Rory Spowers, 39, is an ecology writer and documentary-maker who co-founded Web of Hope, a charity dedicated to promoting sustainability. In 2004, he moved from Wales to Sri Lanka with his wife, Yvette, and sons Sholto, aged nine, and Xan, seven. There he bought a derelict 60-acre tea estate near the southern port of Galle, restoring it and turning it into Samakanda, an organic farm and educational centre.
In what must seem like a previous life, Spowers had initially followed his schoolmate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall into the kitchens of the celebrated River Café in Hammersmith, west London. But a career at the stove was not for him; wanderlust was in his blood.
Spowers had barely left school, in 1989, when he and a couple of friends decided to ride a three-man 1930s bicycle the length of Africa. The trip saw the trio face machete-wielding locals and in one bizarre incident, become extras in a Clint Eastwood movie. They also endured repeated bouts of malaria – and 278 punctures. No wonder that Spowers left the bike behind for his next big trip, a 2,000-mile solo walk through southern India.
Back in London a year later, he was stationary long enough to meet his future wife Yvette, a ceramic artist. Their first home was a remote cottage in Wales, 12 miles from Hay-on-Wye. For Yvette, who grew up in Barbados, a rain-lashed hillside by the Edw Valley was a bit of a culture shock. And then there was Spowers’ itchy feet. So, where better to move than Sri Lanka, a country on the brink of civil war?
It was 2004 and a fragile ceasefire in the long-running conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils was holding. During the peace, a new wave of foreigners arrived from Europe and Australia, having spotted the potential for development.
“We knew people who had settled around Galle and it all seemed to stack up,” Spowers says. “We had no particular plans. But then I fell in love with a bungalow near a ruined 60-acre tea estate. It was bonkers, but it had to be.”
He did not get his own way completely. The bungalow was deemed too remote for Yvette and the children, so a compromise was reached. They would rent a main residence, a rambling colonial villa called Indian Hills, north of Galle, where the rest of the family could be based.
Spowers’ conviction that sea-levels would rise due to global warming was instrumental in choosing a house inland. It proved to be a good decision. “I was at the height of my eco-fervour, and the fact that we didn’t set up on the beach saved us.” Within a week of the family’s arrival, the 2004 tsunami swept through Galle, killing 40,000 people and displacing 2.5m.
The tea estate that had caught Spowers’ attention had returned to the jungle. Creepers embraced hundreds of yards of stone walls: undaunted, he decided to buy the place that would become Samakanda, a name that means “Peaceful Hill”.
Sri Lanka is often said to be the most bio-diverse place on the planet after the Amazon. As well as tropical plants, Samakanda boasts wild boars and porcupines. Monkeys shriek in the trees. A river and fresh water wells make it the ideal place to grow fruit and vegetables.
Slowly, Spowers’ vision of a “forest garden” took shape. The produce grown would be sold to restaurants in Galle. But Samakanda would also function as a haven for flora and fauna. Central to Spowers’ plan has been what he calls a “bio-versity”, an alternative “university” where visitors can learn from nature. Among those who have enaged with the project is Spowers’ former boss at the River Café, the late Rose Gray, who built a pizza oven while she was there.
None of this happened overnight, and Spowers has written eloquently about his struggle to achieve his dream in his book A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks (Harper Element). Cultural differences soon became apparent. Spowers’ reliance on local labour to restore Samakanda was not made any easier by his inability to speak Sinhala.
At times, he felt he was being taken advantage of for his kindness. At his own expense, he dug wells for the locals and excavated a road: “Perhaps they took it as weakness,” he reflects. “It took time to establish trust, and I’m proud that I have provided permanent jobs for 20 people whose lives have been transformed.”
In the hills above Galle, Spowers has never played the neo-colonial tea-planter: there are no morning pink gins, no whisky at sundown brought by servants. But he concedes that life as a relatively well-off expat in a developing nation brings certain privileges.
“I have someone to do the laundry and a night watchman – and I know my cook can make better curry and rice than I ever can – but all this is very affordable. I do drive, increasingly in the local manner, but there is a driver if I need one. Life is more flexible here, and I love that compared to the rigidity of the UK. If we decide to go to the beach on a workday, we go. People are very chilled about that.
“You do have to get used to people living in your house. There is a lack of privacy with servants and when Sunday comes it can be a relief. But then, to be honest, I love the fact that breakfast has been made for me.”
For 200 years Ceylon – as Sri Lanka was known before independence – was in the hands of the British, who were preceded by the Dutch and Portuguese. These days, the club-going breed of colonial has disappeared, but the new style of expat probably conforms to a type, too. In addition to the diplomats, bankers and businessmen on short-term secondments, the area around Galle supports a new community of individualistic British and Europeans.
“We have our fair share of eccentrics and people who like to enjoy themselves,” Spowers says. “You can lose touch with what’s going on by having long liquid lunches.
“I was busy from the word go with Samakanda and writing the book. For two or three years it was hard work and challenging. The impact of the tsunami was enormous.”
Now, after a decade in one place, Spowers has put Samankanda on the market for £60,000.
“But I’ve no regrets about living here,” he reflects. “This is the most idyllic landscape I have ever seen. I meet many writers and film-makers, who all say that they do not know anywhere on the globe with such diversity and beauty.”
● Economy is expected to grow by 8 per cent this year
● Extraordinary bio-diversity and history (Sri Lanka has eight Unesco worldheritage sites)
● Property transactions are based on British standards and title is secure. But employ a good lawyer
● Growing inpopularity as a tourist destination
● Sri Lanka has a NE and SW monsoon. Check the seasons to avoid downpours and unpredictable bathing
● Poisonous snakes and centipedes – don’t go out barefoot after dark and check your shoes for scorpions
● Malaria in some areas (but not in Galle)
● Roads are in a poor state and it can take three or four hours to go 100km-120km
● Driving can be scary – employ a local driver
What you can buy for …
● $1.5m: a 200-year-old historic property in the Galle Fort Unesco Heritage site. With views of the Indian Ocean you would get four substantial bedrooms all ensuite, staff quarters, verandas and internal courtyards
● $500,000: a merchant’s house 10 minutes from the Galle Fort with ocean views. It has five bedrooms, three bathrooms and two reception rooms. Agents say it would make a home, investment property or boutique hotel
Giles Scott or Ivan Robinson: www.lankarealestate.com
tel: +94 (0)777 760 615