Wandering through Sri Lanka’s tea plantations: an unexpected highlight

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Dambateene Tea Plantation, Sri Lanka

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

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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.

1 (50)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…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA1 (52)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.

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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.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAExcept 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA1 (65)1 (58)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”.

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1 (40)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

1 (69)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).

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The now defunct Oliphant Tea Factory

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe 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.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVersion 2As 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.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt 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).

1 (116)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.

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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.

Categories: Sri Lanka | Tags: , , , , | 31 Comments

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31 thoughts on “Wandering through Sri Lanka’s tea plantations: an unexpected highlight

  1. This was neat to read about! The only tea plantation I’ve ever been to is in South Carolina and, as you can probably imagine, it’s nothing like what you describe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed it Diana. I remember reading your post about the tea plantation in South Carolina and being so surprised that this crop is actually grown in the United States.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a treat this is for someone used to life in a smoggy concrete jungle! I’m regretting not going to Nuwara Eliya back in 2015 when I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka with Bama… we struck it off because we wanted to take things slowly in Kandy and were more focused on seeing all the major historical sites. If only someone could step in to renovate the old Oliphant Tea Factory; it would definitely make a fine heritage hotel and extension to the Oliphant Bungalows.

    I do recall marveling at tea plantations while in the highlands of Kerala, at how every tea bush seemed to be of the same height, and how they clung to the hillsides in carpets of iridescent green. It’s funny, I’m more into coffee but always end up with a glass of warm tea practically every day at lunchtime – it seems to be default drink at office canteens here in Indonesia!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice to hear from you James! What a great idea turning the old tea factory into a heritage hotel. Interestingly, I asked several staff members about what was happening with the factory and no one was able to provide any insight. I spent time googling before writing this post and again came up empty handed. There’s a sign on the outside of the building dated 2008 indicating that repair work would be taking place. Based on the state of the factory, I’m sure this never happened. It’s all a mystery, but the good news is that except for the few visitors staying at Oliphant Bungalows, the plantation appears to be completely off the tourist radar. It was lovely having it to ourselves.

      Even though I live in a very green place, the plantations totally charmed me. It’s quite a startling green and the uniform height of the “carpet” is magnificent.

      Hopefully you’ll make it to Nuwara Eliya and I’ll make it to Kandy (to fit in Jaffna, we had to drop Kandy).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wandering through Sri Lanka’s tea plantations would be a dream trip for me -I would drink all the teas possible and stuff my bags with it too because it isn’t easy bein’ a tea drinker nowadays — and frankly, it never has been. Tea drinkers like myself often can’t go out in public without putting themselves at risk of drinking inferior tea. Too often, we are only given one tea option that tastes horrible. Thanks for sharing and have a good day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aiva, as a tea connoisseur you would love it. I’m no expert, but had so much fun on the tea factory tours where I learned a lot about the different teas and tea grades. I must have tried 20 different kinds. Sri Lanka is a wonderful country and the highlands are particularly lovely.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It sounds as if you had a wonderful time. I can imagine I’d have loved it too – the combination of the beautiful scenery and local life. Beautiful photos Caroline.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alison. I’m sure you would love it. Before the trip, I knew we’d be taking a few tours in the tea factories, but I didn’t expect to be going on long walks through the plantations (and enjoying it as much as I did).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve always wanted to visit Sri Lanka but after seeing your photos I am moving it up my list. I had a friend from when I was an exchange student in Switzerland who lived there with her husband who is a diplomat. I wish I would’ve made it a priority to visit while she lived there. Looks so peaceful and green!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were really impressed with Sri Lanka—beautiful country, lovely people. I imagine that tourism is way down after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. It’s such a shame, as the economy relies heavily on tourism. While not everyone is comfortable with going to Sri Lanka now, I think it could be a very rewarding experience—no crowds at any major sites or beaches and probably a very warm welcome. Hope you make it there.

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  6. As a big tea drinker, I enjoyed being taken along on your journey through the tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Who knew tea could be so tasty and scenic all at the same time. Makes me have a new found appreciation for all the work that goes into making a single cup of tea.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mike Hohmann

    Looks like a beautiful, and relaxing trip, Caroline. I enjoy sampling/enjoying different teas, but for some reason I seem to drink much more coffee, than tea. Coffee seems to better-fit my relatively hectic lifestyle (with it’s caffeine-buzz no less). That sounds a bit like a self-recommendation to slow down and enjoy life, with a relaxing cup of tea more often! Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wish I enjoyed the taste of coffee. I only drink it occasionally, exactly to get that buzz, though sometimes it works too well. Except for with breakfast, my tea consumption is of the herbal kind, which I sip on all day. It is very soothing. It was fascinating learning more about how tea grows and is processed.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I can see why walking through these tea fields made you feel so happy! I would love a long, slow, and relaxing stroll through there – it’s different enough to feel semi-exotic and just another great way to experience a new part of the world on foot!

    Liked by 1 person

    • While we usually don’t rush from place to place while travelling, I do tend to pack a lot into our days. It is definitely nice to have a few slower-paced days that aren’t as goal-oriented and more about letting the experience unfold. I’m with you on the pleasure of experiencing a new part of the world on foot (bike too!)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The first time I saw tea plantations was when I was a kid. However, it was only in 2013 did I truly appreciate their beauty when I went to a mountainous region south of Jakarta, famous for its undulating hills covered with tea bushes, for work. It’s so soothing to see all those shades of green in your photos, Caroline.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting how that carpet of green really does have a soothing effect. I unfortunately didn’t visit your tea growing region. The only other time I have seen tea plantations was in Malaysia, and I don’t think I appreciated them. I was definitely awed by them this time.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. pam@ichoosethis

    I love watching this adventure so much!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Brian Foster

    Every shot you’ve taken is filled with visual joy and enrichment. We’ve been to plantations in China and Malaysia but these ‘take the cake’ with a’spot of tea’. Ugh too. Mike does make a good Lipton.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Brian! There’s a shot of me next to Lipton, but Mike looks much better sitting next to the king of tea. The only other tea plantations I’ve been to are in Malaysia (a long time ago). They were nice but I don’t recall having the same joyful experience. Perhaps I appreciate this stuff more as I get older?!

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  12. One of our favourite areas too. We walked down between the tea trees after sunrise and met many workers on their way to begin work in the fields. All of the other tourists took a tuk tuk down so we were also the only ones. I could easily go back there again.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi. Beautiful travelogue.

    You know, I’ve had quite a few brands and varieties of teas over the years. Liptons’s orange pekoe, or whatever they call it, remains my favorite.

    Neil Scheinin

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Neil. I enjoy a cup of tea, but I’m no tea connoisseur. We tried lots of different types and grades on our factory tours. My favourite was something called flowery broken Orange Pekoe (FBOP). I bought some, but it doesn’t taste as good at home (that seems to happen to me a lot).

      Liked by 1 person

  14. What a marvellous landscape!

    Liked by 1 person

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