Fancy watching herds of wild elephant roam Sri Lankan plains with only the sound of your heart beating in your ears, the wind blowing through the trees and the odd bird chirping in the distance?
Or seeing wild buffalo running full-pelt towards watering holes and feeling the thudding of their hooves through the ground?
Or hearing pelicans take off from water just in front of you and hearing the whoosh of their wings as they flap to gain elevation?
And we experienced all of that and a whole lot more alone when we discovered two of Sri Lanka’s ‘off the beaten track’ national parks.
Sri Lanka’s lesser known national parks are beautiful and are largely untouched, seeing very few tourists. So, the chances are when you go you may be the only ones there, like we were.
Because the animals are not as used to seeing humans, they are more shy and spotting them is not guaranteed. However, we found adventure in that – we were more switched on and avidly scouring the horizon for large dark objects, checking in trees for unusual shapes and in bushes for any movement.
We were on tenterhooks as we turned every corner, eager to know whether this turn would bring us face to face with a large grey nose.
And, this meant that we were more appreciative and excited when we did spot something. There wasn’t any feelings of ‘oh look, there’s another elephant’ or needing to wait until other jeeps moved out the way before seeing them.
Whispering ‘Oh my god, it’s huge – reverse, reverse!’ as we slowly turned a corner and saw a male elephant charging over to its baby, is still a super special moment of ours.
As is spotting an elephant cool itself off by throwing soil on its back whilst we bobbed around in a little green boat, with only the lapping of the water as a soundtrack.
If you want to visit one of Sri Lanka’s lesser known national parks and go on safari in Sri Lanka without other tourists, read on.
We visited three national parks during our month in Sri Lanka, Maduru Oya, Gal Oya and the more well-known Udawalawe National Park.
Largely because we weren’t sharing them with anyone else.
How We Visited Sri Lanka’s ‘Off The Beaten Track’ National Parks
Gal Oya National Park
Our first Sri Lankan safari experience was at Gal Oya National Park, just 20km west of Ampara. Check out our full experience here or read on for the basics and logistics.
Information about how to book and visit the park was limited when we went, so here’s a little ‘how to’ visit Gal Oya National Park guide from the ‘FaB guinea pigs in-the-know’.
Contacting Gal Oya National Park
When we were in Trincomalee, the owner of our guesthouse kindly called Gal Oya National Park (their number is +94 63 2 242002) and booked us in for a boat safari in two days time.
Go for this option unless you’re fluent in Sinhalese or want to attempt the ‘do you speak English?’ conversation. You could just risk turning up at the site office on the day, but we like a little piece of mind.
You have the choice of an early morning or afternoon safari so be prepared with an answer.
Where To Stay
Ampara seems the best and closest town to the National Park to aim for and while there isn’t a huge choice of guesthouses, there are some and they’re pretty decent value. Have a squizz here and take your pick.
It’s actually a cool little town which sees very few tourists and so, food is local, good and ‘Sri Lankan’ prices – just how we like it.
Alternatively, you can choose the more expensive (though it does look lush) and potentially less risky option of booking to stay at Gal Oya Lodge and taking one of their organised ‘experiences’. Which will mean forking out a whole heap on accommodation PLUS around $125 for a minimum of 4 people for the safari.
But where’s the adventure in that??
We opted to DIO (do it ourselves) and saving ourselves $300.
We took a punt on a guesthouse in Ampara, 20km away from the park. The White House guesthouse cost us £11 for the night, which while cheap, wasn’t the best place we’ve ever stayed in.
Unfortunately, you win some you lose some when you take a punt and we thoroughly lost this one. So we’d recommend you pick another guesthouse in Ampara for your pre-safari night’s kip.
How To Get There
To Get To Ampara
We caught a local bus from Trincomalee bus station to Ampara which took us about five hours. It passes through Batticaloa, so if you’re anywhere along the east coast around there, you should be able to make your way to Ampara by local bus. Expect to pay a couple of pounds maximum for that kind of journey. And, have your maps.me poised so you can signal to the driver you’d like to get off when you’re near your accommodation.
To Get To The National Park
If you’ve opted to see the animals as soon as they wake up, it’s worth organising a tuk tuk to come and pick you up from your guesthouse at 5am, as it may be a bit arduous to locate one on the street that early in the morning. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the park from Ampara.
It cost us 1000 rupees to be picked up from our guesthouse at 5am and driven to the park.
If you’re interested in the full lowdown then check it out in this article, but if you’re on a smash-and-grab mission, this is what you need to know…
- The park opens at 6am. If you opt for the early slot you may have to wait a little for the guys to arrive into work! Head into the office if it’s open and get yourselves signed up to a safari.
- They offer a few different safari options with a jeep or boat. We fancied the tranquility of a boat and potential to catch wild elephants swimming, and so our write up is about the boat safari.
- The boat safari costs c.7000 rupees for the whole boat. So, as this is for the whole boat, it will obviously get cheaper if you have more people in your group.
We were assigned a lovely boatman, who was also our guide, and bundled into a jeep down to Senanayake Samudra lake.
If you’re lucky you might see wild elephants swimming across the lake. Unfortunately we weren’t – this is nature after all – but we did see crocodiles and elephants on the plains and a huge number of birds; sea eagles, pelicans, herons, igrit, comer and kites.
We were blown away by the whole experience.
At the end of your safari if you want to catch a bus back to Ampara, walk out of the park back towards the main road. You’ll see a bus stop on the left hand side of the road to wait for passing buses.
Maduru Oya National Park
Maduru Oya National Park was our second safari in our month in Sri Lanka. This time in a jeep, but still with no other tourists around. Check out our full experience here or read on for the basics and logistics.
How To Get There
Just a three hour local bus ride from Kandy, we visited Maduru Oya National Park on an overnight DIY excursion. However, if you’re coming down or up the east coast, you could also catch a local bus on your way from Passikudah, Trincomalee or Batticaloa.
From Kandy we took the number 22 (via Mahiyanagana) bus from the main bus station in town. If you want to guarantee a seat, go for one of the number 22s that isn’t going soon and be prepared to wait at least 20-30 minutes before it departs.
The journey through The Knuckles mountain range is beautiful with lovely scenery to keep you entertained along the way.
Where To Stay
We stayed at Blue Lake Ridge Lodge who we also organised our safari through. When booking you could mention that you’d like to do that and ask them for a quote.
When we eventually reached the the lodge we instantly relaxed. It is set on a pretty lake and is more of a family home than a hotel, with some large air-conditioned rooms and comfy beds.
We spent a chilled afternoon walking around the lake and drinking tea at the lodge. A little wander into nearby Maha Oya for some snacks and supplies was also on the cards.
The next morning was another pre-dawn start to go on safari. We arranged this with the owner of the lodge for 5:30am the next morning.
This time in a jeep rather than a boat, we drove through dawn to the park. The drive there alone gave us gorgeous wild elephants at the side of the road. I could have turned around then and gone back to bed!
Instead, we had an amazing four hours off-roading experience all around Maduru Oya seeing hundreds of deer, birds and water buffalo.
Another safari, totally different to the last.
This one left us with an adrenaline buzz and that wonderful smug feeling that we were one of the few that had experienced it.
Good luck with your adventure to Gal Oya National Park and Maduru Oya National Park – let us know how you got on!