Chance Encounters in Gal Oya National Park

Sri Lanka is proud of its natural bounty, and rightly so. Home to a myriad of endemic flora and fauna, Sri Lanka is a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts. Thanks to such a variable climate and decidedly unique topography, it is no wonder that the Teardrop Island is one of Asia’s most biodiverse destinations. Asia expert, Charlie, comes face to face with its incredible wildlife. 

Sri Lanka is renowned for its variety; from its temples to its beaches and the very many stunning landscapes in between. What is perhaps often overlooked though is the diversity of its national parks, with an incredible array of accommodation types and wildlife experiences on offer in each of the country’s 26 nature reserves. On my most recent visit to Sri Lanka, I was lucky enough to venture off the beaten track and visit one of the lesser known national parks, Gal Oya, and the eponymous lodge on its doorstep.

After a warm welcome and a cold drink on arrival at Gal Oya Lodge, we were shown to our bungalow. The extremely spacious wooden bungalows are nestled in the forest and are complete with floor to ceiling windows and open-air bathrooms, meaning you are constantly immersed in the natural surroundings. The best part was that my phone had no signal and there was no Wifi! When I left my room, I was able to leave my phone behind and truly immerse myself in nature for two days of fun filled adventures.

After settling in, we were introduced to one of the naturalists at the lodge and headed off on an afternoon stroll to a local water hole.  We wandered down country lanes and through farming fields, watching local villagers going about their day to day work, and finally emerged onto a luscious green plateau.

With our knowledgeable guide we took our time observing the birds at home there and quickly realised why Gal Oya is renowned for its wildlife. With no less than 30 endemic bird species as well as 32 species of mammals including the common langur, endemic toque macaque, leopard, sloth bear, elephant, wild boar and water buffalo. This is a nature enthusiast’s paradise. At the end of our stroll, we settled in with a beer to watch the sun go down over the mountains listening to the chants of the local temple.

The following day we had arranged an introduction to the local Veda chief. Veda are a minority indigenous people in danger of extinction. He took us to see the caves where his people lived until around 30 years ago. Damien, our naturalist for the day, has spent the last 3 years learning the local dialect so he could translate our numerous questions. He told us how their lives had changed in recent years, both for better and for worse, and explained as we walked through the beautiful forest that even today the indigenous people use the plants of the forest for healing and medicine as well as for food. After a fascinating excursion with the chief, we bid one another a traditional farewell before heading back to the lodge.

After lunch and a refreshing dip in the pool we embarked on a boat safari. We jumped into the jeep with Damien in tow, taking great delight in hearing about the park, local communities and wildlife. The plastic rib was driven by a local fisherman who I greeted with my much practiced ayubowan which elicited a small smile and a friendly nod in return.

I was blown away by the vast landscape that stretched out before me and before long we started spotting wildlife including monkeys, eagles, crocodiles and a non-tusked solo male elephant. We continued quietly on the lake searching for the ultimate sighting; a herd of elephants. As we wound our way through a forest of submerged trees we finally found a sign of them! Although we couldn’t yet see them, Damien knew they were there and so we moored the boat and crept quietly up a mound of boulders. As we reached the crest of the hill, nine Asian elephants not more than 200 meters ahead revealed themselves. It was spectacular! The day ended perched on a boulder enjoying a delicious scone and a cup of warm tea whilst watching baby elephants romp through the grasslands as the sky changed color. It was the perfect end to a perfect day – nothing could beat a sunset in the company of wild elephants!