The Leopard that Came to Tea: Exploring Sri Lanka's Hill Country
13 June, 2017
Leopards have developed a taste for the local dogs," Rohan, my naturalist guide, mentions casually as we creep up a winding road flanked by eucalyptus trees. "If they don't find their food in the jungle then they'll go to the villages." I'm on a night safari, sitting safely in the back of a converted jeep, but I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck bristle. I follow the beam of Rohan's torch as he probes it into the darkness, searching for a pair of eyes.
Sri Lanka might be known as the land of the leopard, but I've come to the Bogawantalawa Valley to explore the island's mountainous hill country, which is more famous for its pea-green tea estates than its spotted cats. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Ceylon tea, so I've headed for the hills to learn a little more about the prized brew.
The drive from Colombo lasts for about four hours, with the final 50km - along a winding road that clings to the edge of a deep, forested valley - taking half that time. Hatton, a traffic-plagued market town, marks my ascent to 4,000ft, after which I press higher towards Castlereagh Lake. The scenery grows bigger and bolder and ever more striking. I pass terraces of waist-high tea bushes and mountain ridges sporting thick manes of trees before finally reaching Castlereagh's 5km-long reservoir.
Tea was first planted in Sri Lanka by a pioneering Scotsman called James Taylor back in 1867, when the island was a British colony known as Ceylon. Other planters soon followed suit, and by the end of the century great swathes of Sri Lanka's hill country - once covered in thick forest and jungle - had been tirelessly tamed into lush, manicured tea estates, many with Anglo-sounding names like Kew, Kenilworth and Rockland. Today tea remains Sri Lanka's most important agricultural commodity - 350million kilograms of tea is produced annually, and the industry employs more than 2 per cent of the country's population.
My destination is Norwood bungalow, one of five immaculately restored tea planters' residences collectively known as the Ceylon Tea Trails. This charming 1920s house is set in the middle of a 2,000-acre tea estate with a garden of billowing bamboo, whistling pines and a lawn edged by overflowing borders of hibiscus, hydrangeas and lilies. The six rooms here are named after former resident planters, and my room, called Trevaldwyn, is kitted out with vintage furnishings including a four-poster bed. As I sit in the private garden the next morning, sipping a cup of "bed tea" brought to me by my house butler, I shiver as I recall Rohan telling me that a leopard was once spotted just behind the bungalow.
After a breakfast of homemade pastries, tropical fruit and poached eggs I'm ready to explore. I meet up with Alice Luker, a British photographer based in Sri Lanka, and Tea Trails' chief naturalist Anuradha ("call me Eddie"). We set off early on foot for a loop around Norwood. Although the fresher climate up here in the hills is a relief after the humidity of almost everywhere else in Sri Lanka, it can still get very hot during the day.
We soon come across a gaggle of ladies queuing at a small, thatched tea-weighing station. We pause and watch them taking turns heaving bulging bags on to a hook under the watchful eye of a harried male superintendent. Even today the job of plucking "two leaves and a bud" is left almost entirely to nimble-fingered ladies who pick come rain or shine for only about £3.90 a day. Despite their smiles and light-hearted chitchat, I'm left in no doubt that this is a tough way to make a living. Eddie tells me that female tea pluckers are in high demand. And as their children are lured to jobs in the cities, the number of workers is dwindling.
When we exit the village the road climbs, and we walk into an area of rough, boulder-strewn forest. Eddie points out a crimson- fronted barbet, one of 120 local species of birds that have been identified here. As the canopy thickens I notice a strong smell of pine, which makes me feel faintly nostalgic for the UK. "It's eucalyptus", says Eddie, gesturing towards a peeling trunk, "planted to add value to the land." He also points out the wider- spread albizia trees. When we visited this area on our night safari I learnt that the albizia attract leopards, and that this overgrown jungle is their main, albeit risky, pathway to the village dogs. I pick up my pace until I emerge into the tea fields above.
The next day we venture further. We set off by jeep for the edge of the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, to Sri Lanka's eighth-highest waterfall, Laxapana Falls. The drive is photogenic so we take our time, we stop at a little kovil temple with an ornate, faded gopuram tower and a direct view of Adam's Peak, Sri Lanka's revered mountain. We drive through deep valleys of tea where ladies pluck and gossip. Rounded hillocks sporting concentric circles of neatly planted tea contrast greatly with the ragged, thickly forested Saptha Kanya (Seven Virgin) mountain range running parallel to the road. The surface is bumpy, although our driver masters its potholes well and intuitively dodges the tata buses that barge rudely around the hairpin bends.
At Kothallena, behind a cluster of local shops, we descend a steep flight of 700-odd steps to the falls. The water cascades for 126m in a single veil (which can increase to three veils during monsoon periods) to a plunge pool edged by huge black boulders. Sadly it's treacherous to swim here, so we have to make do with cooling our toes instead.
On our way back up Eddie leads us towards a picnic lunch that he's laid out in the back yard of a house sporting a rusty corrugated roof and a pink wall. It's one of a handful of homes dotting the hillside, where the community works together to harvest a small plot of tea. Beyond a tidily swept yard is a self-sustaining home garden. I see mango, jackfruit and areca trees, kithul and coconut palms as well as cloves, cinnamon and vanilla. Chickens scratch at the dusty earth and there's electricity, running water and satellite TV. It's a simple existence, but its sustainability is admirable.
On my final night I stay in the Greigg master suite at Dunkeld, the resort's newest bungalow. The lake views here are hard to beat, and the scene is magically enhanced at dawn, when mist hangs weightlessly above the lake. One of the beauties of staying at Tea Trails is that you can dine (and walk to) any bungalow. I lunch one day at Castlereagh, and on another take high tea at Tientsin, the oldest and furthest bungalow, which dates back to around 1880, is named after a Chinese tea village and is set in the next valley along.
The next morning, I tour the Dunkeld factory, owned by Dilmah Tea, where I watch the leaves journey through whirring, juddering machines, getting progressively smaller as they are rolled, cut, withered, fired, sorted and sifted. Keith, our factory guide, attempts to make himself heard above the din. His passion for tea is obvious, and we soon learn how the production of tea relies on meticulous timing to produce a perfectly rounded brew.
Near the factory is a small leopard research station. Tea Trails' night safaris support the Leopard Project in documenting leopards and other felines, such as the rusty-spotted fishing cat. They also promote awareness amongst estate workers. Although there have been no incidents, villagers fear the leopards, and illegal snares have killed eight over the past year alone.
Leopards remained elusive during our own night safari, although we did see barking deer, black-naped hares and a highland nightjar - a rare find, according to the bird-loving Rohan. Then again, Hatton is not the place to come on a leopard safari, seeing one is merely a bonus, adding an edge of excitement to a part of Sri Lanka best enjoyed for its tea, walks and fresh mountain air.
Rooms at Tea Trails from £555. Price includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, traditional cream tea and all drinks, as well as a Tea Experience and factory tour.
Transport from Colombo provided by Travel Design by CDC.