Udawalawe National Park Elephant Safari
A safari to Udawalawe National Park wasn’t in our original plan, it was Yala National Park. Naturally, with Yala being the most popular safari destination for tourists in Sri Lanka, this is where I did think we would find the best safari. Of course, you probably know from the title of this post that we did, in fact, go to Udawalawe National Park and not Yala. Our decision to go to Udawalawe rather than Yala was fairly easy in the end, after being warned off Yala from numerous people, locals and tourists alike and hearing rave reviews regarding Udawalawe. All we heard about Yala was “too busy, too big and overpriced” and one thing a few people mentioned about Udawalawe which hooked us in was “it’s definitely the best place to see Elephants”, well, that made our decision easy.
Our decision to go to Udawalawe rather than Yala was fairly easy in the end, after being warned off Yala from numerous people, locals and tourists alike and hearing rave reviews regarding Udawalawe. All we heard about Yala was “too busy, too big and overpriced” and one thing a few people mentioned about Udawalawe which hooked us in was “it’s definitely the best place to see Elephants”, well, that made our decision easy.
How To Get To Udawalawe
Ella – Udawalawe
If you are heading south to Udawalawe from Ella after you have finished up in the Hill Country, it’s fairly straight forward and it can definitely be done cheaply by catching a couple of buses.
The first bus you will need to get is from Ella – Wellawaya. The bus doesn’t begin in Ella, so it is often crowded by the time it passes through Ella. What we did and I would advise doing if you have a big backpack, is to catch the train to Bandarawela from Ella for Rs 30 ($0.20) and takes 30 minutes, then take the 2-minute walk to the bus station there and get on a hopefully empty-ish bus to Wellawaya. This bus will take around 1 hour 30 minutes.
Once you are at Wellawaya bus station, your best bet is to ask someone who works there which bus goes through Udawalawe, but it is usually the Colombo bus. I do stress to ask before jumping on any bus to Colombo though, as different buses take different routes.
Tangalle – Udawalawe
You’ve had your time relaxing on the south coasts beaches and it’s time to head inland for a safari and see some Elephants at Udawalawe. Once again, you can catch a couple of buses north to Udawalawe from Tangalle fairly easily and for cheap.
Firstly, take the bus from Tangalle bus station to Embilipitiya, costing Rs 67 ($0.45) and taking 1 hour 30 minutes. Then from Embilipitiya bus station, take the bus to Udawalawe (these are quite frequent). Embilipitiya to Udawalawe will cost Rs 40 ($0.30) and takes around 30 minutes. Tell the ticket man where your accommodation is and he should let you know when you are near, so you can jump off the bus as close as possible. If you are heading straight to the National Park, the same thing, let him and know and he’ll tell you where to get off.
Where To Stay In Udawalawe
Contrary to what I have read and heard about Udawalawe there are plenty of budget options where you can base yourself for a night or two around the area. The majority of the budget options are located around a 5-10 minutes drive from the park itself, on Pelmadulla-Embilipitiya Highway or Thimbolketiya-Thanamalwiya Road, leading up to Udawalawe National Park.
A couple of options for nice guesthouses which aren’t too far from the park include;
- Mansala Safari Resort – Brilliant guesthouse, possibly the best one I have stayed in during my time in Sri Lanka. The owner is so helpful and a very nice man. Rooms available from – Rs 2900 ($20) – Double room, en-suite with a fan. Rooms with A/C are priced slightly higher at Rs 4000 ($27.50). Also, you can have dinner here for Rs 650 ($4.50), an amazing set of curries made by his sister (highly recommended). The owner can also organise safari for Rs 4500 ($31).
- River Side Udawalawe – Located on the same road as Mansala, River Side is another cheap, but value for money guesthouse. Rooms available from Rs 2000 ($13.75) – Twin room, en-suite, A/C. A double is available at the same price, but no A/C. Offers breakfast and other meals at an additional price. They can organise a safari for you for Rs 4000 ($27.50)
How To Arrange A Safari To Udawalawe National Park
There a couple of options when it comes to arranging your safari to Udawalawe National Park. The options and prices that I will discuss only account for the hiring of the jeep and driver/guide. The price of entry into the park is a set price for everyone, which I will also discuss a bit later on.
Through Your Guesthouse – In the accommodation listing above, I have mentioned on both that the owners can arrange a safari for you. This is the case with the majority of the guesthouses around Udawalawe. I would say this is definitely the easiest, hassle-free option to arrange your safari. Most of the guesthouses will charge you around Rs 4000-5000 ($27.50-34.50) to book the safari through them. This is a slightly more expensive option because the guesthouse owner will take their cut as well as the driver.
(We hired our driver through Mansala Safari Resort for Rs 4500 ($31), we heard great reviews about the safari through Mansala and they were right. The driver was incredibly knowledgeable, knowing exactly where to go to spot the Elephants & he doubled up as a guide, being able to point out many other animals, reeling off facts about them).
