Half-day Safari in Udawalawe National Park with Kids
Udawalawe National Park is a fantastic place to take a half-day safari with kids due to the large population of elephants. What child doesn’t love an elephant? In fact, it has the largest population of Asian elephants of all of the national parks in Sri Lanka who come for the abundant supply of water. With around 500 resident elephants, an Udawalawe safari would be a good choice for a Sri Lankan safari, with elephant sightings all but guaranteed.
History of Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park was created in 1972 to provide a habitat for animals displaced by the construction of the Uda Walawe dam. The damming of the Walawe river created a reservoir and wetlands which attracted many aquatic birds and animals. It’s backed by the dramatic highlands to the north and made up of 119 square miles of open grassland, with wetlands and dense jungle.
Where is Udawalawe National Park?
According to Google Maps, Udawalawe should be around 2 hours 45 mins from Galle but there’s no accounting for what the traffic will be like. Our journey from Galle took around 3 hours 30 mins because traffic was quite heavy. We were also travelling on a Poya day. Every full moon is a public holiday in Sri Lanka (Poya), with more Sri Lankans travelling on the roads. This is something you can check in advance when planning your itinerary.
As a side note, some people arrange day trips to visit Udawalawe National Park. Unless you want to get up in the middle of the night to get to the park for the best wildlife spotting opportunities, we’d recommend staying locally the night before.
Where to stay in Udawalawe National Park
There are dozens of small Udawalawe hotels or homestays to suit all budgets within 10 minutes drive of the main park entrance. We decided to stay in budget accommodation for this part of our trip because we just needed a bed for the night, arriving late in the afternoon and leaving at 5.30am for our safari.
We stayed at Peacock Riverside which was basic but clean. It had hot water, ceiling fans and mosquito nets over two double beds. The owner and his wife were very friendly and accommodating but for us, the highlight was the incredible homemade food. It was some of the most delicious food in Sri Lanka but it’s hard to convey just how delicious it was. The fact that the boys allowed us to pile their plates will have to be proof enough!
For more suggestions on where to stay in Udawalawe, check our best family-friendly accommodation in Sri Lanka which gives options to suit every budget.
Best time to visit Udawalawe National Park
The best time to go on a safari in Udawalawe is between December and March and May to September. This is the dry season when there will be less scrub and it’s easier to see elephants. Access can also be an issue outside of these months, with roads and tracks getting flooded.
We chose to visit Udawalawe with the kids when we visited Sri Lanka in December because it was the right time of year and it was conveniently on our loop of southern Sri Lanka.
How long is an Udawalawe safari?
You can choose between full-day safaris or half-day safaris. Half day safaris are probably enough if you have young children as they last about 3 hours. Any longer and we find the kids start to get restless. Our guide had no problem cutting ours a little short when the kids started getting hangry. If you’re staying in Udawalawe for a couple of days, you could do a morning and an afternoon safari to see the park at different times of day. See below for details on the cost of a half-day safari.
How to choose a safari guide
If you arrange a jeep through a tour company, please do check the reviews. Some offer a poor experience with inexperienced drivers/spotters. We had to flag one driver to slow down as he was about to run over a monitor lizard that he hadn’t spotted. We also spent a little while helping out a family whose driver had got them stuck in a large mud rut and broke their axle trying to get out. Our driver was not impressed and explained that there are a few cowboy operators out there.
We arranged our jeep and driver through our accommodation. See below for details on the cost of a half-day safari.
Our Udawalawe safari experience
We had an early night and set the alarm for 5am. Our host had arranged for the jeep to pick us up at 5.30am so that we could get to the park, get our tickets (expect to queue or for your driver to queue for up to 15 minutes at the ticket office) and get in for 6am when it opened. An early start (or dusk safari) gives the best opportunity of seeing wildlife as the animals are most active then (read our guide to wildlife spotting).
After getting our tickets, we drove straight into the park. The first thing we heard (after getting away from the many other jeeps at the entrance) was the call of peacocks, and very quickly noticed the abundance of bird life to start with. Within five minutes we saw eagles, peacocks, bee-eaters and many other birds we weren’t familiar with.
Neither did Udawalawe disappoint on the elephant front. We saw several individual elephants up close and in the distance, and a couple of family groups – including babies and adolescents – hanging around and feeding.
We then headed to the wetland section of the park which surrounds a large lake and is populated with many types of aquatic birds (egrets, cormorants, stork, heron among others). On the far side of the lake we were told there was a crocodile sunbathing on the shore. Although we had binoculars, we still weren’t sure we could make it out. It looked like a log! If it was a crocodile, it most certainly wasn’t our best sighting of one.
Some guides have amazing eyesight and will spot things that you may be completely oblivious to. Kids are also great spotters which is a great reason to take them on safari. Sadly we didn’t spot the elusive leopard, but we knew that this would be unlikely. For better chances of seeing leopard, you may want to consider heading to Yala National Park, which supposedly has the highest density of leopards of any national park worldwide. We did indeed see a leapord there, though sadly it was dead and being eaten by a crocodile… but that’s another story.
Udawalawe Safari Costs
Our costs for arranging a safari at Udawalawe were:
- Private jeep with driver/guide – around LKR 3500 (£15) for half day (3-4 hours)
- Park entrance fees of $15 / £11.50 per adult and $8 / £6 per child (under 6 are free) plus a LKR 250 (£1) jeep charge, all plus 15% tax
Top Tips for visiting Udawalawe National Park
Go to the bathroom before setting off as there are no facilities in the park!
To keep the kids interested and engaged, why not print off an animal spotting list. Remember to take a pen.
Interesting animal fact – Sri Lanka has the highest number of deaths from snake bites each year – but don’t worry, unless you are wandering around in the rice paddies or in rural areas at night you are highly unlikely to ever see a snake – much to my boys’ disappointment!
Accommodation around Udawalawe National Park
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