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Published: September 10th 2006
Hills clothed in corduroy
This stunning made-made landscape dominated many of the valleys in the Cameron Highlands, vast tracts of which were purchased by Russell to establish his Boh Estate.
Time to leave Kuala Lumpur again - this time for the Cameron Highlands, a temperate highland region two hours' drive to the north of the capital. We have been looking forward to visiting the highlands as the average temperature there is ten degrees below what we have been used to for the last three months ! That and the absence of humidity makes the Cameron Highlands a very popular stopover for visitors to peninsular Malaysia.
As we get off our bus from Kuala Lumpur in Tanah Rata, the main "town" in the Cameron Highlands - more of a large village really - the drop in temperature hits us immediately. On go the jumpers - and they won't come off for our entire time here ! In fact on several occasions during our two-day stay here we feel distinctly chilly - quite a novel sensation for us by now...
In additional to being cool, the climate here is very wet, making the highlands a popular place to go walking and trekking in the valleys around Tanah Rata.
The hills around Tanah Rata are a major tea-producing region, and one morning we went to visit the Boh Tea Estate, established
PG Tips, anyone ?
The finest teas are made with the very youngest leaves picked from the end of the branches. This makes for an expensive product though, and Boh tea is picked using shears which lop off a lot more of the leaves.
in 1929 by John Russell, a British entrepeneur who made his fortune in Malaysia. Neither of us had seen "real" tea growing on bushes, and the landscape of tea plantations against the rolling hills of the highlands was a particularly beautiful one - the hills seemed clothed in bright green corduroy. The still very active estate (although the vast majority of its tea is consumed within Malaysia's borders) is open to visitors, and we took a whistlestop tour through the tea manufacturing process, from the drying of the leaves and their fermentation, through to the sorting of the different grades of tea. The tea bushes are actually a variety of camelia, and on close inspection of the bushes the resemblance was obvious - but surprisingly, the raw leaves don't smell even vaguely of tea ! The leaves need to be dried, crushed and the juices left to ferment for a few hours to allow them to develop their tea-y smell. The processing of the tea is still done using antique machinery which lent a very retro feel to the entire operation. As for the picking of the tea leaves, this is still done by hand (the hill slopes are far
A wonderfully retro-looking "Sirocco" tea-rolling machine. This contraption squishes up the partially dried tea leaves, releasing their juices which can then oxidise giving tea its flavour.
to steep for mechanised picking), mostly by Nepali and Bangladeshi workers, who live in a village-like compound inside the estate, complete with mosque, church and Hindu temple (as in Melaka), a reflection of the huge diversity of people to be found anywhere in this country.
Our visit to the Cameron Highlands also took us to the summit of Gunung Brichang (a spooky 6,666 feet high...) which commands gorgeous views of the surrounding highlands. On the slopes of the mountain can be found large tracts of cloud forest, a very specific habitat in which wild orchids and pitcher plants thrive. Our guide took us for a short walk along narrow muddy paths on the hillside, pointing out unusual plants on the way. On the way home we stopped at a strawberry plantation - the Highlands are famed for their strawberries (another blessing conferred by the climate !!). Tasty as they were, the strawberries here are all grown using the hydroponic method and so have absolutely nothing on our good old English ones ! Nonetheless, it felt like a little taste of home !
The Cameron Highlands was, overall, a pretty low-key place. Things change, apparently, at weekends and on
Off to be sorted
The estate still operates a wonderfully "old-fashioned" system, with conveyor belts taking this already-fermented tea to be graded and sorted, from "whole-leaf" all the way down to the unappetizing "tea dust".
public holidays when the entire placed is blocked solid with tourists from Malaysia seeking - as we did - to escape the steam-bath of the cities. Although perhaps not as fascinating as some other places we have seen, the Highlands made for a very pleasant stop-over, if only to enjoy a good old English climate for a couple of days !
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