Your morning cuppa has more in common with wine than you might think, finds Kieran Nash.

Most Kiwis are partial to a good cuppa. Many are also partial to a nice wine. And in Sri Lanka, you can have both in one glass.

Or so says Merrill J. Fernando - best known as the man on the Dilmah Tea ads on the telly - as he sips a golden brew from a clear goblet in his Colombo office. To him, it's a "shiraz".

Wine, tea - whatever. I just need a drink. Over the past few days, I've bussed along Sri Lanka's notoriously bad roads, squeezed into cattle class on the train and copped an earful from an angry taxi driver, and eventually find myself talking tea with an old hand in the trade.

Rewind three days and I start my journey on the east coast, my girlfriend Jacqui and I boarding a crusty old Leyland bus loaded with locals to make the journey inland to higher elevations, weaving high into the hills through light drizzle.

Advertisement

A few hours of this white-knuckle ride and the bus spews us on to the roadside at Ella, a tiny town with not much more than a few shops, a narrow road and some of the most breathtaking views in central Sri Lanka.

The mountains surrounding us disappear into the mist. As we shelter in a roadside cafe, a crazy-looking old man staggers towards us, leaning heavily on his cane, a tangled white shock of hair draping his lined face. Through a smashed-up mouth of blackened teeth, he offers to show us a nice place to stay.

He seems trustworthy enough and we turn off the road and up a slippery clay track into the bush to Raveena's place - a small, hand-built homestay perched on the side of the hill. It is amazingly tranquil and we spend a leisurely afternoon amid the mountains and monkeys drinking tea that would put the finest hotels to shame.

That evening, Raveena cooks us a gigantic, aromatic curry feast and tries to marry Jacqui off to her eldest son.

The next morning, we're up at sunrise to walk to the summit of Little Adam's Peak, the most accessible of Ella's many walking tracks. Among them are Adam's Peak (2243m) and Ella Rock (1350m).

It's an easy climb through the tea plantations as the breathtaking scale of the mountainous wilderness unfurls below. We reach the summit and are blown around by the hearty winds, then make the descent for breakfast.

Merrill J Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea. Photo / NZ Herald
Merrill J Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea. Photo / NZ Herald

On the way down, we pass tea ladies on their way to work, who are more than happy to pose for a picture for a fee, which supplements their meagre income.

After our sambal breakfast hit, we bid farewell to Raveena and arrive at the 1950s-era train station for the next leg of the trip. As all first and second-class tickets are sold-out, we do the sensible thing and travel in third.

Clambering into the rust-coloured machine, we squeeze into the only available spot which, of course, is next to the toilet. It's also next to the doorway so, while the lav provides an olfactory assault, the open doorway is a visual treat.

Over the next three hours, the hills roll on forever and vivid-green tea bushes are punctuated by the pinks and reds of the tea pickers' shawls.

Inside the cabin, we're ogled at by slack-jawed children as cheery men sell piping-hot roasted peanuts in squares of old graph paper. The blue ink of maths homework shows through from the other side.

I'm pleased when the train trundles to a halt at Nuwara Eliya as standing for three hours is tiresome.

Cruising through the city, past clipped hedges and cricket matches, it is apparent that the city's heritage is unmistakably British. This place screams colonialism.

On arrival, we summon a tuk-tuk driver, who takes us to Pedro Estate, a plantation established in 1885 which produces what it calls the "Champagne of Sri Lanka tea".

Guests are welcome to wind their way through the steep slopes of the plantation, the tea bushes offset with larger, silver-trunked rubber trees.

Then we make our way past a motley crew of women with large cane baskets filled with the deep-green tips, and into the old mustard-coloured factory.

Guide Sangitha tells us the size of the tea leaf contributes towards the taste and colour - the larger the bits of leaf, the lighter the tea. Large-leaf tea is called Pekoe, medium-sized is called Broken Orange Pekoe, fine leaves are BOPF (Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings) and are dark and used for English breakfast tea. The really fine tea dust goes into teabags.

The shadow cast at sunrise from the top of Sri Pada or Adam's Peak, elevation 2244 metres above sea level, Dalhousie, Sri Lanka. Photo / Alex Robertson
The shadow cast at sunrise from the top of Sri Pada or Adam's Peak, elevation 2244 metres above sea level, Dalhousie, Sri Lanka. Photo / Alex Robertson
Photo / Kieran Nash
Photo / Kieran Nash

I was told long ago that teabag tea is made from the sweepings from the floor? "No, no, that's not teabag tea," cries Sangitha.

Not taking offence at my jibe, she carries on explaining the plant's nature, saying there are no different varieties of tea plant.

"The tea plant is the same all over the world. The elevation is different, otherwise it's the same tea."

Full of facts and high on tea, we are bursting with questions for Fernando, who we will visit in Colombo the following morning.

The six-hour taxi through nausea-inducing ribbon-like roads, followed by stop-start Colombo traffic costs $160 and doubles as a six-hour lecture in government corruption - our driver Raja is not a happy man.

Fernando, owner and founder of Dilmah Tea, meets us at his expansive office, the gates of the building tucked away next to a used car parts store.

The silver-haired gent takes a sip, and takes us through a tasting.

"You will see the low-grown tea is dark, strong. I call that the cab sav. Then the mid-country tea looks brighter and is full of flavour and strong. I call that the shiraz.

"Then the ude watte [high country] is pinot noir. Ha-ha. The seasonal quality gran watte [highest altitude, grown at about 6000ft] means golden estate. I should have put that as the chardonnay. It's Champagne in colour."

So just how important is tea to Sri Lanka?

"It's very important to the economy of our country.

"It provides direct and indirect employment to about two and a half million people. It earns about two billion US dollars."

A 2012 report by the Sri Lankan Tea Board put this figure at US$1.5 billion but, still, it's a lot of money.

Fernando has been in the tea trade since the mid-20th century.

He started as an apprentice tea-taster and formed Dilmah in 1974. The industry has changed a lot since then, when the British colonial influence was much stronger.

"We got independence in 1948. They would never employ any locals in the tea trade."

Even after the country became independent, the tea companies were reluctant to take locals.

"They said locals ate too many hot spices therefore they cannot taste tea. Which is, of course, nonsense."

Fact file:

Sri Lanka is a small country, but travelling even short distances can take a long time. The roads are notoriously bad, especially in the central and eastern provinces. Taxis are the fastest mode of transport, but can be expensive. Public bus or train is the cheapest, and can be a more culturally immersive experience - if a lack of air conditioning and long rides aren't a problem.

How to get there

It's about a 14-hour flight from Auckland to Colombo. From there, it's a six-hour cab drive to Nuwara Eliya. Ella is a three-hour train ride from Nuwara Eliya.

Weather

It is a tropical island so Sri Lanka has distinct wet and dry seasons. The southwest region's monsoon season is from May to August and it is dry from December to March. The north and east's monsoon season is from October to January and their dry season from May to September.

Where to stay

In Ella, Raveena's Guest House - she may even marry you off. Ask locals around town to show you where it is. In Nuwara Eliya, live it up at the Grand Hotel. www.tangerinehotels.com/thegrandhotel

Kieran Nash paid his own way to Sri Lanka.