Gal Oya Lodge, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a plethora of wildlife and is making its mark as one of the best places to visit for safaris in South Asia. Gal Oya Lodge is the only camp within this magnificent national park and offers some completely unique and individual experiences in a barefoot luxury setting. Compared to the more popular safari spots you will find yourself totally alone with your guide on safari, a rarity that has become nigh on impossible apart from private reserves. The lodge is really nestled into nature and with no internet or phone it really is the ultimate place to switch of from the outside world and enjoy the amazingly beautiful landscape and natural diversity this country has to offer.
Gal Oya is situated in the middle eastern part of Sri Lanka and accessible from both Kandy and Arugum Bay. You will drive through some magnificent countryside and slowly immerge into the rich forested area that the lodge perches on. One there you are greeted warmly and the amazing guides can offer insights into the best kind of experiences or safari for you depending on what you would like to see and fitness ability. There are jeep, walking and boat options where you can really explore the natural surroundings and see animals in their truly natural surroundings. There is an unfortunate booming business in people visiting elephant 'sanctuaries', however many still have these majestic creatures chained or beaten to be tame so you can sit on them. As the guides will tell you and any naturalist knows you should not be able to get very near or touch a wild Asian or African elephant on any creature, guaranteeing a totally authentic experience.
The main lodge is an unpretentious and natural structure of bamboo looking over the pool on to the rugged green hills behind. It is a comfortable and simply elegant structure sustainably crafted from bamboo and natural materials overlooking the pool. This is central heart of the lodge where mealtimes take place and people can relax, play games and go for a dip. This is truly a place to unwind as without the pressures of modern technology, there is not the need to know what is happening in the outside world. Truly finding such a special spot where you can totally disconnect and simply enjoy nature is very unique when looking for the ideal eco escape in this day and age. There are a few gentle hikes around the camp too or it is a great place to just catch up with some reading or kick back with a good book.
The ten bungalows are scattered off little gasoline lamp lighted pathways around the lodge. Each one is designed to sit in perfect symbiosis with nature and built as sustainably as possible from wood and bamboo in an earthy eco safari chic style. Indoor and outdoor living meld into one with extensive verandas if the doors are open, living rooms and bathrooms that flow from inside to outside the bungalow. Natural wood, bamboo and hessian make up most of the furnishings and decor complimenting the forest setting and natural surroundings. With outdoor bathrooms set under trees and the totally tranquil views of the surrounding landscape, the bungalows are more similar to an African lodge than a typical South Asian yet have used sustainable local materials to construct these to fit in harmoniously in the Sri Lankan landscape.
Sri Lanka has a rich history of protecting its wildlife and a huge range of biodiversity. Mihintale the worlds first ever 'reserve' was created in the 3rd Century BC and this tradition of preserving the environment has now carried on to having over a hundred national parks with a myriad of mammal, reptile, amphibian and bird species. Given this two thousand year old commitment to its flora and fauna, Sri Lanka is a haven for nature lovers who can experience a vast array of wildlife. Gal Oya National Park falls into the dry zone and the lodge offers some amazing experiences to explore this unique and untouched landscape. Early morning safaris are the perfect way to start the day and waking up before the sunrise to set off in the land rover on the way for a river safari is a really special start to the day, watching the golden hues creep up over the horizon on your way to a boat safari on the largest lake in Sri Lanka that is actually a reservoir that was completed in 1953.
It an exciting and ethereal experience with the sun rising spotting elephants and crocodiles floating amongst submerged tree tops and and this dramatic landscape littered with rocky outcrops and islands. The guides and naturalists who accompany you are incredible at spotting elephants and crocodiles that are beautifully camouflaged into their natural habitat and will stealthily lead you to observe them as close as possible. It is eerily silent compared to a jeep safari yet a calm and unique way to observe wildlife that feels more immersed in the environment. A quiet breakfast picnic on a small island with just the sound of the waves lapping, looking over the water for elephants, is a truly magical and should not be missed. Spotting a family of twelve and gliding over to another shore to slowly approach and literally follow in the elephants footprints is an unforgettable and incredible adventure.
Another totally individual trek to the lodge is being guided by the Veddas, who are the indigenous forest people of Sri Lanka., and one of the last remaining communities living in the forests. The local leader can lead you on a guided tour of the local forests, explaining medicinal plants, foraging, hunting and gathering and showing you traditional cave dwellings. Preservation of indigenous knowledge handed through generations is a vital tool of conservation as the core knowledge of any ecosystem globally is held within the knowledge of the original inhabitants. Gal Oya Lodge is one of the few lodges in Sri Lanka that respects and helps people to understand this through interaction with the Vedda still inhabiting the forests.From climbing to the top of the local monkey rock and picnics by waterfalls, to traditional jeep safaris there are plenty of amazing escapades for anyone of any age group and ability to enjoy that are definitely memories that would last for life.
There is also a great dedication to conservation through The Jim Edwards Wildlife Research Centre, (JEWRC) has recently been completed and hosts visiting scientists and students. They have partnered with the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust (http://www.wwct.org/) and have camera traps set up to monitor what wildlife we have in the area. Another interesting initiative is to not only hire locally, but specifically try and hire as many poachers as they can. There very strict terms of employment which outline that they or any of their direct family members can not hunt or consume illegal game meat. This has been a success with now 3 ex full time poachers at the lodge and now have reversed their skills to teach guests and naturalists more about the local area and secret spots.
Gal Oya Lodge is a place full of wonderful warm people, completely extraordinary experiences and excursions that is a complete hideaway from the outside world. A few days of exploring the fascinating natural environment and being disconnected from the outside world, meaning you have more time to concentrate on the natural world that you are in is a really rare and special luxury in this day and age. The perfect eco escape for any intrepid traveller who wants to experience something completely different from their Sri Lankan safari experience.
Photos Courtesy of Gal Oya Lodge, Campbell Brewer & Electra Gillies
Words by Electra Gillies