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Epic Safari in Udawalawe National Park

Elephants on safari in Udawalawe national park, Sri Lanka

The dark grey clouds, thick with rain were surrounding us. I winced. Any moment now. Splat. The first drop of rain hit my arm which hung out the side of the open safari vehicle. Then another. And another. Before long a stream of fat water droplets were threatening to take over the back of the car. Fortunately, we were ready for the rain and before long we drew an unflattering, dusty screen around the sides of the vehicle, to shield us from the oncoming deluge. Unfortunately, our views were also hindered. The supposed-to-be transparent screen was caked in dust. I wondered how the weather would affect our safari.

Despite the firm recommendation of just about everyone we’d encountered, we’d decided against a morning safari and opted for an afternoon one. Sorry guys but my beauty sleep comes first. Getting up at 5am didn’t quite appeal to me considering I was still recovering from busy life at home. Plus, the morning safari sounded like it would be jam-packed with people.

We’d instead spent the morning relaxing – sorry, no – catching up on work at the lodge. Working remotely isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be and often claws its way into our trips. But now as we trundled through Udawalawe national park in our own private safari vehicle (I know right, score!) I felt relaxed and left any thoughts of work firmly behind me.

It was only about 10 minutes until we reached the gates to the national park. Here we payed our entrance fees before our driver and guide drove the vehicle into the park. As soon as we entered the park, the rain withdrew – a perfectly-timed miracle! I was more than glad to roll up the filthy screen so that I could now see my surroundings.

There was a sense of serenity in Udawalawe. The busy noise of the raw Sri Lankan streets was drowned out by the gentle singing of birds. Stray dogs were behind us now. They were a frequent sight around Sri Lanka but not here. It was so quiet. I was also amazed by the lack of other vehicles. It appeared at first glance that we were the only ones here. Maybe that was because everyone else listened to the recommendation of coming for a morning safari. What did that mean for us? I wondered. It either meant that we were completely stupid and there would be no animals or bloody geniuses and have the sightings all to ourselves. I really hoped it would be the latter!

We had barely entered the park when we caught our first wildlife sighting. There, only a few metres from the road, was an elephant, munching away at the foliage. I couldn’t believe our luck!

Elephants are the main attraction of Udawalawe national park. It is actually often referred to as one of the best places in the world to see wild elephants. There are around 500 elephants within Udawalawe and there is no seasonal variation in their numbers.

Whilst I could have sat, taking photos of this elephant for hours, our guide advised us that we should move on. “You will see many more and they will be a lot closer.” He told us.

Having only been on safari in Africa before where animals were often far away, I could scarcely imagine an elephant closer than this.

We took a turn from the main road, onto a far narrower road which was riddled with bumps and puddles. I was surprised when another elephant came into view, this time much further away and we didn’t slow down to view it. But the shock didn’t last for long. An unexpected surprise lay in store for us just around the corner.

Around 20 metres from the road lay a kill. A young deer was being feasted on by a group of hungry wild boar. Diving in frenzies, trying to get a piece of meat were large crows. Finally, there were the jackals, skulking a little way off and trying their luck whenever the boars looked distracted.

I honestly couldn’t believe our luck. A kill! As odd as it may sound, it has been a dream of mine to see a kill. Yes, I may not have seen it happen but the animal behaviours I witnessed left me breathless.

The boars were clearly making claim over the carcass. Every time a jackal got too close, one of the boars would chase it off. The crows however often sat on the boar’s backs and occasionally make a dive for a chunk of meat. The boars clearly didn’t want to share!

The wild boars grabbed the carcass and carried it into some nearby thickets, clearly trying to move it away from the jackals. The jackals however were unfazed. At first they snooped around the spot where the deer previously lay, scouting for scraps before once again trying their luck. But it wasn’t long before they started sneaking up on the board again, concealing themselves against the thick undergrowth.

I was so engrossed in the drama unfolding before us. I felt like I’d found myself in a David Attenborough documentary! I don’t know how much time passed us by but we stayed for as long as we could watching the scuffling. I just couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.

Eventually the jackal’s attempts paid off and one managed to grab an entire leg from the deer carcass. Accompanied by its companions, it streaked across the grass, weaving between trees, with an angry boar close behind. The jackals made it safely into the undergrowth and the boars once again grabbed the kill and trotted off with it, this time until it was out of sight.

As our safari continued, we spotted more animals than I could count! The next critter to grace us with its presence was a primate, a tufted gray langur. The tufted grey langur is a sub-species of langur and is found in Sri Lanka and southern India.

