On the Sunday, Roger had arranged that Saman show me around the hill country to get an idea of the terrain I was working on in my windowless office. This gentle man picked me up from the hotel. I had very little, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I had a camera and hat and that was it. We drove off out of Kandy to the south east to the top of the Victoria Dam, the largest of the reservoirs managed by the Mahaweli Authority. Together the four major dams supply more than half the electricity needs of the country. Their strategic importance is such that during the 1990s they had to be heavily guarded by security forces, trigger happy in case the Tamils try an act of terrorism.
Beyond Victoria, the country became more arid and the crops had to be irrigated. Little green patches in amongst the dry shaly ground marked where habitation was. The population was more sparsely distributed, but the terrain was still as rugged as Kandy itself. When I looked back west up the pass we had just come, I saw the reason why. At the head of the pass, clouds were bubbling up over the edge, but none of them made it to this side of the hill country. The down slope was in the rain shadow, so despite similar topography, the land was much more arid. Only the Mahaweli Ganga zig zagging through all the faults, and its tributaries, gave life blood to the farms and livelihoods of people here.
The road wound around precipitous corners, we realised to what extent when I saw the skid marks where a yellow brick bus had gone over the edge, killing twenty people, the week before. We dropped past another dam, the Randenigala, and got close to seeing the level of security as we were checked through. Eventually we stopped overlooking the final dam on this section, the Rantembe ; a small reservoir that picks up much of the water from the eastern fringes of the hill country. Beyond I saw a wide plain, the truly arid area, heading towards the disputed territory around Batticaloa, about 100 miles east. Even though it was still early, the dusty haze had already risen.
We turned our backs on the drylands and set our sights for the top of the island. After retracing our steps for ten miles, we turned south and upwards, first through more irrigated farmlands, but then, as the twists and turns became even more acute, the plantations of eucalyptus trees and pines started, more watered farms. We passed through Maturata, a large village perched on the hillside, and I began to notice something new; little green bushes far off in amongst the eucalyptus groves. Further up, the bushes were close up, neatly clipped, small round shaped leaves with little tips. It was tea, the biggest export crop from Sri Lanka and mainstay of the Hill Country. While it can be grown much lower down, there is a band above 4000 ft where the best stuff grows, the pukka, the VIP, the Orange Broken Peco leaf. The first estates were deserted, the fields above were being picked, tens of workers, all women, were carefully plucking the young tips of the bushes and throwing the produce over their backs into large white canvas bags. They worked methodically, mechanically and rather melancholically. Most of the men in the tea estates appeared to be doing the maintenance, repairing the walls, repaving roads, fixing rooves. We passed by the little estate villages, neat and tidy, but run down and battered by the usual tropical problems; wetness, termites and dirt. High on the hillsides, the great white tea factories sat, incongruous in this green landscape, but again looking very run down. Occasionally, the landscape of eucalyptus and tea was broken by more luxurious trees and shrubs, and a glance or two at the plantation house might be seen, full with terrace, white paintwork and tidy gardens.
Through Brookside, not the Liverpool one but the tea estate, and still we climbed. It was hard to comprehend how high we now were, but the clouds looked a lot closer, and still we climbed. The air outside was definitely more like an early spring in North Wales, and as if to confirm it, we went through a village where carts were trucking off leeks. In fact, they were shipping all sorts of fresh vegetables; onions, cabbages, carrots. Far off I saw field after field of these crops, that would frazzle before they reached the surface if they were grown at sea level. We were now just below Pidurutalagala, the highest point in Sri Lanka, some 2500 m or 7500 ft in the air. Saman took a circuitous route into Nurwara Eliya (pronounced Nurellia), past the race course and the little lake then up one of the main roads from the south past a bunch of old colonial style villas. This town was an important “Hill Station” where the Brits in Sri Lanka would escape the heat of the plains and coast and come to experience their homeland climate, and do things that they would want to do there, watch the races, go huntin’ n’ fishin’, play golf, or drink too much in one of the country clubs. And get wet, which was what was happening to us. After all the dry weather in the rain shadow, we were now experiencing the misty cloud swirling round the heights. It was lunchtime, I really didn’t want one of the large Sunday dinners served up at the half-timbered Grand Hotel, so we stopped at the little café next door for some short eats.
Nuwara Eliya is a rather surreal town, the centre very Sri Lankan, crowded, tiny houses and businesses all crammed together with the chickens and dogs and children, the outskirts like the best Scottish resorts, a Crieff or Dunblane, with the pine forests as the perfect backdrop to it all. And now most of the old colonials had moved on, the new bourgeoisie, the rich of Colombo, would head for them there hills at the weekend still, and mix in the same way as the English once did.
As you have to do with most journeys, we had to head for home, but the route north out of Nuwara Eliya still held a whole new set of delights. Through a gap in the hills, the road started to drop out of the clouds and the pine plantations. We emerged into the greenest country so far, dripping with water. Almost immediately the tea plantations were all around us, carpeting and softening the landscape. And the view was expansive, the road had to drop a couple of thousand feet to reach the Mahaweli valley, and before we dropped off, the view of waterfalls crashing over the precipices, the soft tea dappled in the mixture of sun and shower clouds.
At the top of one set of hairpins, stood a little boy holding a bunch of flowers. He took great pleasure in waving enthusiastically at us and shouting in his clearest English “Hallooooooooooo”. We zigzagged once, careful not to slip on the corner on the wet road, and at the next corner, there he was again, still with the flowers and shouting “Halloooooooooo”. We zigzagged again, and he was standing there waving vigorously and at the top of his voice, there was the “Halllooooooooooo” again. We went down another couple of bends, a little shorter than the last, and at last I saw how he was doing it, he was still pelting down the little footpath that dropped vertically from each corner. He got there just as we got there “Halloooooo” but this time , instead of holding his flowers up, he held his cupped hand out towards me. I gave him a few rupees for his trouble. It was a good act. As we accelerated away I saw him scamper back up the track, with a couple of other boys, to get his next punter.
The day had one more twist to it. Although I had now seen about a dozen tea estates, I hadn’t been inside. Fortunately, Labookellie, the most visited tea factory, was just below us. Saman took one of his driver’s breaks, which usually entailed finding someone he knew under a tree and sit chatting to him for an hour. In this shabby white factory, I learnt the care with which the raw materials for one of the best drinks in the world was made. I was shown the bags of raw tea leaves as they come in from the field, and how they are laid out on metal trellises to dry out or “wither”. Then they are sent through the crusher to start releasing the tannins and begin a fermentation process. This process is stopped before all the best flavours are lost and the leaves are roasted in ovens to produce the blackened leaves that we see in tea.
The tea is then graded. The best part of it all, is that the tea that goes into the wooden chests are not flavoured with all the smelly fragrances that became popular in the UK in the 1990’s, to the exclusion of normal tea. No, here the tea was pure leaf, and the best Orange Broken Pekoe cannot be beaten for flavour. We were shown the different grades of tea, from the best Pekoe down to the dust.
I bought my obligatory packs of tea, high quality stuff, and I collected Saman up, or vice versa, and we continued our journey. We now dropped back down in to the Mahaweli River valley and the ground became more familiar again. We drove towards Peradeniya and back to the Chalet Hotel in Kandy. I thanked Saman for all he had done for me the whole day through. It dawned on me that Saman had taken me through three completely different climates in one day, the middle Hill country with its damp humid climate, the semi-arid rain shadow and mountain top cool air. All in the space of ten hours. All in the space of 150 miles.