IN THE VELVETY blackness of 2am in the Sri Lankan bush, above the raucous lullaby of bull frogs chirping their hearts out, I hear rustling, and the crack of big branches snapping. I leap out of my four-poster bed and scuttle to the windows of my tent, trying to raise the blind with as much speed and stealth as possible.

The object of my hopeful attentions? An elephant known to wander the camp – and pilfer the kitchens – at Wild Coast Tented Lodge, perched on the fringes of Yala National Park on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. I stake out the windows and wait for signs of life, but the watering hole in front of my tent remains frustratingly untouched. Perhaps my friend isn’t thirsty tonight.

After a few hours, I see a light bobbing towards me in the gloaming, followed by Sampath, the assistant manager of field operations at Wild Coast, come to take me out on an early morning game drive.

Because, like many of the visitors to this teardrop-shaped island, the main activity on my hitlist is – whisper it with me – safari. On Sri Lanka’s southeastern edge, Yala National Park is just one of the country’s protected areas; 130,000 hectares of light forests, scrubs, grasslands and lagoons that are home to elephants, more than 212 species of bird, the sloth bear, and – the holy grail – the panthera pardus kotiya, a leopard species endemic to the island.

Food at Cape Weligama

A lot of people travel to Sri Lanka for the incredible food

The park is thought to contain between 300 and 350 leopards, making it the highest density in the world and luring in safari-goers looking for an alternative to Africa, or honeymooners wanting to combine their animal-spotting with romantic forts, ancient temples and ex-colonial tea country.

Today, tourism here is growing at a breathtaking rate – Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is a building site for the likes of Ritz-Carlton, Radisson and Four Seasons – but it wasn’t always that way. A brutal civil war ended as recently as 2009, which means the island largely escaped the ravages of mass tourism. Now, though, infrastructure is improving massively (poor roads often scuppered tourists’ attempts to explore the country), and ‘tea, sea and safari’ itineraries that take in the diverse landscapes and cultures of Sri Lanka’s south are on the up – which is how I find myself in the back of a Jeep as it makes its way to the park gates, headlights bouncing through the trees. My eyes and ears are straining for something, anything, that could be a critter rooting around for its breakfast.

Eventually we reach the gates, where we have to wait with the 174 other Jeeps allowed into the park for the morning session. At 5am sharp, we’re off, and the Jeeps trundle along dirt tracks into the wilderness. We all go our separate ways, and soon my group and I are alone in Yala’s semi-arid jungle. It’s light by now, and my senses are on high alert.

We spy birds freewheeling above the treetops: changeable hawk eagles, so-called because each one looks different; and Asian open-bill storks, whose distinctive beaks inspired the efficient shape of crab crackers. I spot a snake sliding through the undergrowth, its muscular body rippling through the dry grass.

we round a corner and find a young bull elephant flapping his ears as he delicately plucks leaves from a tree

In the distance you can make out the shape of Sithulpawwa, a Buddhist stupa (rock temple) dating back to 200BC believed to have once housed 12,000 monks, squatting on top of the monolithic Elephant Rock – an otherworldly sight that gives me an extraordinary sense of place. We pass a couple of peacocks parading in the road, looking utterly unsuitable for life in the wild. After an hour, we round a corner and find a young bull elephant flapping his ears as he delicately plucks leaves from a tree.

“This is Gemunu,” announces Sampath. “He’s a very naughty elephant.” Apparently when the mood strikes, Gemunu will block the track, refusing to budge until he’s given a banana. Yala is home to some 220 Sri Lankan elephants, a subspecies of the Asian elephant. They’re found throughout Sri Lanka’s drier areas, mainly inside the national parks, but they also live outside the protected areas, particularly in the north.

“It’s not at all unusual to see the elephants roaming around in dry season,” Sampath tells us. “That’s when they go to the paddy fields – it’s like their supermarket shop.” It’s unsurprising that human-elephant conflicts are unfortunately becoming more common as more and more of Sri Lanka’s land is cultivated. Beyond Gemunu, we see a whole herd, the youngest one only a week or so old, tumbling around in the greenery. I find it pretty hard to imagine any quarrels with these gentle giants.

Sampath tells us about the challenges of his work. Along with Chandika Jarayatne, a former conservation lawyer turned senior naturalist at Wild Coast, he runs the lodge’s safari tours. They’re both overwhelmingly passionate about their jobs, particularly the conservation aspects. Chandika is a keen photographer, heading into the park on his days off just to see (and snap) more animals.

I understand Sampat’s concerns when we see a leopard. She’s majestic, sprawled along the branch of a tree, tail and paw dangling. We’re all completely silent, passing around binoculars and enjoying her presence.

After ten minutes, she makes her way down from the tree and slinks towards us in the undergrowth. By now, another few Jeeps have joined ours. As she begins to pad across the track, more Jeeps come around the corner and park up, then more, then more. Someone has radioed out to their buddy to let them know there’s a leopard here, and the area has become overcrowded.

It strikes me that Sri Lanka has escaped some of the ravages of mass tourism, but it still has some way to go to develop the sophistication of other safari destinations – so while the country is a paradise for nature lovers, it’s worth taking the time to research the eco credentials of the tour operators you choose to travel with. Malik J Fernando, the forward-thinking hotelier behind Wild Coast Tented Lodge, sees this as an opportunity to develop the country’s tourism industry in the right way, with a focus on sustainability and philanthropic initiatives.

