Sri Lanka: High time for tea

By Andrew Alderson

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

If your morning ritual features tea leaves being popped into a pot, then visiting a tea plantation should form part of any journey through Sri Lanka.

Surfers and Buddhists may not need to read on - you have your own reasons for visiting an island fast becoming one of the Indian Ocean's tourist treasures. The end of the civil war has helped. A burgeoning market has emerged, now visitors realise their chances of being blown to smithereens are negligible.

The idea to visit the origins of the morning brew came from former Wairarapa Bush first five-eighths Neil "Footy" Foote, who coaches the first XV at Trinity College, a rugby-mad school in Kandy, a city in Sri Lanka's highlands. Footy and I met at a cricket practice during the World T20 because New Zealand captain Ross Taylor wanted to meet his Masterton boyhood hero. Footy said Sanjaya, a tea plantation manager and parent of 10-year-old twin boys at his school, would host a tour.

Our arrival, after an hour's drive, coincided with a sumptuous lunch of samosas, Sri Lankan style-rocky road and, naturally, tea, which was poured through a strainer amid much ceremony.

Later, at dinner, the airy dining room with its mood lighting, vaulted ceiling, full place settings and immaculate servants channelled a Sri Lankan version of Downton Abbey. I felt a tad underdressed in polo shirt, cargo shorts and sandals but that hardly seemed to matter once Sanjaya rolled his "tea" trolley into the drawing room for pre-dinner drinks. A bottle of decent whisky was the tipple of choice for hosts and guests alike throughout the evening.

I presumed, in the best Basil Fawlty tradition, it might be best not to mention the civil war, but after about three glasses Sanjaya and his wife, Anju, detailed the toll it had wreaked. The most graphic example was when Anju had to flee with their three children to the shelter of her parents' place following a bomb threat.

Tea is a more cheerful topic. It's hard to be more passionate about tea than Sanjaya is. He introduced us to the business end first. Initially, the leaves are dried to remove at least 60 per cent of their moisture before they hit the conveyor belt ready for a jolly good roasting. Tea chemists prefer to call it "oxidation".

On the belt, the leaves take 12 to 14 hours to be prepared. They are graded at the end; the bigger the better.

The finished product, housed under canvas tarpaulins, is poured into brown paper sacks for export.

We embarked on a 6km, two-hour loop of the 445ha property. This slow trip tattooed an impression of a labour-intensive process which drives the Sri Lankan economy. My favourite spot was a wooden lookout which surveyed the entire plantation from a hilltop. I envisaged dozens of dedicated families and their baskets strewn below while dextrous hands picked leaves across hundreds of rows.

At my hotel in Kandy the next day, I was called to reception. There was Sanjaya waiting with two enormous paper packets ready for transport to New Zealand. The bounty filled up four one-litre fruit-preserving jars and every morning since, when I pop two teaspoonfuls in the pot, it conjures up memories of that Sunday.

Sorting out a tour

The means of jacking up a tour range from official to casual. You can negotiate with tourism operators at the airport, but they will charge a ``tourist tax'' for the privilege. For the more intrepid, tuk-tuk drivers can sort deals. One driver, Mr Sena (his real name, according to his business card), reckoned he could take me an hour north of Kandy into the tea bushes for 1500 Sri Lankan rand return ($14). Getting to Kandy from Colombo is even simpler. Take a second-class train carriage for 220 SLR. The padded seats offer the same level of comfort as a regular commute to Auckland.

Contrary to perception, you won't have to share your seat with roosters, dogs and the odd cobra.

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