Ex­otic break that’s help­ing heal Sri Lanka

Tsunami sur­vivors Rob and Paul Forkan, founders of the Gandys life­style brand, have teamed up with Kuoni for their new tour. PRIYA JOSHI tries it out

Western Mail - - GETAWAY -

GANDYS – the life­style brand founded by Bri­tish broth­ers, Rob and Paul Forkan – was, they say, “in­spired by travel and fu­elled by giv­ing back”.

And their mo­tives couldn’t have been closer to their hearts. For those un­fa­mil­iar with the Gandys story, Rob and Paul, along with their younger sib­lings Mat­tie and Rosie, were on hol­i­day in Sri Lanka when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami hit.

Their par­ents, Kevin and San­dra (“Bo­hemian hip­pies,” says Rob), didn’t sur­vive – leav­ing Rob, Paul, Mat­tie and Rosie, then aged 17, 15, 11 and eight re­spec­tively, plus two older sis­ters not on the trip, or­phaned.

BIRTH OF AN ETH­I­CAL BRAND

BE­FORE the tragedy, Kevin and San­dra had swapped the rat race for a life of travel, and the fam­ily had spent the pre­vi­ous five years ex­plor­ing In­dia, even vol­un­teer­ing at or­phan­ages and slums.

Gandys, which started with flip-flops but has grown into a whole fash­ion and life­style brand since its 2012 launch, was a way of con­tin­u­ing their par­ents’ legacy, giv­ing back to the com­mu­nity that shared in the dev­as­ta­tion, and help­ing other or­phans.

They also set up a char­ity foun­da­tion, Or­phans for Or­phans, to which 10% of their prof­its go, and opened a chil­dren’s home in Sri Lanka in 2014 (a sec­ond, in Malawi, was opened last year).

It also en­abled the broth­ers to carve out a fu­ture for them­selves, a tri­umph-over-tragedy tale the whole fam­ily would be proud of.

PLAN­NING A NEW TOUR

NOW, they’ve teamed up with tour op­er­a­tor Kuoni, to cre­ate a Sri Lankan tour based on their favourite sights and hotspots, from Colombo to Yala Na­tional Park and the coastal city of Galle. It’s a first for Kuoni, who’ve pledged to do­nate a per­cent­age of all sales from the Kuoni-Gandys Sri Lanka Adventure to Or­phans for Or­phans.

The itin­er­ary takes in the Si­giriya Rock Fortress, Kandy, the tea plan­ta­tions of Nuwara Eliya, the Nine Arches Bridge of Ella and the Min­ner­iya Na­tional Park. And while trav­ellers will be ac­com­pa­nied by a driver and guide, I have the priv­i­lege of be­ing shown around by the Gandys them­selves.

MY JOUR­NEY WITH GANDYS

AR­RIV­ING at Colombo Air­port af­ter a 10-hour flight from the UK, we’re re­freshed with co­conut wa­ter and juicy rambu­tans (a red, hairy fruit that’s a popular snack across Asia), as we set off by road to Habarana, ab­sorb­ing the ever-chang­ing land­scape, as our schol­arly guide, Aloy, re­gales us with a pot­ted his­tory of Sri Lanka.

En­gulfed by the sweet fu­sion of bougainvil­laea flow­ers, heat and gaso­line, and sur­rounded by lush green land­scapes and dizzy­ingly tall palm trees, Sri Lanka is less in­tense than In­dia but, in ways, sim­i­lar, with the same splut­ter­ing au­torick­shaws, harried drivers dodg­ing la­conic cows and chil­dren rac­ing to school in Daz-white uni­forms.

A FORTRESS IN THE SKY

OUR first stop is the Si­giriya Wa­ter Gar­dens Ho­tel, where, sur­rounded by lakes and moun­tains, the deca­dent deluxe vil­las are a per­fect es­cape from the mod­ern world. As sun­beams awaken the blos­som­ing lo­tus flow­ers, we head to Si­giriya Rock Fortress, near the town of Dam­bulla. A UNESCO World Her­itage Site, the 200me­tre-high rock is the an­cient ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site of King Kasyapa’s palace.

The for­merly gilded palace walls, which were adorned with or­nate fres­cos, are to­day bare rock, but the majesty of the ed­i­fice is undi­min­ished, beck­on­ing vis­i­tors to scale its 1,200 steps.

Be­gin­ning with a steep in­cline, the ‘Lion Rock’, as it’s known, plateaus into two tiers, where the king’s 500-strong harem once as­sem­bled.

Af­ter the king’s death, the royal palace was aban­doned. It was used as a Bud­dhist monastery un­til the 14th cen­tury and even to­day, monks flock to the site, al­beit now with mo­bile phones in hand. The Si­girya Rock was also the back­drop for Du­ran Du­ran’s Save A Prayer video.

A two-hour trek, and the stun­ning panoramic view of the lush Sri Lankan plains, that in­spired some of the Gandys broth­ers’ de­signs, is am­ple re­ward for your ef­forts.

EN­COUN­TER­ING LOCAL WILDLIFE

OF course, no trip to Sri Lanka would be com­plete with­out ele­phants. At the Min­ner­iya Na­tional Park in Habarana, we see 300 of the gen­tle gi­ants, who dwell in the sur­round­ing forests of Matale, Polon­naruwa and Trin­co­ma­lee and con­gre­gate daily at a wa­ter­ing hole in the park.

We watch in awe as an ele­phant fam­ily saun­ters past, heads bob­bing, seem­ingly obliv­i­ous to the con­voy of jeeps trail­ing them. There’s even a two-day-old baby, tread­ing along ten­ta­tively, stop­ping now and then to suckle.

EX­PLOR­ING THE TEA PLAN­TA­TIONS

LATER, a five-hour drive takes us to the mist-shrouded tea plan­ta­tions at Nuwara Eliya. Af­ter a whis­tle-stop tour of the fac­tory, which sup­plies tea to UK su­per­mar­kets, we walk to the plan­ta­tions, where tea pick­ers smile for cam­eras as they toss fresh leaf tips over their heads and into bas­kets.

Af­ter a night spent in the Her­i­tance Tea Fac­tory ho­tel, which sits high up in the plan­ta­tions, we set off on the two-hour jour­ney to Ella, where nestling into the hill­side, the pic­turesque Nine Arches Bridge is a draw for tourists.

But it’s poignant for the Gandys broth­ers for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons; it was here they fled the hor­ror of the tsunami as chil­dren.

“We fol­lowed the train tracks to get to the near­est town for help,” ex­plains Rob. “We’ve come full cir­cle. To­day, we’re here with Gandys. Now we can do some­thing to help those peo­ple who helped us.” An­other five-hour drive from Ella, our home tonight is the Cin­na­mon Wild re­sort in Yala, where wild an­i­mals wan­der the re­serve – and the pos­si­bil­ity of cross­ing paths with a leop­ard, or find­ing an ele­phant loi­ter­ing out­side your lodge is ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

A tea plan­ta­tion worker

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