Rob Forkan walks alone on a stretch of sandy beach, gazing upon the vastness of the Indian Ocean. Wearing his Gandys flip-flops, he leaves his footprints in the sand.
At first glance, Rob and Paul Forkan are typical London lads; handsome, fun-loving, with a fondness for beer and an obsession for football. They display a closeness not unusual between brothers, but perhaps better understood when you hear their story.
Rob Forkan, co-founder of Gandys.
Their parents Kevin and Sandra were, in Rob’s words “bohemian hippies.” They quit the rat-race, took their four youngest children out of school – their two adult daughters stayed in London- and moved to India, where they lived for five years, volunteering at orphanages and slums, and revelling in the vibrant culture.
In 2004, a family holiday to Sri Lanka ended in tragedy, when their parent’s beach front villa was struck by a tsunami. Staying in another apartment slightly further back from the sea, Rob managed to pull his brother Paul, 15, from the rising waters that threatened to engulf them both.
Amid the devastation and detritus, the pair located their younger siblings, and somehow, the four children made the 200km journey to the airport - survivors of a natural disaster that shook the world.
Tragically, their parents were among the 230,000 people who lost their lives in the disaster, leaving their six children orphaned.
Birth of an ethical brand
Years later, after waking up hungover “with a mouth as dry as Gandhi’s flip flops,” – a slang phrase in common usage at the time - Rob chanced upon a business idea to honour his parent’s memory, built on the foundation of the family’s love of travel and the values of charity and compassion inculcated in them.
In 2011, Gandys flip-flops was born. “Inspired by travel and fuelled by giving back” the boys pledged a percentage of the profits from the business to their charity, the Orphans for Orphans Foundation, building homes for children, like them, around the world. In 2014, they opened the first Gandys kids campus in Sri Lanka. A second was launched in Malawi last year and a third is in development in Brazil.
The Gandys Kids Campus in Galle.
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.
It also enabled the brothers to carve out a future for themselves, a triumph-over-tragedy tale the whole family would be proud of.
Their entrepreneurial spirit and their ingenuity won them the support of business tycoons such as Richard Branson and Top Shop founder Sir Philip Green, and while high profile collaborations with The Rolling Stones and McLaren followed, celebrities such as Niall Horan are fans of the brand. They’ve even won the royal seal of approval - Prince William was spotted on a ski holiday wearing a Gandys bobble hat.
The Nine Arches Bridge.
Planning a new tour
Now, the brothers have teamed up with purveyors of luxury travel, Kuoni, to create a unique itinerary based on their favourite sights in Sri Lanka. 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, we have the privilege of being shown around by the Gandys themselves.
For us, it’s the adventure of a lifetime. For them, it’s perhaps a personal quest to cast off the looming shadow of the tsunami and to fall in love with the island once more.
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, heat and gasoline, and surrounded by lush green landscapes and dizzyingly tall palm trees, Sri Lanka is less intense than India, but familiar: the same spluttering auto-rickshaws; harried drivers dodging laconic cows and children racing to school in their Daz-white uniforms.
The imposing Sigiriya Rock fortress.
A fortress in the sky
Our first stop is the luxurious Sigiriya Water Gardens Hotel, where, surrounded by lakes and mountains, the decadent deluxe villas are the perfect retreat from the excesses of the world.
As sunbeams awaken the blossoming lotus flowers, we head to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, near the town of Dambulla. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 200-metre-high rock is the ancient archaeological site of King Kasyapa’s palace.
The formerly gilded palace walls are today, bare rock, but the majesty of the edifice is undiminished, beckoning visitors to scale its 1200 steps. Beginning with a steep incline, the “lion rock” plateaus into two tiers, where the King’s 500-strong harem once assembled.
Also known as 'Lion Rock' the fortress is a popular tourist attraction.
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 has found its way into popular culture, and was also curiously, the backdrop for Duran Duran’s Save A Prayer video.
Young and old gather to walk to the top, where after a two-hour trek, the stunning panoramic view is ample reward for your efforts. Elderly sari-clad women scale the great height, while children on a school trip playfully walk with their arms held aloft as the high winds lift them almost off their feet.
