Just a ten-minute drive east of Habarana, Minneriya National Park offers something of a change of scenery for anyone suffering ruin fatigue. Its centrepiece is the large Minneriya Tank, created by the famous tank-builder and monk-baiter Mahasena, and despite its relatively small size, the park also boasts an unusually wide range of habitat types, from dry tropical forest to wetlands, grasslands and terrain previously used for slash-and-burn (chena) agriculture. Much of the area around the entrance is covered in superb dry-zone evergreen forest dotted with beautiful satinwood, palu (rosewood), halmilla and weera trees – though the thickness of the forest cover means that it’s relatively difficult to spot wildlife.
The principal attraction here is elephants. Minneriya forms part of the elephant corridor that joins up with Kaudulla and Wasgomuwa national parks, and large numbers of the beasts can be found here at certain times of year during their migrations between the various parks – local guides should know where the greatest concentrations of elephants are at any given time. They are most numerous from July to October, peaking in August and September when water elsewhere dries up and as many as three hundred or more come to the tank’s ever-receding shores from as far away as Trincomalee to drink, bathe and feed on the fresh grass that grows up from the lake bed as the waters retreat – as well as to socialize and search for mates. This annual event has been popularly dubbed “The Gathering”, the largest meeting of Asian elephants anywhere in the world. At other times, you may spot only a few elephants, which in fact are often more easily seen from the main Habarana–Polonnaruwa road that runs along the park’s northern edge. Other mammals found in the park include sambar, spotted deer, macaque and purple-faced langur monkeys, sloth bears and around twenty leopards (although these last two are very rarely sighted), plus an enormous number of birds.