Day nine: Nuwara Eliya tea plantations/waterfalls
After early breakfast you’ll have a wonderful journey through the lush green tea plantations, the scenic view of the mountains and the waterfalls towards the tea region of Nuwara Eliya. It is often referred as ‘Little England’ because many of the buildings in this city retain from the British colonial period, such as the Queen's Cottage, the General's House, the Grand Hotel, the Hill Club and the Town Post Office. In addition, this place is characterised by a cool climate all year long.
Visit a tea plantation. Sri Lanka, tea and tourism are words which cannot be separated. Explore the cold and misty hills that host lush green blankets of tea plantations. You can also visit a tea factory processing a prestigious brand of Ceylon Tea, to observe a rich tradition kept alive up to date. As you see the hissing and swishing of machines, inhaling the heavenly scent arising from these facilities, make sure to end your day in style over a perfectly blended cup of pure Ceylon Tea.
It wasn’t that hard to leave the adventure camp this morning, especially after realising that there is no hot water. Having a cold shower may be invigorating for some on a hot day, but it would be nice to have enough tepid water to take the sting out of the cold. Today’s breakfast is as unappetising as last night’s meal. But nothing is going to detract me from enjoying the trip today. This is what I’m here for and I’m hoping to see tea-pickers in action, plus gain an insight into the processes involved in tea production. I have a mild interest in white tea in particular. Hmm… perhaps that interest is a little more than just mild.
Probably for the first day since we started this tour, we have not encountered a continuous stream of villages. Almost immediately after leaving the Adventure Base Camp near Ginigathhena, we start to climb into the nearby mountains. Progress is slow as we wind around the mountain road into higher altitude. Thick forests give way to hills covered in the short, round-shaped Camellia Sinensis or tea bushes. Our driver, unlike most other road users, carefully negotiates the hairpin bends, only passing other vehicles when it is safe to do so. Each bend provides a hair-raising incident, where car, bus, truck, motorbike or tuk-tuk passes, then swerves in front of us just avoiding being hit by an oncoming vehicle. I am really surprised that there are no massive multiple-vehicle pile-ups every few hundred metres on this treacherous road. I’m torn between watching the road with my heart in my mouth or watching the passing scenery. I opt for the scenery, believing that should the unthinkable happen, I would rather not know about it.
The tea plantations on these lower slopes are scrappy, untidy; a little overgrown. Perhaps they belong to individuals rather than the large established plantations that provide the bulk of tea to the world. I do notice something, which I didn’t expect. Eucalyptus trees. They are very tall, straight, and dotted around the plantations. So, I ask the driver about them and why they had been planted in this area. I simply got a one-word answer: ‘Gumment!’ I think that the government is the answer when he doesn’t know the answer, so I google it.
Eucalyptus trees had been introduced from Australia to Sri Lanka in the late nineteenth century, and the first eucalyptus plantation was established in 1890 at an altitude of 1200-1800 metres. The main species to be planted was Eucalyptus Grandis, which is more tolerant to soils of poor fertility than other varieties. The trees I see out of the window now are not part of a eucalyptus plantation, but probably were at one stage before the land was cleared for tea. In other areas, eucalypt plantations provide timber for railway sleepers, utility poles, sawn timber, and firewood.
The higher we climb, the more manicured the tea plantations are. We now see formal, well-organised estates with neat living quarters for pickers, managers offices, and even estate stores. Of course, I’m not under any illusion that these facilities are for the benefit of the workers, in fact, I’m quite sure most workers owe the store more money than they earn in a day, making them forever indebted to the plantation.
We see an Irish flag, just outside the Shannon tea estate. Of course, Tom, being Irish had to stop to have his photo taken outside the headquarters. We get some whimsical stares from the locals as he tries to explain that he has found his Irish connection here in this far-flung country. Somehow I don’t think they understood.
I finally see some tea pickers and ask to stop. Getting out of the car, I see half-a-dozen women, bags slung on their heads bending down to pluck the delicate top leaves off the bushes. This must be back-breaking work as the shrubs are short and the women have to bend down to pick the new growth from the plants, and ensure that the young leaves are not damaged as they throw them into their bags. Ahead of me is a waterfall, water from recent rains gushes down the steep hillside, filtered by the rocky escarpment. It’s time for tea.
