Udawalawe Safari in Sri Lanka with a 2, 5 and 7 year old
If you are looking for the bare facts about visiting the Udawalawe safari and don’t want to read about our experience (I recommend you do, of course) scroll down to the bottom of this post for the Fact Box.
Hey lovely people. We are currently in the mountains of Sri Lanka, in the gorgeous town of Ella. We got here from Udawale / Udawalawe national park (same thing, different name), where we experienced our Udawalawe safari with kids.
I wasn’t sure about doing an Udawalawe safari with kids, for a few reasons. Our kids are now very used to long car rides, but generally not car rides where you can’t get out for fear of being consumed by carnivorous big cats, or stomped on by elephants. I’d heard the drives were 3-4 hours long and if one of them needed the bathroom while we were out… well, it could be tricky. Another reason was that I thought if there weren’t many animals around and the kids were bored, a 4 hour car journey could be unpleasant or simply a wasted ride. Another reason was that I kept hearing that Yala national park was seriously overcrowded, and I didn’t want to be part of a 200 jeep crowd.
The main reason that kept tapping on the inside of my noggin was that I’d heard about elephants getting annoyed at safari jeeps and charging cars in Yala national park, on the other side of Sri Lanka, and along with choking on un-cut grapes or strangling themselves on mosquito nets, being stomped to death by elephants is something I try and avoid for my kids.
After more research we decided to go to Udawale Sri Lanka national park (also known as Udawalewe national park) to avoid the angry Yala elephants and the crowds, for our Sri Lanka safari. We booked some cheap accommodation in the jungle (£15 per room for one night) and booked a taxi from Mirissa to Udawale / Udawalewe for £40.
Udawalawe Safari with kids: Our Sri Lanka safari experience
The drive took around three hours. You know how in dog years, one year is like seven real years? In Sri Lankan taxis one hour feels like roughly one hundred actual years. Suspension is more of a concept than actual engineering reality, the roads are bumpy and winding and drivers generally get their inspiration from Mario Kart or similar, but without those bananas that you can lob at other cars to make them skid (they’ll be doing that all by themselves).
Like labour and childbirth, Sri Lankan road trips are horrendous but worth it (and you quickly forget how bad it was and start thinking about the next one). Our driver said that he knew a friend who could take us on safari the next morning (drivers will all have a friend who organises trips, they receive commission) and we decided to book through him. He stopped at a house, we looked at the jeep that would take us the next day- all fine- and we continued our journey.
We eventually arrived in Udawalawe and drove slowly into the jungle. A group of barefoot children peered through leaves and came to run alongside our car, to where we were staying for the night. Esmae, Eira and Elfie waved as they pressed their faces against the windows and shouted “what’s your name?” back and forth, laughing. Kids are awesome.
We really had no idea where we were staying, but it looked like we had got lucky. Two sweet wooden huts stood in a fenced compound in the middle of thick jungle. A treehouse and an open dining area made of bamboo were the other buildings in the compound, and the outdoor space was huge. There was even a bath, which (along with a fridge and kettle) has come to epitomise the heights of luxury for our full time traveling family.
We started to take our bags and cases inside, when the guy who had come to let us into the property mentioned that he would send a jeep for us in the morning for safari.
Cue a huge palaver. Apparently in Udawale / Udawalewe the accommodation owners get suuuuper irate if you don’t book the safari with them. We explained that there had been nothing on Booking.com to say that we had to book through them- in fact there was nothing to even say that we could book through them- but they ended up saying that if we didn’t change to go through them, we couldn’t stay in the huts.
Three kids, a setting sun, unfamiliar jungle- not a combination that inspires a desire to be homeless for a night. We ended up letting our driver and the accommodation guy argue it out and they somehow decided between them that we would go with the accommodation’s service.
The kids spent the evening chilling in the treehouse and looking at frogs while we passed the time wondering how on earth we manage to lose so many clothes when moving from place to place. Travel collateral, I guess.
The next morning we were up at 5am for a 5.30am pickup. We clambered into the safari truck and drove for around half an hour to Udawale / Udawalewe national park for our Sri Lanka safari.
Now, a word about organisation. In Africa, the safaris are generally seamless (we did one in the Maasai Mara in Kenya). They are excellently organised and smooth and efficient with incredibly knowledgable and passionate guides. Our friends at TraveLynn Family have a fab post that I recommend you check out, tips for going on safari with kids.
In Sri Lanka they are chaos. We arrived to find the Udawalawe safari car park with an office, outside which was a long queue of people waiting for tickets. We had thought that the company we booked through would have pre-booked tickets, but nope- Patrick had to stand in this queue for an hour while we waited in the car. Hey ho. The kids dozed in the seats and Mum proved that you are never too old to embarrass your kids, by doing yoga in the car park.
Eventually we set off. This is where I should say that this is an honest review, we don’t work with these companies, we pay for everything ourselves and I think it’s important that families know exactly what to expect when visiting somewhere, so you’ll get the good, the bad and the ugly, as always.
The safari was good. It was misty for a while and visibility was terrible, but it eventually lifted and we began to spot some animals. We saw a lot of buffalo, a crocodile, lots of birds (very pretty birds), a monitor lizard and a fox.
