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An exciting adventure looking for elephants in the Sri Lankan jungle

One of the reasons we were drawn to visit Sri Lanka was the opportunity to see some wildlife, especially elephants. The area near Habarana in Central Sri Lanka is one of the best places to go to see elephants. Here you will find two National Parks, Kaudulla and Minneriya and the Hurulu Eco Park which was granted biosphere status in 1977.

Our trip to Sri Lanka over the Christmas vacations came towards the end of the rainy season and they had had plenty of rain, which had caused a lot of flooding. This had resulted in many of the areas in Kaudulla and Minneriya to become flooded as they sit in a flood plain. One thing we discovered is that whilst elephants are okay playing in the water they don’t like wading through it – so many of the elephants had moved from Minneriya and Kaudulla to the Hurulu Eco Park. So, this is where our journey took us.

There is no end of jeep safari options available around the Habarana. Our driver had hooked us up with someone he has worked with for some time and when we turned up at the staging area at Hurulu we were a bit shocked to see a somewhat run-down Landrover. Anyway, we went with the flow and headed out into the jungle.  

It turned out that our Landrover was ideal to head-off of the beaten path along some of the “rougher” trails. Even though it was drier here than in the adjacent parks it was a quagmire in spots with deep troughs of boggy mud. Whilst our “old-banger” of a Landrover clawed its way through the mire other 4x4s on the trail were not so capable and ended up getting stuck. Luckily for them, our Landrover had a winch on the front and we were able to pull them out of their boggy prison.

In the back of the landrover
Heavy going in the mud
Trekking in 4 wheel drives is the only way

With everybody safely unstuck we were soon on our way again and we were rewarded for our good samaritan work with a sighting of a small herd of elephants, including some babies.

Mother and calf - Huluru Eco Park
Hiding but we can see you
Trying to get away

We were patiently watching the herd go about its business when our driver started to drive a bit like a mad-man, turning the Landrover around and heading off at speed. I was standing up at the time looking at the elephants from the back of the vehicle – I was summarily thrown about and ended up on the floor. What had happened was that there was a male with the group who was known to take a dislike to jeeps and he had decided to charge us and another jeep – so we were out of there. I managed to regain my position (if not my pride) to see this angry bull elephant heading our way. Luckily, he gave up once we had retreated some way. Phew, that was a little scary!

I hadn’t managed to capture any of this on my camera – but luckily we came across a young German couple during a hike a few days later who was in one of the jeeps we rescued. They had been watching all the time we were being charged and had caught the whole thing on video. Below is the footage they took!

Our nerves took a little while to settle down but we were soon on the lookout for more wildlife. The next thing we came across was an eagle who was quite happily chilling out on the track as we and a couple of other 4x4s stood by and took pictures.

Eagle on the tracks

We were quite content with our safari but as we were headed back to the gate we came across another small group of elephants, with a couple of adults and two babies. We were able to get so close – it was a truly amazing and spiritual experience. It actually bought tears of joy to our eyes!

Elephant calf
Elephants on the side of the road

We were very sad to leave the Eco Park. As we were leaving our driver pointed out a large bees nest suspended from a branch of a tree. I would not like to stir that bees nest!

As we left the park and pulled onto the main road the traffic ahead had ground to a halt. There in front of us, an elephant had appeared from the jungle and crossed the road. Amazing! We inched our way forward to where we could see a small herd of elephants who had obviously cross the road and were now feeding at the side of the road. These are truly wild elephants, there are no fences around to stop them from wandering pretty much where they want to go. Very exciting – but also concerning for them and the passing traffic. There are believed to be 7,500 wild elephants in Sri Lanka. In 2019 293 elephants, 96 people were killed in the human-elephant conflict. Sad!

In Summary … 

If you are in Sri Lanka you absolutely must do an elephant safari at one of the main National Parks. As with all safaris be prepared to be out in the sun for several hours:

    1. Wear a hat
    2. Put on plenty of sunscreen (factor 30 and above)
    3. Take plenty of water
    4. Don’t forget your camera or phone!

