The elephant gathering is one of the most spectacular wildlife experiences you can have in Asia. Once in year, typically in July and August huge herds of elephants congregate at the remaining water holes in Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks, near Sigiriya.
Visiting Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari was one of the highlights of our trip to Sri Lanka. Witnessing over 100 elephants (110 to be exact, yes we counted!) on the open plains was a truly magical experience and one we'll never forget.
We didn't see many other animals during the safari (just a few monkeys) so the primary reason to make the trip is to see elephants. We saw a number of elephants on our Yala safari but nothing could prepare us for seeing such a huge number all in one place!
If you're going to Sri Lanka in July or August, make sure a trip to either Kaudulla or Minneriya is on your list.
The elephant gathering at Kaudulla National Park
Kaudulla is a small National Park that's about an hour away (due to bad roads which were in the process of being upgraded on our visit) from Sigirya or Dambulla. The park has grassy plains alongside huge lakes, making it the perfect place for elephants to gather during the dry season. Whilst you can see small numbers of elephants at any time of year, but July and August tend to be the time that large numbers congregate.
The safari is a bumpy affair and you'll need to go in a jeep with a licensed guide. The good news is that once inside the park, you'll frequently stop and watch the elephants for long periods of time, unlike our Yala safari, which raced around almost continuously. Our driver in Kaudulla barely moved in the two hours we were there as there were so many elephants in one spot.
Another thing that makes the experience so special is all the jeeps we saw had open roofs so it feels like there is nothing between you and the elephants (be sure to check before you book).
Frequently the elephants would block the roads and we even saw a jeep go into a rapid reverse as it drove down a forest road that was clearly the territory of a few elephants!
When to go to Kaudulla
If you go to Kaudulla in July or August, it's a case of how many elephants you'll see, not if you'll see any at all. We counted 110 on our visit and they were condensed into a pretty small area. It was an incredible sight. Others have reported seeing up to 250!
We've heard that whilst you can see elephants throughout the year, the numbers are significantly smaller outside the elephant gathering period.
Kaudulla Safari Price
The tour operators in Sigiriya separate out the jeep fee from the entry fee and this can make things a little confusing. The standard fee for a private jeep to Kaudulla was 4,500 rupees (about $28 USD) and for Minneriya it was 4,000 rupees (about $25 USD), no matter how many people they take. This meant that you can either have a reasonably priced private safari or a really cheap one sharing with 6 - 8 others.
The operators recommended about four hours (including the journey time) for the safari, but weren't strict with time keeping. We had longer than that. Both the jeep operators we spoke to set out in the afternoon, usually between 1.30 and 2.00pm.
We left at 2.00pm and found it worked out really well as we were some of the last to leave the park and got a decent amount of time with very few jeeps around.
Kaudulla National Park Entrance Fee
The entrance fee for Kaudulla was 2,750 rupees per person (about $17 USD), making the total cost for two people 10,000 rupees (about $60 USD). It is a little cheaper than Minneriya, where the entry fee was 4,500 rupees per person (about $28 USD) making the total cost 13,000 rupees (just over $80 USD in total).
Kaudulla vs Minneriya
Like most people, we were unsure whether to visit Minneriya or Kaudulla. We knew that Minneriya was the more famous national park, but had heard Kaudulla was far less busy.
We have heard that there may be more elephants in one park than the other, so ask around a few operators and people where the most elephants currently are. We visited during the elephant gathering, so both parks had a lot of elephants, but this may not be the case at other times of year. We chose Kaudulla purely based on the fact we'd been told there would be less jeeps around.
We had read that generally people only see around five other jeeps on a Kaudulla safari and roughly ten times that in Minneriya. We saw 30-40 other jeeps on our trip to Kaudulla and we were told this was still significantly fewer than at Minneriya.
I think the elephant gathering means that both parks will be far busier than at other times of year. Even though we are not fans of busy parks, for us it was worth it to see so many elephants all in one place. Luckily the grassy plains at Kaudulla are huge so there was a lot of space for all the jeeps and it didn't feel as busy as during the morning drive in Yala.
Essentially, if you want to save money, have a quieter experience and are willing to go further away, then Kaudulla is a great option. But overall we'd definitely recommend getting local advice right at the time of booking to make sure you visit the park with the best elephant sighting opportunities for your chosen day.
What to expect on a Kaudulla Safari
All the safaris tended to follow the same pattern. You drive briefly through the forest and then out to the open plains, where you spend the majority of your time. After that you head to another lake and have a brief stop where you are allowed to get out of the jeep. As you can see there was a huge group of elephants right where we were allowed to get out, not sure how safe that is (although the photo looks much closer up than it was in reality), but it was a pretty special way to end the safari!
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Have you seen an elephant in the wild before? Have you been to Kaudulla or Minneriya? Let us know in the comments below.
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