We really wanted to see elephants and we’d been driving around looking for them for a couple of hours when we started to lose heart. Suddenly there was a huge trumpet from the bushes and we saw a couple of jeeps in front of us stopped to look at something.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no cohesion between the jeeps in Udawale / Udawalewe safari. The companies are all in competition with each other, unlike in Kenya where the rangers radio each other when they spot animals. This means that in a Sri Lanka safari all the drivers are driving blind, with no idea where the animals are and it is sheer luck if you spot elephants. The drivers are also only really concerned with their own passengers; there was plenty of space for us to have seen this one had the jeep in front left enough space, but it had parked across the whole path and so we missed it. By the time it had driven off we saw a flash of an elephant’s butt in the bush and it was gone.
Anyhow. We drove on and eventually (about three and a half hours into the drive) saw a couple of elephants across the other side of the lake. The kids were ecstatic; they really enjoyed the whole experience and were excited by every animal and bird we saw (even sparrows!) Esmae was particularly thrilled by the idea that a crowing peacock was trying to attract a girlfriend.
The tour guide was honestly not great at guiding. Several times we spotted animals and had to tap on the driver cabin to ask him to stop. He didn’t give us any information about the animals, which was a shame as a great guide can make the world of difference to a trip.
For some reason British people also have a reputation over here for being crazy on birdwatching, so if you’re not, you’ll need to tell your driver to make sure you don’t end up spending half an hour looking at an anonymous white bird on a tree, smiling and nodding in that polite British way. Very nice bird, absolutely. Lovely. It’s for this reason I’d recommend spending a little more on your accommodation in Udawale / Udawalewe via Hotels Combined and emailing ahead to find a hotel with a good guide.
As we headed out of the park we spotted a couple of trucks that had got stuck in the mud, and headed over to save them. Unfortunately none of the drivers had the right equipment or ideas about how to get out of the mud and ended up trying to pull the truck out by attaching a rope to the back of it and driving away so fast that a large chunk of metal came off the car. Oops.
As we drove back from safari to our little huts, we spotted elephants at the side of the road. Two smart cookies had wandered right up to the electric fence by the road and were being hand-fed bananas by locals. As happy as I was for the elephants getting their way, I also couldn’t help feeling that it would be better for them if the park didn’t go all the way up to the road, as they could be being fed anything.
In summary, we had a lovely morning and the kids will probably remember this for a long time. I think having already been to Kenya on safari probably spoilt me too much to think that it was wonderful, but if you want to see animals in the wild you will probably really enjoy the experience. Make sure you check out our experiences swimming with turtles and spotting Blue Whales in Sri Lanka too!
How long to spend in Udawalawe: You only need one night in Udawalawe. There isn’t really anything else to do in the town apart from Udawalawe safari, so the general routine is to get to your hotel mid-afternoon/evening, have dinner and get up early the next morning for safari. You’ll be done by lunchtime so move on to your next destination after that.
How to book accommodation: Book through Hotels Combined and then email your accommodation to arrange your safari. It’s not worth the hassle we went through of booking from someone else and ending up with hassle!
Price: We paid approximately £20 for the car entrance fee and £20 each on top of that, plus tip. That comes to around £160 total.
How to get to Udawale: You can get a taxi from anywhere in Sri Lanka as it is a popular Sri Lanka safari spot. We paid 8000 LKR (£40) for a three-hour journey from Mirissa to Udawale.
Car sickness: If you get motion sick then be warned the roads are winding and bumpy so do whatever you need to do- wear the bracelets, use the oils, take the pills. We recently discovered peppermint oil for nausea while on a boat trip watching Blue Whales and I would highly recommend it, especially when travelling with kids. Drivers are usually considerate and will stop for food, bathroom breaks, whatever.
Bring with you: A sweater and long trousers. It is chilly and damp in the early morning so wear these when you get up for your safari drive. Also bring suncream and something to cover your shoulders as later on it gets hot! Also remember plenty of water and some snacks, especially if you’re coming with little ones as the drives can be up to four hours long.
Top tip: Get your own jeep, just for your family. This gives you the flexibility to stop and start when you like and head back early if the kids are tired. Some hotels will automatically assign shared cars but it is worth paying the £20 or so for your own vehicle.
Visiting Sri Lanka? Check out our other blog posts on Sri Lanka here.
Accommodation in Sri Lanka: If you’re heading to Sri Lanka you will want to book ahead to get the best deals; it’s a popular backpacking destination and decent places book up fast. We recommend using Hotels Combined as they take the hard work out of looking for hotel, using several search engines to pull their results. In Unawatuna we checked out several places during our three-week stay there and would recommend the Calamander for a good mid-range hotel (it has very reasonably priced breakfast and dinner buffets), South Ceylon for a clean budget stay in a great location, and Cantaloupe Levels for a luxury break (go on, treat yourself!)
Alternatively you could stay in beautiful Galle and visit Unawatuna beach. We loved Galle; it is very peaceful, clean and safe and has a gorgeous colonial vibe as well as a lovely beach. The Leijay resort and the Closenberg Hotel are also both popular options with swimming pools for families and are in great locations.
If want to crash in a nice location near the airport for the first night or two, we recommend the Galle Face Hotel (luxury), the Best Western Elyon (mid range) or Global Towers Hotel (budget) in Colombo for the first night, or Ocean Glory in nearby Negombo.