One of the deciding factors that led me to book a trip to Sri Lanka was the countries various national parks. These parks provide an amazing opportunity to witness an abundance of the countries native mammals, reptiles and birds in their natural habitat. I was keen to visit either Yala, Sri Lanka’s largest national park, or Udawalawe which is situated further west of Yala and therefore closer to our hotel in Bentota. Here are some key things to keep in mind when deciding between both parks; Yala has a larger leopard population, whereas Udawalawe is famous for its 250 elephants. Udawalawe is also smaller in size so you have a better opportunity at seeing any animals up close whilst Yala attracts more tourists making the park busier with Jeeps and tours. However, when booking our trip the decision was pretty much made for us as Yala was closed to tourists for a couple of months in order to give the animals a rest period. So Udawalawe it was!
The trip cost £105 per person and included; a private transfer to and from the park, entry tickets to both the park and the elephant transit home and a three-hour guided tour around the park in an open-air Jeep! It was an early start with a 5 am pick up from the hotel and I was slightly anxious about the 3 and a half hour journey to the park…which actually ended up being more like 4 hours as we had a quick pitstop on the way to refuel and grab some drinks. The journey, however, ended up being extremely interesting with our driver stopping to show us various points of interest along the way. This is common in Sri Lanka as the majority of taxi drivers are seriously clued up about their countries history and the surrounding areas…albeit they are working to earn a decent tip at the end of it this still made the journey a lot more engaging as you got to experience some of the countries everyday values and traditions. Some of our stops offs included; a tea plantation, a moonstone mine, a fish market, and various temples. These were short and sweet, giving us enough time to take some photos and hear some facts about each one!
We arrived at the park at around 9 am and I was apprehensive about whether or not we would actually see any elephants as our driver, who turned out to be our guide for the park as well, informed us that the lack of rainfall in the past 5 months had caused a lot of the mammals to venture into the dense jungle in order to keep cool. Oh god, I thought, a 4 am start and a 12-hour round trip to see zero elephants… I could see myself having a Veruca Salt moment (give me an elephant…now). Luckily crisis was averted when before even entering the gates of the park there it was…a beautiful elephant just minding its own business plodding its way past the entrance of the park. Phew… I could leave happy knowing that I had seen a wild Sri Lankan elephant. But the excitement didn’t stop there…throughout our three hour tour we saw a plethora of exotic animals including; 12 elephants (including two families with a calf each), three crocodiles, loads of water buffalo, a monitor lizard, spotted deer, chameleons, plus loads of birds such as eagles, storks, kingfishers, and peacocks. The park itself was simply stunning, the lakes with the mountains in the background made it feel like you were slap-bang in the middle of a Disney film.
After the tour we got to see the baby elephants being fed at the elephant orphanage, although extremely cute there was a lack of information regarding how these elephants had become orphaned and what happened to them once they became adults. Nevertheless, a quick google search revealed that the ultimate goal of the orphanage is to release the adopted elephants back into the wild once they become strong enough, in order to do this human contact is kept to a minimum, so although tourists can watch them being fed there is a strict policy which ensures that other than the keepers, no one else can interact with them.
Overall, the park was an incredible experience and given the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka again I would love to visit one of the countries many other national parks. It was amazing to be able to see these beautiful animals in a natural environment and made it all the more exciting when you were able to spot one of them. Due to the time of year and lack of rain we were very fortunate to see 12 elephants, if planning a trip to Sri Lanka and one of the national parks I would suggest going between December and March, this way you would have missed the monsoon season in the South East (October-November) and the parks will be full of life after the rainfall. Thank you for reading and here are some last minute tips to consider if you are planning a trip to Udawalawe!
Visit any national park on a Saturday or Sunday if you can… this way you are more likely to avoid getting held up in traffic on the way there and back.
If you can get a late afternoon or evening tour as you are more likely to see the animals venturing out after hiding from the midday heat.
Keep your eyes peeled at all times! Quite often if you are in the right place at the right time you can spot something before the guide does.
If you love documenting your trip it might be a good idea investing in a zoom lens in order to get some better quality close up shots of animals that are further away.