We headed to hill country by train, the best possible way to see the spectacular views on the way. This is tea country after all with Sri Lanka’s tea still branded & marketed as ‘Ceylon Tea’. Ceylon tea, with its fine, rich flavour & bright golden colour has no rival in terms of quality & remains a cornerstone of the economy. We slowly chugged our way up into the central highlands, with ears popping as the assent continued. Bob was sure I would burst into song at any given moment, but Julie Andrews I am not! We were heading to Nuwara Eliya the first hill station on our journey, on a very crowed train. It is the highest elevation in Lanka at 1,868m (6,128 ft) with the town also known as “Little England”.
A brief history lesson for you; the city was founded by a Brit in the mid-1800’s… Nuwara Eliya’s climate lent itself to becoming the prime sanctuary of the British civil servants & planters in Ceylon. Nuwara was also a hill country retreat where the British colonialists could immerse in their pastimes such as fox, deer & elephant hunting, polo, golf & cricket. Some of these activities continue today, we saw two lovely golf courses, a race track & of course cricket fields. The colonial architecture of the older buildings tells the story of bygone days. These days city folk from the low lands escape to the mountains, especially in April & May, for its cooler climate. In a mere 3-hours we went from 31C to 15C. The drastic change in climate, with some dampness thrown in caught us off-guard, but was very refreshing. Thank goodness for our light down jackets!
Another train ride the following day landed us Haputale, our ultimate destination. Lying along a mountain ridge of the southern edge of the Central Highlands, Haputale is one of the most spectacularly situated towns of Lanka. The high elevation vantage location, Haputale Gap, is one of the most spectacular views in the country & allowed us birds eye view to the north as well as to the south. To the south are plains that run into the coast. To the north are hills after hills, hills next to hills, hills over the hills of the highlands, a glorious sight. The train was even more crowded for this segment of our journey & we ended up standing for the 3-hour trip. But not to worry, it was actually a better vantage point for the wonderful views of tea plantations, jungles & tiny houses way down below, plus we had a good chance to chat with the Sinhalese folks on board.
Haputale itself is a small town, but provided us the pleasure of walking, hiking & trekking in the surrounding hills. The highlight is the tranquil Lipton’s Seat bringing in a panoramic view that swept us off our feet. Starting out mid-morning (was a bit warmer) we took a rickshaw up through the terraced tea plantations. We walked the last hilly kilometer reaching the summit, aka Lipton’s Seat. This is the highest point of the mountain range, where the most famous tea planter of Ceylon, Sir Thomas Lipton used to admire & enjoy the panoramic view. We were literally up in the clouds & watched as they wafted their way across us & the green hill tops.
We opted to walk the 7km back down, meandering our way along the edge of the escarpment through the beautiful rambling tea estates to the legendary Dambatenna Tea Factory, built in 1890 by Sir Thomas. In our travels we were fortunate to witness the tea-pickers bringing in their harvest for the mid-day weigh-in. These workers (mainly women) have their yield weighed 3-times daily & are expected to pick the equivalent of 18kg per day, for the mere wages of about $6.50 CDN.
Another little tidbit of info for you, the tea “bush” is actually an evergreen tree. Cultivated tea bushes are constantly pruned, producing a repeated growth of fresh young buds & leaves throughout the year. The tea is divided into three types, depending on the altitude at which it is grown. The best quality tea, so called high-grown, only flourishes above 1200m. Bushes at higher altitude grow more slowly but produce a more delicate flavour. Low-grown tea (cultivated below 600m) is stronger & less subtle in taste.
Upon reaching the tea factory we did the guided tour that explained the process from the freshly picked leaves to the end product. We were astounded to learn that the entire production process, from plucking to packing, takes only 24-hours. The first stage – plucking the leaves – is still extremely labour intensive, providing work for some 300,000 estate workers across the island. Tea pickers select the youngest two leaves & bud from the end of every branch-bush every seven days in the dry season, twice as often in the wet. Following plucking, leaves are dried by being spread out in huge troughs while air is blown through them to remove the moisture, after which they are crushed for around thirty minutes, an action which releases juices & triggers fermentation – the conditions & length of time under which the leaves ferment is one of the crucial elements in determining the quality of the tea. Once sufficient fermentation has taken place, the tea is fired in a heated chamber, preventing further fermentation & producing the black tea which is consumed worldwide. From there it is ground finely 3 successive times. Each morning the “master tea-taster”, similar to a sommelier samples the product to determine the quality. From there it packed & shipped off for bidding in Colombo.