The gray langur is one of four species of primates which can be found in Sri Lanka.

In the grasslands below the gray langur was a herd of Sri Lankan axis deer which are also known as Ceylon spotted deer. This sub-species of axis deer are only found in Sri Lanka.

As well as the deer, we also saw a beautiful peacock (an Indian peafowl) which leapt out of a nearby tree towards the road beside us. These birds are commonly seen all over the world today but the Indian peafowl actually only native to India and Sri Lanka.

I was very grateful to have a guide on this safari who was able to point out and name animals which I just wouldn’t have recognised. Birds in particular are a species which I don’t know much about, like the red-wattled Lapwing. These little birds were prancing around our vehicle on high spindle-like legs.

Red-wattled lapwing

As our guides predicted, it wasn’t long until we saw another elephant, this time much closer, just on the other side of a pond. It was a male elephant who was munching away on shrubs. It was interesting to watch as he thrashed the foliage around to help break it up before eating it.

Sri Lankan elephants are one of the 4 sub-species’ of Asian elephant. They are actually the largest sub-species and, as the name suggests, are only found on the island of Sri Lanka.

As evening drew closer, we saw many more animals including water buffalo, Indian black turtles and saltwater crocodiles. One of my favourite sightings however was of the beautiful Indian star tortoise. This striking reptile is sadly endangered as a result of being desirable in the pet trade. In fact, when I googled the tortoise for information, I was greeted with result after result of ‘how to care for your Indian star tortoise’ listings which saddened me. Anyway, this guy was living his best life in the wilds of Sri Lanka. He was just marching across the road in front of us. He was startled by our vehicle and temporarily retreated to his shell, before actually walking under our car! We had to wait quite a while to make sure he was safely in the bushes before we drove off.

Birds we encountered included the colourful green bee-eater perched on a tree not far from our vehicle, as well as a wooly-necked stork which was standing near the crocodiles. We were then lucky enough to see a rose-ringed parakeet as well.

Indian black turtles
Indian black turtles
Water buffalo cooling off from the heat
Water buffalo
Green bee-eater
Green bee-eater
Saltwater crocodile
Saltwater crocodile
Wooly-necked stork
Saltwater crocodile – is that an egg it’s travelling to?
Indian star tortoise taking a peek from his shell
Rose-ringed parakeet

Then came the elephant sightings. I saw more elephants than I had ever seen in my life! Elephants were everywhere. If there was a smear of grey on the horizon, there was a 99% chance it was an elephant. I hate to say it, but it got to the point where it was like ‘oh, another elephant’ because they were so abundant. Don’t get me wrong, I was incredibly humbled to see so many majestic animals in one place but at this point I has spent a couple of hours watching them.

Most of the elephants were incredibly close and I mean really, really close. At one point Lewis was taking a picture of me with an elephant in the background behind and as I flicked my hair, I was worried I’d hit the elephant in the face with it. It was amazing to be so close to the gentle giants but also a little nerve-wracking. One cannot ignore the shear power that these animals possess. They could destroy the vehicle if they wanted to. That’s why you must always have so much respect for the animals on safari. I was as quiet as I could be and my telephoto lens allowed me to get intimate shots without having to lean out of the car and potentially startle the elephants.

When I look at the elephant’s eyes in this photo, I feel like I can see so much intelligence. It’s actually very moving

I’d never had much interest in birds. Quite the opposite really, I thought they were dull and would switch off at the thought of them. However, this safari through Udawalawe was rapidly changing my perception. Already we had encountered an array of unique species and I was in awe of how different each one was. I was also super impressed that the green bee-eater actually ate bees. What a brave little bird!

Surprisingly, the best was yet to come. We encountered the most magnificent bird that I’d ever laid eyes on. With a crown of feathers atop its head, the crested hawk-eagle was certainly impressive. There are two sub-species of crested hawk-eagles, one of which is endemic to Sri Lanka. This hawk-eagle has a much longer crest than other hawk-eagles.

Crested hawk-eagle
Crested hawk-eagle
Crested hawk-eagle

Udawalawe was certainly full of surprises. The next elephant sighting that we saw nearly melted my heart. There was a group of several females and amongst them was an adorable baby elephant! It was absolutely precious.

The light was darkening. I knew our safari must be drawing to a close. However, before we left the park, we had one last destination to visit – the Mau Ara reservoir. I didn’t know much about this spot before I came but further research has shown me that this artificial lake was built to create hydroelectric power. When the dam and reservoir was created, a huge area of forest was drowned to make way for the vast expanse of water. Hydroelectric dams like this actually account for half of the country’s power supply.

