Day 11: Dilmah - The Rilhena Estate & the Road to Galle

The Udawalawe 'tank'

My last day with Dilmah turned out to be much more relaxing than the previous six. I had seen black tea at the Dunkeld Estate, green tea at the Park Estate, witnessed their conservation project at the Elephant Transit Home, and many of their Small Entrepreneur Programs during the last couple of days. Today there was only one stop on the itinerary, and that was the Rilhena Tea Estate. When I'd originally written Dilmah sharing my plans to visit Sri Lanka and film a documentary on tea I'd explained that I wanted to visit tea at the three different elevations. Tea in Sri Lanka is classified by elevation, low country, mid country, and high country. The mid and high country had been taken care of and today's visit would cover the low country at an estate that was unique for a very interesting reason. But first we had to get there.

Flood gates open

Flood gates closed

We were back in the Udawalawe area and once again passed the 'tank,' or reservoir for us non Sri Lankans. We stopped by the sluice gates and all was calm. It was quite the contrast to the scene we'd seen yesterday when the authorities had opened the gates to lower the water in the tank to prevent flooding. It had been raining considerably and when we'd initially arrived in the area we had followed a road that was under three inches of water. We took some more photos and it was quite shocking to see the difference in the riverbed below the gates. One day it was white and violent, the next it was blue and contemplative. Water in Sri Lanka, it's a big player indeed.

A gem mine

The crew waiting on parts

As we were running early for a change I was afforded an unexpected treat. Dhammika, our driver, spotted some thatched structures off to the left. "Gem mine," he said. That was enough for me so he pulled over, I grabbed the camera and off we went to explore. I met the miners who were all above ground as the water pump had broken down and they were waiting on parts. As I looked into the shaft that descended into the mine it was obvious they weren't doing anything until the part came as the water level in the shaft was almost level with the surface. Shame for me as they were a great bunch of guys and it was obvious they would have taken me down to check it out if things had been different. In any case they explained the mine site and the different stages of the gem mining process and invited me back when the pump was back online. Then we were back on the road to Rilhena.

Tea with rubber trees as a backdrop (Photo by Evadora Depari)

We met Mr. Janaka Gunawardhana at a gas station on the main road then followed him up to the estate. When we arrived there he asked me if there was anything specific I wanted to cover. I thought about that and as I already had great footage of both the black and green tea factories I asked him if we could just head into the plantation instead. I wanted to clarify the elevation classification system and I also wanted another more leisurely close up look at some tea bushes, notably the two leaves and bud, and lastly I wanted to talk about the conditions required to grow and harvest tea. Mr. Janaka and his colleague were pleased to oblige and we loaded into a 4x4 and headed up a narrow bumpy track to a prime spot for filming.

During our interview I started to get a real sense of how much research went into the tea industry. The island nation of Sri Lanka was perfectly suited to tea cultivation with large amounts of rain in the mornings and ample hot sunshine during a good part of the rest of the day. But even a perfect environment can be improved upon. Where in the old days tea bushes were planted using seedlings, today clones are used, and it's not a one sized fits all scenario. With different elevations, different climatic conditions, and different types of soil present clones are developed by the Tea Research Institute of Sri Lanka specifically for each tea growing area. Another benefit of the cloned bushes over their seedling counterparts is they can be plucked more frequently, perhaps every six or seven days as opposed to seven or eight so there is an increase in productivity. It was a very enlightening conversation and perhaps they saved the best for last as the bushes we were filming amongst were part of a new 'breed,' or new approach to tea cultivation. Fertilizers have long been used in the tea industry with some undesirable side results, such as what happens to the fertilizer that hasn't been absorbed by the target plant, in this case the tea bush. As there is a lot of rain in Sri Lanka much of this fertilizer can be washed away which in turn can create problems down slope of where it's applied. To reduce fertilizer usage Dilmah Conservation created a new Bio Char pilot project on the Rilhena Estate, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. The basic concept takes the product (the bio mass) of long slow burns of organic material and uses it in place of a fertilizer. This bio mass is created in controlled environments where little oxygen is introduced during the burn so a form of charcoal is created. The surrounding tea field had been planted in 2006 using this technique and bio char was added to the soil at that time as well as during the pruning cycles since (every three years). What this does is increase the carbon content of the soil which in turn improves its absorption and retention powers from 30% (using traditional applications) to 70% using bio char. Today this field was in full operation and others were being planted. It was a very educational visit and illustrated a voluntary commitment to seeking out long term solutions to problems created by past cultivation techniques. In today's world it is nice to see a corporate policy in place that looks beyond the immediate bottom line, one that actively looks for ways of minimizing environmental impact. People are starting to take note.

Mr. Janaka and colleague explaining the science of 'Biochar.' (Photo by Evadora Depari)

From the Rilhena Estate Dhammika took us to the old Dutch Port city of Galle where we would part company. I'd been looking forward to visiting Galle and as Jetwing Hotels have numerous properties in the area it wasn't hard to find a fit. They have a beautiful property, the Jetwing Lighthouse, not far from the Fort but I'd mentioned to Prasanna, my contact at Jetwing, that I wanted a place in the 'old town.' I wanted to see it up close, wanted to walk its streets at night, eat locally and watch the sunset from the fort walls. Prasanna heard my comments and put me up in the Galle Heritage Villa, a beautiful old Dutch villa a stone's throw from the lighthouse.

Galle Heritage Villa - by Jetwing

The Galle Heritage was a lovely mixture of old world charm with modern conveniences. It was built as a Dutch villa so echoed design cues of the time. What I loved about it was the open air feeling it had. There were only four rooms so was as far removed from a 'resort' feeling as could be. Instead it was like checking in to your own private villa. The two bedrooms on the second floor were reached by a switchback stair then an open air covered veranda. Depending on where one stood in the house one could debate whether you were 'inside' or 'out,' and the only air conditioners in sight were those in the bedrooms. It was very open, very breezy, and very nice!

Old world charm

with a modern touch

Forgot the suit at home

(Photo by Evadora Depari)

It had been a grand day. My time with Dilmah was over, and what a week it had been. Black tea, green tea, and tea nurtured with 'bio char.' There had been elephants, 'tanks,' schools, entrepreneurs, and a very distinguished potter. It had been non stop for a week but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. It was amazing to catch a glimpse of the inner workings of the Dilmah Tea Empire, all of which had begun decades ago when Mr. Merrill J. Fernando sought to bring tea back to Sri Lankans. The Dilmah story is a remarkable one, and even though Mr. Fernando's original dream was attained years ago, he didn't stop. Instead he expanded that dream and through his 'Business is a Form of Human Service' philosophy Dilmah has blossomed into a company that reaches out to many aspects of Sri Lankan society today. Tea is still their core business and its proceeds fund many of their other initiatives, but the company has become so much more than 'just' tea. Mr. Fernando is still there at the helm and with his two sons, Dilhan and Malik, the company continues to trail-blaze in socially progressive initiatives designed to empower Sri Lankans around the country. It had been a fascinating week, one that I'll never forget.

Yes, a fascinating week, but I needed a break, and for that break I'd walk the walls and streets of a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Fort Galle for the next couple of days. I was beginning to get the impression that Sri Lanka really did have it all!

Timeless Galle