I wanted to visit a tea plantation while we were in India. Darjeeling and Assam are famous for their teas, but those places are both in the far northeast, too distant for this trip. Within India, though, the south is also known for its tea. There are tea plantations all around the hill station of Munnar in eastern Kerala, as well as in the next state over, Tamil Nadu.
After some poking around on TripAdvisor, I decided that we should visit Kolukkumalai, the world’s highest elevation organic tea plantation. It’s a remote estate just over the border in Tamil Nadu where they still practice the old-fashioned “orthodox” method of tea production. I booked and paid for (or so I thought) an overnight reservation at the plantation’s mountain hut, a converted workers’ cabin located at about 7,000 feet – the same elevation as Addis Ababa.
There was lots to look at on the long bus ride from Kochi to Munnar hill station.
Once we got to Munnar we had some trouble connecting with the tea estate people. Things would have run much more smoothly if I had decided a few days earlier to book the visit, but our entire Kerala trip was planned on the fly and this was a last-minute call. Because I’d made the reservation on the weekend, the payment was delayed, and it’s a rather long and boring story so I won’t get into it all the details, but the really great part is that the wonderful Kolukkumalai people jumped into action and made it work. As it happens there was another last-minute traveler in the tourist office at the same time, also trying to book a night at the tea estate, so once it was finally all sorted the three of us were able to share a jeep for the long uphill journey.
We stopped in the little town of Suryanelly for supplies.
Next we stopped for a tea break (of course) at a nearby tea estate.
Then began the arduous part of the journey. The road up to Kolukkumalai now holds the title of The Bumpiest Road I Have Ever Been On in My Life. It surpasses even the road to the Yemrehanna Kristos cave church in Ethiopia, the previous holder of this dubious distinction.
We spent two relaxing nights in our “mountain hut”, which turned out to be nicely equipped with all the comforts of home. The cabin has three rooms, but during our stay we and the young woman we rode up the hill with were the only guests.
On both mornings we rose early to walk up the hill behind to watch the sunrise. The first morning it was too foggy to see anything.
But the second morning we enjoyed a lovely sunrise above the layer of mist blanketing the mountains.
Later after breakfast we took a walking tour of the estate to see the workers tending the plants and harvesting the leaves.
Most of the workers who pick the leaves are women (it is said that men don’t have the patience to do it right) while the tea factory workers are mainly men. The workers live on site in housing provided by the estate. They have a child care center, a small temple, and a tea house in the compound, but they have to travel down the mountain for shopping and for any medical services beyond basic first aid. School age children live down in the town during the week.
We also toured the factory, where they showed us the seven steps of orthodox tea production: withering, rolling, sieving, fermenting, drying, fiber extraction, and grading. Most of these steps employ machines that were brought in for the opening of the factory over a hundred years ago.
In addition to hot and tasty Tamil meals three times a day, our guide served us tea at breakfast, at mid-morning, after lunch, at tea-time, and after dinner. Any time is tea time, it would seem.
In fact, we spent much of our time wrapped in warm blankets, sipping tea and enjoying the view from our little front porch.
Here are some more pictures of this beautiful green place.