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  • Writer's pictureDeb Smithers

Udawalawe National Park - Sri Lanka

Safari Adventures and the Majestic Giants.

Spending time in the south of Sri Lanka is always remarkable, I love the seaside villages with their relaxed surfing vibe. I stayed in the village of Talalla, which is a half hour from Hiriketiya. I had friends that were working at the village retreat and we were to enjoy a week of surfing and indulge in some of the wonderful Sri Lankan cuisine.

Beach chairs sunset and the ocean, Sri Lanka

They had asked if I would be the guide for several guests who were staying at the retreat and were offered a day on one of the Safari tours. The plan sounded perfect to me, I get to spend the day driving through the National Park in a jeep and hang out with the magnificent elephants, while the friend gets to take a much-needed day of rest.

Happy to help!

Illustration of a plam leaf

With a 4 am start from Dickwella, I was loaded into a tuk-tuk and we zoomed through the darkness and into the town to greet the guests who were embarking on the day's safari adventure. We were served a cup of Sri Lankan coffee, then into the little minivan we all clambered and swiftly began the journey to Udawalawa.

The trip takes 1-2 hours depending on the madness of the traffic. You can get to Udawalawa by Bus, Taxi, or car and it is very cheap. Although some do, I would not recommend riding in a tuk-tuk for a long trip. The heat is stifling, the roads are dodgy and the drivers are a little crazy.

To make the journey interesting, the resort left me some information and trivia on the rehabilitation of the elephants and the history of the park to share with the guests before we began the tour, it was the multicultural trivia games that made the journey to Udawalawa quite fun.

We took a break at the wonderful Niwahana Restaurant for breakfast. Nothing too fancy but quality meals. Rice, Dahl, curry and pancakes. The restaurant also offers a buffet lunch, breakfast will set you back about $5 and there is Strong, thick, black coffee to enjoy, similar to that in Indonesia, as it certainly packs a punch.

Illustration of a palm leaf

We set off in the jeep with our driver and headed to the Udawalawe National Park. The jeep is very open and different scenarios begin to race through my head as we arrive at the entrance. We have our passes cleared and are given the rundown on how not to get killed, etc. Swiftly those memories of my encounter with a wild Orangutan in Sumatra returned.

4 ladies ready to take a tour in a jeep in Sri Lanka

There is a choice of 2 parks to visit, Yala is known as the best place in the world to see wild leopards and hence it can get very crowded.

Udawalawa is known for its herds of roaming elephants and is much quieter. Our Safari trip saw us only passing 2 other jeeps during the entire day, which made the moment more relaxed and special.

Elephants and their babies taking a swim in the river

Udawalawe National Park is home to over 500 wild elephants so you're almost guaranteed to experience a wonderful encounter. The park also includes monkeys, buffalo, deer, wild boar, and crocodiles.

Buffalo cooling down in a mud puddle in Sumatera

There are hundreds of species of birds including Eagles, Kingfishers, peacocks, and hornbills. The Sloth and Leopard also live in the park but sightings are quite rare.

Illustration of a monkey

Udawalawe National Park is on the boundary of Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces and was created to provide a sanctuary for wild animals that were unfortunately displaced when construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir on the Walawe River began. Now the reservoir is the main water source for the park's animals.

When organizing the tour on your own, you will be hit with many fees before you can enter, such as vehicle fees, entrance fees, passes, and service charges. There is also Jeep hire, and you can no longer book passes on both parks' websites, so doing it yourself can become quite a big deal. I suggest taking the tour, it is all organized and you are straight in and ready to hang with these gentle giants.

Yala Park passes start at $65, and Udawalawa Park passes start at $40. If you're tempted to book the luxury jeep for the day, you will find there is not much difference, it is still the same jeep. The retreat had organized all the passes for the guests prior so entry into the park was a breeze.

water covering the ground and bare tree tops poking through. Wetlands of Sumatera

As we travel through the park's diverse landscapes, including grasslands, scrublands, and wetlands, I am in awe. Seeing these animals in their habitat is breathtaking and exciting, but still with a hint of unease when it comes to entering this unpredictable territory.

Observing up close the Elephants with their babies, being amazed at their gentle and loving nature. My heart began to race with the encounter of a huge young male with a strong attitude, as he made his way faster toward the jeep, making us aware that our presence was not desired. With that, we were very quick to move on.

Mother and her calf get water from a puddle on the road.

The park's biodiversity adds to the overall safari experience.  No photos can do justice to the beauty of the park and the array of fascinating wildlife.

After hearing about the Elephant Orphanage which was a 40-minute trip away, I asked our driver (for a small fee), to take us out to visit the Orphanage at Udawalawa before heading back. We still had time and the tour was still under budget, leaving enough to pay the donation from the guests to enter the Orphanage grounds. I gave a 16000 LKR ( $70 ) donation from our group of 5.

Illustration of a leaf

There are two government orphanages in Sri Lanka, Pinnawala and Udalwalawa.

The Udawalawa Elephant Orphanage began in 1995, solely to serve as a transit home for the orphaned calves to be rehabilitated back into the wild. There is also a very cool museum and learning center which displays some spectacular photography.

Elephant orphange with a sign saying "Be quiet"

When you arrive you make your donation and there are a few small benches for you to sit on that are reasonably close, but they stress that you are to keep very still and quiet when the gates are opened and the elephants come up to the feeding bays. In groups of 4, they drink until they are piloted to move along by the elephant carers. I imagine nobody likes to see an animal tamer with a big cane, but do consider they are very large, strong animals, with the mindset of a very hungry toddler. The handlers are quite gentle considering.

Illustration of a fern leaf

There are 4 feeding sessions for the babies at 9 am, 12, 3 pm & 6 pm and it is very heartening to witness. Enjoy the hilarious elephant tantrums as they hustle for milk.

Little Elephant twins in the wild guarded by family

A 25-year-old elephant at Pinnawala Orphanage gave birth to twins in 2021, which is extremely rare, and was the first birth of twins in captivity since 1941.

The tour was magnificent and I would recommend it to any age and fitness level.

May till September is the Dry season and is the best time for elephant sightings. During this period the vegetation is not as dense, making wildlife easier to spot and the animals tend to gather around water sources.

Yes, it is a tourist attraction to a degree but the work they do at the Orphanage is remarkable. Our Elephants are an endangered species, and the Orphanage has already rehabilitated over 100 calves to be successfully released back into the wild.

A row of little baby elephant bums.

My favorite pic. These big, little bums.

Leading the herd was Namal, with a limp and wearing a leg prosthesis that had been donated by The Cologne Zoo, in Germany. I'm still not sure what my thoughts are on that one but I doubt anyone minded that he was receiving personal attention.

Orphaned elephant given milk by its carer.


There are only 3 elephant species, the African Savanah, the African forest, and the Asian Elephant.

Asian elephants have one more toenail on each foot than African elephants.

Elephants show similar emotions as humans and are capable of complex thoughts and feelings.

Expressing a range of emotions, including joy, anger, grief, and compassion.

The most expensive coffee brands in the world make coffee from the droppings of Thai elephants.

The word elephant comes from the Greek word “Elephas” which means “Ivory”.

They do not like peanuts.

They are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.

An Elephant's trunk has over 40,000 muscles.

Babies are unable to use their trunks at all when born.

Elephant Illustration

Classic baby elephant tantrum

"Surround yourself with those on the same journey as you"

Bird of Paradise illustration


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