Elephant safari at Udawalawe in Sri Lanka, a unique experience

Elephant safari at Udawalawe in Sri Lanka, a unique experience

Udawalawe National Park in south Sri Lanka is considered to be the Sri Lankan national park that best rivals the savannah reserves of Africa:

A photogenic elephant posing with a peacock

A photogenic elephant posing with a peacock at Udawalawe National Park

The National Park was established in June 1972 as a sanctuary for wild animals displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir on the Walawe River.

It covers an area of 308 square kilometres (119 square miles) and is Sri Lanka’s 3rd largest national park (after Yala and Wilpattu). It is mainly popular for its photogenic elephants.

HOW TO GET TO UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK?

Udawalawe National Park is located in the South of Sri Lanka, close to the more popular (but too crowded) Yala National Park. You can get to Udawalawe National Park pretty much from anywhere in Sri Lanka.

Map Sri Lanka: where is Udawalawe?

Map Sri Lanka: Udawalawe National Park is in the south

From Colombo

To get to Udawalawe from Colombo, you have several options:

Not the cheapest option, but definitely the quickest. You fly from Colombo Airport to Dickwella airport in the south then it is an hour taxi ride to Udawalawe National Park. The taxi should cost you around $50 / £31.

A bus will take around 5-6 hours to get you from Colombo to Udawalawe. The best is to catch a Colombo bus bound to Monaragala, then stops at Udawalawe Junction and ask your hotel / guesthouse / safari company to pick you up from there.

This is the most comfortable and direct option to get to Udawalawe from Colombo. A taxi will take around 4 hours and will drop you off at your hotel or Safari camping ground in Udawalawe.

From Kandy

You can fly from Kandy to Dickwella airport in the south then it is an hour taxi ride to Udawalawe National Park. The taxi should cost you around $50 / £31.

  • BUS FROM KANDY TO UDAWALAWE

There is no direct bus from Kandy to Udawalawe, but we would not advise to do it anyway. The scenery between Kandy and Ella is just stunning so we would advise to experience the amazing train journey between Kandy and Ella, stay a few days in Ella and then take a public bus to Udawalawe Junction.

  • PRIVATE TRANSFER KANDY TO UDAWALALE

If you are in a hurry and wish to get from Kandy to Udawalawe, private transfer seems to be the second best option.A taxi ride will take around 4 hours. Your hotel or guesthouse in Kandy may be able to arrange this ride for you.

From Galle

  • BUS FROM GALLE TO UDAWALAWE

There is no direct bus from Galle to Udawalawe, you will to first take a bus from Galle to Kalawana (2.5 hours) and from there a second bus to  Udawalawe (2.5 hours). Buses are quite infrequent so make you sure you have the correct information before you go.

  • PRIVATE TRANSFER GALLE TO UDAWALAWE

Private transfer from Galle to Udawalawe National Park will take around 4 hours and will cost you 7000 rupees ($50 / £35) depending on the company.

ANIMALS YOU SEE AT UDAWALAWE

Elephants of Udawalawe

When we organised our safari in Udawalawe, we had the expectation of seeing lots of elephants, peacocks, and crocodiles. We were not disappointed:

The photogenic elephants of Udawalawe

This elephant stopped munching to pose for us

You will see elephants everywhere in Udawalawe and you can get real close to them. Being able to see a whole family with their baby elephants is certainly one of the highlights of this national park.

But we were overjoyed when we spent a whole afternoon watching a few young leopards playing around.

Leopards of Udawalawe

Spotting leopards is well known to be hard and generally down to luck because they are elusive, solitary and nocturnal mammals, hunting between sunset and sunrise. Also, their hunting behaviour makes them hard to spot as they are used to stalking their prey by being camouflaged and well hidden before pouncing.

Spotting leopards at Udawalawe National Park

“I can see you!” , said Mr Leopard…

So the best times to spot them are early in the day or late afternoon and with an experienced guide with inhuman eyesight!

There are around 700-1000 leopards in Sri Lanka with an estimated 40 at Yala and around 10 at Udawalawe, so our chances of spotting them were very slim.

Spotting these two young leopards playing

Spotting these two young leopards playing at Udawalawe National Park

This turned out not to be the case: on our first safari at Udawalawe, late afternoon, our guides spotted some movement in a small tree far away and we stopped to wait.

Waiting for the leopards at Udawalawe

The waiting game all part of the fun of a safari

The waiting is all part of ‘The Game’ we were told.

We waited a long long time with many jeeps coming and leaving our spot…with a few of us dozing off at times…

Seb taking a nap during our safari

The waiting game on our safari took its toll on Sebastien who dozed off a few times

Stefan also dozing off

Stefan also dozing off a few times during our safari

But this all paid off as these two very cute young leopards suddenly came out from behind the small trees and started to play on the rock area we had been starting at for ages.

