A safari with children was the fantasy. Africa seemed too difficult, too long, children too young. But Sri Lanka – YES!
An open-air jeep comes to pick us up at our hotel (which we loved – Nil Diya Mankada Safari Resort) at 6:00 am.
We drive off in the dark, the wind whipping past us. As we drive past the lake reservoir we see the silhouette of a lone male elephant walking along the shore, the first light of dawn breaking.
After quickly paying for a park ticket, we enter the park, and up in every tall tree a peacock is waking. The peacocks call out a sound like a loud cat’s meow.
Our jeep slowly drives down red dirt roads, searching out wildlife, an experienced guide by our side. The boys are unusually quiet, startled by the adventure of waking in the dark and riding an open-air jeep.
The landscape is green grassland with scattered bushes and occasionally a majestic twisted tree with a wide canopy – a landscape that looks more like an African safari park. In the distance you see a mountain range, and the reservoir lake reflects the blue sky.
Very soon we came upon a herd a five female elephants walking through the trees and bushes, munching on the grass.
Our guide tells us that a baby elephant is protected in between two of the elephants, but they are doing a good job protecting her as we can’t spot it. The elephants go to cross the road and our jeep is parked at their crossroads, engine turned off, and we sit silently, cameras at the ready is waiting. And as the herd crosses the road we see the baby, only about two weeks old, walking snugly behind one elephant and in front of another.
Welcome to the world beautiful baby. A world where your species is rapidly being destroyed and where you and your family, inside the safe fences of this beautiful park, represent the hope for its survival. Here close behind you another female elephant, full with child, so you’ll have a playmate soon.
And then, I am thinking of myself and my own children, and how when they have children of their own, wild elephants may no longer exist. So to see these powerful and intelligent animals up close, in their own habitat, is an experience that may truly be called once in a lifetime, and may only exist in my lifetime. It was a beautiful and sad experience at all once, and we left the safari with children crying and laughing at the same time.
Our family only did a morning safari – approximately 2.5 hours (6:30-9:00 am) we were lucky to have perfectly blue skies and warm weather (later that day it poured down sheets). For us, with young children tow, the short safari was perfect – after this they would have lost interest and found all the jeep riding tedious.
Families with older children might consider going in the morning and late afternoon for better chances of seeing more wildlife variety. But compared to the long duration of safaris in Africa, I think this suits the needs for safari with children better. We went at Christmas time, as a rainy season was finishing, which made the park a luscious green and distributed animals all around a variety of watering holes.
On our safari we spotted many different elephants – packs of females, some pregnant and other with babies, lone male adult elephants, and a tusker – a rarer sight.
We also spotted many different birds. Our favorite was the peacock and we were treated to a full display of feathers by a male peacock hoping to impress a nearby hen.
We also saw painted cranes, king-fishers, and a beautiful bright green bird that I wish I knew the name of… In the marshy areas we saw water buffaloes, turtles, and could even spot the eyes of crocodiles. Scurrying across the road, we were treated to quick glimpses of land monitors and mongoose.
Tips for Safari with Children.
- Bring snacks – there is nowhere to buy food and if your kids are like mine, they will get very cranky waiting for a late breakfast. But do NOT feed any animals, drop food, or leave trash behind. It is important for the elephants’ survival to live free and wild, eating a normal vegetarian diet of leaves and grass.
- Bring windbreakers for the first part of the drive before the sun is up, and of course it could rain anytime.
- Bring the best camera you have for yourself and an old camera, or pretend camera, or toy camera for the children. There were many times during the safari I told myself to put my camera down and focus on being present and burning the memory into my brain of that special golden light of dawn, smell of fresh air, and sound of peacock cries. But then you just can’t help yourself! Everything you see seems more beautiful and amazing than the last and you just have to take a picture. I literally had over 100 elephant pictures when we left the park. My kids wanted to get into the photo taking action, so we handed them our old, beat-up, under-water digital camera that miraculously has survived many trips.
- Lastly, we bought the boys safari hats – these were for sale at the park entrance – and they were one of the best trip souvenirs. They were so tied to the memory of seeing elephants and could be used again – it really beats a plastic toy!
Have you visited Udawalawe or done a safari with kids? What’s better – an elephant or a peacock 🙂 I would love to hear from you in the comments!