Views and brews: What it's like to hike the hills of Sri Lanka's tea country
A new walking trial takes visitors through the heart of tea estates and hill country. One writer puts the route through its paces
Louise Roddon I Wednesday January 11 2023, 5.00pm GMT, The Sunday Time
I have a confession to make: the last time I visited Sri Lanka I took a Ziploc bag stuffed with Yorkshire teabags. Yes, you read that correctly. Yorkshire Tea, carefully transported to the country that gave the Brits their obsessive love of a cuppa.
My time back then was spent in the Central Highlands, where a butler in a converted tea estate manager’s swish bungalow spotted the Ziploc and raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps,” he suggested, “madam would care to try a pot of Ceylon’s finest.”
Needless to say, I felt suitably chastened, but I’ve learnt my lesson and now I’m here again (sans the Yorkshire, I hasten to add) to walk sections of the new long-distance Pekoe Trail through the heart of its lush tea country.
Goodness, it’s glorious to be back. With the 2019 Easter bombings, then the pandemic and nine months of mass protests against the government in 2022 (not forgetting an economy that continues to plummet), Sri Lanka has been especially battered by tumbling tourist numbers.
Bookings are gradually rising again — helped by the fact that in August the British government lifted its ban on travel. Right now, though, you won’t see many tourists. You will, however, feel utterly safe and experience a palpably warm welcome wherever you go.
Certainly this is true for me during five days of trekking the Pekoe Trail. Interspersed with those 30 miles of walking I spend days slurping tea at various estates (Sri Lanka’s answer to French vineyard-hopping) and make some fascinating trips to Kandy, Galle and the capital, Colombo.
Actually the Pekoe Trail is not at all new. Its 200-mile, snail-shaped route starts just outside Kandy and weaves its way through the fertile Central Highlands up to Nuwara Eliya and the heart of the hill country. These tracks have existed since the British established the tea-growing industry here in the 19th century.
Now divided into 22 walkable “stages”, these were the tracks on which freshly plucked leaves were transported by horse-drawn carts to factories for processing.
Transforming those tracks into a sustainable tourism initiative — with funding from the EU and the US — has taken ten years. Even now routes are yet to be waymarked (they will be by the end of the year, I am told), so to walk them you need knowledgeable guides. Each stage links into towns and villages where you can stay — sometimes at luxurious hotels or wonderfully homely farms and, memorably for me, even a sparse, authentic tea picker’s “line room”.
The trail’s remotely located stages range from easy strolls of about five miles to hardcore ten-mile mountain hikes that could incorporate overnight camping.
You can dip in and out, as I do with four stages, or cover the whole thing in about 25 days. My visit coincides with the dry season — perfect weather for hiking.
I kick off with stage one: an eight-mile walk from Hantana, outside Kandy, to the village of Galaha. With me are the guides Ramli Raban and Anurudda Bandara, sharing fascinating titbits about the history of tea in Sri Lanka, such as how the blight that decimated Ceylon’s main crop, coffee, in the 1820s gave birth to the tea industry and how the British, needing more workers to pick the leaves, turned to the Tamils of south India, descendants of whom still work the plantations today. There are some wince-inducing moments when we delve into the period of colonial rule.
The terrain is gorgeous: rust-coloured earth offsetting searing green tea bushes, then giant pine and fronded turpentine trees.
At times there’s the iridescent flash of a parrot flitting through forestland, then fresh breezes sending banana leaves flapping. In the distance the stupa of Sandagiri temple appears like a white smudge against a hazy mountain backdrop.
Later, at the old Hantana tea factory (now a museum), I admire early Thermos flasks and teapots nestled in plaid-lined wicker baskets. Then leaf rollers, dryers and sifters from the 1880s — their gleaming metal pistons stamped with “Made in Lincoln”.
The following day ushers in an altogether different terrain — and a hard slog. We’re hiking from Galaha to Loolecondera, where the pioneering Scottish tea planter James Taylor established the country’s first estate. Just under ten miles long, the trek traverses steep verdant slopes feathered with swaying pines before tracking terraces of pillowy tea bushes.
Occasionally there’s a spark of red from a picker’s head shawl, and, higher, the sharply delineated mountain peaks. At one point a crested serpent eagle lazily circles the clear blue skies.
