Monday, July 1, 2013

Travel Monday: Jeep Safari of Minneriya National Park

Minneriya National Park ("Minneriya") is one of my most favorite places in Sri Lanka, even though it is one of the smaller national parks on the island. I think I've mentioned this in one of my previous blog posts. I think it's because I've personally had such memorable visits and I consider it on my must-do list when taking friends or family around the island.

People will often prefer Yala or Wilpattu over Minneriya, and I have no problem with that. There are certainly similarities across all the national parks in Sri Lanka anyway. I think what is special about Minneriya is the "Gathering" when more than 300 elephants come together around Minneriya Lake or Reservoir. It takes place annually around September and October. I am a humongous elephant lover so it goes without saying this is "it" for me!

It's also the way in which the national park is set out - the wide open and flat spaces, scrub jungle, the Minneriya tank and overall lusciousness - that pulls me in every time. I've also witnessed some of what I consider the most beautiful wildlife (particularly herds of elephants and amazing birdlife) and incredible passages of time while safariing at Minneriya. Wilpattu comes a close second for me, followed by Yala. I think Yala doesn't rate as highly for me because it's always so busy whenever I visit and therefore my rating on the experiential level declines.

Minneriya is about 180kms or five hours from Colombo. The park covers just 8,889 hectares including the Minneriya tank, which was built by King Mahasena (in the 3rd century AD). The entrance is along the Habarana–Polonnaruwa Road. Whenever I visit I usually stay around Habarana or Giritale (but you can also choose to stay around Sigiriya or Polonnaruwa, which are both convenient) and visit Minneriya within a broader trip that includes other adventures and delights. They say the best time to visit is between May to October.

You can hire a jeep with a tracker near the entrance of the park, or close by. Usually they'll provide a quote - as always, prices will vary depending on whether you're local or foreigner (note: if you haven't read my post on the dual pricing system you can click here to check it out) - and then negotiations commence.





On my last trip to Minneriya we managed to negotiate a jeep and tracker for around Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 for three people plus we had to pay some money towards park entrance fees.




It wasn't an overcast kind of day so we were able to set off earlier in the afternoon. We brought along water and some snacks to replenish ourselves on the safari. There are some lovely spots and vantage points where you can stop and enjoy being in the park.

Once we were through the gate it was full steam ahead! The first half hour is driving through scrub and windy dirt tracks.


Once you get free of the scrub, into the wide open spaces and closer to the Minneriya tank, it opens up and you feel spacious and free.







We spent a great deal of time around the Minneriya tank quietly observing the wildlife around the water and watching for birds. There's a natural spell that take literally takes hold and it's an incredibly peaceful one!




Minneriya tank is an amazing place to observe huge flocks of birds (cormorants, painted storks, pelicans and many other species of waders). They often come to fish in the shallow waters or to congregate together. During the right times it is also the place where the elephants gather or come to bathe and graze on the grasses.


After staying in one favorite spot for awhile we would then drive around the park to seek out another vantage point. 


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According to numerous websites, Minneriya is home to "elephants, leopards, sloth bear, spotted deer, sambar deer, wild buffalo, wild boar, grey langers, purple-faced leaf monkey, three species of mongoose, porcupine & indian pangolin". It is also reported there are over 170 species of birds and many species of fresh water fish to be found in the Minneriya tank.


We also caught a glimpse of a local farmer (not sure if he had approval) herding his cattle to graze and possibly drink at the Minneriya tank. 



And we spent a great deal of time around the elephant herds that were scattered around the park quietly observing them grazing and doing what they do best. Interestingly, you can park the jeep fairly close by without disturbing them.


As you can see from a selection of my photos, there is fascinating wildlife to be observed in their natural habitat at Minneriya.

I'm already looking forward to my next visit, which I anticipate to be around September/October this year for the annual gathering of elephants. Maybe I'll catch you there!

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