A safari in Udawalawe National Park
Updated: Jan 2
A short guide on when to visit this National Park and what to expect on the safari.
The Boyfriend and I took two safaris at Udawalawe: one in the morning (6am-9.30am) and the other in the afternoon (3pm-6pm). We did them with different operators so we were able to compare the experiences.
Udawalawe or Yala National Park?
The main reason for choosing Udawalawe National Park over Yala is that it's much less crowded. You get a more pleasant experience with the animals rather than a dusty race to where a poor leopard might have been sighted.
Morning or afternoon safari?
The early safari allows you to enjoy the park in the glow of the morning sun. You can observe animals just waking up - like crocodiles sunbathing - and also see many others before they get scared away by the noisy jeeps.
On the afternoon trip, you're more likely to see elephants grazing but some other animals may be hiding away from the heat.
However, it's always down to luck what you see and actually we encountered a bigger variety of animals and birds on the afternoon safari - 19 different species including a mongoose, a golden jackal, Indian Rollers and Spotted Deer.
Tip 1: Get up early (super early)
The park opens at 6am but by 5.40am the queue zigzags back as far as you can see in the dawn light.
We did our trip with Kuma Safari Lodge whose accommodation is a 5 minute walk from the gates. At 4am, Kuma takes the jeep down to the gate and then at 5.30am you walk down to meet him.
Our jeep was still 4th in the queue so don't leave it too late or you can spend up to 2 hours waiting to enter the park.
Once the barriers open at 5.58am, the madness begins - all the vehicles shove and push to get through the gates, then there's a furious rally jeep race down a bumpy stretch to the ticket office. Hold on for dear life!
All the drivers (and me because I was paying on card) fling themselves out of the cabin and sprint to the ticket office queue. One of my sandals came loose when I was running so I kicked them both off and carried on - this was the most exercise I've done in weeks.
Tip 2: Get a guide as well as a driver
If you are organising in advance, check if your guide speaks English – if you can arrange a call with them beforehand, you can also evaluate their love and knowledge of the animals.
You will have a much better experience if the guide can explain different creature behaviours and give you lots of great information (like Kuma).
You can negotiate a jeep with driver from outside the park entrance but they will speak little English and it's pot luck on how considerate and knowledgeable they are.
Tip 3: Set expectations before hand
It is very common to see drivers chasing elephants so that their passengers can get The Shot. This is so disrespectful to the animals whose homes we have encroached upon, leaving them with just the limited space of a few National Parks.
On both of our safaris, we had to tell the drivers off for going too close and flustering the animals. Don't be those tourists that perpetuate this cycle.
Be clear at the beginning about the distance you wish to keep from the animals and also what speed you'd like to drive at.
On one of our safaris, the driver seemed to be in a rush to just tick animal-boxes off for us so we had to ask to slow down the pace so we could also enjoy the scenery and admire the peacocks dancing.
What to bring
- Most camera phones just won't cut it - you need a proper camera with a zoom for capturing anything other than elephants (hence why I have no pictures except for the gorgeous heffalumps!)
- Sunscreen and a hat
- A face mask/light scarf because it gets pretty dusty and around dawn/dusk there are clouds of flies
- Water and snacks. Obviously, do not feed the animals and take care your packaging doesn't fall out of the vehicle into their home.
Most guides have a book with descriptions of all the animals and bird types.
How much you pay depends on what you book: a half/full day safari, with/without guide and the quality of the jeep. Most accommodations will organise one for you if you don't have a recommendation - I would not recommend Silent Bungalow Safari as their driver had all of the negative traits above.
The cheapest option for a half day safari is around 4000 rupees for a jeep (no guide) plus entry fee, making a total of around 12,000 rupees (£50) for two people. If you have more people in the jeep, then the price per person is cheaper.