There was only one reason we made the trek to Udawalawe: Elephants! I LOVE elephants. I think they are just the most spectacular, majestic and beautiful animals. With their size, they can be fierce and dangerous especially to humans who cross their paths in the wild, but then you see them in their families playing and being so gentle with their young. They are intelligent and I just adore the family dynamic they create within their herds.
It is such a shame they are hunted and poached so severely and that their habitat is being destroyed by humans. My love of elephants blossomed at a young age and my parents are adamant that one of my first words was a variation of ‘elephant’. My Udawalawe safari experience wasn’t the first time I had witnessed elephants up close and in the flesh and it definitely won’t be the last but, it was one of the most magical. We took a bus from Ella to a town near Udawalawe (can’t remember the name unfortunately) and then while we waited for the next bus to take us the last leg, we bartered with a tuk tuk driver and eventually agreed on a price of 1500 rupees for the 2 hour journey. The bus would have been cheaper (approximately 200 rupee) but we decided to go with the tuk tuk as it would halve the time we would spend travelling and was still a reasonable price after negotiating him down from 4000 rupee. He was very persistent and we were a little tired. We spent only one night in Udawalwe which does not have much to offer besides the safari tours. There is a variety of tours and hotel packages available, but we stayed in a brand new guesthouse which was still under construction. Due to the construction, there wasn’t much happening and we had to travel to an alternative restaurant for our meals, but the rooms were brand new with fancy ensuites and it was only 1500 rupees a night for the two of us. Inconvenience was trumped by price! We organised a tour with our guesthouse manager as there was three of us staying at the guesthouse and we decided to do the safari together.
Tour costs seems to work out in the following ways:
- Park admission 1500-2000 rupees per person (depends on season and changes often)
- Tour jeep and driver: 5000 split between how many people go (most have 6 seats, but we only had 3 people so the cost was a little higher)
- ‘Volunteer’ guide: 500 rupee per person (this was an unexpected charge at the end of the trip that was not explained at the beginning – I always feel a little ripped off when that happens but begrudgingly handed over my money. After all, the safari delivered on the promise of many elephants)
If you are travelling solo or in a couple, there is a chance you can jump onto one of the jeeps that has seats left or there are always drivers and their jeeps waiting on call that you can negotiate for a good price as well. Most safari operators agree that early morning or late afternoon is best (as animals hide and sleep during the hottest parts of the day). Arrive at the safari park gate around 6am or 4pm and then put on your barter face and be ready to roll just in case you can squeeze on. Of course, if you choose not to organise a your and leave it to fate instead, you do run the risk that there may be no jeeps free or with empty seats especially during peak tourist season.
Our jeep and driver arrived at 5:30 am to collect us from our hotel. We packed cameras, snacks, water, hats and sunscreen in our backpack ready for the day ahead. I also recommend taking a cardi of some sort as it was quite cool until the sun came up.
The thrill of climbing into our open air jeep and cruising through an eerily silent Udawalawe town made my stomach bubble with excitement and anticipation. After about 20 minutes of driving, we arrived at the park, entered and then moved to the office to pay our admission fee, picking up our ‘volunteer’ guide. He spoke very good English and was knowledgable about all of the animals pointing them out as the sun slowly rose over the park and the heat began. He answered all of our questions and was on the phone constantly discussing animal sightings with some of the other guides on other jeeps. I was surprised at the number of jeeps (there are many different companies in competition) that were waiting at the gate, but we didn’t follow them along Jurassic Park style. Instead, as soon as we entered the park, they all sped off in different directions and we were left ambling along alone for quite some time. We spotted deer, buffalo, peacocks, monkeys, crocodiles and a myriad of various birdlife.
After an hour into our trip, I was starting to get little worried that we wouldn’t see any elephants. I furiously scoured the scrub for any glimpse of grey, wrinkled skin while I pondered how I would ask for my money back if we didn’t see at least one elephant in a park that boasts being home to over 3000 elephants. But low and behold, we made our first elephant sighting as a female crossed the road just in front of us. We stopped to watch as she disappeared into the bush which was too thick for the jeep to follow.
Then, as we started up again along the path, our guide received a phone call from one of the other jeeps and we were speeding away towards the location discussed where they had discovered a small herd. We stumbled across two males as we made our way and our guide explained that we were lucky to see a male with tusks as only a small percentage of the males actually grow them.
Our time as a lone jeep came to an abrupt end as we rounded a corner and came across the herd along with the six other jeeps all lined bumper to bumper on the road to watch the elephant family do their thing, which mostly consisted of eating, pooing, playing and rubbing their backsides against the trees.
I snapped away with my camera furiously as baby drank from his mother and they all milled about hardly even noticing the jeeps, the cameras or the many eyes upon them. The rest of the morning was spent following the herd and then we drove back to our hotel to enjoy a well deserved breakfast before moving onto our next destination.