The two tours of real interest to us this morning were the Elephant Sanctuary and Tea Plantation. Having already seen elephants in the wild and also a sanctuary in Nairobi, we decided to try the tea plantation. This is a six hour tour that requires a 90 minute drive to/from the plantation, a visit to a tea factory and an opportunity to sample a cup of local tea. Sounds like a perfect day, but how comfortable will the bus ride be, as rumours abound that buses aren’t air conditioned. Doesn’t bother me, but some others are a tad uptight.
Reporting to the Wheelhouse Bar in ample time we were checked in almost immediately, but about 10 minutes later, the queue went around the entire bar. This resulted in a traffic jam, when our tour was called and we headed out to the gangway, but top marks to the crew for keeping great order. Arriving at the bus, it was to say the least, rather cramped. With capacity for 20, it was actually slightly smaller than our truck. The seats were comfortable enough, just no leg room.
Our guide was excellent, being a retired tea taster and trader. He was a wealth of knowledge, providing the following facts about Sri Lanka:
- Population is about 20 Million, of which about 12% resides in Colombo and the suburbs
- Government and President are elected, with over 300 members in Parliament
- Literacy rate is 98%
- School is mandatory and free for all children from 5 yrs of age
- Parents receive free material for 3 school uniforms each year, per child
- Children learn 3 languages in school – Singhalese, Tamil and English
- University education is free and students receive sufficient money from the government to pay room & board
- On completion of university you must work in country for 5 years or pay back the costs
- Tourism and brain drain (locals moving abroad for work) are now competing with agriculture as major foreign currency generators.
The drive to the plantation was meant to be 90 minutes, but even early Saturday morning it took more than an hour to clear the city, so the drive actually took 2 hrs 30 mins. Our driver certainly knew the dimensions of the bus to within about 1/2” and proved his skills many times, weaving in and out of traffic, heading into small gaps at high speed. Once clear of Colombo, we headed South on the motorway, with lots of lush, green tropical lands on both sides, containing an abundant supply of coconut palms and rubber trees. From the motorway we drove inland through a number of small towns, then started climbing the hills on a gravel road, which actually wasn’t any worse than the paved roads.
On arrival at the plantation we headed to the bungalow for tea and cake. The bungalow is the owners house and they had set the garden up as a small garden party, with a number of sections with tables and chairs.
Garden Party set up in the garden
Unfortunately, on pouring the tea into my cup I immediately noticed the milk curdled. Judi sniffed the milk and yes, it was off. I mentioned it to our guide and an employee, but nobody changed the milk, as the others either didn’t notice, or accepted it. Needless to say, we didn’t get to try the cup of tea, which was one of the tour highlights.
This rug was displayed on the wall just inside the house, which I thought was rather interesting.
Judi at the garden party
On return to the bus we headed for the 2 mile drive through the plantation’s narrow single track roads to the tea factory. With at least 10 buses from the ship on this tour and nobody orchestrating their movement, it quickly became gridlock, as our convoy of 3 buses met 2 coming from the opposite direction. On a single track road, they decided our 3 buses had to back up, which resembled a comedy show, with no apparent leader, but 5 or 6 guys all outside milling around and giving directions. It was funnier than slap stick comedy.
Example of the narrow single track roads through the plantation
An example of the tea plants in the plantation
The tea plants resemble bushes, but if not pruned, would grow to the size of trees. The large older leaves on the bottom are not picked, only the new, lighter green and tender leaves on the top are picked. The taller bushes provide shade to the tea plants and also fertiliser, as no chemical fertiliser was used in this plantation.
Tender young light green leaves that are picked for tea
Approaching the tea factory we spotted a worker picking tea on the hillside. At this time of year they can pick new leaves about every 3 weeks.
On arrival at the factory, our first stop was up in the rafters, where it was especially hot and humid. Once they arrive at the factory, the leaves are transported to the top floor, where they are piled on the floor for inspection and turning.
Worker inspecting and turning the newly arrived leaves.
They are then placed in long vats where they are steeped. The length of the steeping and all other processes in the factory are determined by the plantation’s tea expert, who bases his decisions on the weather, time of day, etc. The leaves can vary significantly based on many variables and the expert attempts to process them so as to provide a consistent product, regardless of the condition of the raw material. On this particular day, the leaves were being steeped for about 2 hrs 30 mins.
Next the leaves head downstairs to large crushing machines, which break down the large leaves.
Crushing machine grinding up the leaves.
The next phase is processing them through machines with multiple rollers and different sizes of mesh, which separate the tea into different sizes, with the larger pieces being returned to the crushing machine.
Grading machine separating tea by size
Once grouped by size the tea goes off to the oven, for a period of time as stipulated by the factory’s expert. From the oven, the tea goes to the long multi-level fermenting trays, where it is piled about 3 to 4” deep.
The next stage was most interesting, as we frequently hear that tea bags are made from the sweeping off the floor. Well, we discovered that all tea comes from the floor, as from the fermenting trays they push the tea onto the floor, where it is shovelled onto a conveyor belt to the next stage.
Tea on the floor after fermentation
Tea arriving at the next stage after fermentation.
It then goes through multiple stages of sorting, by colour and size.
Buckets of tea awaiting bagging
The noise within the factory was deafening and since our guide was most knowledgeable, he had a large following. Therefore, I actually heard none of his commentary inside the factory, so on return to the bus we asked him to repeat the stages. Based on his explanation it all fell into place and was easy to provide a description for each of the photographs.
On the drive home he discussed his role in the process of exporting tea. He started by explaining that each area of the world has different tastes and different water supplies, so he must purchase and blend a tea meeting his customer’s requirements. He starts by tasting teas from a number of potential suppliers, then goes to the auction, attempting to purchase the required amounts of his preferred teas. His minimum profit margin was 5 cents per kilo. On sourcing sufficient product, he then blended the individual teas and submitted the resultant to the Ceylon Standards Board. If accepted, he could then export the blend as genuine Ceylon tea to his customer. Genuine Ceylon tea is marked with the “Lion”, whereas blends with other types of teas cannot be marked with the “Lion”.
Heading back to the ship we stopped at a tea shop in Colombo, purchasing some tea for us, our daughter and my dad. While not the most comfortable bus ride, the information provided by the guide made it into an excellent day. Having sampled many teas, without knowing where it came from we are now happy and informed campers.