“Don’t take my photo!” A camera-shy family of elephants cooling off in Udawalawe
Located in Sri Lanka’s hill country, the protected forests and grasslands of Udawalawe national park is one of the world’s best places to see wild elephants and one of Sri Lanka's most popular national parks.
Here's a complete guide to visiting Udawalawe National Park, complete with information on how to get there and what to expect from a safari tour of the national park.
A complete guide to visiting Udawalawe national park, Sri Lanka
Where is Udawalawe national park?
The vast reserve of Udawalawe national park is located in south of Sri Lanka. It sits between the tea plantations and forests of Nuwara Eliya and Ella in the central hill country region and the sandy coastline of Sri Lanka's southern beaches.
The best way to reach Udawalawe is by car and I would recommend hiring a driver to take you there. Hiring a driver is a common and cost-effective way to get around Sri Lanka where public transport options are limited.
Which is the best national park in Sri Lanka?
The answer to this really depends on whether you want to see a specific animal. For example, the larger and popular Yala national park has a large leopard population, whereas the quieter Bundala national park is known as being an important home for migratory birds, the highlight of which is the flamingo. The Udawalawe national park is home to wild elephants, so if your main objective is to see elephants up close, then you would be best visiting Udawalawe national park.
What animals can you see in Udawalawe national park?
The area of Udawalawe was designated as a national park in 1972 and it’s primary objective was to provide a safe refuge for the wild elephants, as well as creating an important habitat for water birds and other animals. We chose Udawalawe national park because we specifically wanted to see elephants, which Udawalawe is famous for, however, within the park you can also see other animals such as water buffalo, deer and crocodiles and, if your really lucky, you might even spot a leopard.
What to expect on the Udawalawe Safari tour?
The Udawalawe national park offers safari tours by jeep, which you can take as a half day, in the morning or afternoon or as a full day tour. At no point are you allowed to leave the jeep to get close to the elephants and you will not be able to ride or pet the elephants. These are wild elephants and the park is their home, where they are protected.
Our private jeep tour in Udawalawe national park with Niluka Safari was amazing!
We opted for a private morning safari so that we weren’t out in the afternoon when the sun is more intense. Having a private tour also meant that we didn’t have to compromise on the experience by sharing it with others and could spend as much or little time in each location as we wanted. The jeep picked us up early from our hotel and we had to queue with the other jeeps to gain entrance to the park.
Once we were in the park, the jeeps all spread out and took different routes within the park. This was so that the elephants were not crowded by lots of jeeps all trying to get the same view. We decided to hire a nature guide with our driver, I personally think this is the best way as the guide could tell us all about the history, wildlife and conservation within the park.
This baby elephant was about 4 months old and was so tiny!
Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and it was really interesting listening to him throughout the tour. He guided the driver to the lesser-known areas of the park and for much of the tour we were the only jeep around. Being able to watch small herds of elephants in their natural habitat was so magical and we were so grateful to have our guide take us to these spots where we could watch at a safe distance and not disturb them.
Our tour package included breakfast and we were treated to a gorgeous array of fruit, eggs and bread with orange juice and tea, which the driver and guide set up for us on a little table and chairs, overlooking the reservoir. We were definitely not expecting such a luxurious breakfast and we felt very spoilt!
Breakfast with a view in Udawalawe national park
The Elephant Transit home
Also in Udawalawe is the Elephant Transit Home. Supported by the Born free foundation, the transit home was set up to rehabilitate orphaned elephants for release back into their natural habitat, many back into the Udawalawe national park. We didn’t visit the transit home, as we felt the experience at the national park was special enough and we were lucky enough to see so many elephants on our safari tour.
However, the Elephant Transit Home is open to tourists to visit to learn about the elephants and their rehabilitation and you can also watch the orphans being fed, although you won’t be allowed to get up close and personal to the elephants. This is a great way to see elephants if you don't have the time or budget to go on a safari in the park.
We were so lucky to get the chance to see so many elephants at Udawalawe national park
I would definitely recommend taking a safari tour at one of the national parks whilst in Sri Lanka, seeing these elephants at Udawalawe national park was one of the highlights of our trip.
Sri Lanka has not always had the best reputation for protecting the welfare of their wildlife, so for any animal encounters you are thinking of doing, make sure it is responsible and protects the safety of the animal. Lonely planet has some good advice on their website regarding what to look out for when animal watching in Sri Lanka.
Where to stay near Udawalawe national park?
There are many hotels in Udawalawe that specifically cater to those visiting the Udawalawe national park. Other than hotels, there's not much else in the area, so make sure that your hotel or accommodation has options for food and drink. We stayed at Elephant Trail hotel, which was just outside of the national park. The hotel was really great value and had a pool, restaurant and bar. We were also able to book our safari package through the hotel as well.
How long do you need in Udawalawe?
We stayed for two nights in Udawalawe and felt that was a good amount of time without feeling too rushed. We arrived from Ella around lunchtime and spent the afternoon by the pool, before getting an early night ahead of the safari the next morning. We then had another afternoon by the pool after the safari. If you don't have much time, you could get away with staying just one night if you set off to your next destination after a morning safari.
For help planning your trip to Sri Lanka, make sure you take a look at my two week Sri Lanka itinerary, for the best things to do in 14 days in Sri Lanka!
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