Independently Near The Park Entrance – There are drivers who can be found at the entrance of the National Park. These drivers can be approached and hired to drive you around the park on the day of your safari. If you are getting the driver from the entrance, you should be paying around Rs 3500 ($24), you may need to haggle them down to this price. Although finding and hiring your own driver yourself is cheaper than doing it through your guesthouse, it is also more of a risk, some drivers are not as knowledgeable and reliable as others and the guesthouse will usually only hire trusted and known drivers.
Cost Of A Safari In Udawalawe National Park
One of my main disappointments with my travels in Sri Lanka is the cost for foreigners to gain entry to the major tourist attractions. These costs are extortionate compared to the entry fees for locals. Although I do not agree with the majority of the costs, I have still done everything I have wanted to do. With myself, my budget has equalled itself out on cheaper days, so it hasn’t been a huge problem.
Unfortunately, the above paragraph does apply to Udawalawe National Park as well. In all honesty, however, this was one of the places I expected to be slightly over budget.
The overall cost of our safari to Udawalawe National Park was Rs 10,631.20 ($73.15) between two people, so Rs 5315.60 ($36.57) per person.
Breakdown of total cost –
- Driver/Guide & Jeep hire – Rs 4500 ($31)
- Local Adult – Rs 60 ($0.40)
- 2 x Foreign Adults – Rs 4116 ($28.50)
- Vehicle Fee – Rs 250 ($1.75)
- Service Charge – Rs 1097.60 ($7.60)
- VAT – Rs 607.60 ($4.20)
Rs 1998 ($13.80) difference between a local adult entry and foreign adult entry?!?
Most of Jeeps hold up to 8 people, so obviously if you can get more people to do the safari with you and share a Jeep, then that would cut the costs further.
Our driver doubled up as our guide. Often, if you are hiring a Jeep from outside the park gates, you will get a national park guide joining you. Please note that these guides will expect a tip. I heard people tip from around Rs 600-1000 ($4.15-$7), so this needs factoring into the price as well.
Our Safari & What We Saw In Udawalawe National Park
Our guesthouse owner who we arranged the safari through advised us that the best time to go for a safari was at the crack of dawn with a 5:30 am start, getting to the park around 6:00 am. I have to admit, I’m not the biggest fan of early mornings, but I was going to a national park on a safari, so this time I let it slide and we booked our safari for first thing in the morning. As agreed our driver/guide was bang on time, at the guesthouse gates for 5:30 am on the dot. We jumped into the Jeep and he sped off to the national park entrance, whizzing in and out of cars on the way, which I’m definitely glad he did as we were one of the first into Udawalawe National Park and it definitely woke me up, which I more than needed.
In my opinion, being one of the first into the park was one of the reasons why I am more than happy that we went with a tried and trusted driver and it was worth the extra money we paid. Another reason was that he was such a great guide. It was like he had a sixth sense, knowing exactly where the animals were going to be and being able to spot them from a mile off, when I would have never seen them. Sixth sense and the right contacts I suppose, a couple of herds of Elephants were found by one of his friends (another guide) phoning him to tell him the location, working perfectly for us as we got to see plenty of Elephants.
It was around 15 minutes into our safari that we saw our first herd. With every sound of cracking branches the guide heard in the bush (I didn’t hear anything), he was constantly turning his head trying to see if anything was there. “Look!” he said as he stopped the car. Turning to my right I saw our first herd. Luckily for us, this herd has its young with them. A young Elephant at the age of around 2, according to the guide and an even cuter younger, clumsier and strangely hairier Elephant only a few months old. It was such a pleasure to see these amazing giants in their natural habitat. This is how all wild animals should be seen, not in a zoo, a show or riding them.
We managed to see a total of four herds of Elephants during our 3 hour morning safari. We were incredibly lucky, so says our guide, who mentioned that the previous day, they only saw three Elephants during the whole safari. One Elephant was down by the river, probably enjoying a drink, heard our Jeep in the distance, then charged noisily up the hill towards our Jeep!! Thankfully she stopped as soon as she was up the hill and saw the Jeep. That one was a bit too close for comfort.
The way I’m going on you probably will just be thinking that Udawalawe National Park is just full of Elephants and nothing else. Don’t get me wrong, the Elephants were definitely why we decided on Udawalawe, probably just like most others, but we did see plenty of other fascinating wildlife. One that might not be for everyone, but what we became a bit too engrossed in was watching a Booted Eagle tear apart its prey (a smaller bird) on a tree above our heads. We were that close, tiny feathers from the Eagles victim were floating into our Jeep.
To name a few other animals we saw; Crocodiles, Mongoose, Peacock, Spotted Dear, Buffalo, Parakeet and Lizards.
A lot of wildlife to pack into 3 hours.
Lonely Planet mentions that Udawalawe National Park rivals a safari in the Savannah reserves in Africa. I’ve never been to Africa (it’s definitely on the list), but if the safaris there are anywhere near as good as Udawalawe, then it would be well worth the trip. I know I had a bit of a moan about the prices of entry at a lot of Sri Lanka’s tourist sites, I also mentioned I have done everything I wanted to and begrudgingly paid the fees, but I haven’t regretted paying anything and especially not the price of the Udawalawe safari.
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What’s your favourite national park you’ve ever visited?
Any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments section.