Udawalawe Jeep Safari : Finding Sri Lanka’s Giants

Created by Colleen Sims * 4 January 2024

A lone wild male elephant who came our of the bush during our Udawalawe Jeep Safari
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Udawalawe Jeep Safari

We spent nearly a month exploring Sri Lanka and when planning our itinerary there were a few things that I knew we had to do and a few places that we had to visit. 

Taking an Udawalawe Jeep Safari to see Asian elephants in the wild was certainly high on my list and so an overnight stop was added. 

Let’s just say that we weren’t disappointed!

Where Is Udawalawe?

Udawalawe is a small unassuming town in the southern part of Sri Lanka in the Ratnapura district.  What makes the town special is that it’s the entry point into Udawalawe National Park; renowned for its population of wild elephants.

Udawalawe lies on the cusp of Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones and its verdant grasslands are framed by the glorious mountains of Sri Lanka’s Highlands. 

Udawalawe is :

  • 100 kms from Ella (2 hour drive)
  • 98 kms Mirissa (2 hour drive)
  • 124 kms Galle (2 hour drive)
  • 237 kms from Colombo (3.5 Hour drive)
An eagle on a dead tree stump. one of the many amazing birds you get to see during your Udawalawe Jeep Safari

Why Is Udawalawe National Park Special?

Udawalawe National Park is renowned for its large population of elephants, offering visitors a unique opportunity to witness these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

The National Park was created to provide a sanctuary for wild animals displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe reservoir in 1972; now the third largest reservoir in Sri Lanka.

Largely comprised of marsh, grasslands and bush, the park’s diverse ecosystem supports a wide array of other wildlife, making it a biodiversity hotspot.  And of course, it’s special because it’s one of the best places in the world to view Asian elephants in the wild.

Top Tip : You drive beside the reservoir on your way to the park. Get your camera ready because the morning light (for us at least) was magical and it felt like we were entering Narnia.

I loved the beautiful morning light as we drive alone beside Udawalawe reservoir.  The turquoise sky reflected in the still lake

Why Take A Jeep Safari In Udawalawe?

One of the things that we absolutely loved about Sri Lanka is its diversity.  For an island about half the size of England you get to explore rain forests, jungles, mountains, grasslands, rice paddies, beaches and even watch blue whales in her oceans; the diversity of wildlife is astounding. 

Imagine driving through sun-dappled grasslands and spotting a family of elephants crossing your path. Or sitting beside a lake surrounded by sleeping crocodiles.  Or getting stuck in a traffic jam with a family of jackals?  This all happened to us.

The Udawalawe jeep safari offers flexibility and a thrilling way to explore the park with freedom to stop for photographs or to stop and watch the wildlife whenever you wish.

Udawalawe is easily accessible if you’re visiting Sri Lanka and offers you the chance to get up-close and personal with so much wildlife but at a fraction of the cost of other safari tours.

a small family of Jackals crossed our path as we drove around the park

What Can You Expect From An Udawalawe Jeep Safari?

The park is home to a rich variety of wildlife, including elephants, water buffalo, deer, crocodiles, and numerous bird species. If you’re lucky, you might even spot one of the parks leopards and sloth bears (although these sightings are very rare).

Honestly, be prepared to be dazzled! The open-air jeep allows for unobstructed views, enhancing the thrill of spotting animals in their natural surroundings. 

Aside from the iconic elephants, Udawalawe boasts an array of creatures. Picture troops of Toque Macaques swinging through trees, deer grazing, exotic birds painting the sky with incredibly vibrant hues. We saw swarms of butterflies, crocodiles, wild boar, water buffalo and even a pack of jackals.

The park is a haven for wildlife from insects and snakes and small mammals to the larger animals that folks love to spot.  There really is a lot of life here to see!

colleen in the jeep with an elephant in the distance during the jeep safari

How Long Are The Udawalawe Jeep Safaris?

Udawalawe offers a range of safaris from 3,4,6 7 and even 10 hour tours.   

