Civil war rendered Sri Lanka’s north-west off limits. Now the leopards and pioneering ecolodges of the original home of the Sinhalese ‘lion people’ are creating a buzz
We were so close I could hear the leopard’s jaws cracking the bones of its hapless prey... But time and impenetrable vegetation were against us. Reluctantly, we tore off in a dramatic swirl of red dust, driving through puddles as orange as a Buddhist monk’s robes, flanked by sculptural tangles of trees that resembled an enchanted forest in the fading light.
Wilpattu – ‘land of lakes’ in Tamil – is one of the oldest and largest of Sri Lanka’s national parks. A vast expanse of wilderness covering more than 1,300 sq km of the Puttalam district in the north-west, it comprises a mix of villus (shallow lakes), dry lowland forest and dense jungle scrublands, bordered on the west by the Indian Ocean.
Wilpattu National Park (Dreamstime)
The area is steeped in myth and legend. The Mahavamsa, an ancient chronicle, records that in 543 BC, Prince Vijaya and his 700 followers were banished from Bengal and landed at Tambapanni on the day that Buddha died. The prince married queen Kuveni, a beautiful she-demon, and their children founded the Sinhala nation.
Wilpattu was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1905 and given national park status in 1938. However, during the 26-year civil war that ravaged the country, the park was a transit route for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the north and the Sinhalese forces in the south. Wilpattu was closed from December 1988 to March 2003, opening and closing again as the conflict continued. It didn’t fully reopen until 2010, after the war had ended.
Box of delights
The silver lining of the conflict is the undisturbed wildlife, including leopards, sloth bears and myriad bird species. And, recognising the phenomenal biodiversity of his country, Radheesh Sellamuttu set up Leopard Trails tented safari camps, first at Yala National Park in the south and, in 2014, Wilpattu in the north.
As my guides, Arran and Indika, drove me around the park in an open-sided jeep, the colours were elemental – copper-coloured earth and emerald-green forest under cobalt-blue sky. We soon came across a young male elephant and stopped to let him pass. Suddenly he turned and – ears flapping, trunk waving – gave chase to a pack of terrified wild boar, before abruptly pulling up, giving a loud harrumph and lumbering off towards a watering hole.
Crested serpent eagle, Wilpattu National Park (Shutterstock)
As we explored further, taking a shortcut through a lotus-fringed lake, the park revealed some of its many delights. A male spotted deer struggled to round up his skittish harem; a family of wiry jackals stalked through the long grass; a serpent eagle surveyed its terrain from a high branch.
My guides were as thrilled as I was by a rare sighting of a shaggy sloth bear. Standing on its back legs, this reclusive, normally nocturnal creature was foraging at a termite mound, digging its long, curved claws through the rock-hard earth, grunting happily.
Then, as a colourful junglefowl – the ubiquitous national bird that looks, and apparently tastes, like a chicken – squawked out a warning, we came across claw marks and the signs of a scuffle in the sand, closely followed by miniature paw prints. “The prints are fresh,” said Arran, jumping down for a closer look, “and they belong to a leopard cub, probably no more than three months old.”
With mounting excitement we tracked the prints but the notoriously elusive creatures had already dissolved into the bush and, by law, vehicles have to be out of the park by 6.30pm.
That evening I dined under a canopy of stars surrounded by twinkling paraffin lamps and, as the guides swapped campfire tales, I heard of the time a leopard saved Indika’s life. “It was 2006 and I was taking some friends down this road,” he explained, as he scratched out his route with a stick in the sand, “but I spotted some leopard tracks so I veered off and didn’t go back. The next day, a jeep went down the same road, drove over a mine and everyone was killed.”
Land of the leopard
We were the first vehicle through the gates at precisely 6.01am the next morning. The harsh mewing cries of a jewel-coloured peacock heralded our return, as we set off in search of our leopard.
After a bone-jangling ride, we found her lounging by the road in a patch of early morning sun. I watched in delight as her playful cub ambushed her, leaping on to her head and batting at her tail until she bared enormous fangs and let out a low growl, sending the cub scampering back into the dense thicket. The leopard fixed me with her green-gold eyes for an instant before sashaying away, a magnificent mix of feline grace and power.
Leopard in Wilpattu National Park (Dreamstime)
“Yala is more famous with visitors,” said Arran, “but each leopard sighting might be accompanied by 30 or more vehicles. You can go for hours in Wilpattu without seeing anyone.” And that’s part of its beauty: the wildness, the solitude and the chance encounters.
Puttalam district may be only a few hours’ drive north from capital Colombo, but it still feels undiscovered. It’s a mix of tangled jungle, coconut plantations and rice paddies, dotted with prehistoric outcrops of rock and sleepy villages. The latter are formed around enormous lake-like tanks built around 2,000 years ago, where locals still fish, bathe and collect mud to make pots.
My base here was The Mudhouse, a pioneering ecolodge hewn from natural materials. Co-founder Tom Armstrong, who hails from London, didn’t choose Puttalam; if anything, it chose him. “I was a volunteer English teacher in 1999 and the organisation I worked with sent me to the Anamaduwa Central College. It was while working there that I met Kumar and Panny, and fell in love with the region.”
Together they began to create a property where everything was locally sourced, and which was constructed and staffed by locals. They started with one building, its walls made of termite mud and buffalo dung, its roof made of panels of woven palm leaves.
“In once sense it’ll never be finished, it’s a living project,” Tom told me. But appropriately, it’s grown over the past ten years into four clusters of open-sided dwellings spread over 20 hectares of forest.
