We tourists are steered sleepy eyed towards our jeep and climb the ladder to the high seats like it’s a bunk bed. The engine starts as alarm bells still ring in our heads, and the truck pulls out into haphazard streets.
Shops strewn with advertisements peter out to tracks crusted with red mud, and we watch dawn reflected pink in flooded paddy fields.
Dusty roads lead to more dust until our jeep suddenly stops at a watering hole, where a wild boar and a buffalo have congregated. The boar takes off on its hairy trotters before long, but the buffalo doesn’t move a muscle. He looks at us, and we look at him. The guide says “dangerous”. We retreat.
We haven’t reached the park yet, so we keep driving, until the land opens up into a savannah. From here on we aren’t alone – 20 other jeeps meet us at the entrance. Drivers share sightings in quick-fire Sinhalese through their car windows, then, thinking a leopard might be close, jostle and rev their engines, edging to the best position. We find ourselves in the middle of a wilderness, stuck in a traffic jam.
We manage to escape eventually and go off road, where rocky outcrops rear up through the bushes.
Another turn and we see the Indian Ocean glittering across the horizon. Our driver parks the car near the sea and tells us not to stray too far. The beach is just sand, rocks and bleached tree trunks. The sun beats down and the waves lap peacefully.