Gal Oya National Park
Three rivers flow together into the great scenic Senanayake Samudra reservoir to create a water playground for large numbers of elephants that swim about in family groups of a dozen or so. They paddle among small islands for succulent grasses or bathe onshore, frolicking with youngsters, spraying one another, resting and cooling off on a hot day. When swimming in deep water they seem unconcerned about small boats drifting quietly among them. (Less regularly seen— fortunately since they are less agreeable—are swimming water buffalo, capricious half-ton (500-kg) beasts that can explode in a watery stampede and dump a canoe.)
Leopards, rare small cats, Goliath herons, and a treasure of other wildlife species are here as well.
Magnificent white-bellied sea eagles confront one another in screaming aerial displays, jealously guarding feeding and breeding territories, diving, talons bared (sometimes dropping the fish that caused it all). Pink-splashed painted storks assemble bulky stick nests in noisy congregations, 20 or so almost touching one another in a single tree, foraging in shallows, swishing bills back and forth to close on a frog or small fish. Their aquatic food source is shared by spoonbills and ibis, pelicans, bright kingfishers, herons, egrets, cormorants, and elastic-necked snakebirds.
Sambar, Asia’s largest deer, come to drink, along with lovely axis or spotted chital deer, wild boars and, toward dusk, shy muntjac or barking deer. Darkness brings lively little palm civets, both black and golden, and sometimes smaller fishing, jungle, and endemic rusty-spotted cats.
Primeval woods are home to vibrant-hued but secretive little scarlet or orange minivets, Layard’s parakeets, and bronze strutting jungle fowl. Painted sandgrouse stay on grassy edges.
An ancient treasure of medicinal plants containing specifics for everything from high blood pressure to gallstones and snake bite is believed to have been planted and used by ancient Sinhala monarchs, including King Dutugemunu, to supply his army hospital.
Sloth bears (whose long claws and relatively slow movements resemble sloths) seek out ripe fruits or use formidable nails to tear into termite mounds or dig for grubs, their diet staple.
This 100-square-mile (260-km2) park inland from Sri Lanka’s southeast-central coast surrounds the Senanayake Samudra reservoir, formed for irrigation by damming three rivers which flow through the park.
Best times are March–July. Rest house and bungalows (take own provisions) are at Inginiyagala and Eekgal Aru.
The park is a 235-mile (376-km) drive northeast of Colombo. Commercial flights are available intermittently to Amparai. Visitors (accompanied by ranger) can walk or rent boats, sometimes drifting among herds of swimming elephants or birds.
Problems include ongoing civil disturbance—check ahead.