3AM wake up call, yes, 3AM! We loaded up into our respective buses and whistled through the deserted Colombo streets on our way to our first tea plantation visit, Dunkeld. We left Colombo behind and started the long climb into the hills where the tea plantations thrived above a certain elevation.
Our first estate visit, to Dunkeld, was to show us the ‘orthodox black tea’ making process. To get there we plowed up the road in typical Sri Lankan fashion, traffic in Sri Lanka has to be experienced to be believed, hectic would be a very mild description of travel on the Sri Lankan roads…but it was very entertaining and I got some great shots as we climbed toward our destination. Most of the plantations are nestled in the hills and are only accessible by smaller vehicles with generous ground clearances, for that reason we had to transfer into a convoy of smaller mini vans for the last leg of the journey.
As we arrived at the beautiful Dunkeld Estate we were greeted by a traditional drummer and flutist while a half dozen ladies picked tea leaves alongside the entrance. With the formalities out of the way we were split into groups correlating with our name tags, I was in the ‘Premium Tea’ group and we began our tour of the estate. Before we entered the factory however, we were given an introduction to the mechanics of how the estate was run with regard the workers. As I quickly learned each estate is run as an autonomous business with everything taken care of on site, in essence each tea estate is a mini village with workers living with their families in housing provided by the estate. A short distance from the housing was a clinic with a dedicated doctor available to the workers, there was a day care area for the children which was called the ‘Creche,’ there were vegetable gardens tended to by workers for the workers, and a school. I was amazed by the structure in place and when we visited the children in the Creche they sang us a welcome song. Even the ‘pensioners’ were taken care of in a way to keep family units together. I was totally unprepared at the thought that had gone into the ‘estate community.’ It was evident that worker welfare was very important and seeing the tended vegetable gardens, the children in the Creche, and talking to the doctor I once again gained a sense of the ‘Business is a Matter of Human Service’ philosophy in action.
From there we headed into a batch of tea bushes where our guide showed us the first stage of the tea making process, ‘plucking,’ which takes the top two leaves and bud of each shoot. The different forms of planting were covered, longevity of the bushes etc, but all that will be covered in the documentary. From there we entered the tea factory itself, the guts of the tea industry which was housed in a long three story rectangular building that had become a familiar site during our drive up in the morning. This is what I had come to see, the actual process of ‘creating’ tea! Our guide, Menura, started us off on the top floor where the second stage occurs, ‘withering.’ This is where the tea leaves are brought down in moisture content and a chemical reaction occurs which is called chemical withering. From there we descended a floor to the next stage, ‘rolling.’ Rolling twists the leaves under pressure as more chemical reactions take place. From there the leaves are cut up through three cutting machines before passing to the next stage which is ‘fermentation’ where the chemical reactions occur at a faster rate as the leaves have been broken down in size. During this fermentation process the temperature will increase to a certain point before beginning to fall, at this time the tea is moved to the next stage, ‘firing’ which will halt the fermentation. From there it was onto sifting which allowed the tea to be graded before finally being packaged.
After our tour inside the factory it was time for a 'cuppa tea' outside and an incredible lunch on the grounds overlooking the lake.
From there it was back on our mini buses and off to Nuwara Eliya, the heart of the tea growing industry in Sri Lanka. As befitting its nostalgic roots we were checked into the Grand Hotel for the night where we could bask in a British epoch that had long since left the country. It had been a grand day.