I know what you're thinking: wildlife watching is almost always best at dawn and dusk, why would you choose a full day safari?
These were my exact thoughts too when our would be guide tried to convince us it was the best way to see Yala. After a quick google search I couldn't find much on whether it really was great or not.
We decided to bite the bullet and go for it, despite initial reservations. The main reason being we were desperate to see a leopard and wanted the maximum opportunity.
I've got mixed feelings about the experience. Here's our take on whether a full day Yala safari is really worth it.
Yala National Park Animals - what are you likely to see?
The final big draw are the elephants.
Whilst there are better places to see elephants in Sri Lanka than Yala (such as Minneriya and Kandulla), we saw quite a lot, pretty close up.
Yala is famous for its leopards, in fact it is known as one of the best places in the world to see them. There is quite a high concentration of them in the park, with 25 leopards living in the block area of the park, which is where the safaris take place.
Whilst you're never guaranteed to see them, our guide believed he saw at least one on 95% of his full day trips..... but this could easily be salesmanship.
The other big draw is the sloth bear :-s For those who are new to our blog, we've encountered sloth bears before and it didn't go well. In fact it went spectacularly badly, you can read here how we were lucky to survive the encounter.
Sloth bears are highly endangered and seeing them in the wild is usually pretty hard. Our guide said he only saw them once or twice a month at best.
We were incredibly lucky to see two: one crossing the road in front of the jeep and the other snuffling around by some trees.
With the latter, we were able to sit and watch for over ten minutes. This was an amazing opportunity to observe an animal that had such a big impact on our lives.
We saw about eight elephants close up (including several baby elephants) and a big herd in the distance.
Other animals you can see
We also saw a few mongoose, langurs (grey monkeys), wild pigs, heaps of crocodiles and a lot of buffalo.
Yala is also pretty good for bird lovers as we saw thousands of bee-eaters (most were at the side of the road). We also saw beautiful hornbills, junglefowl, golden orioles, black-winged stilts, brahminy kites, painted storks, grey herons, purple herons, indian darters and stone curlew. We had been considering venturing into nearby Bandulla National Park, known for bird watching, but after our Yala safari we were very happy with what we had seen.
Needless to say, you won't come out of a Yala Safari without seeing anything! It is just a matter of what and how many animals you see.
What you can expect from a visit to Yala National Park
The safaris at Yala run along a network of dirt tracks that are cut into dense forest.
The vegetation isn't too tall - and there are many waterhole clearings that you stop at - but the majority of the park is thick forest.
This has a positive and negative impact. The positive is that wildlife often come quite close to and then cross the road when venturing over to the other side of the forest, so you can view them up close.
Our sighting of a leopard at the very end of the day was right next to the road. We were less than 10 metres away! It was the retreating back of a leopard, but a leopard none the less. It also feels like the park has been kept intact as much as possible, with roads to enable access but not too much unnecessary clearing.
This proximity is the highlight of any Yala safari. You don't get palmed off with seeing a fleeting glimpse of an animal miles away, you regularly see them within 20 metres of your jeep. We were able to get incredibly close to a leopard, elephants and a sloth bear, the main attractions.
The negative is that quite often when something is spotted, everyone piles in to a small area. If you see a leopard, bear or elephant, it won't be long before at least ten other jeeps block you in. It also means that a lot of the day is spent driving along bone-shaking roads, hoping something will pop out. Whilst you can spend a decent amount of time at a waterhole, the vast majority will be driving along very bumpy roads.
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Full day or half day safari?
We chose to do the full day Yala safari and have mixed feelings about it. What you might not realise about Yala is the roads are horrendous.
They don't look too bad for the most part - in fact they look better than a lot of roads we travelled in Australia - but when driving on them you are bumped around like a rag doll.
It could be we had a terrible driver, who knows, but I left the safari with multiple bruises and a whole lot of aches and pains.
On those roads 13 hours is a long time, especially as for the majority of the time you are searching for, not spotting animals. We would often go an hour without seeing anything at all (mammal wise).
