In Ella, we were woken by a knock at the door by our host who handed us a packed breakfast to take on our journey. It was 4am and we were continuing our travels south to Udawalawe National Park. Up the path, our driver was already waiting for us, early. Our vehicle was a large luxury people carrier – we were expecting an old wagon shared with others! We had arranged the day’s activities on WhatsApp after reading a girl’s travel blog. I had a rough idea what it entailed but it was one of those days where we were literally just going along for the ride.
The driver, although shy, could speak good English. He was incredibly careful on the windy roads, unlike some of the local bus drivers, and so we returned to sleep in minutes. We woke to the sounds of a commotion outside of our car. To my surprise, we were lined up with lots of other jeeps in front of the gates to Udawalawe National Park. It felt like we were lined up to enter Jurassic Park.
It was a mad dash to transfer ourselves to our Jeep, leaving our backpacks with our driver. The park gates opened and around 30 Jeeps raced to get through. We were one of the first in line and like everyone else, we stopped at the ticket office while our driver sprinted out to get our permits. The sun was just beginning to rise and even amidst the hectic goings-on, it was the most magical moment, watching this take place surrounded by tranquil desert and waking wildlife.
I was a bit hesitant about going on a safari as I had read about a large number of jeeps and tourists in the park and I hate “touristy” things. Within 15 minutes of entering the park, our driver had ensured we had left the pack and we were now alone in the wilderness. Our driver’s name was Vishwa and not only was he a great driver, but he also spoke perfect English. Not long after entering the park we saw our first elephant, a lone male walking close by. Vishwa told us all about the park and the animals within it, his knowledge was second to none.
Our safari lasted 4 hours, much longer than we had anticipated and we were thankful for the egg sandwiches our host had packed us. In my eyes, 4 hours was the perfect amount of time to see a good chunk of the national park and the animals within it. We saw elephants, buffalos, crocodiles, eagles, rare owls, jackals, colourful birds, iguanas and more.
We covered a lot of ground and it was only when we saw a group of elephants, did we encounter other jeeps. I was surprised how nice the drivers were to each other, letting each other know where the elephants were and take turns in having a front-row seat so their guests could take good photos. Again, I was a bit sceptical about this experience; I don’t like to see wild animals around humans, I think they should be left alone and not used for tourism. However, I noticed that the elephants didn’t seem to mind the jeeps one bit and all the drivers kept a good enough distance not to disturb them.
My favourite moment on our safari was when a huge male elephant came walking past our stationary jeep, so close we could touch him (we didn’t). What an incredible animal, just seeing these giants up close made me truly appreciate their beauty and the need to protect them. We also saw lots of baby elephants with their mum’s, some only a few weeks old and not at all bothered that we were there.
We had read about the Elephant Transit Home, an elephant orphanage in Udawalawe, which neither of us was that keen on going to. Myself, because of the tourism aspect of things and Marco, due to the fact we wouldn’t be able to get close to the baby elephants. We enjoyed our safari so much we decided to enquire about the orphanage anyway. Vishwa explained that there were set feeding times you could watch and that it was a worthwhile experience. Feeding time wasn’t until another 90 minutes but Vishwa asked our driver if he wouldn’t mind waiting for us to go and he agreed, no problem. Not only did the driver wait an additional two hours, Vishwa dropped us there in the jeep and charged us no additional money. This was Sri Lankan hospitality at its best.
It was insanely hot in the dusty town of Udawalawe so we took cover in a local cafe where we picked up a lifetime supply of short eats (fried snacks) and a cold sprite. Feeding time at the Elephant Transit Home was really funny as each of the 56 little elephants had a unique personality and some were rather cheeky! We watched from afar which I preferred because I don’t think humans should be in contact with animals like that, it’s messing with nature (although I understand it’s protecting nature too). There was one adult elephant there with a prosthetic leg which I found sad, he looked lonely.
It was 1pm by the time we returned to the cool of our air-conditioned taxi. Once again, our driver drove carefully allowing us to catch up on some sleep in the back. All of a sudden we were jerked forwards, waking us both us. A man on a small motorbike had hit our vehicle from behind. “Shit” our driver said in perfect English.
Our poor driver was ever so apologetic but we didn’t mind one bit – we were happy to continue sleeping in the back whilst he went to sort things out. To our amazement, it took just 30 minutes to settle the entire insurance claim. First, the police arrived to take some details, then the Allianz Insurance man turned up and papers were signed and each driver was on their way again. There was no shouting, no blame, no stress; it was incredible. Can you imagine a car insurance claim settling in just 30 minutes? How amazing would that be! In a country that has lived through decades of civil war, we found the culture and attitudes of local people so peaceful and kind.
We arrived in Tangalle at 4pm. It was time for our “holiday within a holiday” as we set out to relax on the beach for a couple of days. Our super long safari day was certainly worth every penny! We only paid £120 in total for a whole day of activities including transport, and a driver and vehicle all to ourselves! We are so glad we chose Vishwa as he really made our experience one to remember and I urge you to contact him if planning to visit Udawalawe National Park. He can be reached via WhatsApp on +9476 994 5510 and we also found out he is on TripAdvisor here. and his website here.
Next up, exploring Sri Lanka’s spectacular southern beaches.