Opt for a 3-hour safari if your time is short or if you think you may find 6 hours in a bumpy jeep a bit too uncomfortable. 

We decided to go with a 6-hour experience and had no regrets.  The time flew by and if we had not taken the longer tour we would have missed a number of sightings later in the day. We also noticed a marked difference with the number of jeeps in the afternoon.

Ultimately your choice will come down to

  • Time
  • Budget
  • And Comfort

Top Tip : Do not underestimate the bumpy journey.  If you suffer with any kind of back problems, or if you’re pregnant you may wish to reconsider this tour.

Should You Book A 3 or 6 Hour Safari?

Both offer a great experience.  Your choice is going to be down to your budget and the time available.  We opted for a longer safari and have zero regrets.

A 3-hour safari is perfect for an introduction to the park’s wonders. A 6-hour safari allows you to delve deeper, increasing your chances of spotting elusive animals and enjoying a more tranquil encounter. The park is noticeably quieter in the afternoon and we enjoyed many additional animal sightings that we would have missed had we left early.

For the small additional cost, I would say choose longer if you have the time.

the roads in Udawalawe can sometimes be flooded and difficult to navigate.  Expect some bumpy rides

How Much Does A Udawalawe Jeep Safari Cost?

Prices for the Jeep Safari do vary from one tour operator to the next.  The jeep size and quality, and the safari duration all play a part. 

In addition to the cost of the jeep tour, visitors also have to pay a Park Entrance Fee, along with Guide Entrance Fees, taxes and even a Jeep Entrance Fee.

Currently the costs are :

  • Entrance for Foreigner adults 25$ (around LKRs 8,000), children 15$ and under 6’s free. The price is in dollars but you must pay cash in LKRs at the entrance.
  • Driver and Jeep Entrance Fee : LKR 400
  • Vehicle/Jeep Charge per group :  LKR 2500 (8$)
  • The grand total is subject to 15% tax

For two adults (us) the cost to enter the park is 16,000 + 400 + 2,500 = 18,900 + 2,835 (15%) : Total LKR 21,735 (around 61€ / £53 / 67$)

Bear in mind exchange rates will fluctuate a little and prices can and do rise without notice but certainly this was what we paid.  We gave the money to our jeep driver and he paid on our behalf but it’s possible to join the queue and pay yourself at the entrance if you prefer.

Top Tip : You need your Passport at the park entrance

In addition to these costs you should also expect to pay from LKR 4,000 for the cost of a 3 hour safari. Longer tours and more passengers will impact on the cost.

The highest rated safari tour that we found has a fee of  LKR 8,500 for a 7 hour private jeep tour for two people.  We feel this represents excellent value for money.

How Much Will A 7-Hour Safari Cost for 2 Adults?  

  • Total Park Entrance Fee : LKR 21,735
  • 7 Hour Private Jeep Tour : LKR 8,500
  • Total cost of a 7 hour private Udawalawe jeep tour for 2 people : 85€ / 92$ / £73 / LKR 30,235

Top Tip : Don’t forget you will probably wish to add a tip at the end of you’re happy with your driver; expect to add perhaps LKR 1500 if you’re really happy.

Is The Jeep Safari Private?

The safaris that we looked at were all private; ours was. 

Most of the vehicles that we saw in the park had what appeared to be groups of friends or family and we never saw a full jeep.  My guess would be that the jeep safaris always tend to be private. 

The tour that we recommend is certainly private but if you’re in any doubt check with your tour operator.

beautiful mountains of Sri Lanka's highlands can be see from Udawalawe National Park

How Do I Arrange A Jeep Safari?

There are a few ways to organise your safari. 

You can search booking sites such as TripAdvisor, GetYourGuide and Viator.  The beauty of this method is that you can read the reviews and ensure that you are booking the right driver for you and your party.

Some hotels offer safaris too; indeed some hotels will only let you stay if you book with them.  It’s entirely possible that their jeep safaris are excellent but you have no way of comparing or reviewing.

