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Minneriya National Park

Located in the heart of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, Minneriya’s scenery offers just the kind of respite one might be looking for if suffering from ‘ruin overdose’. The park’s centrepiece is the 300 square hectare water tank, built by King Mahasena in the 3rd century BC, which today attracts herds of wild elephant who gather on the shores to drink and cool off in the thick afternoon heat.

Despite its relatively small size (88.9 square kilometres), the park’s topography lays claim to a diverse range of habitats. The dry tropical forest, lush wetlands, sweeping grasslands and scrub support an incredible variety of wildlife: in the lake itself are mugger (or tank) crocodiles and fish, around it little cormorants, painted storks, herons and large pelicans all fish in the shallow waters, while in the trees hide skinks, red-lipped lizards, trees frogs, hanging parrots, Sri Lankan jungle fowl and grey hornbills. Buffalo, sambar and spotted deer wander through the grasslands, whilst macaque and purple-faced langur monkeys swing from branch to branch in the treetops, amongst an enormous number of birds. Rarely seen, but there nevertheless, are sloth bears, pythons and leopards (the park is home to around twenty leopards). The surrounding evergreen forest is peppered with satinwood, rosewood, halmill and ancient weera trees.

However, the main attraction in this park is the elephants, and Minneriya is one of the best places in the country to see them. From July to October, peaking in August and September, large numbers of these magnificent beasts can be found here. It’s at this time of year when the water elsewhere on the island dries up, and as many as 300 elephants are drawn to the tank’s receding shores which expose new grass and green shoots. This annual event, often called the Great Elephant Gathering, is the largest meeting of Asian elephants anywhere else in the world. Elephants travel from as far away as Trincomalee to drink, bathe and feed on the fresh grass that grows up from the lake, as well as to socialise and search for mates.

The park entrance is located on the Habarana–Polonnaruwa road. The initial 40-minute drive, along a very bumpy dirt road, into the heart of the park is fairly non-descript; the track leads through dense forest and wildlife sightings are rare. But once out of the forest, the magnificent landscape opens up dramatically, with spectacular views across the tank. We recommend visiting early in the morning for bird sightings, and late afternoon for the elephants.

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