We were told this particular family of leopards at Udawalawe had grown used to the jeeps so were not shy to make an appearance for us.

Watching the leopards interacting with each other in the wild at Udawalawe was extremely special and a highlight of our travels in Sri Lanka. From afar they looked so docile, gentle – like large cats, as opposed to the fierce killers they are.

  

HOW TO ORGANISE YOUR SAFARI IN UDAWALAWE

A safari at Udawalawe can be done in one of two ways:

#1 Be independant and do it yourself

Spend a night in one of the many guest houses or hotels outside the park, check our accommodation recommendations below.

The next day, arrive early at the park entrance and take one of the 4×4 jeeps waiting outside the gate for a half or a full day tour (some Jeeps can fit up to 8 people), which includes tracker guide and driver.

This costs around 3,500 Sri Lankan rupees (around £18 / $26) per person for three hours. You can also organise the half day safari with your guest house who will probably organise the pickup from the guesthouse for a small fee.

If like us, you prefer organising everything ahead, you can book a full day safari online at Udawalawe National Park.

Seb with Master Campers jeep

Seb with Master Campers jeep who took us for an excellent 3 days safari

#2 Splurge on an experienced safari company

The alternative option, which is what we did, is to pay a bit more money and spend a night or two (or three!) near the park in a luxury camping site with an experienced safari company. Two companies offer high end safari experience in Udawalawe, and we both recommend them:

MAHOORA TENTED SAFARI CAMP UDAWALAWE   Book online

  • Recommended by friends but no availability when we tried to book our safari with them. So make sure you book yours early!
  • All inclusive option, everything is being taken care of, from park entry fees, meals, activities etc…
  • Prices start from $487 / £386 for an overnight safari.

MASTER CAMPERS UDAWALAWE   Check reviews

  • We arranged our safari with them and we had an unforgettable experience. It was well worth the price.
  • Our guide and driver from Master Campers were both excellent and it was down to their inhuman eyesight that we were able to spend an entire afternoon watching young leopards playing around.
  • Prices start from $390 / £270 for an All-inclusive overnight safari.

We learnt that to make the most of a safari in Sri Lanka, it pays to invest in an experienced company. This is because everyone has to have one of the park’s volunteer ‘tracker guide” in their jeep. We found these tracker guides to be completely underwhelming, didn’t speak any English and it was our guides from Master Campers who spotted the animals not the tracker guides.

We would have been disappointed if we were reliant solely on the tracker guides and now understand the value of doing a safari with a highly rated and experienced company like Master Campers.

…and it was also a welcomed change from our day to day budget backpacking (!)

Our tent at Master Campers

Sebastien having his tea at our tent at Master Campers

We were spoilt rotten during our 3 days safari and for us, meal times were almost as exciting as the actual safaris!

A delicious, hearty breakfast at Master Campers

A delicious, hearty breakfast for these two greedy boys at Master Campers

HOTELS NEAR UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK

There are a variety of places to stay nearby, the ones that stood out for us the most are:

GRAND UDAWALAWE SAFARI RESORT   Book online

  • Great pool, big rooms, delicous buffer dinner and breakfast.
  • They can organise a safari and arrange a visit to the elephant orphanage nearby.
  • Prices start from $110 / £76 a night with breakfast included.

MANSALA SAFARI RESORT   Book online

  • Great budget option, very comfortable with excellent breakfast and dinner.
  • The friendly owner will arrange a safari to Udawalawe at a very good price.
  • Prices start from $22 / £15 a night.
Two cute birds by our car window at Yala

“Do you like my new hairstyle” asks one bird to the other…

Watch our travel video diary of our adventures through Sri Lanka as we ate our way through this tropical island, took some beautiful train journeys and enjoyed excellent safaris at Yala and Udawalawe, and spotting blue whales at Mirissa.

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6 Comments

  1. Tim @HomoNomadic

    I’m loving your blog – you greedy boys! What fun you’re having – these Sri Lanka posts have been great – I’m adding Sri Lanka to my list of destinations. I think my travels might have us crossing paths in SE Asia – if so – I’ll plan my own safari and go hunting for 2 greedy nomadic boys. See if I can get a sighting 😉

    Safe travels and Keep up the good work –

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Hi Tim

      Thanks for your comment and for reading 🙂

      What’s your itinerary like for the next few months in SE Asia? Would love to meet up.

      Regards,

      Stefan.

      Reply
  2. Jezza

    hey,

    i wish i had stumbled across your website before my travels to the 47 other countries i have been so luck to visit. I am so excited i will be in Sri Lanka Sept 2016, its a country that wasnt on my radar aas much as other ones, but since i will be in Southern india it really is a hop skip and bounce over to what is starting to sound like a wonderful and beautiful country. Truthfully ive never met a country i didnt like! thanks for sharing.. 🙂 now to read ur India blogs for southern india if youve been…

    Reply

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