The wooden furniture is handcrafted on site. Alfresco showers are fashioned around trees and rely on sun-warmed water. There’s some solar-powered lighting but when darkness falls, countless paraffin lamps light the way. At night, ensconced in my netting cocoon, the frog chorus lulled me to sleep; shafts of sunlight and the trill of a multitude of birds became my wake-up call.
Sri Lankan spice
To the south of The Mudhouse is the Anawilundawa Wetland Sanctuary, a union of lagoon, lake and sea that throngs with birds. But on an early morning birdwatching expedition with Udaya, I only had to take a couple of steps from the lodge to see great egrets, black-headed ibis and Indian pond heron among the birds scouring the lake in front of us. A brahminy kite soared high on thermals and a raucous red-wattled lapwing tried to protect its eggs.
I returned to a hearty Sri Lankan breakfast: a bowl of herbal porridge, made from vine-like hathawariya boiled with rice; slabs of succulent papaya, mango and watermelon; irresistible hoppers – thin, hat-shaped pancakes made from rice flour and coconut milk – with a fried egg in the middle, and served with sweet-and-sour sambal, made from caramelised onions, tamarind and jaggery (cane sugar).
Dinner was an even more elaborate affair. The tables were decorated with flower petals, and heaving with pots of white and red steamed rice, string hoppers (nests of rice-flour noodles) and five or six small curries – spicy chicken, turmeric-yellow potato, aubergine fragrant with roasted spices. The flavours danced on my tongue.
“Our curries vary with the seasons,” explained chef Gunarathna. “We use whatever’s available.” Having worked for many years in a big hotel kitchen in Doha, Gunarathna was happy to be in The Mudhouse’s rustic kitchen, plucking curry leaves, fiery chillies, okra-like drumsticks, dragon fruit, wood apples and more from the organic garden. He showed me how to rustle up a delicious pumpkin curry, cooked in a blackened clay pot on the firewood hearth. Even a picnic was a feast.
As I kayaked around a serene lake, where lotus leaves flapped in the breeze, a kingfisher nosedived for lunch and an Indian darter dried its outstretched wings in the sun, a tuk-tuk arrived bearing pots filled with curries. And someone was waiting, machete in hand, to lop off the top of a yellow king coconut so I could gulp down the sweet, refreshing water.
Sri Lanka overflows with the atmospheric ruins of vast royal cities and sacred Buddhist sights – the ancient city of Anuradhapura is just three hours away and Yapahuwa, another former capital, is even closer. But Paramakanda Temple, perched on a rocky outcrop a short tuk-tuk or bicycle ride from The Mudhouse and dating back to around 80 BC, is a humbler, less-visited but no less fascinating site.
With the charismatic Panny as my guide, an orange-robed monk unlocked the shrine rooms under the overhanging rock, replete with gaudily painted statues of Buddha and his guards; there were exquisite 700-year-old frescoes and, on the outside wall, scenes from Buddhist ‘hell’, with gruesome punishments being meted out to sinners.
Panny pointed out a small doorway by the reclining Buddha’s feet. “Legend has it that there’s a network of underground tunnels leading to other temples, filled with jewels and treasure. One day, a monk asked my father and grandfather to hold on to a rope so he could go down and explore. When he came out he was unable to speak. He died two weeks later.”
My next stop was the Kalpitiya Peninsula, a windswept sliver of land south-east of Wilpattu, fringed with unspoilt beaches and bordered by both ocean and lagoon. Here, Colombo-born architect Cecil Balmond and his son John have created a resort with a difference.
As my driver swerved around tuk-tuks, dodging dogs and potholes along unpaved roads, I witnessed a kaleidoscope of rural life: colourful roadside stalls piled high with fruit; a crocodile of giggling schoolchildren dressed in immaculate white uniforms; women in red, orange and pink saris, vivid against the landscape.
Sunset on Kalpitiya peninsula (Dreamstime)
Balmond has always pushed design boundaries, including his collaboration with artist Anish Kapoor on the ArcelorMittal Orbit for the 2012 London Olympics. At Palagama Beach he’s created a sustainable yet stylish bolthole inspired by the local way of life. He’s made use of recycled and indigenous building materials such as woven palm and dried paddy reeds. In my beach cabana, inside merged with outside and the balmy tropical breeze provided the air conditioning.
The peninsula is a haven for kite-surfers from May to October; from November to May you can spot hundred-strong pods of dolphins – and even blue whales – and snorkel off one of Sri Lanka’s largest coral reefs. Or you can feast on just-caught lobster and prawns, try Buddhist meditation or simply lounge by the seawater pool and watch birds swoop and dive.
Early one morning I explored the languorous peninsula by tuk-tuk, zipping past fields of enormous watermelon and guava, to watch fishermen cast their circular nets into the ocean. I saw a prawn farm where a table was piled high with boxes of giant crustaceans while satisfied cats lolled underneath. A man was selling still-thrashing fish from the back of his scooter.
Palagama beach (Dreamstime)
The curious villagers asked where I was from before erupting in a chorus of “Ayubowan!” – “may you have a long life!”; this was accompanied by the traditional Sri Lankan head wobble and beaming smiles.
Then I remembered what Tom had said about Puttalam: “There’s just so much in this small area. I came to love its diversity in all its forms: the different landscapes and environments – the forests and the wildlife, the beaches and lagoons. And, of course, the Sri Lankan people.”
The author travelled with Experience Travel Group on its 12-night tailormade Secret Sri Lanka trip, including eight nights in Puttalam.