A Yala National Park Safari: A Survival Guide for First Timers

Wildlife in Yala National Park
Herds of water buffalo and deer are easily spotted on a safari

Yala National Park is a popular destination for people visiting Sri Lanka but here’s what you should know before going..

Every year for our anniversary my husband and I have a tradition of trying to do something with a high likelihood of injury or possible death. We never really intended this tradition to happen, it just sort of became a bizarre yearly marital occurrence. It started on our first anniversary with an ill-fated four-day trek to Machu Picchu where I battled severe poisoning at 15,000 feet. Along the way we’ve tested our luck and our commitment to each other with other anniversary misadventures; getting lost on a hike in the Sierras, navigating a raging river in a raft of questionable structural integrity on the Honduran border in Nicaragua. So when our trip to Sri Lanka coincided with our anniversary I enthusiastically booked a six-hour safari expecting an anniversary worthy misadventure.  I was picturing us in coordinating safari outfits, hopping out of the truck to snap National Geographic worthy photos, and perhaps being nearly stampeded by elephants while changing a flat tire. I quickly discovered that my Yala safari fantasy was very different from reality..

What to Expect on A Yala National Park Safari

  1. You will wake up early but then have to wait to enter the park. You will get picked up from your hotel between 5-5:30am but when you get to Yala it can be 30-45 minutes before you even enter the park. In the meantime you will be parked next to the hoards of other trucks waiting for the official ok to enter the park. Use the bathroom, eat the breakfast you brought with you, be patient.
  2. You have to remain in the vehicle at all times. Aside from a mid-safari  bathroom break you will be bumping along dusty roads for the entire duration of the safari. So don’t expect to climb that really neat rock formation in the distance.
  3. You will not be alone. Swarms of tour operators descend on Yala at dawn with the hope of spotting elephants, or if you’re really fortunate a leopard. The roads crisscrossing through the park are teeming with safari trucks looking for wildlife. At some point you will likely be stuck behind a long line of trucks.. and breathing in their dust..
  4. You won’t just happen upon a magical nature moment. The guides from the different tour companies use radios to communicate with each other and when someone announces that they’ve found something exciting it’s a mad rush to get to the location. Sometimes you stumble upon something beautiful and amazing and have a private moment to enjoy it, we did come across an elephant family crossing the road, but frequently it seems to be the system of guide communication that steers people in the direction of the wildlife.
  5. Longer safari duration doesn’t always mean more wildlife viewing. I mistakenly assumed that if I booked a longer safari I would increase our chances of spotting wildlife. I was quickly reminded that animals in Yala, like many animals, are most active in the early morning. Once it gets hot they retreat to the shade and as the day goes on it gets harder and harder to see wildlife. And then you’re just bumping around on sweltering dusty roads counting the minutes until you can jump into the hotel pool.

    Elephant in Yala
    Encountering elephants is one of the highlights of a Yala safari

 

Bottom Line: Yala National Park is beautiful. A short (2-3 hour max) safari would be enjoyable but be prepared for dust, crowds,  and a lot of time in a truck.

Dirt roads in Yala
If you’re going on a safari in Yala, be prepared for a bumpy, dusty, morning

Gear:

  • Camera
  • Water
  • Breakfast/snacks (unless provided by tour company)
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Wide brimmed hat
  • Lightweight layers. It can be slightly chilly in the early morning.
  • Binoculars (although many tours provide them)
  • Post-safari massage appointment. Trust me.IMG_6602

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