Around 20km southeast of Tissamaharama lies the entrance to Yala National Park (properly known as Yala West or Ruhunu National Park), Sri Lanka’s most visited and most rewarding wildlife reserve. Yala covers an area of 1260 square kilometres, although four-fifths of this is designated a Strict Natural Reserve and closed to visitors. On the far side of the Strict Natural Reserve is Yala East National Park, which is only accessible via Arugam Bay. There’s no public transport to Yala, and you’re only allowed into the park in a vehicle, so you’ll have to hire a jeep.
The park’s dry-zone landscape is impressively wild and unspoilt, especially when viewed from the vantage points offered by the curious rock outcrops which dot the park. From these you can look out over a seemingly endless expanse of low scrub and trees dotted with brackish lakes next to the dune-covered coastline – particularly magical from Situlpahuwa. In addition, the park’s wildlife has its own distinctive charm, with huddles of colourful painted storks perched on the edge of lagoons between the supine shapes of dozing crocodiles; fan-tailed peacocks kicking up clouds of dust while monkeys chatter in the treetops; or the incongruously conjoined sight of elephants marching sedately through the bush while rabbits scamper through the undergrowth.