Having said that we only spotted the leopard just as we were leaving the park, so we wouldn't have had this opportunity if we had only done the half day. We also spotted the second sloth bear after the morning safaris had left for the day. Whilst I absolutely loved those sightings, I am not sure that it made the full day Yala safari worth it.
Another perk of the full day tour is that the park is a lot quieter in the afternoon. As the majority of half day trips are in the morning, by the afternoon the park is nearly empty. No one seems to take the afternoon tour, though that is an option.
We sat watching elephants on our own for a while in the afternoon and it was a magical experience. The elephants would happily eat contently in front of the jeep. We all sat in silence in awe of this amazing animal. This wasn't possible in the morning.
Our best suggestion for very keen wildlife spotters would be to do the safari that leaves the park at midday, not 10am. This gives you another hour and a half or so extra time when many of the jeeps have left for the day.
It is also worth noting that no jeeps are allowed to drive around the park between 12 and 2pm, even the full day vehicles. You have to go to the beach area within the park and wait for those two hours. We had lunch and took a nap on the floor.
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Yala Safari Jeeps
The only way to do a Yala safari is by jeep and you have to stay in the vehicle at all times. They are pretty well kitted out with comfortable seats (when not in motion), space and all the ones we saw were open air with a little shelter on the top.
Viewing the wildlife from an open air jeep is so much nicer than an enclosed vehicle.
You can choose to hire your own jeep at an extra cost or go as part of a group. We chose to have our own jeep so that we could easily move around and take photos.
Otherwise you'll have to climb over people you don't know to get a view if the animals are on the other side to you.
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Best time to go to Yala National Park
Avoid Peak Season
We have heard some pretty horrific stories about Yala in the peak season. Our guide said that up to 500 jeeps a day enter the park (on our visit there were less 50), which would make for a miserable experience in our opinion.
The roads are single lane dirt tracks, so I'd be shocked if you saw anything close up with that many diesel engines roaring around a very small national park. We also heard that in a bid to give their customers the best experience drivers will often go way too close to the animals, fighting other jeeps for space, which isn't so much an issue in the off peak season.
We visited in late-June which seemed to be a great time. The dry season on the East Coast brought a lot of animals to the waterholes. There were only a handful of guests in the hotel we stayed in and visitor numbers were down. It looked like there were only 40-50 jeeps on our trip (with nearly half that number by the afternoon).
We would recommend looking at low-season as the best time to go on a Yala safari. Whilst forty jeeps was tolerable, 500 would ruin the experience.
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Getting to Yala National Park
Yala National Park is in the South-East of Sri Lanka making it in a different climate zone to Colombo (i.e if Colombo is in monsoon, Yala is dry and vice versa). It is a pretty small national park that is over a five hour drive from Colombo and two hours from Ella (the two nearest big towns).
You can get a train to Ella or Matara, but will have to get another form of transport after this. We wouldn't recommend the buses. They take nearly twice as long and are driven by absolute maniacs who don't believe in breaking for anything (we regularly see them hurtle on the wrong side of the road on a blind corner). Locals, including one who is a former bus driver, all warned us against them.
It is best to combine it with a trip to either the tea plantations in the Hill Country or one of the many beautiful beaches along the South Coast. You can base yourself either at one of the luxury places close to the national park or at Tissa, the nearby town. We chose Tissa based on cost but if we had a bigger budget would definitely have gone for one of the tented camps by the national park.
Yala Safari Hotel
We chose to stay at the Blue Turtle which was a really great choice, especially for our budget.
In low season you can snag a bargain and we wanted to be in town so that we wouldn't be forced to take the hotel's tour and eat every meal there.
This was a good choice as in June there were only two other rooms occupied at the hotel! It was really quiet as it is a long way from the road, very comfortable and immaculately clean. It was a very good price (remember to haggle if in low season) and we highly recommend it. Even though we didn't get the chance to use it they had a great pool too.
Yala National Park Entrance Price
The entry fee to the park itself is not just $25 US per person.
You have to add the cost of the jeep on top of this. You can either organise a private trip or try and team up with others to save cost. Visiting in low season may make it slightly harder to find others but definitely not impossible.
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Are you weighing up a full day safari? Would it potentially be your first leopard sighting? Let us know in the comments.
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