One of my favorite thing to do in Sri Lanka, it’s going on a safari tour. It’s exciting, its fun, it’s outdoorsy. So, whenever we have friends or family members visiting the first thing I am planning is a trip to one of the many National Park. There are a few options when it comes to National Parks but the most famous of all is Yala, as it is home to the Sri Lankan leopards. Yala National Park is a protected area complex comprising five blocks as well as adjoining sanctuaries, but most of the time when people refer to Yala National Park they actually refer to Yala Block 1.
I’ve been to Yala three times, the first time the zone 1 was close and we (Mr. GM) were reluctant (to say the least) to drive an extra 1.5 hours at 5 in the morning, so we gave up and sleep late instead. The second time, I went with my parents during their first visit, and while we enjoyed being in a Jeep in the wild, we did not see any leopards or elephants, it was a bit disappointing, especially as we did it after Udawalawe where we saw so many different things. As my parents were visiting again this year, I planned another trip to Yala National park. And guess what, Yala zone 1 was once again closed. You would think that as someone who got surprised once to find Yala closed, I would have double checked this time before going, I did not… to my defense, the park was supposed to re-open on the 1st of October and we were the 20th. Anyway, this time we did not give up as we really wanted to spot a wild leopard and decided to drive in the early morning to the zone IV and V, where it is still possible to spot leopards. I won’t get the suspense going any longer, we did not see the leopard, unlike my friend who was there a week before and saw the leopard, or our guests who were there two weeks before and saw the leopard, or anyone else that I know visited that park. However, leopard or not, the experience remained thrilling, the park beautiful and, we did get some adventure on the way.
On our way to Yala National Park
So, we all got up at 5 in the morning, and took the direction of the Galge wildlife park entrance, entrance to Yala block III, IV, and V. As we were driving along the very scenic B35 in the dawn’s early light, I ask if everyone was seeing what I was seeing in the distance. We weren’t sure at first (it was early, we had no proper coffee, it was early and the night was short…, but as I kept driving there was no other option than to believe what we were seeing. There was a huge, massive, at least 3 times bigger than the car, elephant in the middle of the road. It is the first time we encounter a giant on the road and we weren’t quite sure what to do, we were full of wows and fear, fear definitely overshadowing the wows. We stopped the car and discussed our options: to go or not to go. We heard stories about cars that got flipped or pushed off-road by elephant and quite frankly we weren’t ready to take any risk. As we were about to turn the car around, a bus came and drove as if it was the most normal thing in the world, we followed his lead and went just fine. We learned later from our Jeep driver that this elephant flipped 22 cars in September.
Arriving at the park entrance, we park under the trees, and in the five minutes it took me to get advice on which park to visit and getting our tickets and safari jeep organize, my family had made furry friends that seemed to love our car a lot. While these creatures are friendly at first, be aware that they get cheeky quite fast and are expert in stilling things.
Following our guide advice, we decided to go for Yala Block V also known as Lunugamvehera National Park. The park, rich in biodiversity, expand for 23,498 hectares, with a huge manmade reservoir that occupies over 14 % of the park superficies, The Weheragala reservoir. While visiting the park, it is possible to see the Sri Lankan Leopard, fishing cat, king mongoose and sloth bear, along with Elephant, various kinds of deer’s, and bird species a lot easier to see wandering around the wild. Lunugamvehera is one of the many sanctuaries in Sri Lanka that have been established in the interest of the wildlife allowing for a pathway for the wild elephants to migrate between Yala National Park and Udawalawe National.
We entered the park and stopped at the first pond to observe birds, water buffaloes, and crocodiles, a parakeet got his head out from a tree intrigued by this sudden bustle. We continued on the dirt roads, looking for the famous leopard. We enter a wooded area, known for observing the big cat. As you know we did not see the leopard, but we had the chance to see (and smell) the prey he killed the previous evening. We stopped the car nearby and observe round of different animals coming to eat on the rest of the dead buffalos, we stayed there for a while hoping the leopard would come to finish his kill. We wandered in the park for another two hours, crossing from time to time another jeep. Almost every we stopped the car, the macaques would show hoping to steal something to eat.
How to get there:
A good thing about Lunugamvehera National Park is that it is a lot less busy than Yala zone V and it is still possible to observe elephant and feline. Coming from Colombo, the best is to take the highway all the way down to Matara, then follow the A2 until Tissahamara and drive up on the B35 until the park entrance. If you are visiting Sri Lanka, it would be best to include it in your itinerary. A good option would be to land in Colombo, and then go to Kandy, Ella, continue on to Udawalawe, then Yala, then relax with some beach time on the Southern Coast, either around Tangalle or Mirissa and finish with a couple of days in Galle (read my Galle guide here). As for the transportation, I would advise to mix between train (in the tea country), bus and private car.
Where to stay in Yala:
To complete the “into the wild” experience, I highly recommend some glamping.
Big Game Camp Yala offers very decent and comfortable safari tents. The setup is amazing, the camp is located around a pond where if you are lucky, wild animals will come to drink. The bungalow tent is spacious and comfortable with a private bathroom. The highlights were the extremely nice BBQ-dinner with candlelight in the evening and the manager Kamal who will go out of his way to make it happen
Price: from 120 USD per night
If your budget allows, stay at the newly open Wild coast tented lodge. While we haven’t had the chance to try it yet, you can trust Resplendent Ceylon to offer an impeccable service, amazing food, and perfectly designed rooms. The place looks amazing in picture and I really look forward to trying it ( I haven’t given up on leopard yet, I made it a point to see one before moving out)
price: from 340USD per night ++, all inclusive even the safari
But if you prefer more formal accommodation:
Jetwing Yala is a good option, the rooms are spacious and well accommodated. Their food is great, the breakfast buffet has just anything you could ask for and they have a delicious buffet barbeque on Saturday night. The pool is huge and the area often visited by wild boars, monkeys and sometimes buffalos. Be advised though that the service is slow, especially the check-in, and they aren't really business-minded.
price: starting from 160USD per night in low season.
Tips: organize your safari tour yourself as they truly overcharge for the service