Gal Oya National Park is in the east of Sri Lanka and until late January it was the only major national park we had never visited. And not just us – very few visitors make it there. The reason? It’s a long drive from pretty well anywhere, and although the park itself is great there’s absolutely nothing else for visitors to do in the surrounding countryside and towns – the nearest place of any tourist significance is Arugam Bay and even that has a closer national park (Kumana).
Most of the surface area of Gal Oya is water and what is special about it is that you can take a boat safari as well as a more normal jeep safari. The boats are simple eight seater open boats run by the Sri Lanka Navy. They operate early mornings and enable you to go around the many small islands and observe a large variety of water birds at close quarters and often in huge numbers. If you’re lucky (we weren’t) you may see some of the park’s population of elephants swimming between islands. We only saw one at the water’s edge and a couple more later in the jungle while on the afternoon jeep safari.
In some ways our trip to Gal Oya was disappointing. We had some unseasonal rain and got soaked on the open boat safari; and the variety of large animal wildlife was limited to a few elephants, some sambur and barking deer and wild pigs. But there were a lot of positives, too. The sheer quantity of bird life and ability to observe group and mass behaviour close up from a quiet boat; seeing a couple of huge Lesser Adjutant Storks; and the sheer beauty of the landscape (or perhaps “aquascape” would be more exact).
But the really amazing thing about our visit was that when we took the jeep safari in the afternoon we did not see even one other jeep for the whole three hours. If you want to keep the wildlife to yourself rather than sharing it with hundreds of other visitors Gal Oya is the place to be!
Accommodation in the area is limited, as you might expect. There is a luxury option (The Lodge) which was well outside our budget but has a good reputation, plus a few small local guest houses of a more basic nature with prices to match. We stayed at the Rathnapriya Safari Guest House which was excellent value for money but no frills.