More on leopards, two beautiful plains and camping in the wild

by Walter R. Gooneratne

(continued from last week)

As this would be our last day, we decided to trek to two fabulous places as described by Babun. There were two large plains called Waraketiya and Dananayake Eliya.

They were about six miles from camp towards Muduntalawa. The track was again riddled with fresh pug marks of leopard, but no animals were seen. As it was still drizzling, they were probably taking cover in the jungle.

After about two hours of walking, we came to Waraketiya Eliya (eliya =plain).

It was a large plain about 200 yards wide and bounded by two streams, Kumbukpitia Ara on the west and Suandandan Ara on the east. While walking through the swampy plain we surprised a herd of wild buffaloes wallowing in a mud hole. Fortunately, they bolted in panic on seeing us.

Except for a few peafowl, no animals were seen in the plain. The two streams coalesced to form the Dharage Ara. We followed this stream for some distance and came upon Dananayake plain, which was much larger than Waraketiya Eliya.

An elephant was browsing on the branches of a tree.

We watched it for a little while and then made a detour downwind. We then went on to explore the vast plain. In a water-hole, a large sounder of wild boar, accompanied by numerous sucklings was feeding on the yams of lotus, so dear to them.

Wild boar flesh was what we wanted to take back home, and here was our chance. They ignored us and continued to feed, while Babun and Pervey were debating on which was the fattest. Having made his choice, Pervey fired on a big fat boar with his rifle.

At the shot, the whole sounder took flight, including the targeted animal.

I thought he had missed it and was about to fire again, when he collapsed and died a short distance away. We now regretted our decision not to bring the jeep as we would now have to carry the heavy burden ourselves, The pig was cut into two and each half slung on a pole. Pervey and Babun took one half, and Mackie and I the other.

As young doctors, our funds were limited; hence the sparing use of the jeep.

As we were returning, a short distance from Waraketiya, some monkeys were calling to our right. Babun said they were calling on account of a leopard, and wanted me to come with him. Glad to be relieved of my burden even for a short while, I dropped the carcass and followed him.

A huge bear was ambling towards us. I fired at him with the rifle and unfortunately hit him in the middle of his spine.. His hind limbs were paralysed and he came crawling on his forelimbs, yelling blue murder.

My rifle had two triggers. The rear one had to be squeezed first to activate the front or hair trigger. In my excitement I had squeezed the front trigger and the bullet ploughed harmlessly into the ground.

My magazine was now empty. Fortunately, Pervey came running up and gave the wounded animal the coup-de-grace. It was a huge male bear.

As it would be impossible to carry both carcasses, to my immediate relief it was decided to go back to camp, refresh ourselves with a bath and lunch, and bring the jeep to take the prizes home.

We hoped no marauding leopard would deprive us of our pork before we came back. When we arrived in camp, the cook was missing, and the food had not been cooked, We were worried if any mishap had befallen him. When we called him, he sheepishly answered from the top of a nearby tree.

He himself did not know how he was able to shin up the tree, as he had much difficulty in coming down even with our help. He explained what had happened.

Shortly after we left, he had set about preparing our midday meal with his back to the track. Suddenly there was a blood curdling sound from behind.

At first he had thought it was a devil bird, but on turning round he saw the devil himself in the form of a bear screaming obscenities (as described by him) and tearing away into the jungle in the opposite direction. The next thing he knew was that he found himself up the tree. What had happened was that the bear had come ambling down the track and accidentally trod on the embers of the previous night’s camp-fire.

After lunch we took the jeep and brought back the carcasses, which fortunately were untouched.

Our last evening was spent with Babun skinning the bear and Mackie taking a rest.

Pervey and I walked to Thalakola Wewa, but saw nothing to interest us. The next day we bade farewell to our new-found friend, Babun and returned to Kandy about 10 that night. The first person to greet us the next morning was old Seetin Singho.

He, like Shylock, had come for his pound of kara mus, which he received with much glee.

In those days, there was a visitor’s book kept at the park office at Yala, where those who entered its precincts wrote their comments. My entry in the visitor’s book about this trip was displayed about a couple of years ago in the museum at the Park office. Later it was replaced by the entries of a similar trip by the Hon.

D.S.Senanayake and his party, which if I remember right, included the late Mr. Sam Elapata. On inquiry from the park officials, I was informed that they were unable to trace my entry.

Leopard at Kumana

For quite sometime I had been contemplating visiting Kumana as I had heard so much about its famed bird sanctuary, enormous herds of deer and other attractions.

My usual companions, Pervey Lawrence and Mackie Ratwatte were not free to join me when the opportunity came quite unexpectedly when my friend, the late Dr. Ivor Obeysekera suggested that we make a trip to Kumana. Of course I jumped at it.

The party consisted of Ivor, his wife, my wife Nirmalene and myself.

At 3.30 am on April 12, 1956 we left Kandy in an old Willys jeep and a trailer that Ivor had borrowed from a friend. We had obtained permits from the Department of Wildlife (as it was then called) to shoot peafowl, jungle fowl, deer and leopard. Ivor had not used a gun before and did not own one.

I had with me my usual armoury of weapons, namely a 7.9 mm Mauser, a Webley, Scott double-barrel shot gun and .22 calibre Hornet.

