We are not what you would call ‘animal people’. We have both never had pets, are mildly allergic to cats, and still think it’s a little weird that you can bring your dog onto the tube in London. Animal-related activities do not usually feature on our travel itineraries which is why we almost didn’t make it to Udawalawe National Park. Driving around in a bumpy jeep for several hours, attempting to spot wild animals didn’t seem like our cup of tea at all but somehow, I managed to convinced myself and a certain someone that it was a good idea, and it ended up being one of the best days of our whole trip! Maybe I do have an inner David Attenborough after all…
Udawalawe National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular safari destinations as it’s less crowded than Yala National Park, and is known as the best place to spot elephants in the wild. For us, it was also the most logical choice due to its location, handily between Ella in the Hill Country and our next destination, Tangalle on the Southern Coast. The safaris are the bread and butter of this town and as such, tours run in the morning and afternoon, and there are definitely no shortage of tour operators and jeep drivers. You can literally turn up at the gates and hire your jeep and driver then and there, but as it was our first ever safari experience we decided to also hire a guide to get the most out of our visit.
A certain someone and I set realistic expectations at the start of the safari; if we were lucky enough to see even one elephant, the visit would be a success and we would be content. Little did we know that our luck would be in so soon – a few minutes after our arrival, our eagle-eyed guide spotted a group of three or four elephants in the distance and I honestly felt butterflies in my stomach. I have seen elephants many times before, but there was something quite humbling about seeing them as they were here, in their natural habitat. I was thrilled at that point, but that was only the beginning of my awe, from then on I was a broken record of ‘wow’ and ‘oh my gosh…’ exclamations!
Udawalawe National Park is all about the elephants and they undoubtedly stole the show. I was quite mesmerised, and could have watched these majestic creatures simply going about their everyday business, all day long. They crossed the dirt roads, they ate, they bathed, they swam, and a couple even got a little amorous, much to our amusement and our guide’s delight as he said it was rare to see this kind of behaviour in open spaces. We only saw a handful of other jeeps during our safari, and most of the time our guide and driver took routes away from the others to ensure we got the best views. Our driver kept his distance so we weren’t disturbing any of the animals, but I was so amazed by how close some of them came to us!
These scenes were a stark contrast to ones we have sadly witnessed too many times before – elephants in chains, prodded by sharp sticks to perform shows, and giving rides. I am ashamed to say that once upon a time when I was young and naive, I took one of these rides and have regretted it ever since. I may have been ill-formed then, but I am not now. As tourists, I think we have a responsibility to ensure there is no demand for these ‘attractions and activities’ so this cruel use of elephants and other animals can be stopped. Seeing them roam freely is so much more exhilarating than seeing them chained and miserable!
The view from the top of the jeep was incredible at every angle, we were surrounded by plenty of lush greenery contrasted with long dusty paths which made it feel like we were on a real adventure. Having our guide made our experience even better as he spotted animals and birds that we would never have seen on our own, and then proceeded to tell us about them. Along with all the elephants, we also watched a jackal casually dart through the fields, water buffalos bathing, an eagle stalking his prey, and so many other beautiful birds flitter or glide past our very eyes.
For two people who aren’t ‘animal people’, we were absolutely blown away by this whole experience. We spent close to four hours driving round Udawalawe National Park and I’m sure we barely scratched the surface. There is so much to see… you just need to know where to look and have a little patience. I never thought I’d be so excited about a safari, but that feeling of the wind in my hair, being jostled around at the top of the jeep, and of course seeing all those elephants in the wild still makes me grin from ear to ear when I think about it today!
So Make A Move…
- Entry Fees – getting into Udawalawe National Park will cost approximately RS2,000-2,500 for each adult, hiring a jeep and driver will cost approximately RS3,500, then on top of that there are additional taxes, fees and tips which means a couple should expect to pay approximately RS10,000-12,000 (£45-£55) for a half day safari.
- Hiring a Guide – we decided to hire a guide and paid approximately RS15,000 (£75) for him to organise everything; this included pick up and drop off from our guesthouse, all the entry fees and taxes, the jeep and driver, and of course, his services as a guide. We thought this option, though more expensive, was really worthwhile – the experience was far more engaging and interesting because of our guide’s commentary. Most of the other jeeps we saw only had a driver which meant that at times their guests looked pretty bored and they missed a lot of the sightings we saw!
- Lahiru Prasad – I must confess that we found our guide through Tripadvisor and he actually lived up to the gushing reviews. He was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the animals and the park, and his English was very good. I don’t think much of Tripadvisor but on this occasion, it worked in our favour and we would absolutely recommend Lahiru to anyone planning a visit to Udawalawe National Park – contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Getting There and Away – we arrived from Ella around midday in time for an afternoon safari, stayed one night in Udawalawe, then set off for Tangalle the next morning. Taxis between Udawalawe and both Ella and Tangalle take around 2 hours and cost approximately RS7000 (£35).
- Elephant Rest Guesthouse – this guesthouse is very basic but comfortable enough for a one night stay, and only a short drive from the entrance to the park. The couple of who manage the guesthouse don’t speak a lot of English but are very friendly and serve up a delicious, hearty Sri Lankan dinner!
This safari at Udawalawe National Park was definitely a once in a lifetime experience for me; if you want to read about more once in a lifetime experiences then head over to this month’s Travel Linkup on Adventures of a London Kiwi, SilverSpoon London, Follow Your Sunshine or Tanja at The Red Phone Box!
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