From the moment I set out on my first wildlife safari, I was hooked. I quickly found that there is something magical about exploring the wilderness in the wee hours of the morning. There is something thrilling about sitting in the back of an open-air jeep as it navigates remote potholed roads, away from city life. And there is something about these moments in nature that entices me–that floods every bone in my body with the thrill and exhilaration of encountering the unexpected.
In the year that I lived in Southern Africa, I took the opportunity to visit six wildlife parks strewn out over five different countries: South Luangwa in Zambia, Etosha in Namibia, Hlane in Swaziland, both Kruger and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi in South Africa and the expansive Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Following these forays into the wilds of Africa, I’d often dreamed of returning to the continent to witness animals interacting in their natural habitat. I never imagined that I could experience the very same thrills thousands of miles away, on the tropical paradise island of Sri Lanka.
For such a small island, Sri Lanka boasts a remarkable number of wildlife refuges. The tear-shaped island has been designated a biodiversity hotspot, along with the Western Ghats in India. It is home to a diverse array of animals–from elephants to sloth bears and from leopards to exotic birds.
After relaxing for three days in the Hill Country outside of Kandy, Emma and I came face to face with Sri Lanka’s wildlife during a highly-anticipated safari in Udawalawe National Park.
Our original plan was to visit the island’s popular Yala National Park. With the highest concentration of leopards in the world, Yala is Sri Lanka’s most renowned wildlife destination. We were eager for the opportunity to spot a leopard in the wild and looked forward to witnessing the country’s biodiversity first-hand.
But when we read accounts of the traffic jams that often clog the park’s roads and the piles of safari jeeps vying for the best views of the animals, we grew disheartened.
Perhaps I’d been spoiled in my experiences thus far, but the notion of battling countless other cars for a photo-op of a leopard, swayed us toward booking a safari in Udawalawe instead. After all, we were traveling to the bush in order to experience the wild–not to find ourselves in a traffic jam with heaps of other cars.
While Udawalawe has a small and elusive leopard population in comparison to Yala, the park is most famous for housing some of the largest elephant herds in Asia.
Emma and I booked a full-day safari tour through the no-frills, yet lovely Morningside Guesthouse in the town of Udawalawe. For $60 each, we spent the better part of the morning and afternoon exploring the nooks, crannies and hidden corners of the national park on a private safari tour.
We started our journey in the scrublands that are popular with elephants, as the large mammals are most active at dawn.
Over the course of the morning, our safari in Udawalawe National Park brought us face to face with elephants of all shapes and sizes. At one point, our guide pointed out an entire elephant family complete with a toddler and two newborn babies. We were the only car in the area and stopped for at least half an hour to watch the two pint-sized elephants as they learned to stand, walk and use their trunks.
Our day-long safari in Udawalawe covered most of the land within the park’s boundaries. It brought us deep into the thicket of elephant-speckled forest, past lakes infested with crocodiles and through marshy plains dotted with deer and herds of buffalo.
In the afternoon, while most of the large animals were enjoying their siestas in the shade, we took the opportunity to visit the lakes and wetlands of the national park in order to see Udawalawe’s diverse array of avian life.
Udawalawe National Park contains two shallow lakes that are magnets for the park’s flocks of waterfowl. The area around the lakes is home to large herds of water buffalo and spotted deer. Like the treeless flatlands of the Etosha Pan, the vast expanses in Udawalawe afforded us the opportunity to witness the interaction of numerous species at once–buffalo soaking in the shallow waters, crocodiles lounging lazily on the muddy banks and hawks circling overhead.
The scenery and wildlife is a testament to both Sri Lanka’s varied landscapes and its unparalleled biodiversity.
As the day progressed and we explored the area around the lakes, we saw fewer and fewer elephants. Instead, other animals enjoyed time in the limelight. We admired the regal peacocks strutting about the streets, craned our necks for a glimpse of the monkeys resting in the trees and scanned the park’s open spaces for signs of deer and water buffalo.
Flanked by a crescent of purple-tinged mountains, Udawalawe is both scenically stunning and teeming with wildlife.
During every moment of our six hour safari in Udawalawe National Park, I felt the same thrills I’d felt the first time I set out in search of Africa’s Big Five. I reveled in the sounds of nature, relished the feelings of solitude and marveled at my raw and unspoiled surroundings.
And for the entirety of my safari tour in Udawalawe National Park, I was transported back to the time I spent in Africa–nearly forgetting that I was over 7,000 miles away on a small, tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.