The vocals from nine young men, a drum, big white smiles, foot stomping, clapping and finger clicking are filling the carriage with life. There’s no stopping the toe tapping that comes from hearing a great beat and right now on our journey from Bandarawela, the local Tamil tunes that chorus up the train offer a wonderful sound, matched only by the beautiful scenery flashing by.
I’m in the hill country in central Sri Lanka on a local train filled with a combination of Sinhalese and Tamils that make up the nation. While others doze or vie for a seat; green hillsides with rows of tea estates, waterfalls, local village life and Eucalypt forests whiz past. With heads hanging out windows and bodies clinging to open doorways, it’s noticeably more than just me that’s appreciating the cool mountain air and lush highland landscape.
We reach the tiny station of Idalgashinna, 1600 metres above sea level and entranceway to the tea growing mid-regions of the Uva province to start our ascent into the mountains as a part of a two-day hike. With my fellow intrepiders, the walk will see us travel through tea estate plantations to meet the pickers, visit the villages and see what tea-life entails.
Most people know of Ceylon tea – the variety of black tea called Pekoe grown in Sri Lanka but may not know that the country itself was known as Ceylon until 1972. As a part of my travels, I’m on a Ceylon sipping tea trail across the country where only yesterday, on the outskirts of Kandy, a group of us were uncovering the production process at Geramgama Tea Factory, one of 13 properties that make up Pussellawa and the greater Ceylon Tea Estates.
Not being a big tea connoisseur myself I was unfamiliar with the process or the fact that all types of tea come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. It’s only the variations in region, the time of the harvest and style of processing, in particular the level of oxidization of the leaves that determines the difference between white, green, black and oolong tea.
We watched on as demonstrations on the drying, oxidization, heating, rolling, sifting, bagging and packaging methods unfolded. The processing equipment used is what the British brought into the country over 100 years ago and despite modern machinery being available for harvesting, tea plantation ‘plucking’ is still conducted by hand. This ensures that only the flush (top two leaves and bud) is taken, maximising the aroma and flavour to provide a higher quality ‘cuppa’.
Once the leaves are in the factory they are spread into troughs to ‘wither’ which removes excess moisture. They are then rolled, twisted and parted, serving to help enzymes in the oxidisation process. Leaves intended for green tea are left un-oxidised while black tea goes through a heating process where the leaf ferments and changes colour from green to copper before being fired (Chinese tea) or steamed (Japanese tea) to retain the flavour and eventually turn hard and black. On top of this, it’s the grading thats intriguing. While a tea grade doesn’t indicate the flavour or quality, in Sri Lanka it does signify the size of the leaf and where on the stem it originates.
- D (Dust). The particles remaining after sifting. These are often used in tea bags to infuse rapidly for a strong brew.
- F (Fanning). A small broken leaf, a little larger than dust.
- S (Souchong). The larger leaves on the bottom of the branch often twisted and used in Chinese smoked teas.
- P (Pekoe). Less course and smaller than Souchong
- OP (Orange Pekoe). Aside from the buds and flowers these are the youngest and smallest leaves at the end of the branch
- BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe). Broken grades of orange pekoe leaves are made smaller by a machine for a faster infusing tea.
- FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe). Orange pekoe grade with leaf buds and tips.
- FBOP (Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe). Broken orange pekoe grade with some tips.
- Green tea un-oxidized tips and leaves to retain their colour and fresh flavour.
- Golden Tips the unopened buds
- Silver Tips made of the unopened leaves known as buds at the top of the plant to make white tea. The most expensive tea type available.
Back to todays mountain hike and we bid farewell to our Tamil entertainers before commencing the uphill journey through leopard country into Horton Plains National Park to our morning tea stop. We sit briefly to enjoy a hot cup of BOP warmed over an open flame and sweetened with karupatti (brown pieces of concentrated coconut palm flower sap) amidst valleys of rolling green plantations. In the 33-degree heat and glare of the sun, there are no ‘pluckers’ here today. “They come early in the morning when it’s cooler,” Raj, our local mountain guide tells us.
The trail continues. Dramatic slopes plunge below on one side and scale above on the other. We weave through dense forest, patches of open brush and thick vegetation that clutches at our legs, before once again being framed by knee height tea hedges. It’s hot, it’s sticky, it’s sweaty and overnight bags are now well suctioned to our backs. While the humidity, higher altitude and rainfall of the central highlands provide an ideal climate for high-quality tea, it doesn’t necessarily help the frizz-inclined amongst us, so we stop frequently to hydrate.
