One of Sri Lanka’s less visited tourist destinations, Wilpattu National Park is a favourite travel spot for the local wildlife enthusiasts. The oldest and largest national park on the island is known for its dense population of endemic wildlife and its unique topographic features.
A land of lakes like its name suggests , a multitude of natural rainwater-fed lakes (known as villus) dot the forest floor providing enough water to sustain the wildlife during the dry season until the arrival of the monsoon season in September.
Sitting on the Northwest coast of the island, this national treasure spans the borders of the North West and North Central provinces giving it a combination of coastal, shrubland, grasslands, plains, and lowland forest habitats. This mix of habitats allows Wilpattu to provide sanctuary to a wide variety of wildlife while homing some of the most unique flora found in Sri Lanka. Wilpattu is also the only destination in Sri Lanka where you can see the islands Big 5. The Asian elephant, Sri Lankan leopard, Sri Lankan sloth bear roam the wilds of the jungle and an hour away off Kalpitiya the majestic Blue whale and Sperm whale dwell in the deeps.
A safari to the wild
An early start on your safari is the best way to get the full Wilpattu experience. Catch the morning bustle as twittering birds begin their daily routine and a lone leopard pads his way through the sandy path to avoid the dew encrusted grass.
A bird watching paradise, mornings are the best time to visit the park. As the sun creeps over the horizon, Wilpattu is a flurry of activity, giving meaning to the phrase – the early bird catches the worm. The trees tops come alive as forest and scrub birds such as drongos, flycatchers, barbets, hornbills and bee-eaters proceed with their morning cleansing ritual and then fly away in search of food. The villus teems with aquatic birds like storks, pintails, teals, spoonbills, darters, and herons as they filter about looking for some nourishing morsels throughout the day.
Catch the morning light as its glitters off their beautiful feathers making a picture perfect moment. If you are lucky, you may come across a ruffled sloth bear ambling down the dirt path making its way through the forest looking for some wild berries to snack on.
As the sun rises and the noonday heat settles in, the chorus of cicadas replaces the chirping birds. The warm air calls the elephants and leopards to the banks of the lakes for a cooling dip or to quench their thirst. Elephants are a common sight within the reserve as they roam about in the vast grasslands.
On the other hand, while Wilpattu does have a healthy population of leopards, sightings can be a tad difficult due to the dense forest cover. Don’t be disheartened. Leopards are territorial and creatures of habit, just like any old house cat. They have their favourite tree to relax on or a perfect rock to lounge in the sun. Your tour guide is sure to know these spots and would circle around them at various points of the tour. So, you are sure to see at least one lazy leopard sleeping the afternoon away.
Wilpattu’s unique habitat has also created another natural phenomenon. The fresh water villus are home to the mugger crocodiles while the brackish water villus closer to the coast are home to estuarine crocodiles making it one of the two places in Sri Lanka where you can see these two species within the same radius.
Herds of spotted deer can be found at every corner of the park, dispersing when a jeep draws near. Proud Peacocks strut about with a royal display of their feathers while curious Jackals pop their heads over the grass to give you a quick glance before disappearing into the tree line.
Leaving the wild aside, Wilpattu has a rich cultural and archaeological history that plays a key role in Sri Lanka’s heritage. North of the park you have Kudiramalai Point an ancient port. It is said to be the beach that Prince Vijaya landed and the red coppery hues of the soil found in this area that stained the hands and feet of Vijaya and his followers lead to him naming the place Thambapanni – which means copper palms. The landing of the Prince has immense historical significance. Legend has it that Vijaya was a descendant of a Lion and his arrival led to the founding of the Sinhalese people.
Deep in the jungle, you find a collection of upright stone pillars that have stood for centuries in the wild, while others have disappeared beneath the forest. This is believed to be the palace of Kuweni, Queen of the Yaksha tribe who lived in Sri Lanka over 3,000 years ago. She later became the wife of Vijaya and was the mother of the Veddha tribe that still exists to this day.
Kudiramalai Point is shrouded in mystery due to its unique geographical features. While some believe the red sand and volcanic rock are a result of a meteor strike, others believe that some form of seismic activity led to the shifting of plates, pushing up a large portion of the seabed creating this somewhat alien landscape with its rocky outcrops and iron-rich soil.
This popular ancient port was also known as Horse Mountain. Legend has it that the area was once ruled by a Queen named Alli Ranni who was fond of pearls. During her reign pearls were exported to Arab countries in return for horses. The ruins of her palace are said to be buried beneath the ocean floor. The ruins of what may have been a towering horse statue can be found to this day at the top of the cliff.
Further along, the path when you reach the shoreline, you come across a cement tomb which is believed to be where a Muslim saint is buried.
This port is also associated with another historical theory where legend says that Pliny recorded an account of a Roman tax collector who was blown off course and landed in ‘Hippuros’ (Horse Mountain) in the monsoon season during the time of Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD).
In Pomparippu, just outside the borders of the nature reserve, is an ancient burial site where several urns containing human remains have been found. While it is believed to belong to an era before recorded history, excavations in the area unearthed 14 burials containing the skeletal remains of about 23 persons. Due to the absence of charcoal in these remains, carbon dating has been ruled out, leaving archaeologists to guess how old these human remains are.
So, there you have it. The hidden treasures of Wilpattu National Park.