After hours and hours of winding round bumpy roads (this was before the opening of the Southern highway), we finally turn into one leading to ‘Chaaya Wild Yala’. A security guard at the gate stops the van to reach forward and hand each of us a wooden plank. Now it is important to read what’s written on this wooden block – a warning from the ‘locals’ at Yala about their grunting-trumpeting habits and their penchant for wandering in the dark – so you don’t find yourself surprised to discover that stepping into Chaaya Wild you have, in fact, stepped into the wild.
At the risk of being called clichéd and unoriginal, one must admit, the word to describe Channa Daswatte’s work at what used to be Yala Village, is “natural”. The steel, wood, cane and cloth interiors at the entrance and lounge give one only sullen greys, deep browns and subdued greens to rest eyes upon – a welcome sight after a tiring journey to the south-eastern end of Sri Lanka. There are no fancy works of art for one to stress over and no glaring colours to offend, only the hidden brilliance of Ena de Silva’s batiks on the ceiling. There is only one thing that really demands attention at Chaaya Wild. The cement floors seem to flow through the open boundaries, past the deep green and glittering pool, on towards the unknown jungle.
The lone baby-monitor sunbathing beside the pool, the camouflaged lizard scuttling across the footpath are signs of greater things to come – Grey Langurs swinging outside your window, peeking in from the heat of the midday sun at the coolness of the earthy yet luxurious chalets, the inquisitive squirrel chirruping as it timidly enters to take in the canopied bed with the palmyrah-weave accents, the grunts and squeals of young wild boar as they frolic beneath your wooden floors and the occasional hushed crunch of measured footsteps as an elephant strolls across the quiet neighbourhood.
Safaris at Yala are like nowhere else in the world. Take it from the experts. Thomas Stephens, producer of Night Stalkers for Nat Geo Wild, 2011 calls Yala’s leopard population “one of the most visible” in the world. Jonathan and Angela Scott, from BBC’s Big Cat Diary, are in raptures about Sri Lanka, the “hidden treasure” for wildlife enthusiasts. Andrew Chastney, film editor for Animal Planet and Big Cat Diary etc., is “absolutely blown away” by his Yala experience. At a presentation made to coincide with the launch of Chaaya Wild, Chastney shared of his experience at Yala, noting that it is rare to see relaxed leopards, and that he “can’t wait to be coming back” to the “best place to find leopards”. During his stay here, he worked with the Nature Trails team, producing a documentary on the Sri Lankan leopard. This unique experience has given the Nature Trails team at Chaaya Wild the kind of expertise not many other Sri Lankan naturalists can boast, of having worked with one of the world’s leading animal experts and some of the most advanced infrared imaging technology.
Head of Eco Tourism for John Keells, Chitral Jayatilake, is keen on making similar equipment part of the Chaaya Wild experience, with the mini night safaris. “Sure we offer luxury to our guests, but we’re mostly about nature,” he explains, “if you want to see the leopard, we’ll show you the leopard, but you’ve got to sit it out.” Alongside the typical touristy wild-life activities they offer, Chaaya Wild also has fun activities like animal track identification lessons, camera-trap setting and wildlife movies for the “man-cubs”. But what Nature Trails is gearing to do in the long run is revamp Sri Lankan wildlife culture, getting people serious about observing jungle life, and serious about conservation, because it is, in fact, one of our dearest treasures. “It’s not about quantity or the number of leopards or elephants you see, it’s about quality, about how you see them.” And if you’re lucky, you can even see them while you have a drink.
The architects’ work at Chaaya Wild is really a wonder. The main restaurant area is open and relaxing, but not the only option. The management also provides private dining options beside the pool and on the lake shore, as close as you can get to their four-footed and winged neighbours. The part one is not likely to forget easily though, is the Observation Deck. Next to the Peacock Bar, above the restaurant area, is open space. Soft engulfing couches and sleek bar stools allow one to be alert or relaxed as one pleases, stargazing while the gentle sea breeze plays upward from the shores, over the jungle, across the lake and through the candlelight. In the daytime the Observation Deck allows a 360-degree view of the sea, the jungle, the lake, the pool and the leopards’ favourite haunt – the rocky cliff that marks the boundaries of the Chaaya property.
To describe the place is a difficult task. It is a wonderful blend of the luxurious with the rustic, and one that works. Go see for yourself, it is absolutely worth the drive there and back.