Tea Country

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Asia » Sri Lanka
February 5th 2007
Published: May 25th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

Bogawantalawa - The Valley of Saints

After making our farewells to the Ogiers, we left the Kandy House early to catch the 8.30 train from Peradeniya Junction to Hatton in the tea-country highlands. The train arrived about an hour late at the small junction near the Botanical Gardens where the station, technology and record-keeping all hark back to the mid-twentieth century. The train carriages appear to be about the same vintage although the engine was a slightly more modern diesel; there are three classes, and our first class "observation car", as it is called, was at the back of the train, about a third of the passengers being tourists.

The railway climbed gently through green valleys of rice paddy and vegetable farms, but above about 800m the hillsides were increasingly carpeted with tea plantations. We stopped occasionally at stations that can hardly have changed in fifty or more years with signs such as "Driver's Waiting Room", "Guard's Waiting Room", "Clergy Restrooms". Vendors moved up and down the train selling hot salted peanuts with chilli powder, popcorn, sweets and biscuits. At one station I jumped off the train to buy a bag of popcorn for 10 Rupees, so was surprised to be asked 100 Rupees later for some peanuts by a vendor on the train. I told him that nobody in second or third class was paying such an outrageous sum and I was not about to either. When he grinned and reduced the price to 50 Rupees I was forced to smile and bought them anyway, despite the obvious foreigner price premium.

After two and a half hours we arrived at Hatton station where Ervin was waiting for us with the car. A half-hour drive took us to Norwood, one of four bungalows that constitute Tea Trails, a hill resort spread out in the plantations around Castlereagh Lake. Our butler, Leel, showed us to our garden suite (named, coincidentally, "Irvine") and the executive chef unhurriedly discussed what we might want for lunch and dinner. We ate on the terrace in the warm afternoon sun and lazed away the afternoon in our private garden; Lisa had a massage, and I'm sure we must both have napped before showering and dressing for dinner. We chose to eat again on the terrace under a cloudless star-lit sky, and watched the moon rise large and bright above the tree line off to the east. It was definitely cool, but with the deck heaters I could sit comfortably in a long-sleeved shirt. The food, locally sourced where possible, was excellent.

While Lisa slept, I rose with the sun and took a walk around the property and up into the rows of tea bushes on the hillside above. It's hard to describe just how beautiful this place is in the early morning. The bungalow stands high on the slopes of the vast valley, at an elevation of 1,300m (4,300feet), with distant views of gently rounded ridges covered with tea plantations and dotted with graceful shade trees. Under an improbably deep blue sky with not a trace of cloud, picture the best hilly English or Welsh landscape you can think of, replace the grass with tea bushes, throw in a profusion of temperate-climate flowering shrubs and bougainvillea, add the most perfect morning imaginable with an air temperature of 19ºC, but with the sun warming your face to a point where you want to move into the shade: this is daybreak at Norwood. Back down at the bungalow, Leel and his staff moved quietly around the terrace with coffee, tea, juice or a full-on English breakfast. This is about as close as you get to paradise.

We spent the rest of the morning chilling out in our garden, reading our books and watching colourful birds flit between the flowering shrubs and the turpentine trees beyond, towering above the slopes of tea. At noon we drove to Castlereagh, one of the other Tea Trails bungalows, which sits above the north-western end of the lake. We had a light lunch on the shady patio overlooking the lake before embarking on an outrigger canoe for the half-hour trip across the serene lake to Summerville, the third of the four bungalows. Ervin picked us up here and drove us back to Norwood from where we left immediately on a scenic eight kilometre trek through the rolling tea plantations.

The classic colonial bungalows of Tea Trails sprawl across Bogawantalawa, one of the most breathtaking and spectacular tea valleys of the world; the area is also known as The Valley of Saints, The Golden Bowl of Ceylon Tea, or simply The Golden Valley. The bungalows, gradually opened over the past two years, were originally built as plantation managers' residences between 1888 and 1940. They have just four to six rooms each (Norwood has five), and the idea is to recreate the self-indulgent lifestyle of a planter: whatever you want, if it is doable, gets done, no questions asked. Like an Aman resort, only smaller, more personal, and better, at a third of the price.

For dinner tonight we had requested Sri Lankan food and a spread of ten or more Sri Lankan curries, dhal, vegetables and rice was served at the refectory table in the dining room, it being a shade too chilly to sit outside. The four other resident guests had elected to join the banquet: Isabella and Humphrey were a lovely couple from London who we were to meet again in Galle; the other young couple had been at the Kandy House and on the train to Hatton, and were a rather bizarre twosome from north London who eschewed all forms of stimulant including coffee (though I had spotted them sipping on Champagne), would apparently rather catch malaria than use a mosquito repellent, and seemed strangely parochial and naïve ("I was amazed to discover that Sri Lankans don't live together before getting married" was one of his gems).

We left the bungalow at 6 am the following morning to drive to Horton Plains, a National Park comprising an undulating plateau about 2,000m above sea level. Most of the three hour drive was narrow, twisty and pot-holed, despite the fact that much of it was on main roads; but traffic was light even at peak hours. It was a gorgeous morning as the sun rose at six-twenty over mist-filled valleys and distant mountain-tops and the villages began to come awake; everywhere, Tamil school children were walking to school or waiting for the bus, all dressed in sparkling white - some with bright red sweaters against the morning chill, some with bright blue. A very charming sight.

Shortly before the Park entrance we stopped to eat our packed breakfast at a pretty spot on the edge of a ridge, surrounded by wild orchids. Just after nine we started our walk to World's End where the plateau stops abruptly at a vertiginous escarpment dropping perhaps 800m down to the valley below, and from where, on a clear day you can see the sea over a hundred kilometres to the south. Beyond World's End we looped around to a set of rapids known as Baker's Falls, the track taking us through tufted grasslands, marshes, and montane forest; it was a very pleasant three hour walk covering about ten kilometres.

On the return drive we stopped to observe and photograph tea pickers on one of the plantations. Ceylon tea is famous the world over, of course, but it was coffee that was the primary highland crop until the last quarter of the nineteenth century when disease destroyed the industry. The British planters switched to tea and today the plantations cover over 2,200 square kilometres, some 3 - 4% of the country's land area. Since the Sinhalese refused to work on the land, the planters imported Tamil workers from Southern India who have always been regarded as a separate community from the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka, the Jaffna-Tamils, where lies the stronghold of the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers. These high-country Tamils still provide all the manual labour on the plantations. Only women do the picking, the men carry out pruning, planting and maintenance. A picker currently earns 250 rupees (US$2) a day for 18 kilos of leaves, working three shifts between 7am and 4pm - with a bonus of 5 rupees (5 cents) for each extra kilo picked! Very rudimentary accommodation, schooling and healthcare are provided, but not food. These people live an extremely hard, poorly-paid life with little or no prospect for advancement, although some of the bright kids may go on to further education and end up working in larger towns or cities.

Back at Tea Trails in the late afternoon Lisa had a massage before we had dinner in our room - all immaculately arranged and served by Leel. Executive chef, Vajira Gamage, who had worked in Paris for many years, ran a fine kitchen, and tonight maintained the high standard of the past two days. Next ➤ ➤

Howard's Tea Country Gallery

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5th April 2011

Pure Ceylon Tea

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