The Leopard that Came to Tea: Exploring Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

The Leopard that Came to Tea: Exploring Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 19:
The Wild Issue.

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

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
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

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

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
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
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

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.

The Lowdown

Rooms at Tea
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.