Ella to Udawalawe
It was a big drive from Ella to Udawalawe, so it was nice to stop occasionally for some sightseeing and stretch our legs. Rawana Falls was the first of our stops. Our driver, Jeewa, told us that as inviting as they looked, the falls are actually quite dangerous because people swim and wash in the deep part and sometimes drown. Because of the depth of the pool their bodies are often not discovered until much later. Still, with the crowds, clearly people are not daunted by the warnings and stories.
Our next stop was Buduruwagala Temple, an ancient Buddhist temple carved into a gigantic rock face. There are seven statues and they date back to the 10th century. Considering that they are in the open air, they are in remarkably good condition. Of course there were tourists there who don’t read signs who had hats on and were taking photos of themselves with their back to the Buddha – big no-no, so disrespectful.
Our choice of Hotel Gayan’s, only a few hundred metres from the entrance to the Udawalawe National Park, was an excellent choice for our single night’s stay. Arriving early afternoon also enabled us to fit in both a sunset and early morning safari for the full national park experience.
When we arrived Gayan himself wasn’t there, but the smiling face and firm handshake of our safari driver and guide, Gunapala, greeted us and he showed us to our rooms. Gayan’s place is small, with only two guest rooms (both with two double beds, a/c and large bathrooms – tricky hotwater, so ask if you’re not sure how to use it), but he has plans for a second floor, restaurant and pool. Currently, the eating area is just large enough for the rooms he has, but the food is delicious, fresh and authentic. When we mentioned that we would like lunch before heading into the park for our 3pm safari, Gunapala immediately got on the phone to Gayan who quickly turned up to cook us our delicious rice and curry lunch, in huge quantities. Gayan usually no longer does the cooking, and has a chef employed, but the chef was going to be away for a couple of days, so we were lucky to sample Gayan’s cooking – renowned on TripAdvisor.
Afternoon – Udawalawe National Park
So we were amply replenished for our safari, and climbed aboard the jeep with its stadium seating. Once again in our travels of India and Sri Lanka, we were glad we had a more mature driver who was vastly experienced and not one of the young hoons whose jeep driving behaviour and proximity to the animals left much to be desired.
We were only 300 metres inside the gate of the park when we saw our first elephant. We were madly taking pics and videos not realising that there would be many, many more to see as we drove along. It was a bit like our first stop on Galapagos where we saw our first sea lion and spent ages photographing that sole beast, only to go over the rise of the hill and see literally hundreds of them. As we drove, the gifts just kept coming; babies with their mums and aunties and cousins, eating, drinking, playing in the mud baths. One bull sauntered up to his mate with clear intentions of a not so intimate moment, but nothing eventuated – guess she wasn’t in the mood (although he CLEARLY was!) and she just wandered away. Oh, well. Good luck next time.
Headed out of the scrubby area to a more open plain section near water and saw herds of water buffalo and wild buffalo. In the same area was quite a large herd of elephants and so we stayed a while, loving the experience and privilege of being so close to such wonderful and intelligent animals, watching their interactions and routines. Saw a young bull elephant strutting his stuff and advancing towards the group showing off his package, but when he saw the older and much larger male poke his head out of the foliage, he did a quick turn and jogged off – the fastest we saw an elephant move the whole time we were there!
We were even lucky enough to see a baby ‘tusker’ – apparently only 5% of the Sri Lankan boy elephants have tusks, which is why they have been such a target throughout the centuries. He was such a cutie, and was snacking on the shrubbery with his small sibling and cousin companions, never far from mum, of course.
The birdlife was marvellous to behold as well, but many of the younger set (both drivers and their clients) did not appear to appreciate them. Our focus on our afternoon visit was on the big animals, with the next morning yielding some lovely bird action.
Headed out of the park after over three hours of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ and snapping off photographs like paparazzi. We were glowing with pleasure with what we had seen and experienced, and our safari guide, Gunapala, was equally thrilled that he had pleased us.
When we got back to our digs, we were surprised to discover that the chef had returned. His meal was spot on, authentic, tasty, fresh Sri Lankan, too – it would be hard to choose which meal I preferred as they were both delicious. And we ate far too much simply because it was there, it was good and we could! Jeewa had mentioned to our hosts that beetroot curry had become one of our favourites, so they made sure it was one of the curries on offer (must try that one at home!).
Morning – Udawalawe National Park
Our next morning needed a very early start to the day – 5:30am rise to be in the jeep at 6am (breakfast to be eaten on our return, but after such a massive indulgence the night before, we weren’t exactly craving more food!).
When we got to the park the jeeps were all banked up waiting to get their tickets. While we waited in the jeep we passed judgement on the younger, arrogant drivers who rudely parked others in and blocked the only entrance/exit with their crap parking. Amused us while we waited. We thought we had made a grave error not getting there earlier, but the ticket sales didn’t start until 6am, and somehow, our man, Gunapala, managed to run out of the office before most of the other young ones who were clearly there before him. I don’t know if he had the means or charm to jump the line or if he had contacts high up, but we were off before the other 20 or so jeeps that were there before us. Nicely done, Gunapala! (And yet another reason to stay at Hotel Gayan’s and hire his recommended safari guide and driver.)
So off we went. The moment we were through the gates, we turned off on a side road to the right, whereas all the “young’ns” were going straight ahead. They were clearly after the biggies, and we were more interested in the birds on our morning safari. But that didn’t stop us still seeing many elephants and buffalos, but we did get some wonderful sightings of feathered beauties.
We saw an impressive range of animals:
Elephants, macaques, water buffalo, wild buffalo, crocodiles, spotted deer, gray langurs, mongoose, herons, cranes, kingfishers, bee eaters, cormorants, crested hawk eagles, brahminy kites (known as the red-backed sea eagle in Australia), peacocks, pelicans, painted storks, green imperial pigeons, white faced starlings, red-wattled lapwings. We heard, but didn’t see, the national bird – the jungle fowl, which looks like a rooster.
Our safari driver had over 16 years experience so he knew when and where to go for the things we wanted to see. We were even lucky enough to see two peacocks presenting. Hilarious that another jeep with the young ones in it screeched to a halt to see what we were looking at, and when they realised it was “only a peacock,” they took off again, not at all interested. Maybe birds are an old person’s ‘thing.’
Farewell Hotel Gayan’s
After our hours in the park, we went back to Hotel Gayan’s for our sumptuous breakfast and a refreshing shower. Once again were presented with an abundance of food: a gigantic platter of string hoppers with potato curry and coconut sambal. Must find a Sri Lankan restaurant in Sydney! We said our goodbyes, so very grateful for the hospitality, food and outstanding safari experiences. Udawalawe was a hard to beat adventure for animal lovers.
Our Sri Lankan journey continues with Unawatuna…
Accommodation: Hotel Gayan’s
Tour Company: JF Tours & Travels