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Kolukkumalai Tea Estate (Kerala, India)

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Address: Munnar, KL, India / A privately owned tea plantation producing the world's highest grown organic tea.

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      07.02.2012 11:29
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      Well worth a visit - if your spine can cope

      ~The Road to Kolukkumalai~

      When our driver persuaded us to go on a 4-wheel drive tour of the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate we agreed to go but refused to be up at 6.30am in order to set off. Instead we negotiated an 8 am start time so we could get a good night's sleep and have breakfast before leaving. I do 6.30 starts for work but not on my holidays. It turned out that our decision was a good one - in fact we didn't see our driver until 8.30 because his vehicle had got boxed in by two large coaches and he couldn't get out of the car park.

      We drove for about an hour to the small village of Chinnakanal where we met the Jeep and its driver. Along the way we wound through tea plantations with their neat little bushes standing in rows and carpeting the mountainsides like fuzzy green corduroy. The roads were pretty bad, pock-marked by potholes, leading Shijo the driver to cut back and forth across the road to avoid the worst of the holes. I wondered whether I'd made a mistake by not taking a travel sickness pill before we set out. By the time we reached our meeting point for the Jeep, we'd already climbed a long way uphill but had no idea how much more steep driving was to come.

      We parked up on the roadside and met the new driver. Shijo reminded us what would happen and what we'd need to pay for - entrance to the estate, charges to see the tea factory and of course the fee for the vehicle and driver. The weather was a bit overcast but we had no reason to think it wasn't going to clear. We settled into the back of the four by four, sitting on an inadequately upholstered bench seat and wondering what it would take to fall out of the sides. My assumption was 'not very much'.

      ~In Search of a Cuppa~

      After a short distance on the paved roads we turned off and headed up a track to the estate where we paid a small fee to enter. For the first ten minutes or so the roads were rough but not outrageously so. We passed a factory unit making tea which made me later suspect that the trip passes a lower altitude tea factory as well as the high level organic factory at Kolukkumalai. I didn't totally follow what our driver was saying but he mentioned a few times the different methods between Kolukkumalai and Tata, so it's possible that the lower factory was owned by the multinational giant, Tata.

      As we drove through the lower fields our driver explained about the tea bushes, that they live for up to 100 years, need to be cut back every 5 years and pointed out what happens if you don't cut them back - tall, thin tea trees which should not be confused with the tea trees that produce tea tree oil. He also pointed out the nursery for growing seedlings. The tea bushes are arranged in neat rows, standing about waist height for me, but chest height for the mostly rather short Tamil ladies who cut the tea. This height is perfect for the tea pickers to walk between the bushes and easily access the new tea tips.

      We passed the workers huts, long white buildings with tin roofs, held down by sacks of cement. There was a school and a few social buildings in the main area of habitation but on the whole, this was the land of the tea bush and not of the men who planted them. There were some larger bungalows which would have been used by the estate managers in colonial times and looked like beautiful, but very lonely places to live.

      The roads became rougher and steeper and we passed several waterfalls as we snaked up the hillside. We could see that we were heading towards cloud and had adapted our expectations to rule out any prospect of fantastic views from the top. As we bumped up and down in the back of the vehicle our driver joked that he included 'free body massage' for all his customers - ironically we weren't to know that bouncing around hitting into the bars of his vehicle would be less painful than the real massage we had later the same day. We passed groups of ladies cutting the tea, using a strange device like a pair of hedge cutting shears with a canvas bag attached. In Kolukkumalai they don't pick the tea by hand which is undoubtedly nicer for the workers but quite possibly not the way to make the absolutely finest quality tea. As someone who doesn't drink tea and can't tell the difference between good and bad, I'd personally prefer to see good worker welfare and slightly less excellent tea.

      After a while the road which had been bad but not too bent gave way to zig zag hair pins. Some of the turns were so sharp that the driver went up them backwards - impressive but a little unnerving. The last half hour or so was absolute agony and I have seldom been so pleased to arrive at my destination, partly since it meant a respite from bouncing up and down and partly because my poor bladder had taken a battering and I was desperate for a pee.