Planning the journey

BY AIR

 If you’d like to fly, it’ll cost you anything between LKR 16,000-40,000 for a flight. Cinnamon Air, a reputable domestic airline in Sri Lanka has an air taxi operating daily from Colombo airport’s domestic terminal to Sigiriya. Although it is the fastest way to reach Sigiriya (30 mins), flying is a bit too steep in terms of budget!

BY RAIL

The best way to reach Sigiriya from Colombo is by train and will cost you between LKR 800-1,200. It is an hour and 33 minutes from Colombo. However, there are no direct trains to Sigiriya. The best option is to board the train from Colombo Fort to Habrana, which is 15 km away. If you reserve a 3rd class ticket, the fare would be LKR 480, while a confirmed seat in the 2nd class is LKR 600. The train leaves at 6.10 am every day from Colombo Fort to Habrana and takes about 4 hours 50 minutes.

BY ROAD

The usual route is the A01 route from Kandy Road to Ambepuss, via Kurunegala on A06. Depending on the traffic you can hope to reach Sigiriya in 3 hours max.

From Sigiriya, Habarana or Dambulla just catch a tuk-tuk.

Best time to visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a variety of different tropical climates where rainfall periods and amounts of precipitation determine the distinction between a rainforest climate, tropical Savannah climate and tropical monsoon climate. Sri Lanka can be visited year round, however because of the two rainy seasons there is a lot of confusion as to when is the best time to visit. Here is a peek into the various monsoon periods: You have the Yala Monsoon; this means rain in the west, southwest and inland from the end of April to September. The other is the Maha Monsoon; this means rain on the east coast from October to March.

Are you planning to travel to the west and south coasts or inland? Then you have the highest chance of pleasant weather from December to March. Are you going to the east and north coasts? Then you have the highest chance of good weather from April/May to September.

Places to visit close by

1. SIGIRIYA ROCK FORTRESS

The Sigiriya palace and fortress complex in central Sri Lanka is recognized as one of the finest examples of ancient urban planning, which has resulted in it being recognised in 1982 as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

2. POLONNARUWA

Some 800 years ago Polonnaruwa was a bustling commercial and religious centre for the Chola dynasty, as can be seen by the amazing density of ruins of temples, palaces and other buildings. In the early 13th century the city’s glory faded and it was abandoned. The capital moved to the western side of the island where Colombo is today. In 1982 Polonnaruwa as added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

3. RANGIRI DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLE

Dambulla Cave Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site close to Sigiriya and about 50 miles north of Kandy. Its five chambers hold over 150 statues of Buddha and other prominent Sri Lankans from the time of kings. Amongst its greatest treasures are the stunning murals that cover its walls and ceiling. Well worth the effort to visit.

Where to stay in Habarana / Sigiriya

1. HABARANA VILLAGE BY CINNAMON

Offering bungalow-style rooms surrounded by greenery, Chaaya Village Habarana is a 15-minute drive from Minneriya National Park. The hotel features an outdoor pool and facilities for tennis, volleyball and badminton.

Chaaya Village Habarana is an hour’s drive from Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. Driving from Bandaranaike International Airport takes 6 hours.

Featuring wooden furniture, the air-conditioned rooms at Chaaya Village Habarana come with private terraces. Each room has a TV with cable channels, a safety deposit box, and tea/coffee making facilities.

Azmaara Spa provides a range of treatments, from massages to manicures and pedicures. The hotel offers tours such as hiking in the Ritigala jungle or riding an ox cart in Hiriwadunna.

2. HABARANA ECO TREEHOUSE

If you are looking for something more unusual then you might want to consider the Habarana Eco Treehouse. This is not exactly a treehouse, as it is not in a tree, but it is in the air on stilts. To get to your room you have to climb up a rustic ladder – this is not one for those who are wobbly on their pins or suffer from vertigo.

The accommodation itself is basic, but there is electricity and hot water.

Food is prepared by the owners and are delicious local dishes.

 

3. IL FRANGIPANE

Located in Sigiriya, 1.1 mi from Sigiriya Rock, il Frangipane provides accommodations with a restaurant, free private parking, free bikes and an outdoor swimming pool. 2.7 mi from Pidurangala Rock and 0.7 mi from Sigiriya Museum, the property offers a garden and a terrace. The air-conditioned rooms provide a garden view and come with a wardrobe and free WiFi.

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