Far from the madding crowds of better known Sri Lankan safari hot spots, a bird lover’s paradise and elephant enclave awaits all those who choose to stay at the eco-centric Gal Oya Lodge. As the only accommodation option outside of Gal Oya National Park, the journey here might take longer than most, but trust us when we say – it’s worth it! Gal Oya offers a truly unique experience, fit for lovers of the outdoors, nurturers of nature and ambassadors of sustainable living. We caught up with the wonderful co-founder Tim Edwards, where he shares with us the inspiring story behind Gal Oya…
1. When did you first visit Sri Lanka and Gal Oya National Park?
I first moved to Sri Lanka in 2010, building a beach resort on the west coast. Here I met John Balmond the third partner in Gal Oya, but I moved back to Tiger Tops, the family business in Nepal in 2011. We kept in touch and the idea of doing something together in Sri Lanka was first born. After convincing Sangjay to quit his job as manager of Amankora Punaka in Bhutan and get involved, Sangjay and I visited in late 2012 and did a long trip around the island with John (who had already been living here for 5 years) visiting all of the National Parks. This was the first time we visited Gal Oya National park and fell in love with the place.
2. Where did the idea come from to create such a unique offering in Sri Lanka?
Sangjay and I grew up together in Nepal and spent many holidays at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, so grew up in the wildlife tourism industry. We went on to continue our careers in the tourism industry, Sangjay spending time in Thailand and Bhutan and myself in India and Nepal. But we always stayed in touch with the idea of doing something together one day. After my first stint in Sri Lanka and meeting John, the three of us all felt that this type of product was missing in Sri Lanka. Combining John’s architectural background (his father being Cecil Balmond, who has helped design many iconic structures around the world including the London Olympic Orbit Tower), Sangjay’s background in the luxury tourism industry first at the Four Seasons group and later at Aman and my background in Wildlife Tourism working in Nepal and India. Together we felt it would be the perfect combination to create a unique property in a remote part of Sri Lanka.
3. Was it difficult to achieve planning permission to create the first (and only!) lodge in the park?
We are actually just outside of the National Park (no lodges are allowed inside) but we are the only one in the area. Being the first Lodge in Gal Oya obviously meant a lot of eyes were on us. However, we used the correct channels and spent a lot of time with the local communities and villagers, highlighting the positive impact it would have on the area and community. So everything went without any major hiccups.
4. We love your connection to the local communities and Vedda people, were these hard relationships to establish?
At first yes, especially with the Veddha community who were (and rightly so) very concerned about what sort of impact we would have on their way of life and the surrounding area. But by explaining exactly who we were and what we hoped to achieved they realised that it would be a beneficial addition to the community. We are very conscious about the need to support the Veddha community, but in no way alter their way of life.
5. How would you describe the guest experience at Gal Oya in three words?
Unique, Experiential, Remote
6. Could you tell us a little bit about the safari experience in Gal Oya National Park and how it differs to Yala and Wilpattu – in terms of wildlife, terrain, tourism?
Yala and Wilpattu are well known for its leopard sightings but are also well known for the ever increasing number of Jeeps and tourists. While at Gal Oya National Park it is harder to spot the animals (it has all the same animals as Yalla but they much shyer and avoid human contact) you are likely to be one of a few, if not the only, guests in the park. We always recommend wildlife enthusiasts to spend a few days at Yalla or Wilpattu to “tick the boxes”. Then spend a few days with us exploring the park with one of our experienced naturalists, without the hassle and noise of other jeeps and tourists. As Gal Oya National Park surrounds Sri Lanka’s largest lake, it also offers unique experiences. The most notable being the Boat Safari. If you are lucky, you might even see wild elephants swim from island to island in search for best feeding ground.
7. Bar going on safari, what is the number one activity you would recommend to clients visiting Gal Oya?
A: The walk of Discovery with the Chief of the Veddha community. It’s a nature walk in the jungle accompanied by the Chief Veddha and one of our naturalists to translate. Along the walk, the chief will point out the flora and fauna they use on a day to day basis as well as the medicinal plants. He will also explain their hunting tactics and survival skills.
B: Spending time with the naturalists and scientists at The Jim Edwards Wildlife Research Centre. They have numerous ongoing projects in collaboration with local and international conservation trusts and universities. The main focus of the centre is to help gain a better understanding of the local flora and fauna. Ultimately they want to be more effective in protecting it and to educate local communities on how to live peacefully alongside it. It is great fun and interesting to learn more about what projects are currently underway. Plus you can get involved by joining the team to set up and check camera traps or helping in one of the other projects.
8. We understand the food is amazing at Gal Oya! What is your favourite thing on the menu that everyone should try?
Breakfast: The Gal Oya Special chilli baked eggs.
Lunch: The chilled beetroot soup.
Dinner: Baked river fish wrapped in banana leaf and spiced with coconut and fresh herbs.
9. Can you tell us a bit about your team and the guest experience? Are the majority of your team Sri Lankan?
At the moment we have one guest relations officer from Canada, and occasionally we have interns on training programs. Apart from that, all the staff are Sri Lankan and we do our best to hire locally. At the moment 60% of our staff are a 10-minute walk from their homes.
10. Finally, the one hurdle we have is the journey to Gal Oya and fitting it into an itinerary without guests having to spend days in a car. How long would you recommend guests stay at Gal Oya and which other areas of Sri Lanka do you recommend combining it with?
We would recommend a 3 or 4 night stay if you would like to experience most of the activities on offer and to enjoy the property. But it all depends on the time of year you are looking to visit us.
DECEMBER-APRIL: We recommend combining us with the Hill Country. Gal Oya is about 3 hours away from Ella, Koslanda, 3.5 hours from Kandy, and about 4 hours away from Hatton. After visiting Gal Oya Lodge we recommend heading down to the south coast area of Tangalle.
MAY-NOVEMBER: The east coast season! Either before or after visiting Gal Oya Lodge, head to the likes of Arugam bay (2.5 hours), Passikudha (3.5 hrs) and Trincomalee (5hrs) also The Cultural Triangle’s ancient cities of Polunaruwa, Sigria, Dambulla, and Habarana are all between 3 and 4 hours from us.