3 weeks in Sri Lanka. Part 5: Gal Oya National Park with kids.
One of Sri Lanka's lesser visited parks, Gal Oya is a hidden gem with beautiful scenery, excellent and unique animal sightings and a fantastically run, family friendly eco-lodge, with the park on its doorstep. After a 2.5-hour short-cut inspired drive through rice paddies, rich jungle and over some very bumpy roads, we arrived to a warm greeting at our lodge and immediately felt at home.
Ten separate and very private wooden huts, with straw thatched roofs and fantastic jungle views, are positioned around a central lodge, restaurant and pool. The huts are spacious, with an outdoor bathroom dividing a large sleeping area and living space. Our little ones took over the living space, where a separate bed had easily been slotted in, and two large bench seats with giant cushions became a cosy playroom, littered with toys and games. The pool is surrounded by jungle and the gently swaying grasses were home to brightly coloured dragon flies that buzzed over the water in search of a quick drink. The imposing 'Monkey Mountain' stood tall as a backdrop and would often be shrouded in wispy clouds early in the morning or as the sun set. With nowhere else to go, most guests are on full-board and, unlike other places that tend to serve up a bland buffet, all meals are a la carte and delicious.
It’s all about the national park and its animal and human inhabitants, and a host of activities are offered from the lodge that are run by their knowledgeable local guides. Here are our top picks to do with kids in Gal Oya.
- Boat Safari: Gal Oya NP houses Sri Lanka's biggest ancient tank (reservoir) and a boat safari offers an intimate experience with some of the park’s inhabitants, big and small. We opted for an afternoon safari, in the hope of catching the setting sun, a rare opportunity with younger kids in tow. The four of us shared a small motorised boat with our guide and two spotters from the local community. One of the big draws here is the unique opportunity to see elephants swimming from island to island across the lake and, whilst we didn't get to see this, we spotted several bull (male) elephants wandering alone around the tank’s perimeter. The receding waters of the dry season had allowed fresh shoots of grass to grow in the fertile sandy ground, creating a carpet of vivid green at the lakes edge. This led to a backdrop of mysterious thick jungle with misty mountain peaks lurking behind. Watching a wild elephant trudge slowly across this surreal and beautiful background as you bobbed silently on the vast tank was a truly memorable experience. We were also lucky to get up close to a grinning croc (whose red stained teeth fascinated our little ones), see a herd of wild buffalo and share our adventure with hundreds of birds including stately eagles, soaring kites and a lone pelican unsuccessfully fishing in the lake’s waters. After spotting an elephant behind a small rocky outcrop, our guide invited us out of the boat for a closer peak, checking we were happy to do this first. We wandered over fresh crocodile and jackal tracks, totally mesmerised by the colours of the landscape, and scrambled up the rocks for incredible views, including our intrepid elephant. Local fishermen dot the lake, their brightly coloured sheets acting as make shift sails, and branches of long dead trees poke eerily out of the water offering sanctuary to some of the parks many birds. As our safari came to an end our timing was rewarded with a stunning sunset and we watched the subtle shift in colours back across the lake as we headed back to shore.
- Indigenous walk: We also went on a walk with a Vedda tribesmen, once the indigenous people of eastern Sri Lanka, living isolated lives in caves in the jungle. Over the years since their discovery, the lives of the Vedda have integrated with regular Sri Lankans and they now all live in the villages. It was interesting to hear snippets of how their hunter gatherer lifestyle once played out and the kids were very intrigued by the traditional blessing we were given, in their indigenous language, before and after our walk.
- Jungle cooking: After a short walk through the jungle surrounding the lodge we arrived at a small rocky plain, at the edge of which stood a wooden hut which housed a traditional 'jungle' kitchen. Three wood burning stoves, two of which were already ablaze, were behind two rickety tables surrounded by tree stump stools. Over the next hour and a half, as thunder and lightning crackled overhead, we watched, smelt, tasted and chopped as both chef and guide talked us through the cooking process. By the end we had coconut bowls and clay pots full of steaming fish curry, served with banana flower and ‘dry porridge’. We all got stuck in with our fingers (once it had cooled sufficiently) and enjoyed one of the best curries we'd tasted all trip. The kids loved munching down the curry dipped porridge balls while the space around the hut provided opportunity to stretch legs and explore when required. Eventually the clouds gave way to clear skies and we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset, the dark cliffs silhouetted against a blazing orange sky.