Anyone for Tea? In the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

Written by Barbara Bond
(A Runner-up entry in the Off the Beaten Track Writing Competition.)

Sri Lanka: Tea picker on the Lipton Estate
Tea picker on the Dambatenne Estate

Sri Lanka is an exceptional place. It offers such diversity; coast, mountains, plains, jungles, safari parks, world heritage sites.

There’s also the ease of travel, the food, and most importantly the people; they are the most welcoming, friendly, happy, warm people I’ve met. I travelled for three months using public transport.

At one point I had an overwhelming desire to be cool, walk for miles, eat hearty meals and snuggle under a blanket at night. I got it all, and more, by heading to the Central Highlands. I boarded the train in Kandy and, several hours of spectacular scenery later, stepped off in Haputale, 1,430 meters above sea level.

I was there to visit a tea plantation established by James Taylor in 1867, the first in Sri Lanka. In 1890 it was bought by a name familiar to British tea drinkers, Thomas Lipton. Now it is known as the Dambatenne Estate.

Terraces snake around contours
Terraces snake around contours

I set off very early in the morning by tuk-tuk. We snaked down from Haputale, continued past the factory and then slowly climbed to Lipton’s Seat, at 1,800 meters. This is where he came to survey his empire.

The surrounding hillsides and ridges are cut into almost vertical terraces which snake round contours and tumble to the valley below. On the other side of the lookout the land falls away to the distant plains and lakes. There’s a hint of the sea on the distant southern horizon.

A perfect place for my picnic. The air is cool and crisp. The landscape jagged with peaks and ridges, the hillsides steep. The tea bushes stand in serried rows, almost waist height they look soft and smoothly rounded. Under the clear blue skies and sun they appear to be a luminescent green. Their shape is formed by the pluckers, who pick only the top two leaves and buds from every branch, on every bush, once a week. It must be gruelling work, climbing and descending the vertical terraces every day. The plantation employs some 1,200 women as pickers, their bright saris dot the rows of tea bushes across the valley.

Temple amid the terraces
Temple amid the terraces

Having let the tuk-tuk do the hard work of climbing I was going to walk back down. The mountainside is so sheer the narrow road has to zig-zag, repeatedly going back on itself. There’s no traffic, just silence and the luminous bushes. Large trees with widely spreading filigree branches are planted here and there to give shade to the plantation.

Slowly the small settlements draw nearer. Hamlets of workers houses with neatly terraced vegetable gardens. There are temples, mosques, churches and schools of every denomination around each village. Recycling posts for waste, plastic, glass. The villages are almost as manicured as the tea bushes.

Eventually back in the valley bottom at the tea processing factory I handed over the equivalent of one pound and joined a tour of the factory. Built in 1890 the drying processes and equipment used remain pretty much the same.

The tour was wonderful. We are shown the leaves going up conveyor belts, laid out on a mesh beds. It was then spun, sifted, bashed, jiggled about and, on the top floor, with not even a nod to health and safety it went down unprotected holes in the floor. It was all very Wallace and Grommit. An interesting end to a wonderful day out.

Hamlet of workers' houses
Hamlet of workers houses

There were many walking opportunities. Locals, with shopping and children, walk along the railway tracks. I joined them. I visited popular Ella and walked on the rail track up to the waterfalls, having a cool drink at a very convenient trackside café. I hopped on the train for one stop and walked back. I had a four a.m. start to see World’s End. Visited Adisham Monastery. Quiet Haputale and the Central Highlands went down as one of the highlights of my trip.

I feel I’ve severely short-changed Sri Lanka by only writing about the tea plantation. If I were to give travellers a ‘must do’ list then I would include the other two highlights of my trip, both easily accessible from Kandy – where my train journey to Haputale began. Sigiriya not for the faint hearted, with its 1,230 steps to the top, and Polonnaruwa a royal ancient city overtaken by jungle. Both spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Sri Lanka is a wonderful holiday destination.

POSTED 30th NOVEMBER 2016 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of BARBARA BOND. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.