Updated: Aug 11, 2020
Seeing an elephant is typically a memorable affair no matter where in the world you reside and no matter the circumstance. Seeing one in the wild is incomparable. It's the stuff of pure travel dreams and among my own most cherished memories from a number of incredible safari trips.
I've written about it before, but even the activities surrounding a good safari adventure are memorable. Obviously we all want to see some cool animals, but I find that some of the thrill comes in not knowing what you might see from day to day or game drive to game drive.
I've been lucky enough to see elephants in a number of destinations around Africa and Asia, I'm also privileged to interact regularly with clients and supplier partners who've enjoyed similar experiences and figured it was time to share a few favorites.
So, I've rounded up a few specific destinations where I've had success viewing elephants in the wild or at least a brilliant time seeking them out. I've also included one or two recommendations based on client or supplier experiences I might share on their behalf.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
I've written about this place before. It's magical. It's also an amazing place to spot elephants, especially during the crepuscular hours. If you spend a few days here you're bound to see elephants, but you may also see lions, rhinos, and countless other cool creatures, such as the African wild dog!
From the comfort of a wingback chair and overlooking the watering hole by the tented camp, you can even observe local wildlife between game drives; coffee in hand in the morning and again with a dash of Amarula in the evening!
I saw elephants on most of my days on game drives, but not all. I read a study performed by a student of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Henriette Sernert, (link here) depicting the terms of a research effort - the relevant gist being elephants present along the corridors of the park during 61 out of the 78 days the study was conducted. Great stats!
I also had the rare pleasure of a safari by helicopter, observing whole herds from a great height. I'm sorry but my point and shoot camera wasn't up to the task on this day, here's another shot of some giraffes instead:
If you're travelling all the way to Africa, you're going to want to explore more of the region, perhaps best enjoyed as part of a greater Kenya and East Africa experience. For this I might recommend our custom high-end partners, Kensington Tours or Intrepid Travel for more modest budgets.
Kinabatangan River, Borneo
Malaysia is possibly my own favourite place to visit. The people, the food, and the wildlife... it's unbeatable. I will probably have to dedicate an entire series of articles on the pursuit of the perfect cendol!
What is cendol?
A brief segue to cendol - it's a sort of a dessert or milk tea with green rice flour jelly suspended in it along with palm sugar, served chilled. What I find most appealing is, like being on safari, every stall owner has their own recipe and no two are quite the same. It's a little surprise each time you taste it!
Back to elephants and Borneo
The island of Borneo is the third largest in the world and it is partially cleaved by the great Kinabatangan River. It's the longest river in Sabah, the easternmost region of Malaysian Borneo.
The river itself is an amazing place for adventure and travel by boat is probably the best way to get around while also providing excellent opportunity to view the local wildlife.
Stay in a semi-remote river lodge for a few nights and enjoy morning and evening boat safaris, looking for cool birds and insects, watching out for the occasional crocodile, and, of course, seeking out elephants! As a side note, my guide suggested I keep an eye out for the Sumatran rhino, but I'm not entirely sure of their range and whether I was just happy to be swept up in the thrill and excitement of the safari!
I spent a few days there but wasn't fortunate enough to see elephants, just their ground sign. You have to be particularly quiet and careful here, they're a little more shy than in Kenya or in other spots (below, keep reading) and not particularly fond of mobile phones or other flashing lights.
I don't regret having missed out on the elephants - Borneo is just too incredible and the remaining wildlife is unreal. Orangutans may be observed and there are plenty of other primates to see, such as the proboscis nosed monkey; an interesting creature as they aren't really afraid of the water like many other primates. They in fact spend their nights at the river's edge, ready to leap into the water and away from any predators.
Getting to and from Borneo is relatively simple these days, with a great excuse to stop in world class Kuala Lumpur before and/or after any tour or even try your hand at the ascent of Mount Kinabalu. I might recommend G Adventures for something somewhat rustic and fun, befitting a jungle!
Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
I can't tell you how much time I've spent deliberating my own preferences and reflecting on which destination I enjoyed more, Sri Lanka or Borneo. I can't entirely say that Borneo won, but I have visited Malaysia several times which perhaps put poor Sri Lanka at a disadvantage.
Another place with lovely people, flavourful food, and amazing wildlife. Again, beyond elephants, I went whale watching to see the mighty blue whale, climbed a mountain at Adam's Peak, saw the tooth of Buddha himself in Kandy, and much, much more.
Despite its 20M+ population, the tiny, teardrop shaped island off the coast of India has a decent population of elephants and Yala National Park is probably the best place to view them in their natural habitat.
Getting there and when to go
You can try your hand at surfing in Unawatuna or just relax in the resorts area of Galle. There is no bad time to visit Sri Lanka, just a different side of the island to visit when the rains come.
From Galle it's a short distance to drive but a bit of traffic to navigate in order to cross east to Yala. Get there early and head out onto the park for your game drive, you might even see a bit of wildlife right in the parking area.
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Wild peacocks at the tops of trees, grazing water buffalo, and maybe even a leopard if you're lucky - the leopard was just about the only creature I wanted to see but didn't on this particular adventure. I did see some apparition rapidly descend a tree at one point, but I can't be sure it was a leopard so I'm not going to call it haha.
As for elephants, my driver was able to park us in a secluded turn around and a small herd emerged from the bushes not long after. I was within 3-4 metres, which was made even more memorable in having a private vehicle and no windows - just my own thoughts and some gigantic creatures carrying out their daily business at what feels like arm's reach.
Some of the bush is more dense than the plains areas of Africa and the elephants are generally a bit smaller (Asian elephants are a smaller species), but Sri Lanka hasn't enjoyed the same few decades of development which might mean a different experience than Kenya or elsewhere.
Sri Lanka is a unique place and deserves a unique experience. I might suggest a custom escorted tour with Abercrombie & Kent so you can get out and explore more hidden gems around the island. There are too many to list, we're going to need a bigger blog.
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania
Rounding out my list is equal parts destination and equal part supplier partner.
Back to Africa, I'm going to recommend Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, but I'm also going to recommend right off the start that you travel with Ntaba African Safaris.
I've picked the park because of its great proximity to Arusha, so you can enter or exit the region if you're carrying on to another destination, and it is also close enough to enjoy access to the Ngorongoro Crater.
The park itself is famous for its large herd sizes which has something to do with the near-surface ground water. Elephants never forget, isn't that the saying? They apparently don't forget where to dig for water at least, and Tarangire is a reliable place for them to quench their thirst.
You want an intimate experience, trust me
Intimate is the right word, however, when talking about the experience. The second half of my last pick here is down to getting the right supplier for the job, and Ntaba is a special company.
It's family owned and operated in a very approachable manner - that means the depth of support available to Odyssean Travel's clients is unreal. There aren't many reputable safari companies around where I can just pick up the phone and have the owner on the line in less than 5 rings - and they'll be going with you. Their motto, "we don't send you to Africa. We take you."
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