It’s late in the afternoon and the last tea pluckers are heading home. We wander down the narrow, hard-packed paths that crisscross the enormous plantation. Our long shadows blanket the glossy green bushes that uniformly stand waist-high and cling elegantly to the curves of the surrounding hills. It’s tranquil, and beautiful, and awe-inspiring. These are my favourite memories from Sri Lanka. Come take a walk with me: first, from Lipton’s Seat through the Dambatenne Tea Plantation near Haputale, then at Oliphant Estate, high above Nuwara Eliya.
Lipton’s Seat and the Dambatenne Tea Plantation
We arrive in Haputale midday, via the train from Ella. Our plan is to go to Lipton’s Seat early the next morning, before the usual mist and clouds roll in. But the weather pattern has changed, bringing in clear skies that last all day. Our guesthouse hosts encourage us to go now. Why not? They flag down a crowded bus bound for the Dambatenne Tea Factory, and away we go.
The Dambatenne Tea Factory was built in 1890 by Thomas Lipton, a Scotsman who is one of the most famous figures in the history of tea. We take a tour of the factory. It’s a tad disappointing compared to the excellent tour we had at Ella’s Uva Halpewatta. By the time the tour is over, we realize we won’t have enough time to walk the 8 km up to Lipton’s Seat and back down again. No problem: there’s always a tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka. Our driver take us up the curvy road that runs through the plantation and drops us near the Lipton’s Seat viewpoint.
There he is, Thomas Lipton, sitting on a bench overlooking his majestic tea plantation. He, along with James Taylor (considered the father of tea in Sri Lanka), developed the tea industry in British Ceylon. We admire the awesome views, though it’s a bit hazy for good photos. Now it’s time to start our walk through the plantation back down to the factory…
It’s the end of the day and workers are carrying giant bundles of tea leaves on their backs. A couple of loaded trucks pass us on their way to the factory.
The easiest way down is on the paved plantation road, but we take lots of fun and scenic short-cuts through the fields. These paths are used by the workers to access the tea plants. There’s something about the deep green, the symmetry of the plantings, and the lovely curves of the landscape that put me in a joyous mood.
Except for us, the tourists have all left for the day. We pass a few unhurried locals who add to the beauty and tranquility of the scene. A couple of tuk-tuk drivers stop and ask us if we want a ride down. Not a chance.
In the distance, we spy a colourful Hindu temple and make our way to a tiny Tamil village that is home to some of the plantation workers. Living conditions are very modest for these people who work long, hard hours in Sri Lanka’s tea industry. The adults are reserved, but the kids have huge smiles and ask us to take photos of them. The cute kid with the toothy grin leads us back to the main road, which we have lost sight of on one of our “short-cuts”.
We’ve been wandering for two hours, and it’s time to pick up our pace as dusk settles. A dusty purple sky with streaks of pink is a stunning finale to our walk. We’ve missed the last bus, but there’s a tuk-tuk happy to whisk us back to Haputale.
Oliphant Estate in Shanthipura
From Haputale, we take a train to Nanu Oya (the station servicing Nuwara Eliya). It’s a pleasant journey of about 1 3/4 hours. My belated birthday gift is a mini-splurge at Oliphant Bungalows, a small boutique hotel about 4 km from Nuwara Eliya, in the village of Shanthipura. At 2237 m (7339 ft), it’s the highest village in Sri Lanka. The hotel sits at the edge of the Oliphant Tea Plantation (it’s the green-roofed building by the clump of trees on the right side of the photo above). For some, this quiet, tucked-away location might be boring, but for us, the chance to walk through another stunning tea plantation, away from any tour groups, is exactly…hmmm… our cup of tea (sorry).
James Taylor is credited as establishing the first official tea estate in Ceylon—Loolkandura Estate, in 1867. However, records passed down by the Oliphant family reveal that in 1848, Laurence Oliphant smuggled in 30 tea bushes from China and planted them in Oliphant Estate, making it the first estate to grow tea in Ceylon. Controversial history aside, tea continues to flourish on the Oliphant land, though it is now processed in a different factory. The old Oliphant tea factory, just steps from our elegant hotel, stands empty. It’s run down, but steeped in faded glory.
We follow the undulating main path, intersected by countless smaller paths. The tea leaves shimmer and the bushy carpet of green is magnificent against the blue sky. There’s no one around, not even the tea pluckers. We learn later that they are working in a different part of the huge plantation.
As we round another bend, we come across a small plantation settlement. Like the Dambatenne Plantation village, it’s very basic. Residents work in their tidy garden plots and give us bemused smiles and waves. There’s a group of friendly potato farmers who are particularly curious about us and find it hillarious that we are strolling through the plantation.
It is our turn to be amused as we watch a group of young men playing cricket at a curve on the road. They have persuaded a couple of little kids to fetch the ball every time it lands in the tea bushes—which happens a lot (see the boy with the yellow shirt in the bushes).
The morning has flown by, and we need to head down so we can at least have a brief visit in Nuwara Eliya. I’m reluctant to leave the plantation and do one last scramble up a steep path. The final photo I take at Oliphant Estate, of Mike encircled by tea plants, is one of my favourites.
We didn’t get to see the tea pluckers in the fields at Dambateene and Oliphant, so we’re glad to get a glimpse of these hard-working folks on our way out of Nuwara Eliya the next day. They certainly give me a new appreciation for my morning cup of tea.
I had expected to love Sri Lanka’s beaches and cultural sites (and I did), but our tea plantation wanderings were an unexpected joy and highlight of our trip.