There are jeeps at the entrance to the park and it would be possible to arrange a tour on the day.  My concern with this would be that you are not able to vet the standard of the safari.  However, if your trip is last minute this might be a good option for you.  Do be aware that the drivers may charge a premium for your last minute booking.

There are also a number of Facebook groups for Sri Lanka and it might be good to ask other travellers for feedback and recommendations.  Do be prepared to be sent several private messages offering you a safari though.

My preferred option is always either by personal recommendation by someone that I know and trust, or by doing the research myself and ploughing through reviews to find the best tour. 

Thankfully we’ve done that work for you and we recommend this tour :

wild elephant at udawalawe national park
  • Highest ratings from verified bookings
  • Offers a range of 3,4 or 6 hour tours
  • Pick-up from hotel

Whichever method you choose, book your safari through a reputable source. This ensures hassle-free arrangements and a certain quality of transport and guides. And when booking on a recognised platform you also have some protections if something goes wrong or you have to cancel.

Top Tip : Remember to confirm pick-up times, vehicle type, inclusions and safari duration before committing to your booking.

Do I Need A Guide As Well As A Driver?

You don’t need a guide but I think the quality of your driver is important.  Our driver was super experienced and knowledgeable; he knew the park and understood the animal behaviour

He carried spare binoculars, books and he knew the names of the birds, flowers and fauna we saw.  He had the eyes of a hawk and could spot wildlife that we would have never seen.  And he was able to answer questions about the animals we saw. 

If you are very interested in the flora and fauna a guide might provide insightful commentary and enrich your wildlife experience  and you may therefore feel it is worthwhile paying extra, but generally, choose a great driver who speaks your language and he can do the job for you.

crocodiles in the udawalawe reservoir

What Should I Wear For A Jeep Safari?

Comfort is key! And the main influence is going to be the weather.  We took our safari in December and the weather was pretty perfect, dry but not too hot not too humid; although it did warm up as the day went along.

Wear something easy to move around in; we wore hiking gear.  You’ll need to climb in and out of the jeep and we also moved around a great deal within the jeep so hiking wear was perfect.

It was later suggested neutral colours; sadly my hiking shirt was bright pink!  If you have a choice go for something more subtle.

Breathable fabrics might be useful and I also wore long trousers.  You do get an opportunity to get out of the jeep and there are plenty of biting insects around so I prefer to be covered.  And as the sun creeps under the jeep roof, I prefer to have my legs and arms protected from the sun.

Gerry took a hat as the sun was on the back of his neck.

Comfortable shoes; remember that you’ll be climbing in and out and moving around so definitely not flip-flops.  Gerry wore his hiking shoes and I wore a hiking sandal.

You may also want to pack a warm layer for the early morning start.

brightly coloured pair of birds spotted during our Udawalawe jeep safari

What Do I Need To Take AND What Should I Leave Behind?

You don’t need to take a great deal with you but there are some essentials

  1. Do take your passport as you’ll need this at the entrance
  2. Take a camera and a spare battery or charger and a good lens if you have one; you’ll take a lot of photos
  3. Binoculars if you have them; our driver carried spare
  4. Take water, your driver will probably have some but do be prepared
  5. Take sunscreen
  6. Take insect repellent
  7. Any medications that you may need.
  8. A sunhat and perhaps warm layer

If your breakfast or picnic is not provided by the driver then you may wish to bring food or snacks.  Our hotel made us a packed breakfast which we ate mid-morning.  BUT!  Elephants can smell a sweet treat a mile away and if you are carrying food then hand it over to the driver for safe keeping. Certainly do not keep it in a bag in the back of the jeep as it will certainly bring you the wrong kind of attention.

You won’t need to bring valuables, bulky items, or walking poles and remember to leave no trace, minimize your environmental impact and avoid littering.

water buffalo bathing in a pond in Udawalawe National Park

Is A Jeep Safari Safe?

Jeep safaris are generally safe. We felt very safe.  It is important to choose a good driver with a jeep that is in good condition and a guide/driver who knows the park and the animal behaviour well. 

