If there's one thing about travel that really makes my heart leap it's the wildlife. The rustle in the bushes and the breath-holding moment of being able to spot beautiful exotic creatures on their home turf is quite spellbinding. So, the promise of a trip to Sri Lanka made me giddy with excitement. Firstly, it's one of those destinations that has it all but is still off the beaten track, with only 1.2 million visitors last year, Sri Lanka is the place to go now before the tourist trail uncovers it. Secondly, its nature is unrivalled, sitting right in the Indian Ocean with lush jungle and arid grasslands, the country has more indigenous species than you can shake a stick at and I intended to see as many as I possibly could.
Touchdown in Sri Lanka
I start by flying into Colombo, Sri Lanka's commercial capital and take the long bumpy ride down to the southern shores. Driving past colonial Galle, alongside the pounding waves of the Indian Ocean and through jungle strewn villages keeping my eyes peeled as majestic elephants pad about just off the main road and monkeys swing by, before reaching my hotel in Hambantota.
Up at the crack of dawn
For the best wildlife-spotting, an early start is in order and at 5:30am I hop in a Jeep and we speed along as the glowing orangey-pink sunrise steadily starts its ascent behind the palm trees that silhouette the skyline. Along the way, lanterns are strung up in trees, cows stand in the road, egrets guard the still lakes, pelicans swoop and peacocks strut through parched fields. Stray dogs laze along the motorway and cockerels crow, adding to the excitement as a new day springs to life.
Greeted by toque macaque monkeys we roll up to the Yala National Park, which is famed for having the highest density of leopards in the world (35 of them live in the park). Only ten minutes into our drive, I'm in luck, a magnificent leopard stalks right across the path behind our jeep, no more than 20 feet away and turns to face us, it takes my breath away.
Elephants, crocs and the shy sloth bear
We drive on through varied ecosystems, ranging from dry forests to freshwater lakes to Pelessa grasslands and watch peaceful elephants roam and stop so close that I could almost touch one. Watering holes yield camouflaged saltwater and mugger crocodiles, herons, vibrant green bee eaters and wild water buffalo and we wait on tenterhooks for a gorgeous Sri Lankan sloth bear to make an appearance, but he's feeling shy...