It's dark, I'm tired, and filled with excitement. Having just woken well before sunrise, I ready myself in my safari tent and make my way to the recreation lounge where I'll meet my jeep safari driver. When I visited Namibia several years earlier, I managed to see four of the Big Five. The leopard has eluded me until now, but even though it's early, I know my luck is about to change.
My willingness to trade a lack of sleep for the privilege to be first into the national park has paid off. Still before dawn, I'm in the first jeep to arrive at the gates of Yala National Park. Home to perhaps the densest population of leopards anywhere in the world, the prospect of sighting a leopard here is strong. Even more likely though, is the wild ride and jockeying for position that comes with a steady influx of tourists all eager to go on their own jeep safaris.
If you do your legwork, you'll discover that taking a jeep safari at Yala can be a bit of a cluster. 40, 60 or even 100 jeeps might all be aggressively trying to position themselves and stream through the park in search of leopards. Arriving early and getting in the park first can prove beneficial, but at the end of the day, it's still a matter of luck.
That's what makes a safari so alluring and addicting. It's like going to a casino. You never know what's going to happen. Will you hit the jackpot, or will you bust? When it comes to the great national parks of Africa, you're pretty assured of sighting a great variety of wildlife. On the small island of Sri Lanka though, leopards and elephants are the prize.
The park ranger finally stamps my entrance ticket for my safari driver, and we're off through the gate. First ones in. Eyes peeled, scanning for any sign of leopard activity. The game is on.
After searching, turning, backtracking, and generally driving with a sense of urgency I occasionally wish my Uber driver would feel, we cluster with a few other jeeps. A leopard in the distance was spotted, with another one approaching. Within moments, I would have my clearest view of the day of a leopard. Crossing the road no less, but every bit as real and wild. A true apex predator. Big Five complete.