Watching elephants in their natural habitat is just fabulous, especially if like me you’ve travelled to places where they live in less happy circumstances. Udawalawe National Park is not one of those places – it’s got over 300 sq km for the wild elephants to roam free.

Being more of a culture and history lover, I’d never been on a jeep safari before and not been tempted by Africa. But the diverse nature of Sri Lanka meant it was an option for my trip there, so I snapped up the chance for a taster.

There are lots of national parks in the country including some very famous and popular ones like Yala, where there are said to be leopards. Though no one I know that’s been there has been lucky enough to spot them. But elephants were what we were most interested in seeing and in Udawalawe you’re pretty guaranteed of that.

We stayed at Max Safari Villas, a small homestay tucked away in a quiet spot in Udawalawe village with two rooms in the main house and a bigger separate chalet with a double and single bed that my friend and I booked. It was really nice and spacious with its own veranda and chairs.

As well as the homestay Max has four jeeps and has been running safaris into the park for over 10 years. He said we wouldn’t need to hire one of the guides that hang out at the park ticket office and he was right. Our driver was brilliant at spotting the wildlife and finding quiet tracks for us to drive down.
Very soon after driving into the park he headed off to the left, leaving other jeeps behind and within a few minutes we’d spotted our first elephant. It was a bit far away for the zoom on my camera and we thought that was as good as it would get.

We were wrong. Not longer afterwards he spotted a mother and baby emerging from the bushes. We pulled up and quietly watched as they ambled around, gently pushing against each other before eventually making their way across the dirt road in front of us.

Driving on we came to a pond and an elephant was just making its way in for a drink. The driver told us they take in 200 litres of water a day and eat 150kg of foliage. Again we spent a quiet and brilliant few minutes watching as he drank and also emptied his bowels – the ultimate multi-tasking!

The next half hour or so was quieter on the elephant front, but as we drove through the trees and bushes the driver spotted birds to show us, including the local egrets but also to our surprise lots of peacocks.

Then we came into a different landscape with scrub, trees stripped bare and pools of water that were either populated by water buffalo or crocodiles. The latter were extremely difficult to see as are very good as blending in to their surroundings, but the driver knew where to look and how to spot them.

The rest of our three hour safari went by in a similar way and by the end we were very happy with what we’d seen. And from talking to other people later it sounded like we’d got much closer to the elephants than most.

We’d considered doing a second safari early the next morning, but were thinking we probably wouldn’t see any more than we already had. Then Max said the elephants were tending to come out more in the afternoons when the weather was warmer, so that decided us.

Instead we went to the 9am feeding time at Udawalawe’s Elephant Transit Home. It’s a place where injured and orphaned elephants from the park are rehabilitated and then released back into the wild. It’s supported by the Born Free Foundation so is well run and we hadn’t heard or read any negative stories about it, unlike the more famous Pinnewala orphanage near Kandy. There are concerns about the amount of elephant and human contact there and that it’s become more like a zoo.

The feeding time in Udawalawe was great to watch as they bring the elephants down in small groups, first giving them milk from bottles and then letting them munch away on the green stuff. Yes there was a group of tourists watching, but we were far enough away on a platform to not disturb or distress the elephants.

So all in all an excellent first experience of a national park safari. Though whether it’s persuaded me to go to Africa and spend days in a bumpy jeep, potentially not spotting anything for hours, we’ll have to see!

Click on an image below to scroll through more photos and visit my YouTube channel for a couple more videos. And check the Sri Lanka section of my blog for more posts about this fascinating country.