERE. We stopped dead in our tracks. I don't think I dared to breathe or move. She locked eyes with each of us, one by one, seeming to be scanning our very souls, and then... she turned and slipped away into the forest shadows.
Leopards possess an energy of sublime knowing, and in shamanic teachings, their appearance has deep significance. The leopard spirit is said to guide you to a greater understanding of your true identity and divine destiny – revealing that your 'dark spots' are what make you unique and give you spiritual strength.
Leopard Trails is perfectly positioned on the outskirts of Yala National Park, surrounded by jungle, on the edge of a wetland. The word "camp" doesn't really describe it, as the tents are luxuriously fitted with comfy beds, a fully equipped bathroom and electricity – I even could plug in my hair straightener (my hair is one wild thing Yala is not prepared for!). You still feel in touch with nature, and you can hear the jungle sounds at night, or take a shower outside under the stars, but it's really more like a 'glamping' experience.
It's especially magical at night, when lanterns are lit and the incredible carpet of stars above Sri Lanka come out to shine. In the lounge tent (the camp's version of a hotel lobby/bar), you can flip through various books on Sri Lanka's wildlife while enjoying a pot of Ceylon tea or a stiff drink (only if your nerves need it after stumbling upon a snake...!). You'll feel like you've stepped into Indiana Jones' drawing room... and the rangers will entertain you with their vast knowledge of the stars, the plants, the ancient histories and, of course, the animals of Yala.
If you're especially lucky, you might swap stories of the Sri Lankan supernatural – the myths and legends of Yala and beyond – with expert guide, good friend and resident documentary film-maker, Arran Sivarajah.
Finally, there's the incredible Sri Lankan cuisine. You'll get a chance to try something new with every meal here, and the chefs do an incredible job of giving you a taste of the island's best and most popular dishes. From Pol Pani Pancakes (filled with coconut and treacle), delicious spicy Curry Leaf Sambol (you'll keep going back for more), Red Rice String Hoppers (my favourite!) and classic Parippu (lentil dahl). Better yet, tell them you're a vegan (or you have a rather difficult food allergy in this part of the world – onion!) and they'll take care of you like nowhere else on the island. I was able to relax and not worry about a thing... except maybe my expanding waistline!
But, I'll still never forget that leopard sighting. I was totally entranced, and so was my darling and camera-man, apparently, as he forgot to take the lens cap off. And I don't blame him – I didn't want to take my eyes off her either! Which is why the leopard photos here were very kindly given to me by our awesome guide, good friend and wildlife photographer, Avijja Fonseka. Thank you, Avi!