The Udawalawe National Park Safari is said to be one of the best places to see wild elephants in Sri Lanka, with guidebooks telling us there were around 600 in the park, in herds of up to 50.
For our afternoon game drive, we had a private jeep with seating for six. Having met us at the hotel, it was a 30-minute drive on a main road to the park entrance, passing the huge Uda Walawe Reservoir on the way. Our guide Ahmed was in the cab at the front with the driver, but we were able to chat through the open window.
After the completion of what seemed like a lot of paperwork, we went in. The sandy tracks have to be followed with no off-road activities. There were a lot of jeeps, but Ahmed and the driver were particularly responsible, and they said they would take it slowly and spend as much time as we wanted at any sightings.
We quickly spotted a group of elephants by the side of a large expanse of water, and it soon became apparent that as it was a Sunday, there were lots of Sri Lankan family groups whose sole aim appeared to be to get round as quickly as possible. However, we spent time looking not just for elephants but other animals and birds and were rewarded with deer, water monitor lizards, peacocks and vivid green beeaters. Whilst we did have several elephant sightings, they were certainly not in the numbers suggested, and because of our driver, we managed to avoid as many other vehicles as possible. That is until we were on our way back to the entrance at about 5.30pm (the park opens 6am to 6pm), we saw 30+ jeeps racing to get a closer look at elephants who were clearly trying to cross the track but were being put off by the vehicles. Whilst there are protocols in place against overcrowding, most of the jeeps are run by independent companies and although they require a licence to operate, some appeared more interested in making money, rather than considering the welfare of the animals. Ahmed and our driver were aghast at the behaviour of the others, and so held back until the other jeeps gave up. Our patience was rewarded by the sight of a lone elephant crossing directly in front of us to join the rest of the herd.
Having left the park just before it closed, we had spectacular view of the sunset over the reservoir.