Udawalawe: Tips for a safari on the cheap

Elephants at the watering hole? It’s not a euphemism, and it’s definitely reality at the smaller of the two national park’s in Sri Lanka’s south…

Right on the boundary of Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces, in Sri Lanka’s south, this national park was created in 1972 to save displaced wildlife after the Udawalawe Reservoir was constructed. Covering over 30,000 hectares of prized Sri Lankan plains, it’s an important habitat for water birds and Sri Lankan elephants – which are also luckily the animals you’ll likely see the most of.

What to do in Udawalawe

Safari, obviously.

Crafty elephant pulling a sly one on S

The going rate for a safari varies wildly depending on where you book it from, who you book it through, and how much research you do. From searching in vain on TripAdvisor message boards, terrible Government websites and other travel forums before we left on our trip, we’d noted: precisely nothing. Just that a half-day tour could cost anywhere from 4000 rupees to about 8000 rupees to hire the jeep and driver alone. Here are your three options:

1. Book through a tourist operator

There are plenty of these online and about the nearby township, but the variance in these alone are wild. They’re also typically more expensive as they just charge you a round fee for all of it, rather than charging you for the driver and jeep, and having you pay your own entrance fee. You can also get packages that include accommodation, the safari and your park entrance fees, but be wary of these: because it’s one lump sum, you’ll largely have no idea what you’re paying for and it will inevitably be more expensive than what you’d pay if you’re going to separate it all out.

2. Book through your accommodation

Most hotels will have a jeep and a driver parked right outside, and it’s how a lot of them make their money. From our experience – after getting tired of fruitless online research – this is what we settled on. Our accommodation, Pearl White Villa, charged us a round 5000 rupees for the jeep and driver and we then paid 1350 rupees each for entry to the park. While it was a risk, as you’re never quite sure if a hotel operator is going to know the best places to spot animals, this ended up being a solid investment. Our driver was well-versed in the park, and knew all the best places to scout for elephants (which usually involved asking other drivers).

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Rain, rain, go the eff away

3. Head to the park entrance and pick up a jeep and driver without any middle men

There are always plenty of jeeps and drivers waiting outside, scouting for business. From what we gathered, these go for an average of about 5000 rupees – which is why we decided to just go through our hotel. If you choose this option, you’ll need to get a tuk-tuk to the park entrance too.

REMEMBER: Tip your driver for Pete’s sake. Don’t be those guys.

* A half-day tour lasts 3/4 hours, a full day 7/8.

What you’ll see:

Elephants. And lots of them. While this park isn’t known for the cats and the likes that Yala is, this is the spot to take in the majestic Sri Lankan elephant. Even if you get stuck in torrential downpour for the first hour of your safari and see absolutely nothing, not even a godforsaken bird, the skies will inevitably part and these gentle giants will crawl out of the woodwork in their droves. You’ll also witness plenty of birdlife, water buffalo and other critters – but what you’re going to remember are the elephants (especially the bebe ones!).

Where to stay in Udawalawe

Pearl White Villa

For a stab in the dark on booking.com, this gem of a find paid off in dividends. For starters, this is run by the friendliest family on earth. Upon arrival, you’ll be greeted with a platter of tea and crackers in the outdoor dining area, before being shown to your – basic, but exceptionally clean and comfortable – lodgings. There will be an offer to take you to the elephant orphanage for no extra price other than the entry fee, and then they’ll load you up with water and more crackers for the safari. Dinner may seem steep for this neck of the woods at $8NZD (Dh22) but it’s also the best $8 you’ll ever spend. The table will be laden with curries of every variety, side dishes, and watermelon for dessert – lovingly crafted by Mama. Sure, the power might go out once or twice but what’s a dinner in the dark between friends?

How to get around

From Mattala Airport, you can get a bus to Hambantota, where you can change onto a bus to Udawalawe Junction (basically, just tell the driver you’re heading to Udawalawe and he’ll drop you on the side of the road at the appropriate time). The journey will take less time than it would in a tuk-tuk or a car – mostly because these buses rumble along at breakneck speed, pushing absolutely everything else off the road. It should take about two/ two and a half hours – depending on how ruthless your bus driver is.

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