Teatime stirs the emotions
Afternoon tea at Tientsin Bungalow, one of Ceylon Tea Trails bungalows, near Hatton. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

I have ordered my "bed tea" for 6.30am, at which time there is a polite tap on the heavy wooden door. "Morning tea," is breathed, singsong, on the other side.

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A Sri Lankan man, barefoot on the wide old wooden floorboards and wrapped in a black-and-white sarong, brings in a tray with a big pot of best high-country tea, steeping nicely inside its orange tea-cosy.

Some readers find it amusing, apparently, that I not infrequently mention stopping somewhere-or-other for "a nice cup of tea". Too often that comprises a tea bag dunked too hastily in an uninspiring mug filled with lukewarm water.

But God forbid that I should even mention any of those things here.

For I am in the tea-growing hills of central Sri Lanka, in the northern Indian Ocean, an island itself steeped in the history of powerful indigenous kingdoms, Dutch and Portuguese eras and, of course, the British, who brought tea here.

They had started with coffee but a leaf disease quickly destroyed that industry in the late 1860s, and the resilient planters who didn't turn tail turned to tea.

Planter James Taylor had introduced tea to these slopes in 1867, after taking the only holiday of his life, to Assam in north-east India, and bringing back tea seeds. And it is his descendant Andrew Taylor who is laying the story out before me, as we stand surrounded by the grassy smell of this morning's tea pluck, being processed in the Norwood Estate tea factory near Hatton. Mr Taylor's great-grandfather was James Taylor's first cousin - he represents the fourth generation of his family involved in tea. His grandfather and father were planters, too.

Mr Taylor now explains the many intricacies of tea - the plant, the industry, the drink - to the guests who stay in any of Ceylon Tea Trails' four bungalows in the Bogawantalawa Valley near Hatton. At 1400m above sea level, this is known as the Golden Valley of Tea, a high, misty land of rolling green hills, high tea with cucumber sandwiches and scones, and plantation bungalows.

In the morning, "bed tea" is served at Tientsin Bungalow, one of Ceylon Tea Trails bungalows, near Hatton, with the gardens outside. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

I am staying in Tientsin Bungalow, named after the Chinese village from which the original tea seedlings came. (Tea drinking in China dates back to 2800BC.)

Built in 1939 but with a settler history dating back to 1888, Tientsin Bungalow has six beautiful rooms and suites and is set in English gardens created by the colonial planters' wives. There are rose terraces, a tucked-away arbour, the surprise of a pond, and half-hidden paths. There's also a swimming pool and croquet lawn. It's all rather wonderfully British.

The bungalow itself has polished wooden floors and high ceilings, a library, sitting room and long-table dining room, though we chose to eat out on the veranda in wicker. The manager, chef, butler and other staff lay on fine service and even finer cuisine. Delicate lamb one night, Sri Lankan curries the next.

A two-night stay in one of the bungalows is part of tours of Sri Lanka with WA-based Wildlife Safari. It is such a delight that I really don't want to move on.

For I have slept in my four-poster bed adrift behind draped white nets, with the window open on a lukewarm night and soft rain falling. With the dawn, the window fills with viridescent light. Green is the colour of the soft hills of Hatton. Every tone and every shade of it. Grass green, leaf green, emerald and lime. Pea green, sea green, olive and jade.

My "bed tea" - just as my breakfast tea and the beverage with my high tea - is served here after being selected from a tea menu.

And in the pot this morning is a tea grown higher than 1000m above sea level, dark gold brown with a biscuity taste, described on that menu as "a handsome and impeccable tea" and just the thing for a strong start to the day.

This is tea to a higher plane.

Sri Lanka is the world's second-biggest exporter of tea, and Ceylon tea considered the "cleanest" tea in the world.

Andrew Taylor shows visitors around Norwood Estate tea factory. This is in the withering room. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

At the factory, Mr Taylor explains that tea bushes are of the camellia family and would grow to more than 7.5m if they weren't kept pruned to bushes on these slopes.

They are plucked four times a month, the best tea coming from the bud and top two leaves.

About 5500 bushes are planted for every 510ha, every four years the bushes tire and are pruned to about 45cm, reinvigorating them. "I could show you some bushes over 135 years old on the estate that are still producing good tea," Mr Taylor says.

There are about 1200 workers on this estate alone, living in provided accommodation (even after they have retired), with free water and power and earning a minimum wage of LKR 570 ($4.25) a day for women plucking 16kg, though they can easily pluck more than 30kg.

Over the factory door are three signs: No Child Labour, No Betel Chewing and No Smoking. The estate produces certified Fairtrade tea.

Education through school and university is free in Sri Lanka and some pluckers' children have become doctors, teachers and lawyers, Mr Taylor says.

The pluckers start at 7.45am, the harvest brought to the factory and the leaves first spread to wither before being rolled in machines almost identical to the first made by James Taylor.

The leaves are chopped small in mincers, left to complete their precise oxidisation, dried at 120C, sifted, graded and bagged in sacks.

"A shoot is plucked at 7.45am, and by 7.45am the next day it has been turned into black tea, and within three weeks it has been sold and turned into cash," Mr Taylor says. The 20,000kg of green leaf handled here every day produces 5000kg of black tea.

It's a precise, 24-hour-a-day process that, quite frankly, is enough to make you need a cup of tea and a lie-down.

And on this second morning, I have again ordered my "bed tea" for 6.30am, at which time there is an equally polite tap on the heavy wooden door, and a tray is once again brought in.

But I am now aware that the biscuity brown tea might, just a few weeks ago, have been the delicate green tips of bushes on the slopes around me, plucked at just this time of morning and tossed gently into the baskets on the backs of women.


FACT FILE

• WA-based Wildlife Safari has several itineraries in Sri Lanka, after flying five hours to Singapore and then just over three to Colombo.

• Its eight-day Cultural Sojourn includes time in Colombo, Kandalama - visiting Sigiriya - and Kandy. It is from $1495, including seven nights luxury accommodation twin share, private vehicle with chauffeur guide, breakfast daily, and entrance fees.

• Buddhas and Beaches is nine days, visiting Negombo, the cultural sights of Sigiriya and Kandy, and finishing with a beach stay at Bentota. It is from $1995 per person including seven nights luxury accommodation twin share, private vehicle with chauffeur guide, breakfast daily, and entrance fees.

• Over 10 days, Wonders of Sri Lanka spends time in Colombo, Kandalama, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Yala and Negombo. It is from $1995 per person, including nine nights accommodation twin share, private car with chauffeur guide, jeep safari at Yala National Park, breakfast daily and entrance fees.

• Its 12-day Sri Lanka in Style includes visits to Negombo, Sigiriya, Kandy, the high tea country and Ulagalla Resort in Thirappane. It is from $3795 per person, including 10 nights luxury accommodation twin share, breakfast daily and all meals at Ceylon Tea Trails.

·Travel agents, www.wildlifesafari.com.au or 1800 998 558

The West Australian

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