There are only two direct buses from Galle to Ella in the hill country, one at 5am and another at the only slightly better time of 6am. This was a local bus and what started as half full quickly ended up completely packed and a 6.5 hour winding trek up the mountains but only costing 300 rupees (2 euro). For the first time in several months I was in need of the sweater at the bottom of my rucksack which a quick dig managed to retrieve.
The town itself is a winding strip of shops, restaurants and tea shops but to see the attraction it’s necessary to get out of the town a bit to the surrounding countryside. About an hours walk away through tea plantations is Little Adams Peak which gives stunning views over the Ella Gap and down to the south.
Getting farther afield meant I needed to sort myself out a scooter for 1500 rupees (10 euro) for the day and was off in to the sunny morning. First stop was atop a hill in rolling tea bushes for the Uva Halpewatte tea factory. These tea processing factories were built high and with plenty of windows to aid the drying process.
In our introduction I didn’t know that there is only one tea species in the world and the various types of tea we have are merely down to growing and processing methods. On the top floor were the long rows where the fresh tea leaves are laid out to be withered.
Further on we saw the machines which do the rolling of the leaves and start the fermentation process.
Last two stages were the separation of stalks and the drying process which stops fermentation. Light teas have their fermentation stopped sooner than a strong brew.
Unfortunately for us it was not a full processing day so the factory was almost empty but we did manage to see some of the sorting and packing of an enormous cone of tea into large bags and hundreds upon hundreds of plastic tubs of teas of all qualities.
Between being plucked to being packed can be as short a time as 24 hours and then it is off to the tea producers for final blending and packaging.
Nearby were some Buddhist shrines with a peaceful sleeping buddhas and a rock carved 5m tall standing Buddha – in contrast to India the majority of the population here is Buddhist with some Muslims and Hindus in the North.
That afternoon I met up with a fellow traveller Tristam and we headed out to see the nine-arch bridge.
The trains in this part of the world are almost something out of the Railway Children or Thomas the Tank Engine. Picture-postcard tidy-town stations with meandering slow trains. It was my turn to take the train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya and it must be one of the prettiest train rides going.
Perched on the side of hills looking down on valleys of paddy fields and tea plantations which cover hillocks like bright green duvets the signs on the doors say not to open them during transit but were sensibly ignored by every carriage.
Further up in the hills Nuwara Eliya is an odd town in that it is at the centre of the tea industry founded in the colonial era by hardy English and Scottish planters – one Thomas Lipton among them. What they knew at home they brought to the hills – golf courses, clubs, racetracks, red post boxes and all manner of root vegetables which make up the second industry after tea.
Today the travel set is quite different – Chinese groups gathered around the post office sending postcards back home and families from the Gulf hanging out at the Grand Hotel lawn in full burkha and robes presumably finding the cool air a break from the blistering heat of summer at home.
On my scooter I dropped into the Heritance Tea Factory Hotel – a 100 year old factory which has been lovingly converted into a hotel but still has working fields around it – I passed at the opportunity to wear traditional dress and go out picking for a couple of hours and had lunch instead!
Only the new leaves on the bush can be used for tea and so they need to be plucked every 7-14 days but I hadn’t seen anyone in the fields – apparently the wind over the last few weeks hadn’t been good for new leaves so there was no work the last five days.
Then on my way back I saw the coloured movement along the rows as the pickers worked plucking those neon green buds.
These two lovely ladies kindly stopped for a photo and finally I had seen it from field to cup!