Gal Oya National Park, situated to the south east of Sri Lanka, is quiet and secluded. This is the only place in the country to witness elephants swimming across the country’s largest man-made reservoir along with many other endemic wildlife. Away from the crowds, Gal Oya National Park should certainly be on the list of places to visit for wildlife enthusiasts.
Gal Oya National Park serves as the main catchment area for Senanayake Reservoir, the largest reservoir in Sri Lanka. The 25,900 hectares of land is home to 150 bird species including some rare and endemic varieties and herds of elephants that are seen throughout the year. A range of mammals and reptiles have been recorded including spotted deer, golden jackal, mugger crocodile, star tortoise, sambar deer, wild boar, toque monkey and Sri Lankan leopard. Lesser adjutants and red-faced malkoha are some of the resident birds. Senanayake Reservoir provides great sightings of raptors including white-headed sea eagles and grey- headed fish eagles. This park is one of the most picturesque national parks as it is surrounded by three mountains with varied elevations from 30-to-900 meters.
The average temperature is 27°C with the most rain falling during November to January when the north eastern monsoons occur. Nearly half of the park consists of evergreen forests, while 30 percent consists of savannahs and the balance being shrubs. Within the park’s vegetation there are also rare herbs, believed to have been planted during ancient times. One of the unique features of this park for visitors is the rare opportunity to see swimming elephants in the Senanayake Reservoir. The area around the park is quiet with limited human settlements that make it attractive to travellers. There are a few places of worship that are popular with locals including Dighavapi, a Buddhist temple and archaeological site that dates back to 3rd century BC. Vedda tribes (indigenous people of Sri Lanka) live in the surrounding area. Originally hunter-gathers, this community is slowly diminishing due to modernization. Gal Oya is one of the few places a visitor can observe the Vedda community in their unadulterated status.
Safaris are two-pronged in Gal Oya with jeep safaris into Gal Oya National Park and boat safaris in Senanayake Reservoir. Both safaris commence as early as 6.00 a.m. in the morning and last around 3 hours. Afternoon safaris commence at 3.00 p.m. Jeep safaris into Gal Oya National Park are quiet and private as tourists numbers are few to this part and only the keenest of wildlife travellers visit the park. Good sightings of elephants are common and the park is great for birders. Sightings of leopards are rare. Boat safaris are equally satisfying whether swimming elephants are sighted or otherwise. These safaris provide the opportunity to get close to animals such as crocodiles that may not be possible on a jeep safari. Besides all that the panoramic views and calm waters never ceases to amaze those on safari. Accommodation is limited in this area. An upmarket wildlife lodge situated on the road between Gal Oya National Park and Senanayake Reservoir is the most sought-after place to stay.
This accommodation has its own naturalists and a wildlife research facility that makes the stay complete. There are number of other activities that can be included in a 2-to-3 night stay here including an interactive walk with Vedda community, nature walks and hikes. Gal Oya National Park remains one of the best in our travels. In one of the jeep safaris we witnessed a lone, rather big, elephant’s continuous attempts to find a solution for itchy skin by rubbing himself on a tea trunk until the tree was almost ready to collapse. Another time we came across a seriously inquisitive golden jackal couple. This couple kept walking down the main road, turning around to take quick glimpse at us as if wondering what we are doing inside the park. They seem to be in a mighty hurry as if they were late to work. Another time we stayed on the banks of Senanayake Reservoir enjoying our picnic breakfast and watching two lone elephants enjoying their own some meters away.
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