This is the Sri Lanka’s most popular national park. Easily accessible from Colombo or the A2 coastal highway, the park entrance is approximately 70km (45miles) east of Hambantota and 30km (19miles) east of Tissa.

Ruhuna covers almost 1000sq km of scrub jungle, open savannah, riverine woodland and a long coastline which curves around Sri Lanka’s south east coast. However, only the southwest segment of the park, an area of some 130-sq. km (50 sq. miles), is open to visitors. Ruhuna is the best park in Sri Lanka for spotting mammals. However, this is not Africa – the terrain makes animals harder to spot, and there isn’t the density of grazers you would see in parks of East or southern Africa. Asian forests have mammals in lower numbers but are still rich in species. Yala does have a very high density of leopards because of good numbers of spotted deer being present.

Leopards and Elephants get top billing and are what most people come to see, to the extent that joy-riding visitors in jeeps increasingly drive the animals out of the visible sector of the park and into its less accessible areas. Other mammals include sloth bear, spotted deer, mouse deer, barking deer, sambur, grey langur, toque monkey, wild boar, smaller species including stripe-necked and ruddy mongoose and jackal. Both marsh and estuarine crocodiles may be seen, and a day’s birding can record as many as 100 species, among them such rarities as red-faced malkoha and painted stork.

Access is by vehicle only, and four-wheel drive would be useful. Ruhuna is usually closed from late August to mid-October. The best time to be sure of seeing the maximum is during the dry season, when animals cluster around water sources in multi-species groups. Though the coastal strip of the park suffered during the inundation, very few animals perished prompting scientists to wonder whether the fauna species sensed the impending disaster in some way unknown humans.

Tissamaharama

Tissamaharama (Tissa) has so far owed its steady trickle of visitors to its handy location close to Ruhunu National Park. About 40km (25 miles) northeast of Hambantota, it is also close to the new international airport – a factor which is already changing the face of this once sleepy community. The town centre is embellished by an enormous tank (reservoir), the Tissa Wewa, bilt some 2300 years ago by Yatalatissa, founder of the ancient kingdom of Ruhuna, whose capital was here. His heir, Kanatissa, endowed the two dagobas which stands nearby.

Kataragama

Kataragama, located about 80km (50 miles) northeast of Hambantota, is second only Adam’s Peak as a place of pilgrimage, attracting Sri Lanka Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus during the July-August pilgrimage festival season. Kataragama’s highest-profile event is the slightly grisly Thaipusam fire walking festival.

Like nearby Tissa, Kataragama is close to the new international airport and will also become the terminus of a new highway and a new railway linking the south coast with Galle and Colombo and the impact of this increased accessibility is likely to be quite dramatic.

North of the small modern town, the Sacred Precinct comprises Buddhist, Tamil, Hindu and Muslim places of worship. The main entrance is at the corner of Saddhatissa Mawatha and Sellakataragama Road, from which bridge crosses the Menik Ganga (Jewel River) which flows through the site. At the north end of the bridge stands the Shiva Kovil, a Hindu temple; just north of it is the Muslim ul-Khizr Mosque, while about 300m to the north west stands the unprepossessing Maha Devale temple, which is said to contain the spear of the 12armed Hindu-Buddhist warrior god Skanda, who is known here as Kataragama.

Other Hindu gods represented here include Vishnu, one of the three supreme Hindu deities, and elephant headed Ganesha, god of prosperity and success. The temple complex is very old; the earliest shrine to the resident god is credited to a 2nd century-BC local ruler, Dutugemunu, and the most important Buddhist shrine, the Kirivehera Dagoba, was erected in the 1st century BC. A recently built museum, next to the Maha Devale, contains fragments of the shrines and other nearby temples