One of the top things I wanted to do while I was in Sri Lanka was to see an elephant. I’d seen so many in zoos growing up, but I had never actually seen one in the wild. What better way to see one than on an early morning safari in Udawalawe National Park!
Up before the sun, I was so excited at the thought of seeing my very first elephant in the wild. Shortly after sunrise, and not long after the start of the safari, our 4×4 jeep rounded a corner and came across a mama elephant and her baby eating in some of the brush.
I did a silent wiggle dance in my seat. Like the kind a five year old does when they’re so excited that the emotions seems to be spilling out of their body in fits.
Yup. That was me.
I tried to keep quite though so I wouldn’t scare off the elephants. What I really wanted to do was shout “I LOVE YOU!!!!” to them. There were tears of excitement and happiness, and it was truly one of the best days ever for me.
Why You Should Take a Safari in Udawalawe National Park
I debated for quite a while between visiting Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park, both are located within a few hours drive of each other. In the end, I settled on Udawalawe because of the higher likelihood to see elephants there. Also keep in mind that Yala National Park is closed to the public between early September and mid to late October!
There are also a few elephant orphanages in Sri Lanka, like the Insta-famous Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. I would recommend against visiting Pinnawala – ethically I personally didn’t feel positive about visiting. The guys at Hand Luggage Only wrote a good post about their first-hand experience visiting Pinnawala and provide more detail as to why they also wouldn’t recommend going.
Udawalawe itself is located in the southern part of Sri Lanka (165 km/103 mi from Colombo) and was created in the 1970s to provide a sanctuary for displaced animals during the building of the Udawalawe Reservoir. Udawalawe is known for it’s huge herd of elephants, who are attracted to the park because of the close by reservoir. There are approximately 250 who permanently live the park – so you’re pretty much guaranteed to see one during a safari!
How much does a safari in Udawalawe National Park cost
The cost of a half-day safari was included in the cost of our accommodation (see more on that below). You can also just show up at your hotel and arrange it from there, or even at the main gate. The rate for a half-day safari (usually 3-4 hours) costs around 4500-5000 rupees (about $30). In addition to this, you’ll have to pay the entrance fee to Udawalawe. When I went in September 2017, the cost was 4400 rupees for one person and 7000 for two. The price goes down the more people that are in your group.
How to Get to Udawalawe
The easiest way to get to Udawalawe is by car. I traveled to Udawalawe from a few days on the beach in Mirissa (near Galle). It took about two and a half hours and cost 4500 rupees ($30). The drive from Colombo will take you more like 4-5 hours though.
What Animals Might You See in Udawalawe National Park
Safari’s are typically in the morning (6am-9/10am) or in the later afternoon (3pm-6/7pm), as most of the animals are sleeping by mid-day. Udawalawe is a hot, semi-arid environment which explains why animals are sleeping by noon when the temperatures are soaring! Because of this, you’re also more likely to see animals near rivers or bodies of water.
- Elephants: as I mentioned above, you have great odds of seeing at least one elephant in Udawalawe. You can also see elephant calves at the Elephant Transit Home which is a 30 minute drive from the park. Feeding times are at noon and 3pm. The Elephant Transit Home is an orphanage for elephants, like Pinawala, but the difference is that they return the elephant calves to the wild and they are treated better.
- Water Buffalo: I saw quite a few of these laying in various lakes throughout the park. Often quite close by to the crocodiles!
- Peacocks: there were peacocks all over the park and I often heard them before I saw them.
- Crocodiles: you’re pretty much guaranteed to see quite a few of these laying around very incognito in the river beds.
In addition to all the animals you will see, the landscape of Udawalawe is incredible beautiful. We entered the park through a more dry barren area with low brush, and then went through lush greenery, rivers and a muddy marsh area with lots of gnarled trees.
Where to Stay Near Udawalawe
There are plenty of accommodation options for visiting Udawalawe. Many within a 30-minute drive of the park entrance. If you’ve arranged a safari with your hotel, the jeep will usually pick you up and drop you off from your hotel.
One of the best parts of the trip to Udawalawe was where we stayed. Big Game Camps and Lodges which, like a lot of the accommodation around Udawalawe, was a 30-minute drive from the entrance of the park. You’ll see from the photo above that we slept in one of their tent rooms! All of the tents on the campsite are spacious and set out across their huge property, which often has peacocks and other smaller wildlife walking through. There are hammocks to lie in following an early morning safari and ample amounts of tea and food provided by the wonderful people that work there. Josh and I paid $160 for one night (2 people), which included an amazing candle lit dinner outside under the stars, tea and biscuits on arrival, and a half-day morning safari and breakfast!