I’m just getting up after breakfast when I suddenly spot blood on the back of my leg — but who needs plasters when you’ve got the leaves of the dogtail tree? My guide rushes out to collect a bunch and presses them against the wound; it seems I’ve been bitten by a leech and this is the traditional remedy to staunch the blood flow.
Out early to watch the sun rise at Ahaspokuna Bushwalks Camp, in a protected reserve in the south central region of Sri Lanka, a leech bite is a small price to pay for being out in pristine nature though.
This is luxury glamping at its best where the silence is broken only by monkeys chattering in the trees and shrill cries of peacocks trying to attract a mate. At night, fireflies flit through the bushes and the clear sky is filled with a canopy of stars.
My home consists of two tents erected on a high platform up in the trees while an electric fence surrounding the perimeter stops elephants getting too close. They can be a real danger: 10 days previously, one of them killed a monk in the forest nearby after villagers had scared it off with fire crackers.
On my own jungle walks I see mounds of dung and trampled vegetation, showing they’re close, but never actually encounter any.
Around 15 per cent of Sri Lanka is dedicated to national parks and reserves, home to elephants and leopards. But for most tourists staying near the beaches on the west coast, their wildlife exposure is limited to mosquitos or a river cruise to spy monitor lizards and monkeys.
To get out to the national parks can involve a long journey into the interior on narrow winding roads, although the country’s reserves aren’t always as far from some of the tourist centres as you might expect.
I start in Udawalawe, around three hours’ drive north west of the island’s southern tip at Galle. With an area of around 31,000 hectares, it’s one of the largest National Parks on the island. Extensive regions of tall grass and scrub, as well as trees, make it a favourable environment for elephants, and it’s thought that there are over 700 permanent residents.
The Asian elephant is different from its African cousin, being slightly smaller and only around eight per cent of the males have tusks.
During British colonial rule, many bulls were killed by trophy hunters: it’s on record that government agent Major Thomas William Rogers shot over 1,400 alone between 1834 and 1845. In recent years, many were victims of landmines during the civil war too but now the country’s population is estimated to be a healthier 6,000.
Unlike in Africa, accommodation inside the parks is limited, so most tented camps are outside. There’s a short drive in the dark to join the other jeeps at the entrance before it opens at six, just before dawn.
It’s a bit like the start of Formula One when the gates finally open but, after we’ve collected our tickets, all is calm as we drive, with the sun rising through the trees and a tremendous dawn chorus.
The first things we see are peacocks crossing the road, strutting their stuff in full display mode. Early morning birdlife sightings also include the colourful painted stork, serpent eagle, crested hawk eagle, and pied hornbill.
Young wild boar chase our vehicle and flighty spotted deer graze in the bushes. A daring boar tries to take on a huge stag, but it only takes a slight drop of the head and a thrusting of antlers to see him off.
The experience is similar to an African safari, although only one of the Big Five is on the menu. This is the native Sri Lankan leopard, smaller than its Indian counterpart, and classified as endangered as there are less than 1,000 left in the wild.
There have been recent sightings here in Udawalawe but sadly we’re disappointed: two other national parks, Yala in the south east, and Wilpattu in the north, offer a better chance of seeing this rare animal.
What we do see, though, are elephants — and lots of them. First, isolated bulls in the bushes, who engage in mock charges if we get too close, and then mothers with babies in small family groups.
One memorable moment is the sight of two young males playing by a puddle, spraying themselves with red mucky water to keep cool. Every now and then, they lock trunks and engage in head to head combat but it’s all just play.
At a large water hole, a pair of jackals come down to the water to drink, oblivious to the presence of a massive bull elephant stumbling through beside them. At this time of the morning, the crocodiles are content to remain in the water, only their heads visible.
And, almost as consolation for not seeing a leopard, we also have a rare sighting of a jungle cat, about the size of a small dog, hiding in the undergrowth.
Later, just outside the park, on our way back to camp for breakfast, we see our first tusker. He’s a young elephant with long ivory tusks, standing right up against the electric fence.
A small crowd has gathered to watch, ready to sound the alarm if he breaks out of the park, which some do, by knocking down the fence posts and then causing havoc in the villages.
From this first stop, it’s around a two-hour drive north to Ahaspokuna Bush Camp. With just three luxury tent suites, and 2,260 acres of wilderness, the focus here is on bush walks.
With its own herd of elephants living nearby, the fence at Ahaspokuna is designed to encircle the human visitors and let the animals roam more freely — although they may stop by to check out the new visitors.
On my final day, I head off on a jungle walk, safely protected by an ex-Sri Lankan army commando who leads the way forward by hacking his way through grasses higher than our heads.
This time I’m wearing leech-proof socks, hopefully to deter the blood suckers. We pass through a small village where they’re growing coffee, cinnamon and pepper and end up at small bathing pools at the foot of a waterfall.
This is a beautiful spot and my guide tells me it’s safe to swim as there are no crocodiles here. As I lower my legs into the water, hundreds of small fish suddenly swarm around my feet and start nibbling.
Fortunately they’re only interested in the dead skin and not out for blood like those pesky leeches. It’s an odd feeling but not unpleasant, the ultimate natural spa, and even though I try to shake them off, they keep coming back for more.
With so much to discover in Sri Lanka, I feel something very similar myself.
A four-night break staying at Ahaspokuna and Mahoora Udawalawe half-board, including transport, a safari in Udawalawe and walking tour at both locations costs from £550 per person. ecoteam.lk
Experiential Journeys, which specialises in tours packed with unique experiences, can also help arrange transport.
Direct flights from Heathrow to Colombo with Sri Lankan Airlines cost from £649.
For more information, visit srilanka.travel
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