Jeana is back, adding to her series of blog posts about her experience as a young guide at Kulu Safaris. Here, she recounts a memorable leopard sighting, but in the context that even as a guide who encounters leopard every day, each sighting is just as exciting as the first.
If I were to describe a typical safari “guide”, I imagine someone who remains cool and collected when being charged by an elephant, has a wealth of knowledgeable about flora and fauna, as well as has the confidence and people skills to share their knowledge with guests.
What struck me from the very beginning is that ‘calmness’ is merely an art we have to perfect over time. As a young guide, seeing an animal in the wild gives me the same adrenaline rush as any tourist. I have had to intentionally keep myself from exclaiming and pushing in front of my guests to catch a better view! I learnt fast that as a guide, I’m responsible for bringing to life the Sri Lankan safari experience.
As guides who lead clients on a safari, the pressure on us to track and showcase Sri Lankan wildlife is real and intense. Our typical ‘team’ on a game drive comprises of an excellent Kulu driver, who has a sixth sense for the jungle and a knack for picking routes (our drivers Preme, Rohana, Kumara, and Namal all qualify as excellent) and a good tracker to support our driver. We need to work in unison, as a cohesive team, to read the jungle for signs and clues, and to anticipate as well as react. There are many moving parts to a sighting: from the build up of following clues and tracks, to the nature of the sighting (eg: watching a comfortable relaxed leopard is far different to being in the presence of an irritable bull elephant in musth!). Also important is the positioning of the vehicle – are the guests rocking up with big zoom lenses and do we need to keep a distance to get their photographs, or are they happy to be a little closer to the animal etc. etc.
One afternoon in 2015, we ventured into Block 5 (also known as Lunugamwehera National Park) with our safari-modified Land Cruiser full of guests. Kumara was driving and I was the guide. Kumara’s eyes are magically accustomed to the jungle to such an extent that he can spot a monitor lizard in a tree hollow, while driving past (bear in mind that most often, the tree and the reptile are the same colour!!). As a guide, one of the aspects of your training is how to spot the little things, while keeping your eyes peeled for that hint of gold that’s out of place. It’s great to have a team that complements each other – knowing I can rely on Kumara and our Kulu drivers to spot animals early means I can spend more time conversing with guests.
We slowly take a bend and I’m looking out to my right, towards a small rocky outcrop where we had a recent leopard sighting, when the jeeps abruptly stops and the engine is switched off. Kumara looks back at me through his side mirror and points upwards … “Leopard in the tree” he lip-syncs with a smug grin. Lo and behold, a stunning female sub-adult leopard is lounging on a low branch of a “pallu” tree within 20 feet from our jeep!
Everyone in the jeep noticeably is in absolute awe of this beautiful creature, who is relaxed and comfortable in our presence. Thankfully, our guests appreciate the value of being quiet at a sighting and the only noises are of the jungle and soft camera clicks. I’m thrilled – Kumara and I share a silent “oh yeah” moment in the mirror while the guests are engrossed with the leopard.
The leopard yawns and licks and looks around until she finally stands up, stretches and descends elegantly down the trunk of the tree, before strolling casually into the jungle. We have the privilege of having her all to ourselves for close to half an hour.
As Kumara turns the engine back to life and we drive off, I feel the post-sighting buzz, as the jeep is full of chatter about the beautiful cat and the guests compare photographs. I share equally in their excitement and tell myself once again that no matter how many leopards I see… I will always be as amazed as the first time I ever saw one.