At Wild Coast, he’s working with a local university and the Department of Wildlife Conservation to create a leopard research centre in the lodge, and is also lobbying for the creation of a wildlife conservancy that would allow you to go on safari by bike or on foot.

But this is just one of Fernando’s extraordinary endeavours: the other hotels in his Resplendent Ceylon portfolio are Tea Trails, a clutch of luxury, colonial-style bungalows in the tea plantations in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands, and Cape Weligama, a luxurious, sprawling resort on the outskirts of Mirissa, a destination popular with surfers and travellers keen to see the vast, beautiful blue whales that frolic in the waters just off Sri Lanka’s south coast.

Back at camp, I take in Wild Coast Tented Lodge by day. There are six clusters with six ‘cocoons’ each – beautifully appointed tents that are decked out in steampunk-colonial style. The sensitively built camp isn’t fenced off from the park, and leopards and elephants regularly make their way through, leaving behind only a tell-tale paw-print.

One of the things I love most about Wild Coast is its extraordinary location right at the edge of the Indian Ocean, setting it apart from just about any other safari camp you’ll come across. Waves crash against the rocky beach, creating an alluring soundtrack. Sadly the waters here are too rough to be swimmable, but a gem-coloured infinity pool stretches towards the beach instead, partly housed in a huge arched dome that’s home to a sleek bar and the restaurant.

This brings me to the other major activity on my Sri Lanka hitlist: eating. Post morning safari, I refuel with egg hoppers, the irresistibly light, bowl-shaped fermented rice pancakes made around a fried egg, which you eat piled high with curry, pickles and coconut sambol. There are string hoppers, too: these are piles of short strings of rice noodles that you make into a ball in your hand, pressing in the curry and its accompaniments before popping the whole lot into your mouth.

Everywhere I go, I stumble across games of cricket being played in fields, on the beach and barefoot at the roadside

Later in the day I tuck into fresh, squeaky okra salad; a sour and spicy seafood soup that hails from northern Sri Lanka; stuffed cuttlefish; prawn cutlets; and adukku roti, which is made of layered pancakes filled with chopped beef, spices and herbs – a bit like a lasagne, but cake-shaped and without cheese – then baked for a crispy roti top.

I take a tour of the country with my stomach, learning that beef and red wine were introduced by Portuguese settlers before being adapted with local herbs and spices. In the north, the cooking is very spicy, with cumin, mustard seeds and mustard oil. Here in the south, coconut oil features heavily, and there are fewer aromatics. That doesn’t mean less flavour, though. My staple throughout the trip is the Sri Lankan vegetable curry, which is served with no fewer than seven side dishes.

The best I come across is at Church Street Social, a BYOB restaurant housed in the overtly beautiful 18-room boutique Fort Bazaar hotel in the historic fort town of Galle, further along the south coast. Sitting in the cool of the restaurant’s verandah, I scoff delicately spiced cashew and pea curry – the nuts unbelievably sweet and creamy – with poppadoms, rice, curried beetroot, pickled veg, aubergine, a smoky dhal with a gentle kick, and a tomato and red onion salad. It’s all wonderfully fragrant, and I improbably finish every last morsel of the dish and its seven generously sized sides.

I’ve loved everything I’ve seen of Sri Lanka, from its verdant Central Highlands, where children run through the tea trees in their school uniforms; to the laid-back town of Mirissa, home to beach bars, white-sand beaches and pounding surf. I’m captivated by Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and the old-world glamour of its iconic Galle Face Hotel, and I get lost in a Buddhist temple, exploring barefoot in the middle of a torrential downpour. Everywhere I go, I stumble across games of cricket being played in fields, on the beach and barefoot at the roadside. But where I really fall in love is Galle.

The town was once an important trading post, and its beating heart is the old fort, which has stood guard since the 16th century, seeing the Portuguese, Dutch and British come and go. A visit is like taking a trip back in time – except this past is littered with cool cafés and bohemian boutiques.

I could wander the maze for hours, dodging tuk tuks and the baker vans that rattle down the narrow, dusty streets, playing worn-out monotone jingles. In the market square, snake charmers work their magic while I stop to admire the vibrant batik works of Dudley Silva, and a monkey ambles nonchalantly along the telephone wires above my head.

There are tourists, yes, but Galle holds them well. Many visitors soak up the colonial grandeur of hotels like Fort Bazaar, while others recharge in resorts just outside of town, like Fort Bazaar’s irresistibly peaceful younger sister, Kumu Beach, which makes for a perfect pit stop en route back to Colombo.

Getting there

Original Travel offers a seven-night trip to Sri Lanka from £3,900pp. Price includes flights with Sri Lankan airlines, ground transfers and a seaplane transfer with Cinnamon Air from Colombo to Tea Trails, two nights at Tea Trails, two nights at Wild Coast Tented Lodge (with game drives), two nights at Cape Weligama and one night at Fort Bazaar.

In the baking heat, I eat fingers of fresh mango sprinkled with chilli flakes as I leave the confines of the walls and explore Galle’s hectic, up-and-coming New Town.

And come dusk, when the heat begins to fade, I make my way to the city walls, looking at the patchwork of rooftops and towers on my left, and the glittering sea on my right. Lovers canoodle in the hidden corners of the ramparts, and children play hide and seek in the ever-growing shadows.

Alone, I sit in a hidden corner of my own and watch Buddhist monks cool off in the sea, their orange robes billowing out behind them in the blue water like the elegant fins of koi carp. You couldn’t find a setting more romantic, but I don’t envy the honeymooners – it’s so special that I feel lucky to have it all to myself.