Covering an area roughly the size of Ireland, Sri Lanka is crammed with wildlife, which thrives in its National Parks and bursts beyond their borders. Vegetation drenches the island in countless shades of green, with lush forests reaching down to the coasts where white-sand beaches are backed by palms and fringed by swampy mangroves.
More than a hundred species of mammal roam the island, from the elusive leopard and sloth bear, to graceful deer and Asian elephants. Lakes and rivers teem with life and, of the island's 173 reptile species, snakes are the most numerous and crocodiles are the largest. The list of accolades goes on, with a bewildering array of birdlife, endemic butterflies and one of the highest densities of amphibians in the world.
Of the island's 22 national parks, Yala (in the south east) is often considered the best, thanks to its variety of species and record-breaking concentration of leopards – in certain areas, the average count is one cat per square kilometre.
Wildlife is at its most active in the cooler hours at dawn and dusk, so be prepared for an early start – to avoid waking up before 5am, book accommodation nearby. But, despite staying close to the entrance gate, it felt like the middle of the night when I heard the knocking at my bedroom door – the wake-up call promised by the owner of the eco-lodge I was staying at. Still dark outside, the temperature was refreshingly cool and a cacophony of insects were disturbing the peace.
A tray of Ceylon tea had been set outside my door, and I had just enough time to down a cup before I heard my safari vehicle rattling up the drive. Throwing some safari essentials into a bag – camera and binoculars, hat, sunglasses and insect spray – I met Suranga, my driver and guide for the morning, waiting beside his vehicle.
Wearing a traditional Sri Lankan sari and a big smile, he held out his hand and helped me into the open-topped Landover. Revving it into life, we zig-zagged past sleepy houses and shut-up shops until tarmac tuned to rough track and we were jiggling past glowing green rice fields, highlighted by shafts of the rising sun.
With evidence of wildlife everywhere, thick bark had been ripped and rubbed off the trees by elephants, iridescent peacock feathers lay strewn on the bushes and a confusion of animal prints decorated the dusty ground.
Passing through the park gates, two other four-by-fours followed us in but, after a few words between drivers, each vehicle disappeared down a different track. A victim of its own success, there are concerns that Yala's ever-growing tourist numbers could threaten the "natural experience" most visitors hope to have, so it was good to see that Suranga was putting in the effort to escape the others.
Soon, we pulled over by a stretch of river and, the moment Suranga cut the engine, a flood of jungle sounds filled the air: bird song resonated from the tree tops, with melodious ripples echoing over raucous squawks and rhythmic twitters. Down by the river, insects skittered across the surface, white-feathered spoonbills pecked at the reeds and electric-blue kingfishers dipped in and out of the water.
The more I listened, the more I saw, and an enthralling slice of jungle life unfolded before my eyes: painted storks with long red legs and enormous orange bills scoured the river for food, a cat-like mongoose trotted across the scrub with a rodent between its jaws and, hidden at the water's edge, the prehistoric form of a crocodile awaited its next meal.
Like a scene from the Jungle Book, I strained my eyes to look for a group of disgruntled vultures hunched in the trees, or Sher Khan slithering through the undergrowth. Completely enthralled, I could have watched the scene develop all day long but, hearing the gurgle of an engine closing in on us, it was time to move on.
As the morning rolled by, we watched spotted deer grazing beneath the trees, saw a magnificent fish eagle swoop down on its prey, and gazed in horror as a huge lizard tormented a tortoise, trying again and again to crack into its shell with dinosaur-like jaws.
Stopping for a breakfast of Sri Lankan hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes made from rice flour and coconut milk), fresh bananas and strawberry jam, we congregated with a handful of other vehicles at a designated stopping spot by the coast. After trundling through the jungle, I'd forgotten that we were so close to the shore, so racing across the hot sand to paddle in the sea was an unexpected bonus.
Hoppers finished, we set off in search of elephants and, sure enough, found a lone male in a clearing, flapping his ears as he munched on the scrub. Stopping to observe him, Yala's magical wildlife yet again revealed itself as snowy-white egrets landed on the mudflats, a herd of water buffalo sloshed through the swamp behind us, and glamorous peacocks flew into the trees, mewing loudly as their elegant plumage flowed beneath them like ball gowns.
With the day heating up and animals retreating to the shade, it was time to head out. Nearing the park exit, a gang of black-faced langur monkeys eyeballed us from the trees and a troop of wild boar trotted up to the car, looking at us longingly. As Suranga tossed them the remains of our breakfast, they troughed noisily on the banana skins before gazing back at us for more.
Driving away from the park, I kept my eye out for "overspill" wildlife, and spotted a herd of elephants on the distant horizon. I may not have been lucky enough for a leopard sighting but the wealth of wildlife I'd experienced in a mere few hours had been mind-blowing.
Although the most popular reserve, there are stacks more parks visit beyond Yala. A few miles southeast, Bundala National Park is the island's best place for birds, with wildfowl-filled lagoons and huge flocks of flamingos. West of here, Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve is Sri Lanka's premier rainforest, where leopards hide, monkeys swing and more than half the tree species are found nowhere else on earth. Further north near the mountains, Uda Walawe is home to hundreds of wild elephants, while Wilpattu (on the west coast) is the best place to see sloth bears.
Outside these protected areas, wildlife spills into the countryside, feeds off farmers' fields and skirts the towns and villages; even in the cities of Colombo, Galle and Kandy it's not uncommon to hear the mew of peacocks or see white-haired monkeys dangling from electric cables. In fact, here in Sri Lanka, one thing's for certain: if you're not watching the wildlife, you can be sure it's watching you.