Wandering in the Wild - Offering epic safari adventures, Chaaya Wild transcends expectations and...

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Offering epic safari adventures, Chaaya Wild transcends expectations and enthrals nature enthusiasts

By Marianne David
If there’s one message that Yala reinforces, it’s the fact Sri Lanka is so abundantly blessed – a miracle in many ways.

Despite its rising position as a hotspot for leopards being temporarily halted in its tracks during the latter stages of the war, Yala’s popularity is now growing by leaps and bounds. Its leopards are coming to the fore, stealing the spotlight from other wildlife destinations around the world and bringing in high profile visitors, boosting the island’s profile big time.
Travelling there last Wednesday morning to check out John Keells Hotels’ refurbished and rebranded Chaaya property – the former iconic Yala Village turned world-class game lodge Chaaya Wild, located on the periphery of the Yala Wildlife Sanctuary – it was a journey filled with anticipation and high expectations, both of the park and the property.
Having left Colombo around 5 a.m., it was a smooth ride all the way, except for the last half an hour, which was rather bumpy. On the way, the elephants lined up at the fence for food in Udawalawe were a sight to behold, with more wild encounters in store.
Chaaya Wild was officially launched on 1 November and last week top JKH officials including John Keells Holdings PLC Deputy Chairman Ajit Gunewardene and Sector Head – Sri Lankan Resorts of the John Keells Hotels Sector Jayantissa Kehelpannala along with the media were at the resort to check out the changes wrought by Architect Channa Daswatte.

Wildly wonderful
Daswatte certainly doesn’t disappoint – from the moment one walks in, Chaaya Wild is wildly wonderful.
First up is the wooden plaque one is handed at the gate, with safety guidelines and some advice from the ‘wild’ inhabitants. Then at the entrance to the reception area, a photo wall that captures the true spirit of the wild commands attention, boasting stunning images of leopards.
We’re greeted “ayubowan” with olu flowers and betel leaves as we walk towards the lobby overlooking the pool area. It’s once seated that one notices the beautiful batiks on the ceilings, in vivid hues, which soften the steel structure of the main building.
Welcomed by Chaaya Wild’s Manager Teddy Roland, we’re then joined by Daswatte, who explains that the credit for the ceiling goes to none other than Ena de Silva, who he said “was sitting here till one in the morning a week after her 89th birthday hanging up these batiks!”
“It’s a matter of great pride that I managed to get her to work for this; a continuity of a great many traditions. It reminds me of old Sri Lankan traditions of pirith ceremonies where you stay up all night, so architecture doesn’t become something that you clinically build and leave, but something that you put a little bit more than that into,” he told the Daily FT.
The cinnamon stick screens and tables and large lamps resembling birds’ nests enhance the appearance of the lobby area, which also features a floor resembling railways sleepers that spreads across the adjoining areas as well. When asked, Daswatte – whose delight in Chaaya Wild’s design is evident – explains that it’s not sleepers but an innovation of concrete slabs.
“One of the key things about getting disparate spaces together is to connect them with a single material. The then Yala Village had two or three pavilions which didn’t have a contiguous connection. One of the first decisions we made was to extend the deck that would connect the areas and make the pool the central feature,” he outlined.
As for the cinnamon sticks, it’s another feature he’s always wanted to use in projects. “In John Keells I’ve got what architects call a dream client – they don’t really question me except on budget. To use the cinnamon sticks in this way was a huge thrill – on the walls, screens to soften the steel structure and the tables.”
The photo wall was one of his ideas for getting a little more attention to the wildlife aspect, promoted by Keells Hotel Management Services Head of Eco Tourism and Special Projects Chitral Jayatilake, who joins in for a quick chat about the safari lined up for the evening.
“I asked Chitral to choose photographs for the wall and he came up with an incredible series of wildlife photographs. As you walk in you know you’re in a serious wildlife lodge. One more thing that will be added is a television that will highlight the day’s animal sightings via SMS from the drivers, which will be part of the wall,” added Daswatte.
Soon enough it’s time to head off to our rooms to freshen up for lunch before we take off to experience the much-awaited safari. At the Wild, one isn’t encouraged to wander anywhere alone, especially at night. So along with a staffer to show us to our rooms, we walk down to where the chalets are located.
Spread across 10 acres and featuring 68 chalets in all, the John Keells Hotels Group’s US$ 0.4 million investment is a delightful discovery with every step, with open boundaries to the surrounding wildlife.

Rustic luxury
After a seven-hour plus drive, it must be said that the room looked heavenly. Rest assured, it would certainly look impressive under better circumstances too – Daswatte’s redesign effortlessly blends rusticity with luxury, achieving the perfect balance.
As he tells the Daily FT later on in the evening, “I was told ‘here’s your budget, make it a world class game lodge’. Interestingly, I’m not very sure what the final bills are now – my project manager says ‘yes, you’re doing alright,’ my client says ‘oh gosh, you’re getting really to the end of it,’ but I think looking at today and the client’s reaction, we’re still friends, we’re sitting and having a drink together, so there must be something positive!”
All chalets are air conditioned and facilities include LCD TV and DVD player, WiFi, mini bar, safety deposit box, telephone with IDD, complimentary toiletries, hair dryer and complimentary tea and coffee making facilities.
The clearly defined areas and materials used in the chalets are cosy and welcoming, but the canopied bed with pristine linen and large shower area are key points that grab attention, after the long journey.
But there’s no time for lounging about, a quick bath and it’s off for lunch at the restaurant located on the first floor of the main building, which is surrounded by an extensive dining deck. Right on top is the pièce de résistance – a roof top observation deck and bar offering a 360 degree view of the surrounding wilderness.