The St. Clair tea rooms are on the opposite side of the road. We order tea and sit outside in the fresh air to savour the flavour of our selected brew. Tom selects the very strong BOPF tea, whilst I opt for the weaker BOP tea. From our vantage point overlooking the road, we enjoy the magnificent view, not realising that this is only the first of the tea plantations, and we are yet to see and to visit many more during the course of the day. Today’s high altitude has provided relief from the hot weather we’ve experienced since arriving in Sri Lanka, and I’m enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures and the light breeze that flows off the mountains. Tea time is over and we must proceed, although another cuppa would be nice. But before we return to the car, we visit the showroom, where many types of tea are on display. There we read about the story of tea production and make some small purchases. Our driver disappears momentarily and reappears carrying a small bag, which he shoves into the boot of the car before we rejoin the vertiginous road. Has he told the proprietors that HE brought us into the tea rooms and store, when it was our idea to stop? I really dislike sly kickbacks like this, especially when they are dishonestly acquired.
We stop a few more times where we see proper lookouts and safe parking areas, and where we can stand quietly and immerse ourselves in the scenery. Despite the plantations being man-made, the view is spectacular. I realise that magnificent views do not always have to be natural. There are fields of tea plants etched into the landscape, some move fluidly with the side of the mountain, whilst others are deliberately patterned, like the circles I see below me. Further on, I see women walking away from the field, heavy loads on their heads as they walk to the highway and wait for transportation. Since it’s midday, it’s probably lunchtime for them. As the estate bus pulls up, the women enter through the front door and sit quietly, probably for the first time today as they are transported to their next field to spend the afternoon picking.
We continue on our way, past estates of unknown and known names, like Dilmah. We pass almost complete, but strange abandoned housing estates, where tiny homes are almost complete, but nobody seems to live in them, nor do they appear to be still under construction. I ask the driver why people are not living in the homes, and why construction seems to have halted. His standard ‘Gumment’ reply is really getting on my nerves. Most workers live in tenements located on the plantations. There are schools on some of the larger farms and I do wonder whether the children of the pickers ever have a chance of leaving the plantation to further their education and to pursue lives away from tea. The women who pick the tea are mostly Tamil, their ancestors had been imported from Southern India a century ago to work in the fields. As I watch the women hard at work, either in the plantations or in market gardens, I wonder how much of the work here is slave-type labour. The basic wage for tea pickers is 620 rupees per day, which is equivalent to AUD$4.96. There have been some rumblings that the workers are demanding an increase to 1000 rupees or approximately AUD$8.00 per day. Nobody will say how much of that wage must be paid into the estate for accommodation, food, healthcare, and other expenses. I rather suspect that there is little left over for these women.
Apart from tea, there are terraced market gardens, where cabbages, leeks, carrots, and other cooler-weather crops are grown. The terraces cut into the hills provide good irrigation for vegetables, and whilst men hoe the newly created paddocks, the women sow leek seedlings, barefoot and bending almost double as they work their way along the furrows. As we near our next stop, I see many stalls, where beautiful, fresh vegetables are on sale. I hope that some of the women who are working in the fields beyond the stalls are able to earn a living by selling what they grow, but somehow, I doubt it.
We arrive at the Damro tea plantation, one that is set up for providing visitors with an understanding of the tea industry. We are introduced to a local guide, who takes us through the factory.
The Camellia Sinensis plant provides all tea types: black, green, and white. It is the method of production that distinguishes the three types of tea. The Damro plantation factory produces white and black tea only, since green tea needs to go through a steaming process, which isn’t available at this facility. The guide gives me a tip of the tea bush. It consists of two leaves and a ‘bud’, the unfurled topmost leaf. It is the bud that is gently plucked and immediately placed in the sun for up to 4 days. Since the bud has not been exposed to oxygen for very long before being dried in the sun, it retains a silvery-white colour, hence it’s common name, Silver Tips. This is packaged as white tea.
