Sri Lanka is a small island with an abundance of blessings by mother nature. Surrounded by the Indian ocean, the emerald island is swaddled by virgin forests, shrub jungles, lakes, waterfalls teeming with equally impressive fauna, all the way from the coastline to the mist laden mountain tops. Whether a traveler is looking to just escape into nature or is an avid bird watcher, a big game lover in search of leopards, an adventure seeker or an enthusiast of marine biodiversity, Sri Lanka caters to all of them.
Here are five highlights.
A safari in Yala
Yala National Park extends inwards from the South East coastline of the island. Covered in shrub jungle, dotted with lakes/tanks and rocky outcrops, with the occasional archaeological ruin from a bygone era, spotting wildlife is easier than in most other national parks. It also boasts the highest concentration of leopards in the world.
The main attractions are leopards, sloth bears and elephants but the beauty of Yala is there is something to see every few meters if you keep your eyes, ears and mind open. From raptors circling above to owls hiding sleepily in the trees, from smaller birds bouncing from bush to bush to water birds scuttling around the lakes, it is a true treat for bird enthusiasts. Especially during the winter when migratory birds head to the tropics to escape the cold. The lakes are often frequented by sunbathing mugger crocodiles with cranes and storks standing precariously close to them, herds of axis deer tread cautiously while peacocks strut with their fanned feathers in full glory. While there are many other smaller residents, there are some quite elusive like the rusty spotted cat.
As an island surrounded by the Indian ocean, Sri Lanka has always had a deep connection with the ocean but it was relatively recently that blue whales were seen off the coast of the island. This was considered an anomaly and upon dedicated study, was deduced that these were a subspecies known as pygmy blue whales who seemed to prefer the warmer currents of the tropics.
With the topography off the coast of Mirissa taking a steep descent, the deep sea where the whales roam can be reached easily and quickly, making it an ideal base for whale watching. The whales can be spotted off the South Coast in the winter time from December to March with the South West monsoons setting in, whale watching shifts to Trincomalee in the East coast.
While out in the ocean, blue whales, humpback whales and sperm whales may be the highlight but you will often come across pods of dolphins and sometimes even turtles.
You should make an informed decision regarding the boat supplier you wish to travel with. While shared and private boats are both good options, ensure the supplier prioratises the safety of both the passengers and the whales.
Safari in Bundala
Bundala National Park is a small and underrated national park that is overshadowed by its neighbour, Yala. With lakes, lagoons, salterns, a beach stretch, rocky outcrops and shrub jungles all concentrated within a relatively tiny space, it is a birder’s paradise! It attracts birds that sort out fresh water, brackish water and salt water, bringing together the full spectrum of water birds. The park is especially colourful during the winter as the birds escaping the colder climes migrate to the tropics. During this time during the months of December - March, you can easily spot over a 100 varieties of birds. From gray headed fishing eagles patiently watching the water from a branch nearby to parakeets poking their heads out of the cavities of dead trees to the flamingos who decided to come all the way to the south, it is always a treat. The added bonus at Bundala National Park is that there are very few jeeps in the park at a time letting you enjoy each sighting at your leisure without any disturbance. You may cross paths with another safari goer once or twice, if at all, while on safari.
Knuckles Mountain Range
The Knuckles mountain range is so named due to its uncanny resemblance to the knuckles of a clenched fist. With over 30 mountains with forests, pygmy forests, vast clearings as well as water falls, rivers and streams that will leave you spoiled for choice, it is no surprise that the Knuckles mountain range is a UNESCO natural heritage site.
It offers a great variety of options for seasoned trekkers looking for authentic treks through forests and rural villages. While there are a few trails that are suitable for novices, most of them are recommended for those with some experience trekking. However experienced, it is mandatory to enter the reserve with an experienced guide.
On the eastern edge is a cliff point with endless views into the distance. Following the babbling brooks, you can find waterfalls of varying sizes, some of which take a day to reach and hide caves behind its curtain of water. The Nitro cave is another location of intrigue, thousands of years old and mined in the past to make gunpowder from the deposited nitrogen rich bat droppings.
It is an area rich in flora and fauna. Home to the unique biospheres of both cloud forests and pygmy forests, a wide range of wildlife can be found from lizards and butterflies to leopards and elephants, with a number of endemic species as well.
You must travel with an experienced guide.
If you are adventurous, plan well in advance with experienced guides to go camping in the wilderness to experience the true beauty of nature.
Sinharaja Rain Forest
Situated along the south west of the lower hills of Sri Lanka and spreads across three districts, Ratnapura, Galle and Matara Sinharaja is a virgin rainforest recognized by UNESCO as a natural world heritage. The diversity of flora and fauna in this tropical wet evergreen forest is mesmerising. The greenery extends from lush underbrush to trees that go as high as 50m representing over 60% of Sri Lanka’s endemic flora.
It is also home to a vast variety of fauna from fresh water fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, butterflies and birds with a high percentage of endemism. Most of the visitors to Sinharaja are attracted by the vibrant birdlife. While more than 50% of endemic species can be seen at Sinharaja, some can only be seen here!
There are two main entrances to the forest; the northwest entrance in Weddagala and the southwest entrance in Deniyaya. The accommodation options are largely clean and comfortable but are limited in range.
If you are a serious bird enthusiast, base yourself at the Weddagala entrance but accommodation closer to the entrance may be more basic but serves the purpose.
If you are more interested in getting close to nature and enjoying some nature walks and treks, base yourself close to Deniyaya.