Contemporary building
The main building in fact is absolutely new, although the initial plan was to redesign it. About a month in the project, it had been discovered that the main structure, which contained the reception, dining room and so on, was ridden with termites.
“What you see today is a completely new building and the choice of a steel frame structure bolted together was because of the time constraint,” said Daswatte.
“I was thrilled that there was a client who was willing to accept contemporary building concepts. The different materials we’ve used with the steel frame structure give it that softness and rustic sense one expects of a game lodge. I’m proud to be associated with this project. We’re pushing ourselves as a country into a slightly different league and I think that’s great,” he added.
Chaaya Wild lodge features three lounges, the main restaurant and three bars. The buffet at the restaurant isn’t extensive, with the focus being quality over quantity, as Roland explained. “With dining, we’re not focusing on quantity but on quality. Since we cater to the local market as well we need to have something more than what game lodges usually offer. The dining options here would be the main restaurant, the deck and the observation deck, depending on client requests.”

Into the wild!
Post lunch it’s time to go into the wild! It takes less than 10 minutes to drive to the park and there’s a short wait for tickets – during which I see two buses filled with people enter the park – and then we’re on our way!
As our guide explains, while there admittedly is a lack of control, not all people can afford safari jeeps since each costs around Rs. 4,000 and cannot hold even a quarter of the people that a bus is able to.
Shortly after entering the park, we see Sambar deer, spotted deer, peacocks, rabbits, wild boar, crocodiles, water monitors and land monitors, various kinds of birds, a rusty spotted cat, golden jackals and the main attraction – leopards!
About two hours on, we first spot two young male leopards – one coolly sitting on his haunches as if to pose for the cameras while the other climbed a tree. Too soon, the latter jumped off the tree – proving some fabulous picture opportunities – and then both cubs disappeared.
A while later we come across a large male leopard lounging in the sun, seemingly disdainful of the intense attention. Next we see a mother and her cub on top of a rock, heads up, looking around majestically. They too aren’t perturbed by the attention; it’s as if they are studiously ignoring the human presence.
Although in Africa a leopard’s range spreads over 50 to 75 square miles, in Yala the territory range is around two to five square miles, which makes Yala extra special when it comes to sightings.
Our four jeeps took off in four different directions and experienced nine leopard sightings in the middle of the monsoon, which is testimony to Yala’s well-deserved fame.

Chastney on Yala
Back at the game lodge, we freshen up and meet again for a presentation by Andrew Chastney, who has been invited by Kehelpannala as a Guest of Honour to mark Chaaya Wild’s opening.
Chastney has made several films for the BBC, including edits on ‘Planet Earth,’ ‘Frozen Earth’ and ‘Big Cat Diary’. He was part of the editing team of ‘Night Stalkers’ by Nat Geo Wild.
The evening commenced with the screening of a short clip of ‘Night Stalkers’. The footage for the feature was filmed by cameramen from Nat Geo Wild, who flew down here at the height of the drought to capture unseen footage of leopard behaviour at night. The shooting of the cats was done under the cover of darkness, utilising infrared vision. Over 47 days of filming, the HD cameras used by the crew captured high quality day time footage and the leopard behaviour at night was captured with the use of the world’s most advanced starlight filming technology.
Addressing the gathering after the screening, Chastney said: “It’s my first visit to Sri Lanka and it’s really quite remarkable. Today, within an hour of entering Yala, we were sitting with a male leopard. Last morning, we sat down with two leopard cubs. In Kenya, for that kind of thing it would take a couple of weeks. Jonathon Scott told me, ‘whatever you do, you have to go to Sri Lanka’. This afternoon, we saw two males having a territorial dispute, followed by a mating ritual.  A sighting within an hour is a clear testament to the wonderful wildlife here.”
The screening was followed by drinks, including the signature ‘Leopard Leap’ wine, and dinner, a sensational spread served near the pool. Then it’s time to move up to the Observation Deck, which is enveloped in moonlight.
I bid everyone a good night by midnight and head off to bed in anticipation of the early morning safari. In my room, I see that the turndown service includes a fruit basket and a little plate of chocolates, along with a bookmark featuring the Sri Lankan sloth bear, a sub species of the sloth bear not found anywhere else in the world.
The next morning, I reach the Reception Lounge by 5 a.m., and wait for the rest of our group to turn up. We leave by 5:45 or so and this time we reach the park within six minutes of leaving the hotel, but the leopards are in hiding…
However, there’s no reason for regret as Yala is breathtakingly beautiful in the early hours, with the cold air blowing in your face as the jeep moves through the winding tracks of the wild.  We see monkeys, many kinds of birds – with the seemingly fearless peacocks displaying their feathers and strutting about – and jungle fowl, deer, crocodiles and a flock of painted storks.
We head back to the hotel by 9 a.m. and it’s time to change and pack up for departure, after a hearty breakfast. It’s not that there’s nothing else to do at the Wild – work calls, it’s time to head back to the concrete jungle.

More than safaris
For guests staying a while instead of running off after a safari or two, Chaaya Wild is geared to introduce unique creative facets in jungle living. There’s nature treks, chena visits, bird watching trails, bush dinners, dune dining, camping, turtle watching trails, midnight safaris, animal tracks identification, wildlife slideshows and after dinner movies. Plans are also underway to introduce star gazing nights on the Observation Deck.
A short distance away from the hotel, the Great Basses near Kirinda offers the perfect opportunity for diving enthusiasts. It is said to be the richest dive site in Sri Lanka, boasting corals, caves, remnants of shipwrecks and numerous species of fish. Also open for exploration is the Little Basses nearby.
As Roland explains, the intention is to run Chaaya Wild not as a hotel but as a game lodge offering a different, more laidback and customer-oriented service, with staff specially educated on wildlife.
Chaaya Wild will be going in for all three ISO certifications shortly, followed by the star classification and Green Globe certification.

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