The wildlife, including an elusive big cat, eventually come out to play in Yala National Park, writes Stephanie Holmes.
The guides are very excited about the shady patch under the large tree across the watering hole but we're not convinced. They tell us it's a leopard, one of only 33 living in Sri Lanka's Yala National Park, but from our distance, it's impossible to make out.
My camera has a reasonably impressive zoom and with a bit of trial and error, I find it. The unmistakable spotted fur, the giant paws at the end of lithe limbs, the long, powerful tail, occasionally twitching to ward off fat flies.
We're all overjoyed at this sighting because, so far, the afternoon has been frustratingly devoid of wildlife. We've been trundling along in safari-style jeeps for at least an hour, but the afternoon heat and blazing sunshine don't seem to be the best conditions for animals to be gambolling across the plains.
The four-hour safari is part of a two-week cycling tour of Sri Lanka with Intrepid Travel. We've travelled on two wheels from Negombo, up to the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, down through Kandy and Hatton, and now, to the national parks of the south.
Yala, spanning nearly 130,000ha, is a huge protected area of forest, scrub, grassland and lagoons. Divided into five blocks, only two are open to the public. It was first designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 when the teardrop island was under British rule, but "sanctuary" obviously meant something different back then — initially Yala was used as a hunting ground where the rich could come to track and kill leopards and exotic birds.
Now the wildlife is completely protected, and people come from all over the world in the hopes of seeing leopards — the park boasts the world's biggest concentration of the threatened species. Yala is also home to 43 other varieties of animals including elephants, sloth bears, jackals and crocodiles, and 215 bird species.
Our days on our bikes have been full of wildlife sightings - elephants bathing in lakes, monkeys playing on temple ruins, magnificent birdlife. But while the safari ride has been a welcome break for our saddle-weary bottoms, today's promised wildlife has been few and far between.
Finally, our jeep pulls to a sudden stop and our guide points excitedly to the bushes to what looks, to all intents and purposes, like a rooster.
"Why are we looking at a chicken?" someone asks, with a defeated sigh.
Turns out it's a jungle fowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka, and a species you can only see in this country. We're slightly more impressed.
And it's as if this sighting signals to the other wildlife that it's okay to come out now — from this point we see creatures both familiar (crocodiles, peacocks, elephants) and unusual (serpent eagles, hornbills, painted storks, water buffalo, and green tailed bee-eaters), before pulling up across the plains from the leopard under the shady trees.
Our guides are thrilled - although they visit the park a couple of times a month, they say this is their first leopard sighting in five months, which makes us feel even luckier at our glimpse.
As we watch, all taking turns to strain a look through my camera's zoom, a family of spotted deer trot innocently across the grass. We all hold our breath as the leopard's ears appear to prick up. She stretches and rises to her feet, like a family pet getting up after a nap on the couch. She pauses, dead still, sniffing the air and the no doubt tantalising scent of spotted deer.
There's a hush in our jeep — and in the other jeeps around us — as if we're all waiting for Sir David Attenborough to take up the commentary. The deer seem unaware of their deadly savannah companion and we're on tenterhooks to see how this ends.
In somewhat of an anticlimax, the leopard seems too sleepy to put in any effort, and the deer soon run for their lives while she pads around the trees in the opposite direction.
After contemplation, it's a relief for us too — no one really wanted to see a real-life Planet Earth episode unfold in front of their eyes.
Our driver restarts the engine and we trundle off again on the dusty park roads. For the rest of the afternoon, we're content to cruise around in companionable silence, enjoying the breeze through the open-sided jeep, a welcome break from our bikes and the powerful heat of the day.
Intrepid Travel's 14-day Cycle Sri Lanka trip is priced from $2990pp, twin-share, including accommodation, transport and most meals and activities. The trip starts in Negombo and finishes in Colombo, with a visit to Yala National Park included. Departures are available throughout 2019 and 2020.