The Damro tea factory is a multi-storied building located on the estate. This is to minimise the costs and time between plucking and processing. The tea leaves are taken to the upper floor of the factory where they are spread in troughs. This process is known as withering, which removes 50% of the moisture in the leaf. This afternoon, the withering machine stands still. It won’t start until later in the day when the newly-picked leaves are delivered to the factory. Once withered, the leaves are rolled, twisted, curled, and crushed, allowing the enzymes in the leaves to react with the oxygen in the air.
The leaves are rolled on circular brass or wooden tables and are placed in a rotating open cylinder from above. They progress down a conveyor belt where they are shaken and graded into fifteen sizes from larger leaf to tea dust. After grading, the leaf particles are spread out on a table where they begin to ferment. This process takes three hours and is naturally oxidised in controlled temperature and humidity.
As the leaves oxidise, their colour changes from green to brown. Once oxidation is complete, the fermented leaf is placed into a firing chamber to prevent further chemical reactions from taking place. This process also contributes to the flavour. The regulation of the temperature plays an important role in the final quality of the tea, and on completion, the leaves will appear hard and dark.
Finally, the teas are tested, weighed, and packed and then sent to the auction houses in Colombo, where bidding and purchase by the various tea companies takes place.
The Damro Tea factory processes 2,000 kilograms of black tea per day. When the pickers complete their work at 4pm, the first process of withering starts and twenty-four hours later, the tea is packaged and on its way to Colombo. To produce 2,000 kilograms of tea per day, 10,000 leaves must be plucked by 700 women in the fields, who pick between 18-20 kilograms and work from 8am until 4pm each day. The work is gruelling. As we finish the tour, we are shown the colour of the different grades of tea.
One thing of interest that I find out is that all tea is called Orange Pekoe. When I have travelled to USA with my mother on different occasions, she had complained bitterly that the American tea, orange pekoe, was flavoured and tasted of oranges. In fact, she had me convinced that we should only carry our own tea bags for this reason. Today I am told that all tea is orange pekoe and it is to do with the colour of the brew (orange) and in honour of the first Chinese tea (pekoe). What we don’t know from the tea on our Australian shelves is that the grades of tea are not printed on the box. For example, Tom enjoys strong tea, so he will drink the BOPF (Broken orange pekoe fannings), whilst I enjoy a weaker black tea blend, such as BOP (an English breakfast tea). Wait until I tell mum she’s been drinking orange pekoe tea all her life!
We spend a delightful hour tasting tea and enjoying an excellent tea cake before selecting a few teas from their showroom to take home. It’s amazing how our driver materialises as soon as we pay for our goods. He has his sticky nose over the counter whilst the transaction is taking place, so he knows exactly how much we’ve spent. As we head for the car, he disappears, only to reappear a few minutes later with a bag of freebies.
We backtrack towards the town of Nuwara Eliya. It is late afternoon and although I ask to stop in the bustling town. That request fell on deaf ears. We pass the Grand Hotel and other buildings of British construction and follow the lake until we are on the outskirts of the town. Again, we are driven down a badly potholed private road and deposited at a Bed and Breakfast place. Our accommodation to this point has been good to very good, but I’m not happy we are dumped out in the country again, and on a bad road. Is this to deter us from ‘escaping’?
Our room is not on the upper floor, as expected. When we ask to be moved to one of the upstairs rooms, we are told that the company has paid for the ground floor room only. I’m starting to get a bit suspicious that we have paid for rooms that we are not actually getting, so we will keep this in mind for tomorrow’s hotel.
It’s New Year’s Eve. We ask the owners of the property to call us a tuk-tuk and we go into the town. After dark, it feels different to the town we drove through earlier and we decide to find a restaurant to eat. We should have gone to the Grand Hotel, or at the very least, the Windsor. Instead, we end up in a sub-standard restaurant with a sub-standard meal. Despite the restaurant being quite crowded, many of the tables are occupied by Sri Lankan men. I did notice that the only women in the restaurant are Caucasian. Don’t Sri Lankan women eat out?
We retire well before midnight and the start of a new decade, only to be woken rudely at 12:05am by crackers being fired by someone seemingly very close by, if not under our window.
TOUR: Across the Best Sites of Sri Lanka - Capital Lanka Tours
ACCOMMODATION: Villa Tea Field http://www.villateafields.com/ We were given the superior room instead of the deluxe room, so we had no views.