We caught the train from Haputale to Kandy. This route passes through the Houghton Plains National Park and is one of the most scenic railway journeys in Sri Lanka. We treated ourselves and bought first class tickets. The viewing carriages in first class have full glass windows (which you can’t open) and air conditioning, but here’s a tip – you get just as good a view in second class and you can open the windows!
The journey took five and a half hours so by the time we’d arrived in Kandy, done some business in town and got transport to our accommodation in Hanthana it was nearly 6pm. Our tuk tuk driver had told us that Hanthana was a long way out of town, up a big hill and there were no facilities nearby. We thought he was just saying that to get a better fare, but it was indeed a bit of a hike and situated in a residential part of the city.
Our hosts, Lesley and Prabha, were there to welcome us and show us to our room on the top floor of their house. We were the only guests at the time so had the floor to ourselves. The accommodation was fine but I was tired, hungry (as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast), grumpy and didn’t want to stay so far from the city. We told them we’d changed our plans and would only be staying one night, instead of two.
There were no restaurants nearby but our hosts drove us into the city, dropped us off at an Indian café, and then gave us a guided tour of Kandy by night on the way back. Afterwards they gave us a couple of beers for a nightcap. I felt better about our situation after having something to eat and our hosts were very kind. Besides, they had not taken our protestations of only staying one night seriously and had suggested things we could do the next day. Maybe I could handle another night in Hanthana?
The next day, Ian looked at our location on his iPad to work out if there was a shorter route into town by foot (there was). While he was looking, he discovered there was a National Park just a short walk away. Indeed our accommodation was called ‘Jungle View’ and Lesley had told us that they had seen leopards in the vicinity. We decided to make the most of our situation and go to the jungle at dusk to look for the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya).
After spending the day in Kandy, we set off on our leopard spotting trip about 5.30pm. There were no obvious tracks among the trees and we were worried about getting lost, so we stayed near the edge of the jungle. We heard lots of birds but not much else. Eventually, we made our way out and sat by a clearing enjoying the lovely night.
It was then that I heard it. A blood-curdling, guttural growl. It was terrifying and my flight or fight instinct kicked in. I jumped up expecting to see a leopard emerge from the forest at any moment. Then suddenly all the dogs in the vicinity started to bark and howl. Amazingly, Ian hadn’t heard anything.
We found out later that, as their territory and food source is dwindling, leopards have started to eat dogs. Also, when I played the sound of a leopard growling on the internet it sounded exactly like what I had heard that night. So it is very likely that the dogs … and I … heard a leopard that night, and that we had got rather too close for comfort to one of these magnificent big cats.