Steeped in history

22:37, Dec 25 2012
sri lanka
DELICATE TASK: Tea pluckers at work on a hill country plantation. Only the bud and the top two leaves of the plant are harvested.
sri lanka
MOCK-TUDOR: A touch of England in the depths of Sri Lanka. A colonial-era mansion in Nuwara Eliya.
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TEA HILLSIDE: A manicured hillside of tea near Nuwara Eliya. In the 1860s Sri Lanka's cool, misty hill country was the realm of coffee, but when a virus wiped out almost the entire coffee stock the British turned to tea. Today Sri Lanka produces more than 300 million kilograms of tea a year.
sri lanka
HIGH STYLE: The Tea Factory Hotel near Nuwara Eliya seems to float among the clouds. It is situated among tea plantations and was a tea processing factory before being converted into an award winning hotel.

As wraiths of mist lift from the slopes of Sri Lanka's hill country, one of the world's most extraordinary and beautiful manmade landscapes is slowly uncovered.

Manicured waves of tea bushes are revealed. They encircle entire hills, swirl down their sides and perch precipitously on the edge of road cuttings. In the deep gullies that wind sinuously through the landscape beneath the tea almost every centimetre is filled with vegetables - silvery cabbage leaves, feathery carrot fronds, neon bright lettuce.

It is a symphony of greens, an almost entirely modified landscape. Here, little more than 150 years ago, elephants and leopards would have roamed through jungles; today millions of tonnes of tea are grown annually, making Sri Lanka one of the top tea exporters in the world.

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RUGGED GROUND: Tea bushes cover a hill near Nuwara Eliya. The terraces on the lower slopes are crammed with market gardens tended by the tea pluckers and their families in between long days on the plantation.

My vantage point over the Hethersett Tea Plantation is my bedroom in a restored tea factory at 2000 metres near the town of Nuwara Eliya. Tea factories are as distinctive as the landscape that surrounds them.

Usually about four storeys tall and clad in grey or white painted corrugated iron, tea factories are often strategically sited on ridges or promontories in order to catch the breeze. This is because one of their chief functions is the drying of the tea leaves plucked from the plantations.

In Sri Lanka tea is hand-plucked (in the world of tea the world picked is never used) with only the bud and the top two leaves being used. This explains why the tea bushes are of such uniform height. The plants need to be kept at a suitable height for the overwhelmingly female workforce of pluckers to be able to easily reach the top shoots.

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SLOW JOURNEY: The Colombo to Nanu Oya winds its way through the hill country of Sri Lanka.

Most of the pluckers are Tamils, their forebears brought to Sri Lanka from south India by the British during the era of colonial rule. It was the British who established Sri Lanka's tea industry, although it was not their first choice of crop.

In the 1860s Sri Lanka's cool, misty hill country was the realm of coffee. It, like tea, was an introduced plant. However, when a virus wiped out almost the entire coffee stock the British turned to tea. Today Sri Lanka produces more than 300 million kilograms of tea a year, earning the country more than US$1.5 billion a year and putting it among the top exporters in the world.

The tea factories were often prefabricated in Britain then shipped to Sri Lanka. The engines for the massive fans used to blow air across the tables of tea leaves to aid their drying were also made in Britain.

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ALL ABOARD: The train guard prepares to wave the green flag as his train leaves a hill country station.

In the Tea Factory Hotel the machinery, now nearly 100 years old, still works. Every evening before dinner it is started up, the action of its flywheels and pulleys making a gentle swishy noise that rises up from its basement housing.

The machinery is operated and maintained by one of the hotel staff, who one evening suddenly appeared in the bar in blue overalls and proceeded to deftly slice up lemons and produce two cocktails before disappearing. My companion and I exchanged bemused glances. "He is the barman but he looks after the engine as well," said his colleague.

The Tea Factory Hotel building was built in the 1930s after the previous structure was destroyed by fire. It had been built by the wonderfully named William Flowerdew. He seems to have lived a relatively uneventful life which is more than could be said for his fellow Englishman Samuel Baker.

About 14km from the Tea Factory Hotel is the town of Nuwara Eliya. It had served as a retreat for the British colonial residents since the 1820s who found its cool mountain air a retreat from Colombo's humidity, heat and noise. However, it wasn't until Samuel Baker arrived in the 1840s that it began to take on what is today its rather incongruous similarities to an English village.

Baker, who was famed for discovering Lake Albert, one of the sources of the Nile, introduced cattle, vegetables such as leeks and carrots and strawberries to the area, as well as importing English pillar boxes, and encouraging the construction of grand English-style villas and bungalows.

Today, his legacy lives on among the tea pluckers' vegetable gardens and the houses.Even the pillar box still stands outside the post office. Unfortunately not all his influences were so benign. Something of an obsessive big game hunter, Baker is held responsible for the complete annihilation of Sri Lanka's hill country elephant population.

In his day whole herds ranged the nearby Horton Plains - now there is not a single elephant left on this grassy undulating basin ringed by mountains. Baker, who despite boasting that he'd killed bulls, cows and elephant babies, was apparently surprised on a later trip to the plains by the lack of elephants. He blamed their demise on other British residents lending their guns to their servants as a reward for good service.

Appalling though that might seem to us today, there's no doubting that Baker is an intriguing historical figure. He is supposed to have met his second wife in a slave market in Eastern Europe. Florence was not, however, a tourist but one of the items for sale. She was Romanian by birth but had been abducted into slavery. It was love at first sight for Sir Samuel, who outbid a local Ottoman pasha for Florence. The couple apparently travelled together for some time before marrying.

As a result, despite Sir Samuel's fame as an explorer, Florence was never invited to the court of Queen Victoria because the queen believed Baker had been "intimate with his wife before marriage".

The advent of tea, and subsequent transformation of much of Sri Lanka's hill country, was not the only impact of the colonists.

The British brought the railways, something the Sri Lankans have always embraced with enthusiasm and regard with affection. Although some of the rolling stock and most of the stations are now decades old, there are new Chinese locomotives and carriages on the well maintained lines.

Nuwara Eliya is served by a train from Colombo that calls into a station near the hill country capital of Kandy before taking about four hours winding through the jungles and tea plantations, pausing at town and village stations en route.

On a day in which rain swept over the highest points of the track, the locomotive slowed to a crawl as the train's wheels fought for traction on the rails. But the whole point of travelling between Kandy and Nanu Oya (the station that serves Nuwara Eliya) is the journey itself.

The train snakes around hillsides, where tea pluckers work, bent over the bushes just metres from the track and among remnants of jungle where massive trees flower in a profusion of scarlet and orange.

We jolted to halts in stations where nameplates still denote the offices of the station master and the chief engineer, and that of the locomotive foremen's (with the apostrophe gratifyingly in the correct place). There were flowering baskets, beds of dahlias and discreet signs directing passengers to the first class waiting room lavatory.

Although it drizzled intermittently on the way, the side doors at the end of the carriages and in the guard's van were open to catch the breeze. In a land mostly untouched by safety regulations, there were no barriers, no signs warning one not to stand in the doorway.

And so I hung on a metal railing and leaned out, surprising a knot of young men doing the same thing from the second class compartment a few carriages along the train. Tea pluckers looked up to wave. There was a waft of frangipani from a station garden and bright red amaryllis flowers blazed among the grasses beside the embankment.

As the train gathered speed so too did the exhilaration. The guard stopped for a chat. He'd been working on the Sri Lankan railways for 34 years. There had been 39 suicides or accidents on his trains during that time he told me. "The accidents are mostly people falling out the doors," he said.

The Timaru Herald