Nowadays, protruding from the fresh water, is a forest of drowned trees.

On the way to the reservoir, we passed a great tree which was alive with monkeys. The brown monkeys are known as Toque Macaques and are an endangered species of monkey, endemic to Sri Lanka.

As we pulled up at the great expanse of water, we were allowed to leave the vehicle. I was in awe of the beautiful view in front of me. Clear tranquil water stretched on for miles with forest bordering it in the distance. The air was alive with bird song from an array of species which were enjoying themselves in the water. But most fascinating of all to me was the dead trees.

I have some kind of weird obsession with eerie landscapes. Last year I was gutted when I visited Namibia that I didn’t see the famous ‘Deadvlei’. This is an expanse of dead camel-thorn trees which have been starved of water due to the surrounding dunes.

Now life was making up for that disappointment. Here was my very own sighting of a dead forest! This one felt more special. Whereas Deadvlei is frequently visited and you can expect to bump into numerous tourists there, this forest felt like my own private one. There was not a single person in sight. We were just surrounded by serene nature.

The birdlife at the reservoir was incredible. We spotted an Intermediate egret (funny name, I know) and a Little egret. It’s a shame we didn’t see a great egret as well! As well as the egrets we also saw a Purple heron and a Goliath heron.

However, the star of the show was a Painted stork, a large white bird with bright orange beak and pink tail feathers. This particular stork put on a display for us, taking off from just beside us and gliding elegantly over the water.

A purple heron about to take flight
A purple heron gliding across the water
Left to right: Goliath heron, Little egret, Intermediate egret
Goliath heron
Intermediate egret
Painted stork
Painted stork
Painted stork

It was time to travel to the park entrance. But of course it was impossible to journey through Udawalawe national park without a couple of wildlife sightings. We saw more elephants and water buffalo as well as two white-bellied sea eagles!

White-bellied sea eagles

We exited Udawalwe national park and found ourselves once again immersed in busy, hectic Sri Lankan culture. Dogs were trotting down the road being honked at by passing tuk-tuks and people were rushing about.

You’d think that after a day of adventure in Udawalawe our day would come to a peaceful close. Wrong.

After we left the park, I noticed a lot of juddering and engine revs. It sounded like the vehicle was stuck in first gear as it struggled to get out of a junction. We trudged down the road in first gear, the sound of the strained engine beating on my eardrums. Cars were honking and overtaking us. We had to pull over.

Our guides lifted the bonnet and started fumbling around. What had happened?

The night was upon us now as we waited patiently. Lewis decided to go and help but the guides weren’t taking his advice seriously. They managed to work out that the clutch had snapped and they therefore were unable to change gear. Worse than that, because they’d now stopped, they were unable to start the car up as it didn’t want to start in first gear and kept stalling. So essentially, we were stuck.

They asked me to call the lodge for assistance. Clearly no one knew what to do.

Lewis came up with the suggestion of pushing the car till it was moving and then starting it in first gear. The guides ignored him.

The minutes went on. I had resulted to taking a look myself but I couldn’t be much help. Under the bonnet was a thick layer of mud. It was a miracle the car worked at all!

Eventually, a passing vehicle pulled over and decided to help. He hopped in the driver’s seat and started turning the key back and forth rapidly. Each time he turned the key, the car would jerk. He did this several times until the car gained momentum and then was able to start it in first gear. This was essentially Lewis’ suggestion but instead of pushing he used the ignition to propel the car forwards.

Well, at least we could make it back now, even if it was in first gear!

It was a very slow journey back. The screeching of the engine was deafening and the honking of horns was all around us as overtake after overtake occurred. I wondered what the other drivers must have thought!

The guides dropped us back at the lodge. I felt sad for them. They were now going to have to try and fix the car. I just wished there had been something I could have done to help.

The lodge were quick to apologise for the inconvenience. I however really wasn’t that bothered. We had experienced an absolutely incredible safari! We had been so lucky with the countless animal sightings that the break-down on the way back couldn’t dent our happiness at all. In fact, it added to the experience!

The manager breathed a sigh of relief. I got the impression he was used to dealing with extremely difficult guests. He was extremely impressed when we told him just what we’d seen on the safari. Of the boars and jackals on a kill he couldn’t believe it. “That is so rare!” He exclaimed. “In Africa it is more common but in Sri Lanka, the forest normally means you cannot see things like that.”

As if I didn’t feel lucky enough already! It had been one hell of a safari.

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