Udawalawe is a national park which lies on the boundary of Sabaragamuwa and Uva provinces, Sri Lanka. It is famous for its large wild elephant population, making an excellent destination for safari-style tours.
Udawalawe National Park is a wildlife sanctuary which was constructed to safeguard the animals which were misplaced during the construction of the Udawalawe reservoir. Although it covers a large area, it is easy to do a jeep tour which allows you to see a wide range of wildlife. Udawalawe national park is the third most visited wildlife sanctuary in Sri Lanka.
The park lies on the boundary of the wet and dry zones of Sri Lanka and it extends up to 308.2 km². Most of the land is flat, however, some mountainous features can be seen in parts of the park. The highest part of the park is Ulgala, otherwise known as the pointed rock, at 373 metres. The landscape changes from yellow to green as the seasons change from dry to wet. The park features many miniature water bodies such as ponds and tanks, which attract wildlife. The park is mainly flat and there are many 4-wheel drive tracks, so it is easy to travel around the park in search of wildlife.
Udawalawe national park was established on 30 June 1972. Before the park was designated, the land was used for farming purposes under the chena cultivation method. The park's creation resulted in the displacement of local farmers, as the land was given over to nature. The surrounding area is dominated by cultivated land.
Flora and fauna
The park includes evergreen forests and two identified endemic floral species. Chloroxylon swietenia, Berrya cordifolia, Diospyros ebenum, Adina cordifolia, Vitex pinnata, Schleichera oleosa, and Diospyros ovalifolia are tall trees that can be commonly seen in the park. Even though it is identified as a forest, the greater parts of the park are covered by grasslands and empty plains.
Udawalawe is especially known for its elephants. Many roam around in the park, whilst deer, buffaloes and golden jackals can also be found. Apart from mammals, many rare birds such as the European roller and black-necked stork can be spotted here. When it comes to reptiles, you can see mugger crocodiles and monitors. Crocodiles mostly come out in the evening to bathe in the sun. Many opportunities for taking photographs may rise during the tour.
The annual rainfall in the dry monsoon forest exceeds 1500 mm, while average temperatures are 24-29 °C.
By bus and taxi
There are regular buses from various locations in Sri Lanka to Udawalawe:
- From the Colombo Bastian Mawatha Bus Terminal, it will take 3 hours and 35 minutes to get to Embilipitiya, and costs Rs. 175-350.
- From there, take a bus to Udawalawe (locals will point it out to you)
- Alternatively, take a taxi from Embilipitiya and continue to Udawalawe, which takes 1 hour and should cost Rs. 3500-5300.
- Take any southbound (road to Wellawaya) bus leaving from the bus stop at the main street. Your bus will either go go Wellawaya or directly to Thanamalwila (Rs 123 per person)
- If your bus only goes to Wellawaya, transfer to another one going to Thanamalwila at the bus station
- In Thanamalwila, cross the road near the bus station and hop onto bus 98, which will stop at both Udawalawe National Park and Udawalawe Junction (Rs 100)
- The entire journey takes less than 3 hours (Jan 2020) and is at Rs 220 much cheaper than a taxi (from 2000 per person)
By train and taxi
- Get onto the train at Fort railway station. It would take seven hours or more for the journey.
- You will be getting off at the Haputale station and you must then hire a taxi. This journey is around 10 hours in total.
Fees and permits
The entrance fee ranges around Rs. 3000-5000 per foreigner and is calculated in a complicated fashion (Jan 2020): price per foreign visitor ($15) + service charge ($8) + vehicle fee (Rs 250) + VAT (8%). The total is then converted from USD to Rupees according to the exchange rate on that day.
No permits are needed to enter, but keep your passport with you just in case. Carry some extra cash as well for tipping or buying souvenirs, hats, water etc from the sellers near the entrance.
Jeep and Driver
A vehicle and driver/spotter can be arranged in Udawalawe town, online on a website or through your accommodation.
If you get off the bus, dozens of guides will approach you and try to sell you their safari. Here you'll be required to haggle, and may get a cheaper price than for the options listed below. Nevertheless, you'll not know about the quality of the driver/spotter: If they can't find the animals or approach them too closely, you or the animals might not have a good experience.
Booking online or through a guesthouse enables you to read the reviews that other people left and is thus recommended.
Tours that can be booked online start from around $100 for a half-day tour (6 hours) including vehicle, driver and entrance fee for two people.
Guesthouses can arrange a half-day safari (6 hours) including English-speaking driver, six-seat vehicle and breakfast in the park for around Rs 8500 (Jan 2020). Entrance fees are paid separately.
Getting around the park can only be done by vehicle. You can either hire or bring in a permitted vehicle. The tours take several hours and you have a choice to take a guide along with you. You can stop the vehicle at any time during the ride and can also get out under the guidance of the driver or your tour guide.
As a national park, there are no specific places to see other than the Udawalawe reservoir.
- Birdwatching - many varieties of birds roam around the park. Remember to bring your binoculars with you.
- Zoology - with a great deal of animals within the park, you could easily engage in this activity.
A small store is situated at the entrance. You can buy souvenirs such as key chains, books and stationery.
It is essential to bring along food for this trip. A packed lunch can be brought with you. You may only bring food items wrapped in biodegradable material (such as paper, or degradable polythene) or in a reusable storage (lunch box, plastic container). (In Jan 2020, this was not enforced)
Bring water. You can by bottled water at the entrance if needed.
Sleeping within the national park is not permitted.
There are many accommodation options in Udawalawa Town (at the southwestern edge of the reservoir), ranging from cheap to luxurious with swimming pool and cabanas (Jan 2020). They can either be booked online, or when arriving (local touts will approach you as soon as you get off the bus).
It's best to spend a night in Udawalawa town so that you can start your safari early next morning (usually leaving around 5:30am).
Don't arrive in Udawalawa too early though, as there are no other attractions in the area.
Staying safe is important when going on safari tours such as this. Animals such as elephants have an appealing form of innocence, but there are chances where they might charge at you. One obvious rule when going safari tours is that you stay in your vehicle at all times. If you get out of your vehicle, you will be exposed to risk. This stated issue is one reason for why you must travel with an experienced guide. Do not feed the animals.