Our "safari" was booked for us by the driver we had contracted for our week in Sri Lanka. Although we have no way of knowing what options might have been available, it is hard to imagine that we could have done much better. A number of species are represented in the Kauoulla National Park, but elephants are the obvious draw. We had heard that sightings earlier in the day were plentiful, but that doesn't really prepare you for the experience of encountering large (at least 50+ animals?) herds. Knowing that you are seeing them in what is their natural habitat is an incredible experience. We rode in a "jeep" with a raised passenger compartment, so at times it felt like we were almost "face-to-face" with the elephants.
A wonderful experience, depending on your driver you choose.
The elephants are gentle giants and aren't really bothered by the cars surrounding then in places. A good guide will give you information about the elephants, baby elephants, the bird life, and the other animals in this park.. What I didn't like was there were too many operators in the park at the same time, there were too many to really enjoy a clear view of the elephants without the noise factors of skidding jeeps on the mud tracks, and people ignorant of respecting the quiet space of the elephants while they grazed. Its a bit of an ecological disaster too with all the mud created on the pristine land, from the hundreds of jeeps carrying hundreds of tourists to the site all at once.
This was a great experience. We probably saw about 200 elephants plus a number of other animals including deer. There were babies, heavily pregnant elephants and everything in between. Some of them came up quite close to the open jeeps we were travelling in. Our jeep driver and guide was fantastic and told us lots of interesting details. However others I spoke to said this was not the case with their driver. Nether the less a very rewarding experience.
We had heard about the elephant gathering on a nature documentary and were looking forward to this experience, however it when we arrived the reality was quite disappointing. We did see quite a number of elephants, which was great, however, this was marred by the hundreds of jeeps descending on them. At times the jeeps even blocked their access to the water and cut off their path. It was awful. Our fantastic guide told us that the gathering has not happened for the past 3 years due to the water levels being kept artificially high, stopping fresh new grass growth from water receding, which is what the elephants are attracted to. Considering the amount of money brought in by the entry fee, the government needs to manage this resource much more sustainably.
We took the afternoon safari which starts at 1.30 pm from Sigiriya. It took around 40 mins to reach the national park. Tickets are 3000 LKR per person. The jeep took us inside the reserve and slowly you will leave behind the city and enter a jungle. The experience is one of its kinds. Highlights of this safari is ofcourse the elephants which come right at the end. You can see the entire herd walking together. We almost had one elephant moving towards the entire group of jeeps which was a little scary. But thrilling too.