Mountain ranges in the distance

Udawalawe National Park Sri Lanka – Asia’s Best Elephant Safari

Udawalawe National Park Sri Lanka

Elephant family crossing the road Udawalawe National Park Sri Lanka

For several days since arriving in Sri Lanka, I’ve been on a sightseeing spree. I started off with the mandatory Colombo round; visiting the historic Independence Square, enjoying the cool ocean breeze at Galle Face Green and, of course, shopping. Then, I went to see the much venerated Buddhist shrine, the Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy. After that I sojourned around the Hill Country for a while, visiting the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Horton Plains and the scenic Ella Gap. I was about to travel down south to photograph the colonial-era marvel the Galle Fort, when several local tour guides suggested that I first visit the Udawalawe National Park. Sri Lanka is often praised as “one of the best safari destinations outside Africa,” and Udawalawe National Park safari is known for its dense Asian elephant population. Well, I had to take a detour.

Udawalawe is surprisingly close to Ella, only about two and a half hours away by car. There are plenty of eco-tourist resorts scattered in the area, including government-run bungalows inside the park itself. I chose to stay at an eco-resort called the Athgira River Camp, about ten kilometers from Udawalawe, located right along the Rakwana River. Athgira tries to give you that one-with-nature feeling of camping, along with the luxuries of modern living. I stayed overnight at a rustic-looking tent with a palm-leaf roof, which had a Western-style bathroom and a bed covered with a pink mosquito net. (The bed could be a bit short for those over 5’ 10”.)

The Udawalawe National Park safari began early morning, at 6 a.m., and I somehow managed to drag myself off the bed. My tour guide quite proudly told me that Udawalawe is considered even better than some of the famous East African national parks for viewing elephants. Commonly, the national park is called ‘Udawalawe,’ but there’s also a water reservoir of the same name. The national park was created to house all the animals displaced when the water reservoir was built. It may not be as popular as the Yala National Park, which the local tourists are crazy for, but my guide insisted that tourists are “guaranteed” to see many herds of wild elephant here, among other animal such as crocodiles or peacocks.

I arranged my safari through my hotel, for convenience, but if you prefer, it can be arranged at the gate. Prices are the same everywhere and most of the area hotels have their own safari jeeps for Udawalawe National Park tours. My safari companions were the jeep driver, a stocky veteran of the safari jeep driving business, and an animal tracker, a beaming, walking encyclopedia of a young man who gave me lengthy descriptions of the park and its animals along the way.

Udawalawe isn’t what you might describe as “verdant.” The park is located in the dry zone of the island, so the scenery is mostly open, dry grassland and thorn-and-bush forest, which is actually the best for viewing wildlife. You can see great mountain ranges in the distance, like an impressionist painting that dazzles you. The first animal we saw was the common spotted deer, alertly grazing. My tracker said there are leopards in the park, but they are only very, very rarely seen. I stuck my neck out the jeep, just in case, but, alas, the tracker was right.

We were on our way to an elephant hotspot, Hulang Kapolla (Windy Groove), when my tracker pointed to a black-and-white bird with a bright red patch around its eye. “That’s the Red-faced Malkoha,” he said, a bird endemic to Sri Lanka. Along the way he pointed to many birds—the picturesque painted stork, Brown-capped babbler and the Sri Lanka jungle fowl, the national bird of the country. Apparently, Udawalawe is heaven for the birdwatchers. Around the time I visited, there were plenty of endemic land and water birds all over the park. If I’d come sometime between November and March, my tracker said, I’d be able to see the rare migrant birds, who fly in here from Europe during the winter season.

As we approached the Windy Groove, I saw my very first elephants in their natural habitat, crowded around a watering hole. They were a small herd: about five adults and two baby elephants. The mothers were busy drinking water and keeping their thick-hides moist while the baby elephants played in the mud, nudging and play-hitting each other with their little trunks; the usual toddler-ish antics.

I must have stared at the small family for about half-an-hour when my tracker announced that it was time to go back. I saw another lone, male elephant on the way back, retreating further into the bushes. My tracker pointed to a peacock strutting along the dry bushes, a multicolor feast for the eyes among the dull green bushes and the dusty brown ground. The mugger crocodiles are also the color of the ground. You hardly see them lying in wait, waiting for an unsuspecting bird, a turtle or even small deer. Still, none of this compared to seeing the largest land mammal on earth in the wild!

I went back to my hotel and liberally helped myself to the breakfast buffet right by the lazy river, as some monkeys on the trees across the way greedily eyed my French toast. I could have had anything from a standard toast-and-egg meal or enjoyed roti, the local flatbread. Udawalawe was an unexpected sojourn on my way to Galle, a lovely one I will never forget.