Bellowing crocodiles

In those days there was very little traffic, specially at that hour, and the roads were well maintained. After a pleasant drive we arrived in Batticaloa about 8 am for breakfast at my brother’s home. After a sumptuous meal we left for Pottuvil and Kumana on the coastal road.

The next stop was just past Komari in the shade of a huge mara tree for a packeted lunch provided by my brother. About ten yards from where we were, was a culvert, and suddenly there came a loud booming sound from its direction. We were at a loss to realize what it could be.

I had not heard anything like this before. I picked up my rifle and walked cautiously to investigate. I was stunned by what I saw.

There, lying in the shallow water was a medium-sized crocodile bellowing away. As it was half submerged, bubbles of air billowed out of the sides of its mouth. I beckoned to the others to come up, but as soon as they peeped over, the creature saw us and crept into the culvert.

This is the first time I had heard this sound.

I heard this call once more when going down the Mahaweli in the company of Mr. Thilo Hoffman and a few others. At one point we found a nest of baby crocodiles, probably a day or two old.

One of our party picked up a few of them in his folded shirt. Their squealing alerted the mother who came charging through the water from nearby. He dropped the hatchlings and bolted for dear life.

The mother then came up to the nest and sent out her bellowing call warning all and sundry to keep away from her family. We did not waste much time on the way and traveled through Pottuvil and Panama. At Halawa we saw an elephant feeding some distance from the road and left him undisturbed.

Old warriors

We arrived at Okanda without further incident and met the ranger, Peter Jayawardene for the first time.

This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with a most colourful character. The legendry Garuwa was to be our guide and tracker. He had as his assistant Wasthuwa, an equally experienced jungle man.

As it was getting late, Garuwa decided that we camp for the night at Itikala Kalapuwa. At that time of the evening, the surface of the kalapuwa or lagoon glistened like a sheet of molten silver. Putting up camp was a simple affair.

A rope was tied between two trees and a tarpaulin slung over it and the four corners tethered to convenient trees. Four camp beds completed the five-star comfort.

All the day’s fatigue and grime were washed away in the cool water of the nearby kema or rock water-hole. After a stiff sundowner, we were treated to a delicious dinner of rice, pol sambol, which is a mixture of mainly chilli powder and coconut scrapings, homemade ambulthial, which is a traditional fish curry and dhal or lentil curry prepared by the wives, ably assisted by Wasthuwa.

Bait for the leopard

As Garuwa was keen that we shoot an animal as bait for leopard, as well as for the pot, we left camp at about 6 am.

He suggested that we walk, since the jeep would disturb the animals. The wives insisted on accompanying us. We walked till about 7.30 and the sun was getting uncomfortably hot, but we had not seen any worthwhile animal except a lone elephant in the distance.

I suggested that we go back to camp, have breakfast and go for a drive by jeep. However, Garuwa said that there was a good water-hole fairly close by and it may be worth checking.

A good 10 minutes’ walk brought us to a circular muddy pond about 40 yards in diameter. Peeping through the foliage, we saw a large sambhur stag wallowing in the mud.

It died immediately it was shot, and as we had to bring the jeep and trailer to take back the carcass, I volunteered to walk back with Wasthuwa and bring these.

When we came back, Garuwa suggested that we go back to the village and pick up a young lad who could cook, thus relieving the ladies from that chore. This turned out to be a real blessing. He was a young man of about 20 years, and not only was he an excellent cook but also a very willing and efficient worker.

We nicknamed him Kadisara, meaning quick-acting.

After breakfast, the carcass was divided in two. The head and the upper part of the thorax, which were to be the leopard bait, were tied to the jeep and dragged to the site where it was to be secured. A prowling leopard had a better chance of spotting the drag mark and finding the kill.

The site for the bait was at a point about 20 yards down the track leading to the Kumana tank, on the edge of the forest. This area was open country, but about 30 yards further down, the road ended in high forest.

It was earlier decided to move camp to the regular site on the banks of Kumbukkan Oya, but as it was too sunny, we decided to postpone the operation for the cool of the evening. As it was now about 11 am, Garuwa suggested that we catch some crabs to add variety to our lunch.

He cut a stake about three feet long and sharpened it to a point at one end. He then took us to Itikala Kalapuwa. Having alighted from the vehicle, he asked me to come with him to the water of the lagoon, which was only about a foot deep near the edge.

Peering into the water, he showed me a crab and spiked it with the stake. Seven crabs were thus captured.

Having come back to the camp, we had a bath in the kema and rounded off with a glass of ice-cold beer. In no time Kadisara prepared a delicious lunch with venison and crab curry.

As there was no murunga in the jungle, he picked up some leaves from the kara plant, if I remember right, to flavour the crab curry. A well earned siesta was taken before the evening’s chores.

Camp was soon dismantled, the jeep and trailer were loaded and we were on our way to the new camp site, which we reached at about 5 pm. What a beautiful spot it was.

There was a wide expanse of river before us with its banks lined with lofty kumbuk trees, which spread their canopy over us like a giant umbrella.

(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka Experiences and encounters Edited by CG Uragoda)