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:
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.
To get to Udawalawe from Colombo, you have several options:
- FLY TO UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK Check prices online
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.
- BUS TO UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK Check public bus schedule
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.
- PRIVATE TRANSFER TO UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK Check prices online
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.
- FLY TO FROM KANDY TO UDAWALAWE Check prices online
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.
- 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:
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 4x4 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.
#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 such as Master Campers. We found them through TripAdvisor and after reading the excellent reviews, we had to go with them. And we were not disappointed: we organised our Safari to Udawalale and Yala National Park with them, and had an unforgettable experience. It was well worth the price.
MASTER CAMPERS HIGHLIGHTS
- We had a spacious private tent with en-suite bathroom (see photos below).
- A big comfy bed (you will need it)
- Our private 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.
Since we've published this article, we've had many readers asking us to introduce them to Master Campers. Since we love you, we've negociated an exclusive 5% discount for all our readers organising their safari with Master Campers:
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 (!)
We were spoilt rotten during our 3 days safari and for us, meal times were almost as exciting as the actual safaris!
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.
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.
Sri Lanka travel recommendations
Transportation: first, there is no need to stress about getting taxis around the capital. Uber is heavily used in Colombo Airport and in Colombo. If you've never used it before, we give you your 1st ride for free using this link. To get to Kandy, Nuwara Elya or Ella, we highly recommend you take the train because the landscapes are stunning, tickets are cheap and it is an amazing adventure.
Travel insurance: whether you go on a safari in Yala National Park, scuba diving in Unawatuna, hiking at Ella Rock or just lay on the beach all day long in Hikkaduwa, you need travel insurance. We use World Nomads because they offer considerable coverage especially for adventure travellers. They also make it easy to make a claim as it’s all done online.
Flights: flying domestically in Sri Lanka doesn't make much sense because the train has more comprehensive coverage across the country and is far cheaper. For international flights, flying to Sri Lanka can be expensive. We recommend Google flights to search for the cheapest fares, and Momondo for booking airfares. In addition, flights from Sri Lanka and India to The Maldives are very affordable, so don't miss out on the opportunity!
Hotels: Sri Lanka has a huge diversity of accommodation options. Make sure you check out our Sri Lanka content for hotel recommendations first. TripAdvisor is also a good place to start researching places to stay and find the best activities to do. Going to the hotel in person and negotiating the price face to face will most of the time result in a cheaper price compared to what you find online. But if like us, you're a bit of a control freak and like planning ahead, we recommend using Booking.com to find the best deals and book your accommodation online.