Halfway along, at Deltota market, we stop for fresh milk from a coconut split apart with Ramli’s machete. And that marks the end of the easy bit. Now we have steep inclines ahead and a need to travel off-piste, for Anurudda has been warned of a nearby wasps’ nest — a pair of abandoned flip-flops putting him on high alert.
“They’ve got a bad attitude problem, so we need to move quietly,” he says, pointing towards a diversion: a tangled incline with no obvious pathway. Suddenly leeches emerge — persistent little buggers they are (though my gaiter-style socks help) — and to ascend we have to grab at sturdy ferns and knotted roots that test our upper-body strength to the max.
My boot slips off — deftly caught by Ramli. Often he resorts to hacking the vegetation with his machete. It’s pure Indiana Jones, and indeed parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were shot on the mountain range above.
Oh, but the views are amazing. A mirage of peaks covered with endemic Indian laurel and Chinese caste trees. And beneath the granite seat where Taylor would relax above his estate, you can just make out the tea factory: a rectangular white presence with tall mullioned windows, shimmering in the soft heat like a half-remembered dream.
Ahead, corduroy-neat tea bushes frame a string of abandoned line houses — the former homes of Taylor’s Tamil tea pickers. I have my own humble line house experience some five hours later after a gruelling potholed journey to the other end of the trail with Nalaka Bandara, my brilliant chauffeur/guide.
Warwick village, 11 miles outside Nuwara Eliya, is where the former tea picker Meena Amma presides over a couple of guest line rooms. After the hike and the journey I’m deathly tired and there’s an awkward if delicious dinner of chicken curry, dhal and sambar — me finger-fumbling the scorchingly hot food (no cutlery) while Meena keeps the log fire alight with a blow pipe.
We communicate by gestures and smiles and I retire to my simple room, happy at the absence of wi-fi and booze but unsure of the huge spider eyeballing me from the ceiling.
I wake to children’s chatter and an eye-smartingly pastoral scene over a deep valley cleft. Later, on a village walk, Meena introduces me to some of the estate’s 22 pickers and their children.
I meet the 12-year-old Bina. “What do you want to do when you’re older?” I ask. “Become doctor,” he proudly replies.
It’s only the children who speak a smattering of English. For their mothers life is tough. Work starts at 6am and for approximately £2.30 a day they must collect 15kg of leaves. No easy feat.
At the pickers’ tiny nursery murals of local wildlife — including poisonous snakes — are the early learning visuals above a string of rickety cots. But there are cheery paintings too: an approximation of Bambi looms large on those concrete walls.
A Pekoe Trail walk through Warwick’s valley will soon be possible, but as it is not ready yet I head southeast to Ella, to another part of the trail, via the splendidly scenic Nanu Oya to Ella railway. I’ve two stages to cover on the town’s fringes and a marvellous base at Amba Estate — a small homestay and organic farm in the Uva Highlands outside Ambadandegama village.
Run by the Englishman Simon Bell and his American partner, John Roegner, this idyllic place has simple but stylish accommodation for 25 guests over a sprawling 100-year-old tea estate that, unusually, was set up by a local family. Tea production has been revived and although Amba only produces 10kg a month, its organic teas sell globally in high-end stores and hotels.
My time here is divided between an estate tour, a fascinating “teaology” food-pairing experience in which I discover how green tea can soften oily and spicy dishes, and short stretches of the Pekoe Trail: the four-hour hike to Ella Rock is strenuous but rewarding for those far-reaching highland views.
And there is Amba’s adorable melee of dogs and cats, and convivial diners whose conversation flows easily beneath a nursery-rhyme moon effulgent in a star-freckled sky.
Amba’s production manager, Neethanjana Senadheera, explains to me how milk negates all the health benefits of tea, and it’s a concept that stays in my mind long after I leave. So too those unforgettable images of my time here: the meditative hikes, the easy smiles, the sight of a green parrot on my last day, swaying on a palm branch against an egg-yolk dawn in that Miss Havisham-relic of a hotel, Colombo’s Galle Face.
I’ve learnt masses, but whether I’ll forsake milk in my tea remains to be seen.
Louise Roddon was a guest of Experience Travel Group, which has eight nights’ half-board from £2,550pp, including flights, chauffeur/guide, guided walks and experiences on its Walking the Tea Regions of Sri Lanka tour (experiencetravelgroup.com). She was also a guest of National Express Coaches, which has services to airports across the UK (nationalexpress.com)
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