      ~Very Happy to Arrive~

      We pulled up beside a small building which was home to the cleanest toilets in India, the manager's office and a display of tea types. We ordered teas and drank them sitting in a long narrow room with seats down either side. Photographs on the walls showed us what the view would have been like if we weren't sitting inside a big fluffy cloud. A group of local ladies offered us snacks to go with the tea which was ideal for me since I don't actually like tea. However there's nothing like the cessation of physical agony to work up a thirst.

      The factory stands on a ridge which divides Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I think it's actually in Tamil Nadu but I'm not 100% sure. On a clear day we should have been able to see for many miles across the two states but there was no prospect of that on this occasion. The factory is at an altitude of around 8000 feet and claims to be the highest tea factory in the world - I have no reason to think that's not true.

      Since a large cloud was surrounding us, we could barely see the factory from the tea hut and it appeared gradually out of the mist as we walked towards it. We were assigned a guide to take us round, an elderly gentleman with an almost impenetrable accent. I think someone must have worked out long ago that a lot of visitors can't understand the guides because there are posters in every part of the factory to explain the process. His particular obsession was with pointing out every single thing in the factory that had been made in the UK, tapping it with pride and a life-long belief in the quality of 'British made' which embarassed us a little. Clearly he's not seen what a mess we've made of most of our heavy industries in the last few years.

      We headed up to the top of the building where the freshly cut tea leaves are laid out in big wooden vats to wither. Our guide showed us the ventilation systems for passing hot and then cold air through the tea leaves, opening various shutters to explain how it all worked and showing us an unfeasibly small hole in the floor through which the withered leaves would be delivered to the ground floor of the factory. We headed to the 'rolling' room where the withered leaves are rolled to break up the cells of the leaves before they go to the fermentation room and are laid out on the floor to oxidise. Next step was the drying machine where the wood-fired burner passed hot air over constantly moving racks of oxidised tea leaves. Fibre extraction followed and used rollers and static electricity to remove all the woody bits that were caught up in the process before the tea is graded with some pretty nifty sieves and then bagged up. On the way back to the car, my ex-engineer husband took a detour to coo over the generator and then it was time to head back down the mountainside.

      This is the third tea factory that I've seen when travelling around India and Sri Lanka and I have to be honest that I'm getting a bit jaded about such places. However Kolukkumalai is a particularly nice little factory, smaller than other more commercial places I've seen and it's a nice place to get the low-down on how tea is made.

      The Kolukkumalai tea estate covers 1500 acres and is worked by just 60 couples. Together they make a tiny 600 kg per day which seemed to me like an awful lot of land for not much tea. The entire process is certified organic.

      ~Going Down~

      Don't ever make the mistake of thinking that going downhill will be more comfortable than going up. It also doesn't help that on the way down you know just how bouncy it's going to be and you don't even benefit from the sense of "It must be just round the corner" and "surely we're nearly there" which you get on the way up. To make things worse it started to rain and we had to let the side flaps down on the jeep in order to keep the rain out so we were bouncing around whilst not being able to see much at all. Going down was only slightly quicker than going up due to the road conditions and our driver was very happy to be able to save his diesel and coast down most of the way, pointing out that on the new four-wheel drives you couldn't do this because of the power steering and brakes not working if the engine was off. Hoorah for old engineering I suppose.

      The views (when you could see past the cloud) were spectacular and despite the physical hardship of the journey and the cloud that sat on top of the factory and all the view points, I cannot fail to recommend a visit to the tea plantation. However I would say that anyone with back pain or other medical issues that might not respond well to being bounced up and down for three or four hours, might want to consider giving this a miss. It's lovely but it's not worth putting yourself through physical agony for the next few days. Ladies, if you are inclined to wear tight fitting tops, give them a miss on this day - reach for the sports bra to give yourself some support and go loose. It's better that your driver watches the road ahead and not your puppies jumping up and down in a tight vest top on the back seat.

      Very wisely I didn't look at the state of the jeep's tyres until we got back to the main road. How any vehicle can survive those roads with threads hanging out of the side walls is a mystery.

      ~Prices~

      The fee for the jeep and driver was 1600 rupees - hubby rounded it up to 2000 because he liked the driver (and he didn't kill us). The factory tour was 200 rupees (100 each) plus again a decent tip because hubby was feeling like Lord Bountiful. There was a 50 rupee fee to enter the tea estate. In total it was around about £35 for the two of us.

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