Sri Lanka is one of the best countries in Southern Asia for wildlife watching – something we didn’t realise until we arrived here. From massive groups of elephants, elusive leopards, monkeys of all kinds, hundreds of species of birds as well as the largest mammal on earth – the blue whale – Sri Lanka has it all. A wildlife safari is an activity we had hoped to do in India, but never got the chance, so a safari in Sri Lanka was high on the priority list of activities whilst in the country.
There are an abundance of national parks in Sri Lanka, with each one offering something different. Yala National Park for example has one of the biggest concentrations of leopards in the country but is also very busy. Wilpattu National Park is the biggest with a huge variety of animal populations yet it can be extremely difficult to spot anything. We decided to visit Udawalawe – it was a logical stop heading down from the hill area and towards the southern coast, not quite as busy as some of the other parks and has one of the biggest elephant populations in the country – spotting a wild elephant here was almost guaranteed.
We opted to base ourselves in Embilipitiya, the nearest major town to Udawalawe National Park. Whilst there were accommodation choices closer to the park gates, these options were particularly pricey for what they were. Instead, we found a very well priced ‘resort’, just a short walk from the major bus station in Embilipitiya, complete with air-conditioned rooms, breakfast, free bike hire, free wifi, a swimming pool, and staffed by the NICEST man we met in all our travels through Sri Lanka – Thilina, or Thily for short. From the moment we first arrived and I saw my name on a welcome board, complete with an Australian flag, we knew we were in for a treat.
Thily took fantastic care of us during our stay, from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. There was nothing the man wouldn’t do for you. We organised a sunrise safari – the best time for spotting wildlife – with him for the following morning. Being further away from the national park itself meant an earlier start, which was the only downside to being based in Embilipitiya – everything else was fantastic. In fact, our ‘wildlife’ experience started in the resort itself – whilst swimming in the pool, we spotted not one, not two, but six pairs of Gray Langur Monkeys – mothers with tiny babies, as well as several juveniles, hopping from the property next door across the poolside boundary and swinging off into the nearby plantations. Lizards, monitors, kingfishers and other parrots also called the resort home.
Setting out the following morning at 5.15 AM in our jeep, we travelled the 45 minutes to the National Park boundaries, before lining up in an insane queue to purchase our entrance tickets – it definitely pays to get here early! Entering the park just after 6.30 AM, we set off in search of wildlife.
Prior to visiting I had read on various other sites as well as Trip Advisor that many people complained about the experience feeling ‘like a circus’, with a crazy amount of jeeps with only one or two people in them driving around the park. Whilst there were many vehicles at the ticket gate, they would disperse once in the park, each one going a different way. You would pass them every now and then, and there would usually be several stopped in the one area if there was an animal in sight – but only for a few moments, before disappearing again. We never encountered more than 4 or 5 jeeps at any time. What WAS disappointing though, was the fact that the majority of the jeeps were mainly empty – equipped to sit up to 12 people but only carrying two or four people. As the costs for the safari are per jeep, it seemed the more jeeps that were out, the more money was made for the hotel or tour company who owned them. This appeared to be more of a priority as opposed to filling the jeeps up to limit the amount of vehicles in the park.
Regardless, our safari was incredible. From the moment we entered the park, we saw life in every direction. Scores of birds – particularly peacocks – were everywhere, calling out to each other. The males with their beautiful plumage were strutting their stuff and putting on displays to impress the pea-hen’s – it was incredible to see.
Parrots, bee-eaters, kingfishers, a variety of eagles, storks, pigeons and swallows were just some of the other birds we saw in the park.
With many water holes around the park, large groups of water buffalo would congregate around the water’s edge, and wallow in the mud – complete with tiny birds sitting atop their heads. The water buffalo calves were adorable, never straying far from mum but always curious. In the larger of the water holes, it wasn’t uncommon to spot the beady eyes of a crocodile atop the surface just a short distance away from the herd.
