I’m not sure how many moons I had spent in Yala before, but I know it was a significant amount of time. In all those years I had seen a grand total of six leopards and two bear (one I can’t really remember but let’s just assume I did see it). I still remember those days, the wise old tracker quartering the park, looking for pug marks and listening for alarm calls from deer or langurs. Drawing on years of experience they would lead us around the park to the animal’s favourite haunts in a usually fruitless but always thrilling search. A cup of tea at the bungalow and talk of near misses and the pug marks always followed. The memories are quiet and golden, of hushed whispers and muted clothing to show your respect for the wilderness.
This time around in Yala was certainly an eye-opener. The digital age is certainly upon us as it seemed the time of the rally racers. The tracker has been shunted into a corner by the new breed of young, fast safari tour drivers. Admittedly since Sumudu had been doing this for eight years the revolution must have happened some time ago, but due to my extended sojourn out of the county it had slipped past me unnoticed.
This is not to say there are no advantages.
Two nights, six leopards and a bear sighting will attest to the fact that the safari drivers’ approach works.
Three (give or take) members of the same company will traverse the park in different jeeps.
The cellphone rings courtesy of a magical Dialog network that only the safari tour drivers seem to have access to.
And then a drive that Colin McRae would be proud of would ensue. I believe our jeep may have started off with side view mirrors, but they were long gone and are probably still festooning some poor spotted deer whose standing by a jungle road going ‘what the fuck was that?’ Trees, rocks swerve by in a flash as you desperately hold on to anything tied down to the truck to avoid getting thrown out into a thorn bush. The jeep then screeches to a halt in front of a slightly taken aback leopard/bear/elephant while the people inside try to figure which way is up and try to remove camera equipment embedded in friends body parts.
Add a few hundred (well maybe just a dozen) cars to the spot in about an hour and you have your sighting.
I’m not sure how I feel about the changes in Yala. Sure it would seem foolishly nostalgic to wax on about some pseudo-golden age where the animals were less hassled and the onlookers more noble, but those are probably selective memories. I am a bit saddened by the demise of the tracker though, at least in the company of the safari tours. The grand old men of the jungle are no more or at least have no voice.
Out with the old and in with the new I guess. At least you're guaranteed the goods.
Vincent - They said he was mad. But I knew him before his eyes changed and that permanent sheen of sweat covered his face. A hopeless romantic with his head wrapped ...
2 days ago