Encountering local wildlife
If you come to Sri Lanka, you expect to see elephants. At the Minneriya National Park, we see 300. The gentle giants of the jungle who dwell in the surrounding forests of Matale, Polonnaruwa and Trincomalee congregate daily at a watering hole for what has come to be known as 'The Gathering', their heads bobbing as they convene for their daily communion.
We watch in awe as a family of elephants lackadaisically saunter past. A baby elephant, just two days old, treads tentatively, stopping to suckle; a bull is in must and the males lock heads in a battle for dominance, the musky stench of elephant pheromones all-pervading. The sight is unforgettable: this is Sri Lanka at its most beautiful.
Exploring the tea plantations
A five-hour drive to the tea plantations at Nuwara Eliya and after a whistle-stop tour of the factory which supplies tea to UK supermarkets, - we walk to the plantations, where tea pickers smile obligingly for the cameras as they toss the fresh leaf tips over their heads and into their baskets. The mist hangs over the mountains and we take a moment to commit the beautifully lush vista into memory.
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 for its picturesque beauty, but it’s poignant for the Gandy brothers for very different reasons. Here, they retrace the path they trod as children, fleeing the horror of the tsunami.
“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 long drive from Ella and 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 outside your room is an exhilarating and, not entirely fantastic notion: an elephant has reportedly been lounging by the pool.
A rewarding end to our visit
Our tour culminates in a visit to the Gandy’s Kids Campus in Galle, run by the golden-hearted matriarch, Mama Tina. Like meerkats, the children pop up from behind a wall to greet us and the campus is filled with giggling. Here they receive medical care, educational opportunities and nutritious meals, completely funded by Rob and Paul from the sales of Gandys merchandise.
I ask Paul how he communicates with the children in view of the language barrier. “You smile and they smile back,” he says. A ball is thrown into the mix and the sound of laughter rings out.
The Gandy brothers on Coconut Hill.
At dawn we head out to Coconut Hill, where the palm trees are assembled as if in military precision. As a lone fisherman balancing on stilts reels in his haul, the powerful, terrifying sea, now ebbs gently, kissing the shore as if in contrition, and there is a renewed sense of peace and tranquillity.
Travel changes you – the Gandy brothers are testimony to that; their unique experiences of travelling the world as teenagers with their parents having served as the foundation for a life of pure-hearted charity and discovery.
And just as the ocean flows onward with every new tide, through their foundation their story has moved on to a new chapter, from loss to enduring love and hope.
They have rediscovered the beauty of Sri Lanka in the smiles of the children whose lives are changed by their acts of compassion, and with Kuoni, they invite us to do the same.
At the end of our tour, we too are changed, having forged new friendships, discovered an extended family in the kid’s campus and overwhelmed by a pervading sense of tranquillity and gratitude for the unique experience we have shared.
We are honoured to have shared this part of their journey with Rob and Paul and as we continue onward, we too leave our Gandys footprints in the sand, alongside theirs.
I leave Sri Lanka, enamoured by the sweet nature of its people and the natural beauty of the country, longing to return, and with an abiding memory etched in my mind of the smiling faces of the children at the campus, whose lives the brothers have changed forever.
And on another day in paradise, Rob and Paul take turns to swing on a rope, hung high from a palm tree. They fly over the endless expanse of sea, their spirits soaring and free, just as their parents had always dreamed they would.
Find out more about Rob and Paul Forkan and their social enterprise supporting children around the world at http://www.gandyslondon.com/
Tsunami Kids: Our Journey From Survival To Success by Rob and Paul Forkan (Michael O'Mara Books, £16.99).
Kuoni (01306 747008 or www.kuoni.co.uk) offer 12 nights on a tailor-made holiday to Sri Lanka inspired by Gandys, staying 3 nights at Water Gardens Sigiriya, 2 nights at Cinnamon Citadel in Kandy, 1 night Heritance Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya, 1 night at 98 Acres in Ella, 2 nights Cinnamon Wild Yala and 3 nights at the Jetwing Lighthouse in Galle. The trip includes visits to Minneriya & Yala National Parks, scenic train journey from Kandy to Ella, a city tour of Kandy with a visit to Temple of the Tooth, Sigiriya Rock, an English-speaking driver/guide throughout, meals on mainly half board basis and international flights on SriLankan Airlines from London Heathrow. The price for May 2019 is from £3095 per person, based on two sharing.
(Photo Credits: James Relf Dyer / Gandys / Kuoni)