Gal Oya National Park, Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka has taken your breath away. You saw colonial heritage sites in Colombo, gorgeous beaches around Galle, tea plantations outside of Kandy, and an ancient kingdom in Dambulla. Most people would end their island tour there and either begin the long flights home or extend their trip southwest into the Maldives. But there’s one more place in this Indian Ocean country that you’ve been dying to see.

Gal Oya National Park is more than 300 kilometers from Colombo near the east coast of Sri Lanka. Though the park was established in 1954, it’s been largely overlooked, some would say forgotten, since then. That also means that the mountain forests and the savanna grasslands have remained mostly untouched. The park is centered around Senanayake Samudraya, the largest reservoir in the country. It’s home to small islands, nesting birds, huge reptiles, and the endangered Sri Lankan elephant. The latter sparked your interest in this remote part of the island.

But once you started researching Gal Oya, a little lodge turned your dream into an actual possibility. Gal Oya Lodge sits on 20 acres of land on the northwest corner of the park. It was built in between groves of mara and teaks trees. Large gardens are full of chillies. The steep surrounding mountains are usually capped with thick clouds. While its open-to-the-elements buildings feature furniture made by local village craftsmen, high ilux roofs, and plenty of comfortable spots to enjoy the stunning views around you.


You arrive to find a lodge that not only meets, but greatly exceeds, your expectations. You’re welcomed with a cold towel and a glass of iced tea. From the lounge area, you can see a cerulean pool that’s ringed by green grass and blue-cushioned sun loungers. Eight bungalows sit below the lodge. At 800 square feet, yours is larger than your city apartment. It has cool concrete floors, a spacious living room, and a king-sized bed in the bedroom. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the veranda. Plus the bathroom has both an indoor and outdoor shower. It will be a very comfortable spot to return to after searching for animals on safaris.

You head out by foot, in a jeep, and on a boat for these safaris. During a nature walk, you see breathtaking panoramic views of the quiet countryside and meet Veddas, aboriginal people who still use traps, instead of guns, to catch their food. On a jungle drive, you head toward the Nigala River, which flows under a large boulder field, for a picnic along the sandy riverbank.

But your favorite is the river cruise. From the slow-moving boat, you watch two spotted Sri Lankan axis deer drink from the edge of the water. They, in turn, are being watched by a huge mugger crocodile. A black Indian cormorant sits on a dangling tree branch. While, up ahead, a foraging Sri Lankan elephant is slowly making its way toward the water. The boat stops moving, and you hold your breath. The elephant keeps moving closer and closer to the water. Instead of stopping at the edge though, it crashes into the water and starts swimming toward another island. The last stop on your Sri Lanka trip ends up being the absolute highlight.

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