After waking up at 4AM the day prior, the 7AM start almost felt like a sleep in, however the lack of coffee did leave me a tad grumpy.
The drive was expected to be about 4 hours in total, although I think it could have been a touch quicker, since our driver insisted we go via Ella, which he noted wasn’t on our itinerary but considered to be a ‘must-see’. We had no problem with this and were glad to have his input, as everything he’d recommended up until this point was great. Driving through Ella, it was by far the most touristy place we had seen thus far – I even recollect a sign referring to it as a tourist village.
I only realised why our driver suggested going via Ella once we had passed through the village and begun to descend the hills/mountains on the other side. As a cyclist I couldn’t help but imagine myself descending the hills many hairpins on two-wheels, powered only by the force of gravity; I was distracted from my mind-cycling only by the stunning scenery, local wildlife and occasionally questionable driving (which although was much better now we had left the built up areas, would still be considered pretty mental by British standards).
Our driver suggested we stop at a local hotel for a tea, to which we obliged, and again, Tuan (our driver) came up trumps. The views from the hotel balcony were ridiculous! As you walked in, I remember looking out over the balcony to see a green mound so big that you could see nothing but greenery; no sky. From our table, at the edge of the balcony, the green hills rolled away as far as you could see. Not only were the views splendid, but the coffee was to die for. I had read before visiting Sri Lanka that although the tea was top, the coffee was crap, and I’m sorry, but I disagree. I’ve always considered Starbucks and Costa etc. to be a bit overrated and am perfectly happy with instant stuff, so maybe I’m not the best person to pass judgement, but the local coffee we had at this hotel far surpassed anything I’ve had before!
The itinerary we had prepared was pretty loose and due to the language barrier between us and our driver, after arriving at Udawalawe, me and Amy were expecting to spend the afternoon at the hotel relaxing, before safariing the next day. That was until we checked in and our driver told us to meet meet him in a couple of hours. It didn’t take long to get motivated to go on safari though, so we dumped our stuff in our room and had something to eat.
The safari itself was the highlight of the trip, for me, despite having the distinct feeling we were ripped off in terms of what we needed to pay. Don’t ask me why I feel this, because despite post-safari research I’m still unable to find a definitive answer to how much it should cost. Let’s just call it a sixth sense which tells me we paid 25-50% more than we had to. That said, in terms of whether what we paid was worth the experience, it definitely was.
Our driver sourced the jeep and driver (who was also the guide/spotter) and he was top notch. His spotting skills were incredible: managing to pick out tiny animals which were naturally disguised against their natural environment, whilst at the same time dodging the biggest of the potholes (that’s not to say it was a smooth ride, because it definitely wasn’t).
We hadn’t been going five minutes before we stumbled across our first Elephant, just walking casually across the road. Ten later we came across a small group of the majestic beasts. One of the group came within touching distance of our jeep, which our driver reckoned that was the closest he had ever been to one in this environment. Judging by his excitement, I’d say this was an entirely honest statement.
We ended up seeing a whole array of animals, from crocodiles, to water buffalo and a whole range of birds. The only thing that alluded us, that I wanted to see, was a leopard. This didn’t come as a great surprise though, because I understood they were extremely rare (particularly in this park). The fact we saw a four day old footprint in the sand surpassed my expectations and was testament to the spotting skills off the drivers in the park (this time, the driver of another vehicle that we caught staring at the floor and we promptly followed to see what they were ogling at).
Read the rest of my Sri Lanka Stories, here.