The afternoon walk gives us time to find some tea seeds, meet the local villagers of the Badulla district and take in the local Hindu temples, great views and cooler air. Up ahead there is an enormous shell of a building that’s falling down in front of us. “This was once a tea factory,” Raj shares, “but closed 10 years ago.” There are no roads and given the inaccessible nature of the mountain region it’s too difficult to transport the tea to factories, so it relocated. This means that the elevated landscape once home to hundreds of tea gardens weaving their way along the slopes, is, as we get closer to the village, slowly being replaced by terraces of vegetables.
We are nearing Ohiya and kids come out to greet us, to play games, take selfies with our phones and practice their English, while families emerge from tin houses stapled down with roofs stacked by rocks, to wave vanakkam (hello in Tamil). Life is very simple here, so tonight we relish at the chance to join in the local entertainment with a game of Carrom (a board game version of snooker with red and black disks that are flicked into the corner pockets) and clapping along to some songs in the lounge room of Misty Mountain Lodge, 2100m above sea level.
It’s now day two of our highland hike and we continue climbing into the clouds. The dawn veil of mist slowly dissipates and hovers its way between the mountain folds overhead while the sound of rushing water in the next valley calls out. We pass by highland hamlet life; endless smiling faces, cows being led into the plantations, mountain shrines, a farmer and even a nursery of tiny toddlers napping in their aerial sleeping bags while their parents work the fields.
A kilometre on and rows and rows of tea bushes hug the hillside providing lines of contours as far as the eye can see. This morning the women are readying themselves to pluck from field number six, 11 hectares in size. It’s only young Tamil women that make up the plantation workforce (introduced from South India 180 years ago during British ruling) as the Sinhalese weren’t interested in plantation plucking. To this day, the skills are still handed down the generations from mother to daughter, following in their grandmothers’ footsteps.
Ladies are usually responsible for certain rows in a field of tea that require it to be visited every week. By carefully selecting the top two leaves and leaving sufficient bud for the next pick the women collect up to 20kg per day before taking the sacks to be weighed. Today in Haputale West Division’s Udaveriya Estate a couple of husbands are also helping out by collecting the cow manure as fertilizer.
Sri Lanka continues to be one of the top exporters of tea through out the world. Tea from this region, I’m told, is destined for some of the largest infusers, including Russia, the former Soviet nations (Estonia, Latvia and the ‘stans’), the Gulf Countries (United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia), Syria, Turkey, Britain, Eqypt, Libya and Japan.
It’s time for a mid-morning break and once again we take a spell, trackside, with a warm brew. Tea, in Sri Lanka is taken at least five times a day and is considered good for the health. All teas contain antioxidants called polyphenols (also in fruits, vegetables and grains), the strongest of which, known as catachins (particularily ECGC), are said to fight the free radicals that contribute to heart disease and cancer. While tea does contain caffeine to boost mental alertness, it also features L-theanine, an amino acid (only found in tea) that simultaneously heightens alpha wave activity to promote relaxed concentration (found in the newest leaf growth).
White, green and black tea all possess different types of antioxidants, however, the less processed the tea the greater polyphenol potential. Green tea antioxidants are said to help burn fat, fight food-borne bacteria, balance blood sugar levels, enhance immune functions, be good for eye tissue, reduce the risk of stroke and improve cholesterol, not to mention the research showing the reduced growth of cancer.
The fermented leaves of black tea have a higher caffeine level that can protect the lungs, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke, while the uncured and unfermented white tea offers high anticancer properties and in another study, inhibits wrinkle production by strengthening collagen and elastin as well as helping keep the joints young. With all of these health benefits, it makes you wonder why we don’t bath in it! On the flipside, however, too much tea can also affect some people with headaches, nervousness or anxiety and nausea.
We kick on down hill with hiking sticks still in hand to find ourselves overlooking the beautiful Bambarakanda Falls. At 263m tall it is the highest waterfall in Sri Lanka. It’s the final stop on our delightful two-day, 26 km Ceylon tea trail and a perfect spot to take in one of the Sri Lankan pleasures – a selection of spicy curries, hoppers (rice flour pancakes) and condiments for lunch, with of course, a nice cup of Pekoe pick-me-up.
Misty Mountain Lodge – www.mistymountionlodgeohiya