Elephant Safari at Udawalawe National Park

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Elephant Safari at Udawalawe National Park

Elephant in the undergrowth at UdawalaweAfter a very pleasant Madera cake and tea, we’re finally on the last step of our journey to the Udawalawe National Park. As we approach the park the excitement in the van rises along with a fair amount of anxiety. None of us are quite sure what to expect. We pull into the park and stop at the visitor’s centre where we are met by our safari organiser – Noel from Leopard Safaris.

Noel is a character in anyone’s book. He is probably mid 30’s in age, a little shorter than my own 5’10 and has a neat, fairly close shaven head. He is wearing a army beige shirt and chino trousers with a mobile phone permanently clipped to his belt. He is not as dark as some of the people we’ve met on our journey so far but his overriding feature is his smile which is infectious. Noel's Jeep on our safari in UdawalaweHe greets us all warmly, actively engages with the children, quickly learning their names and gaining their trust. His “Jeep” (which is actually an enormous Toyota 4x4), parked outside the visitors centre is dark green/grey with an open supported cage on the back with comfortable seats for about 8 or 9 passengers. It has beige covers at the sides as well as safety bars all around. It really is the ideal way to go on safari!

Climbing into the Jeep seems to bring the excitement to a head in the family. And while we’re sad to say goodbye to Chris for a couple of days, the adventure has well and truly started. To make matters even better, Noel has a well stocked cool box of cold beers and other drinks which he immediately cracks open for us. Sitting in the back of that 4x4 as we set off into the park with a cold beer in hand really is the height of luxurious adventure.

This is the first time any of us have been on any sort of safari and the excitement levels are high. I am not quite sure what I expect. I have in mind an African plain with animals running gracefully in the distance while we sit in a truck with binoculars marvelling from a distance. Of course this is not Africa and we’re in Sri Lankan jungle environment rather than a plain but to everyone’s delight, the animal experience starts immediately and much closer at hand that we’d anticipated.

As we travel along deep red tracks, with low trees and bushes on either side we quickly start to see glimpses of graceful birds in the distance, remarkably ornate ant hills like tall castles by the road and the hint of bigger animals in the distance.

Suddenly the ranger stops the vehicle and Noel points excitedly to our left and to our amazement there are two or three medium sized elephants just 10 metres from us in the pushes. The car has gone immediately quiet and I can help wondering what the children make of this first experience. Close encounter with an elephant on the Udawalawe jungle tracksWe’ve been right up close to elephants in the sanctuary and even ridden on one in Habarana but nothing compares to meeting wild elephants in their natural habitat. The elephants seem mildly interested in our presence but slowly make their way in the opposite direction and the adventure continues!

Our next encounter on the way to the campsite is with a lizard larger than I had thought would even exist. Our encounters with lizards to date have been geckos or chameleons which are both about the size of a large rat (not a particularly flattering comparison). However this lizard, known as a Monitor Lizard or a Land Monitor is bigger than many small dogs and is about a metre long (from nose to tail). It reminds me very much of a dinosaur and this comparison is deeply impactful – these creatures really are descendant from animals around at the time of the dinosaurs which has always seems almost mythical to me.

The Land Monitor is in the way of the Jeep, waddling its way up the track in the same direction that we’re trying to go. As its legs carry it slowly forward, the tail moves aggressively from side to site directly opposite to the direction its head is moving. It’s not in a hurry and frankly neither are we so we sit quietly, enthralled by this large lizard as it eventually turns off from the road and heads out into the jungle.

One of the many varieties of birds we saw in UdawalaweAs we continue towards our eventual destination, our campsite deep in the forest, we see an amazing array of birds - Jungle Fowl (squat little birds that run along the floor), Grey Hornbills, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Storks, Ibis, and several varieties of Eagles which cut a handsome amd regal shape as they sit proudly on their branches. To begin with I am kicking myself for not bringing binoculars with us (we used the zoom on the video recorder but it’s not really powerful enough to see the birds up close) but Noel comes to the rescue – he’s got a couple of excellent binoculars in his truck and we can share them around.

We also have several other encounters with elephants that walk nonchalantly along the side of the road. We’re still driving as darkness begins to fall. Noel explains that while Yala is famous for leopards and Udawalawe for elephants, you do get leopards in Udawalawe but wherever they are, they tricky to spot as they’re active in the twilight. Apparently however one way of spotting them is to look out for agitated monkeys.

Leopards, it seems are clever (and possibly a little lazy). They like monkey for dinner but know that it’s too much effort to go try and chase one, even though leopards can climb trees quite well. Instead they hang around near the bottom of trees and the monkeys being very scared of the leopards start to screech and jump about. In their moment of panic, often a monkey will fall, straight into the clutches of the leopard.