Before we started our driver explained how we should behave if we encountered elephants or wildlife unexpectedly. 

He took excellent care when driving on rough terrain.  It’s bumpy in the back of a jeep and he was clearly experienced enough to take his time when needed; not all drivers were doing this!

There were two occasions when elephants appeared at the side of the jeep from out of the bush.  Our driver immediately responded by moving slowly away from any hazard and we never felt in harms way.

Of course, you are driving in an open vehicle amongst wild animals and you have to respect the environment that you are in.  Always follow instructions stay inside the jeep and avoid disturbing the animals.   Do remember to respect the park’s rules and regulations.; the animals may appear gentle giants but they are wild.

The jeeps can be ‘bouncy’ and there is potential to lose balance or stumble if you move around but you have to take responsibility for your own actions and act sensibly.

Top Tip : At the risk of repeating myself, it can be jumpy in the back of a jeep.  If you suffer with back problems then this trip may not be for you.

Tiny baby elephant being hidden by two females.  She was copying them trying to eat the grass with her trunk

What Time Do Tours Start?

Our started at 6:00am and if you can start early then do.  The light as we drove by the reservoir was incredibly beautiful at dawn.

Do expect a long queue at the entrance of the park, our driver stood in line for well over 30 minutes and others reported longer waits.  The earlier you arrive the closer you are to the start of that queue.

There are later tours and for folks who arrive later in the day take comfort from knowing that we spotted a number of animals in the afternoon..

Where To Stay And Potential Problems

We had to change hotels at the last minute as ours decided to close for renovations, but our new hotel was perfect.  We had little choice of accommodation due to the last-minute switch but we were blow away by the quality of our accommodation.   

We Stayed at Forest Edge Safari Villa and had the Deluxe Triple Room. Everything was exactly as the photos show and the breakfast was excellent. We totally recommend a stay here.

We were a little out of town but only a simple tuk tuk ride away.  And we got to sit on our terrace and look out at the jungle beyond.

Our hotel did offer safari tours but they were cool that we had made alternative reservations.  It’s important to check if your accommodation will be equally happy with this arrangement.

incredible lucky photo of an eagle in flight taken in Udawalawe National Park

Is An Udawalawe Jeep Safari Really Worth It?

Yes. Yes. Yes.  We were delighted with our safari and it by far exceeded our expectations.  The vehicle was comfortable, our guide was good and we saw so much wildlife.

We expected to be thrilled by the elephants and wow yes, they were amazing.  We even got to see a tiny baby just a few weeks old learning to copy mum eating.  We saw lone males and groups of elephants and that was amazing. 

But we also loved the birds; their colours are incredible.  And don’t under-estimate the glorious setting.  The bush isn’t perhaps the most scenic of places but the mountain views and the lake are glorious. 

Remember to avoid shady deals or operators offering unrealistic viewing guarantees. Remember, responsible tourism means respecting the animals and their natural habitat. Research reliable tour operators with good reviews and transparent pricing.

The Udawalawe Jeep Safari was the perfect day out for us and we’ll pack it away with all our other incredible memories from Sri Lanka.

Elephant came out of the bush and surprised us, getting inches away from the jeep

Going to Sri Lanka? You might be interested in other great experiences

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

Whenever you travel overseas it’s imperative to travel with a good travel and medical insurance policy.  None of us expect anything bad to happen, but in the event of an incident, you want to be sure that your insurance will be there for you.

I’ve had the mis-fortune to end up in hospital in Peru, Indonesia, Portugal and Ireland; every time my insurance took care of everything. I would never leave home without full and comprehensive insurance.

Globelink : We have used and recommended Globelink for years and we’ve not heard of any issues. They are a great choice for European and UK Residents.

TrueTraveller : We have this policy now for an extended global trip and we are very happy with the cover, especially considering our ages and pre-existing conditions

Safety Wing : Many of my travelling buddies from the USA have recommended this company to me, although we’ve not used them personally.

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