Our non-luxury camping in Yala National Park

I love Sri Lanka but the tourism industry here still seems to be so limiting. It’s a balancing act between luxurious honeymoon holidays and backpackers coming for surfing and beach parties. Looking at it’s nature, weather, variety of landscape, it should be an adventure playground! Lanka is a perfect destination for those of you who wants to experience cascading waterfalls, ancient ruins, dramatic natural wonders and yes, wildlife!

Anyhow, the moment Sam and I arrived here, we knew we want to sign up for a safari. The moment we’ve heard we can camp in a National Park, we wanted to camp in one. We decided on Yala – apparently the best for spotting leopards and… (like we painfully found out later on) for luxurious glamping experience. With a fancy china and bathtub in your tent-the whole shebang.

We knew straight away, fancy way is not for us! We want the experience the nitty-gritty of camping. The sound of nature in the small tent and cooking on the camp-fire. And, yes, we managed to do it in the middle of Yala.

travel guide

The Essentials

Travel

There is only one main airport in Sri Lanka, Negombo Airport. From here, you can catch a taxi or a transfer to Colombo. After that, the easiest way to travel is by E01 expressway to Tissamaharama, with a change in Hambantota , (depends if you travel by a couch/ bus or directly by a taxi). It’s more comfortable in the taxi, but public transport in Lanka is so cheap!

Camping

Best way to arrange camping is asking your safari provider.  Organising trips and experiences is their livelihood so they will make sure the experience is as unique as your needs. We used Amila from Richard Cabanas who arranged everything: permit for 1 night of Yala camping, transportation, camping crew, safaris and 2 nights in Tissa. All that cost approx. £300 (82 000 lkr) for 2 people. The camp location was quite isolated, in a stunning river location.

How Long to Stay

 

You can do a one, half-day safari in Yala but I recommend staying overnight and doing at least 2 safaris (morning and afternoon one). Staying longer means you won’t be rushing and can see a lot more of wildlife!  

When to go

 

Whenever possible, try to avoid weekends and local holidays, otherwise you will see A LOT of Sri Lankan families (they travel in huge and laud groups!). The official Yala season is from May to August, but when we came in October, it was still dry and the visibility was perfect. 

travel guide

Why go camping in Yala

sExperience the nature first hand

Basic camping doesn’t come cheap in Sri Lanka although staying the night in the park gives you the option to immerse yourself into nature, fully. You can arrange similar trips to stay the night in the buffer zone around the edge of Yala (the terrain is similar and you can experience a bit of wildlife), but by and large this is watered-down experience compared to visiting the park itself and costs are pretty similar. 

See fireflies 

We’ve see fireflies before and it was pretty but Yala excited all expectation! The whole tree, covered in lights, dazzled us for a few hours looking like a Christmas Tree in a full swing! It was one of the most memorable and magical experiences of my life.

Be first in line

There are hundreds of jeeps in Yala and they start arriving at 7am so wake up early and start your morning safari before everybody else! 

travel guide

How ethical are animal safaris really?

Avoid safaris?? You just recommend us to sign up for one!

Animal safaris are honeymoon favourites but are there drawbacks to playing paparazzi or hunting? Seeing animals in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience and one of the most enticing reasons be visit Sri Lanka or even Africa. But is it ethical?

Now, in an era that we are more environmentally conscious than ever before, the idea of killing animals for entertainment or trophy repels us. But.. we still wear the same colonial-inspired khaki outfits and expect to see the animal ( holding a phone or a long lens camera instead of a shotgun). If safari history is rooting in the history, the camera has replaced the gun. We track them through the jungle in open-top cars with a pair of binoculars on hand. 

Few years ago, nobody would have even question that but now, people are asking questions: “Was that right?”, “Are those beautiful animals happy with having their photos taken?”, “How is the animal so relaxed around its predator?”. Animal tracking has risen with tourism demand for a more authentic travel experience. Tourists in small groups follow animals that have been habituated to be habituated around humans. Peta reports the number of companies offering animals as entertainment has fallen, but the tracking could fall under the same umbrella. It’s not only unnatural but unsafe to habituate animals, this is not something working in their best interest. If the animal’s best interest is to live full and natural life in the wild it’s keeping them away from group selfies. 

The ethics of safari is not a clear issue, especially for turtles, dolphins or whales in Sri Lanka. Marine animals are left in their natural surroundings and pursue their lives in the most natural way.  For example, turtles around Mirissa are slowly tamed to swim with humans and generate a revenue for sustainability, and conservation. Travel and tourism in Sri Lanka, also driven by safari and animal spotting, earned $4.4 bn in 2018. Without benefits, local communities are unlikely to see advantages of looking after their animals, taking care of National Parks (all 26 of them!) . This is something we have to bear in minds. 

 Be suspicious of any companies that guarantee seeing an animal up close. Before you visit the lodge or engage with the business, look at activities their offer and at the comment section. Ask, why some drives are cheaper than the other, be inquisitive. I know it can be a touchy and controversial subject for animal lovers and honestly, it makes me nervous. Ultimately on all fronts I am trying to experience nature but also act in it’s best interest, learning about the different perspectives. To finish, one final reminder, ultimately, it all comes down to you doing your research and what you feel comfortable with. 

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