The highlight of the safari, and what we obviously came to see, were the elephants. Having been to Udawalawe just a fortnight before whilst travelling with my friend Greg, I’d seen quite a number within the first 15 minutes of setting off into the park. This time around they were proving a little more elusive – it was half an hour before we caught a glimpse of two elephants a little into the distance – however just that small glimpse was enough to get us excited!
As we drove around for the next two hours, we continued to spot a variety of birds and buffalo, and a very well camouflaged chameleon resting on a tree trunk – an incredible spot by our driver! We were drawing close to the three hour mark of our safari at this point though, and had only seen the two elephants. Just as we were debating whether to extend our three hour safari to a five hour safari, our driver exclaimed ‘big group of elephants!’ and made a beeline for the dirt track to our left.
Sure enough, pulling up slowly in a nearby area, was a family group of seven elephants – still further in the distance, but we could see them quite clearly. Aided by binoculars, we were able to watch them in detail – foraging, throwing dirt and dust over their heads to keep cool, as well as ‘communicating’ with each other. We even spotted a baby elephant some time later, so small you could barely see it through the grass!
Watching these wild elephants in their natural environment, completely at peace and just going about their usual habits was completely magical. It was such a nice change from how we’ve usually seen them – ambling down the streets, in chains, toting about tourists on their back, their mahout nearby with bullhook in hand.
As we left the family of elephants, completely content with our morning, we hit another jackpot on our way to the exit – just metres from our vehicle, a young bull elephant was grazing by the side of the road. Mike nearly jumped out of his seat in excitement, finally able to get some closer photos of these incredible animals. As he flapped his ears and stared at us for just a moment, he turned and disappeared back into the undergrowth.
It was such an incredible moment.
On our return back to our accommodation, having spent four hours in the park instead of three (all the elephant spotting had been in the last hour!), we were fully prepared to pay extra for our safari. However Thily told us he’d been in communication with the driver during the morning, and when our driver had mentioned that we hadn’t seen a lot, it was Thily who’d asked him to stay out a little longer to give us more opportunity to spot something – and he didn’t want any extra payment for it! It was just another reason to love the experience even more.
Our wildlife safari in Udawalawe National Park was absolutely the highlight of our time in Sri Lanka. It was easy to organise, the process was efficient, a quality product – vehicle, driver, knowledge – was delivered and most of all we’d been able to see an abundance of wildlife in their natural habitat – a completely different experience from the last time we’d been on a ‘wildlife safari’. We absolutely recommend including a safari during your visit to Sri Lanka!
- How to get to Embilipitiya?
Embilipitiya is the transfer point to Udawalawe National Park. You can get here by bus from most nearby major towns:
From Haputale: Take the bus to Pelmadulla (1 HR) and then to Embilipitiya (1.5 HR)
From Ella: Take the bus to Wellawaya (45 minutes) and then to Embilipitiya (1.5HR)
From southern coastal towns: Take a Matara bound bus and then transfer to Embilipitiya.
If you’re staying in the Udawalawe area, there are buses leaving frequently to Udawalawe from the station.
Each bus leg will cost you around 100 LKR ($1.00 AUD)
- Where to stay?
As mentioned above, you can stay in the Udawalawe area, however I found most of the accommodation choices quite pricey for what they were. I HIGHLY recommend Pavana Resort, where the wonderful Thily will take amazing care of you. Just a few hundred metres from the bus stop in Embilipitiya, you can walk here after your journey, enjoy a fresh juice, lock in your safari and either enjoy the beautiful pool or Thily can organise any other activity for you. Prices start from approximately 3000 LKR ($30.00 AUD) per night.
- What does the safari cost?
The cost of the safari will be divided into two parts – the vehicle/driver hire, and the entrance fee. The going rate at most hotels is around 4000 – 5000 LKR for a three hour safari plus travel to and from the National Park. The jeep hire at Pavana Resort was 4500 LKR ($45.00 AUD) for three hours, and you can do a safari at sunrise or sunset. You can split this cost with other people in the vehicle, which we recommend.
The entrance fee into the national park is 3150 LKR per person, but is reduced to 2750 LKR ($27.50 AUD) per person if you’re part of a group.