Sri Lanka can be one of the best destinations in the world to see wild elephants, it’s one of the most popular Sri Lankan adventures for adults and children. Generally, it’s a lot more affordable compared to an African Safari.
Hundreds of elephants roam free in Udawalawe National Park, herds of up to 100. Guess what? We saw about 4! We had quite a disappointing experience compared to what others have seen. It all comes down to luck. But, if you love elephants and wondering where to see elephants in Sri Lanka you should definitely consider going on a wildlife safari in Udawalawe National Park with kids.
What you can find in this post
Why should I visit Udawalawe National Park?
Going on a safari in Sri Lanka is one of the best things to add to your itinerary. Udawalawe National Park is a beautiful National Park and Udawalawe is said to be one of the best places in the world to see wild elephants.
Getting to Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe is a small town located on the Southern part of Sri Lanka. The easiest way to get there is via car (we took a very uncomfortable taxi from Mirissa up to Udawalawe). The train line does not reach up this far but you are able to take the local bus (if you are game!).
How long to spend in Udawalawe?
There isn’t really much to do in Udawalawe to be honest, so you really only need one night. We travelled up from Mirissa Beach and had the afternoon to spend by the pool at Kottawatta Village Resort. We had dinner in town and an early night before our safari. Your safari will be finished by lunchtime. We returned to the Kottawa Village for buffet brunch before moving on to our next destination.
The details of our Safari
We booked directly through the Kottawatta Village Resort. You have the option for a 5.30am or 2.30pm safari. We opted for the early start as the elephants and other animals are apparently more active in the morning and we didn’t want to be out in the midday heat. Our safari was just three hours long, which was the perfect length of time for all of us, given we didn’t have much luck with elephant sightings. We requested a private jeep (including driver/guide). We were picked up whilst it was still dark and we raced other jeeps to the entrance. There was a good 30 to 60-minute wait for the gates to open. Once the gates open, you travel for .5km to the ticket office. There is no need to get out of the jeep here. Your driver will race to the office to try and be first in line.
It was great fun flying along in the open jeep and then bouncing around throughout the bush. The first half did not feel busy. In fact we hardly saw another jeep. But, given the elephants were being particularly elusive on this morning I think all the jeeps ended up together in the one section and it was really quite busy.
We bounced along for 2 hours and 20 minutes before we saw our first elephant (actually I lie, we saw an elephant on the other side of the gate as we were waiting for the park to open!).
We really did think we were going to visit Udawalawe National Park, the home of 600 elephants and not see any. We were getting nervous! Thank goodness we spotted a couple. I think Ned and Olive (and of course Ross, who now never wants to go on an African Safari!) were getting quite antsy with each other.
We saw a smaller baby elephant wearing a collar. It was explained that he has been released back into the wild from the Orphanage.
He was obviously used to human contact as he walked right up to us and stuck his trunk into the driver’s cab and then into the back where we were sitting. We had belts on so couldn’t move away quickly. I felt his trunk on my back and Olive had a little fit! Ned and Ross were on the other side of the jeep so were a little further away and unfazed. Our driver saw the distress on my face and Olive’s face so he drove forward. The elephant came for another look and the driver drove off before the elephant could reach us. To be honest my heart rate was up and was so glad this was a little one. I can see how it would be absolutely terrifying to have a large elephant charge at your jeep.
The next elephant we saw was indeed a lot bigger, but he kept his distance and we kept our heart rates down haha!
We didn’t take much in the way of snacks as our accommodation provided a snack box each including a bottle of water, banana, biscuits and a chocolate bar.
Other animals to see during your safari to Udawalawe National park
On our safari, we definitely saw a selection of animals. There are plenty of birds and peacocks to see, but the kids verbally said they were bored by the birds! We saw loads of monkeys, water buffalo and a crocodile. We missed out on a leopard, but they are very very hard to see! We even saw a mongoose!
Tips for visiting Udawalawe National Park
- Your driver will probably race to the gate in the morning (it seems to be a race to get to the gate first!) so there will be a wait of 45 minutes to an hour
- There will be ladies selling delicious pancakes (at an elated price!) while you wait at the gate so bring some change
- Make sure your camera battery is fully charged for the safari!
- Our accommodation provided a snack box for all of us. Check with your accommodation or tour company if they also provide a snack box. If not, make sure you pack water and snacks, there is nothing available inside the national park.
- It can get cool in the early morning so pack a light jacket.
- Don’t litter in the national park. If you take rubbish in with you, also take it out with you!
Best time to visit Udawalawe National Park
Traditionally the best time of year to go on a safari to Udawalawe National Park is the dry season which runs from May-September (we visited in April). The rain seems to make a difference to the elephants but it all comes down to luck. We had rain the night prior to our safari and apparently this was one of the reasons why the elephants were all hiding – who knows!
Udawalawe National Park is open between 6 am – 6 pm. If you pick the early 5.30am safari you will arrive at the gate in plenty of time.
Should I visit Udawalawe National Park or Yala?
When you are planning your Sri Lankan adventure, a common question many tourists ask when visiting Sri Lanka is should I visit Udawalawe National Park or Yala National Park. Both are located within a couple of hours of each other. I personally think it is totally a personal preference. Do some reading and go with your gut.
From what I read, Yala is far busier than Udawalawe. Yala seems to be the best National Park for spotting the elusive leopards whilst Udawalawe is (usually!) the best for elephant sightings. Udawalawe is also much smaller than Yala and less crowded.
I have also heard that there have been a couple of occasions where an elephant has charged a jeep in Yala. After our experience, I wouldn’t be going anywhere where this was likely to happen again.
Where else can you see elephants in Sri Lanka?
Minneriya National Park is another popular destination to see wild elephants in Sri Lanka. This was our second choice, but Udawalawe fitted into our itinerary nicely. You could also visit Yala National Park, Kumana National Park (for an overnight safari) and the lagoons around Pottuvil, which is apparently great for crocodile spotting. Udawalawe provides the best chance of seeing the elephants. During July to November, Minneriya is famous for ‘The Gathering’, when hundreds of elephants gather together. I have heard this experience described a little like Disneyland with the number of jeeps and people!
On our way from Udawalawe heading towards Ella we stopped at the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home which was established in 1995 for the purpose of looking after abandoned elephant calves within the park. There is absolutely no tourist contact here with the elephants and we were all sitting far from where the elephants were feeding and playing. The babies were just the cutest!
Have you been on safari before? What did you think of the experience? Here you will find our itinerary we took on our Sri Lanka Adventure.
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