Mention the words safari lodge and the mind immediately flies to the Kruger National Park, the Masai Mara or the Okavango Delta. Not to Sri Lanka, the tear drop Island that drops from the southern tip of India.
Yet within the Gal Oya National Park, crossed by five age old elephants’ pathways, Sri Lanka has its own safari lodge providing a base for wildlife adventures. For millennia elephants have coated themselves with dust as a natural sunscreen and flapped their ears for personal air-conditioning as they trek those pathways.
Although Gal Oya is the seventh largest of Sri Lanka’s national parks it is the least visited. Manoj, our guide, briefly seconded to Gal Oya, has set himself the target of working at all 16 parks.
A six hour drive east of Colombo and around six hours south of Nuwara Eliya’s tea country, Gal Oya is far from the madding crowd. Gal Oya Lodge is the gateway to the park. A destination that is blissfully off-grid: no mobile reception, no television, not even Wi-Fi.
The lodge is the most luxurious place to stay, within the park, for visitors seeking traditional safari lodge comforts. For many it serves as a starting point for tracking down Gal Oya’s Big Three of crocodiles, elephants and elusive leopards. Though, the park has its one take on a Zambezi water-borne safari, with boat safaris on Sri Lanka’s largest lake, Senanayake Samudraya.
Detached bungalows with hefty dark wood doors are scattered over Gal Oya Lodge’s 20 acres site, proving a tranquil retreat from 21st century hustle and bustle. Though Gal Oya is never silent. The cicada’s chorus is ceaseless with frogs often croaking their accompaniment too.
So natural and so sustainable are the bungalows that they merge into an environment that has a fertile rainforest feel. Polished teak tree trunks support a roof thatched with illuk grass.
Continuing the sustainability theme, within the spacious suites a thick slab of a tree trunk acts as a substantial table in the living area, adjacent to an L-shaped sofa. A netted four poster bed, beneath a swirling ceiling fan, takes centre stage in the bed room.
Appropriately for a land of monsoons, a rainfall shower awaits in a bathroom that is partially open to the elements. For the full outdoor experience, two chairs are strategically positioned on the decking for bird-spotting or simply keeping an eye open for passing wildlife.
For most visitors, the boat safari on a lake larger than many an English county, is the highlight of a visit to Gal Oya. Named after Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, the vast lake was begun in the late 1940s provides irrigation for farmland, water for nearby town Ampara and a wetland environment for many migratory birds.
At times the lake has 47 islands. Though at other times it has far fewer. Monsoon rains raise the water level by as much as 34 metres. Washing clean the guano from islands once used as maternity wards by grey herons. Sometimes elephants, their trunks raised above the water like periscopes, swim from island to island. It’s one of the lake’s great photographs, along with fishing boats powered by sails made from discarded saris.
The lake is a paradise for birds. After a spot of fishing cormorants find a rock to spread and dry their feathers. Above them white bellied eagles are on aerial patrol for any sign of fish. Spotted bill pelicans are less precise with their fishing technique, scooping up to 11 kg of water and fish when they swoop.
As only four boats, each hosting no more than half a dozen passengers, are licensed to give water safaris, finding a secluded quiet spot to moor up for a breakfast or lunch is never a problem.
Spectral trunks remain of the forest that was flooded to create the lake. The land was also home to the Veddha tribe who were moved from their cave dwellings to a specially constructed village.
Today, the Veddha chief takes guests on a forest walk beginning at Gal Oya Lodge. He shares the survival secrets of a tribe skilled at hunting and tracking down bees for their honey. But many of the tribe are rejecting the traditional customs, such as men marrying their cousins, for life in Sri Lanka’s cities and towns.
Also back at Gal Oya Lodge, the Jim Edwards Research Centre, provides insight into the state of the park. Guests learn how to set camera traps to contribute to a wildlife census. Recently, 20 leopards have been filmed. They are identified by their battle scars. Though occasionally poachers, in search of deer for dinner, are caught on film.
At the heart of the lodge’s estate a tall A – frame building, again thatched with illuk grass, sits next to the swimming pool. Guests are drawn in by the bar and the restaurant up on the mezzanine level.
A small library, with wildlife guides, helps guests to catch-up on what they’ve already spotted and to plan their next adventure in the almost forgotten paradise of Gal Oya.