We had booked a 3rd class carriage (400rps / 2GBP each) for the 5.5 hour train journey from Kandy to Haputale, and from previous experience on Indian trains thought we might be in for a crampt, noisy journey. In fact there were more tourists than locals on the surprisingly comfortable train, and we settled into our window seats to gaze out to the incredible view, palm trees and paddy fields, tunnels and temples changed to high bridges that stretched over wild rivers and tea plantations with mountains that cascaded into the distance. All the windows and doors of the train open with lots of tourist heads leaning out to get a glimpse of the view, photographing and waving to locals as the train rattled past the stunning landscape.
At the station we were greeted by the unique humor of Ali, who insisted we should see his homestay, 'Ali Home', and maintained his daughter cooked the best food in Sri Lanka. How could we resist? He sat us down on the balcony with a pot of tea overlooking views of the mountains, telling us on a clear day you could see the sea.
We walked the 5 minutes into town, and were relieved to find that tourism hasn't left its footprint here quite yet. Lots of mechanical and paint shops, bakeries, fabric and bangle shops and lounging tuk tuk drivers. After a quick lap we returned back to Ali's homestay for a dinner of vegetable rice, plantain and coleslaw and it was easily the best we had tried so far. We booked a 5am tuk tuk for the following day so we could see sunrise over Lipton's seat and wrapped ourselves up for the cold evening ahead.
The alarm went off and we dragged ourselves out of bed, had a very quick cold shower, cup of tea, picked up our take-away breakfast of Jaffles (toasted sandwiches) and patiently waited for our slightly late tuk tuk. It was a slow, bumpy 40 minute journey to Lipton's Seat, the young driver had borrowed the tuk tuk from his brother and seemed to be struggling with the hills. We found ourselves peering into the darkness, following his finger where he was enthusiastically pointing out sights to us. By the time we reached the gate at the top the sky was getting lighter. We had missed the sunrise and a sign informed us there was still a 1.4km hike to reach Lipton's Seat. We started to follow the winding road, and seeing the routes through the tea that the pickers use, glanced about us and as there was nobody around, took the short cut. We scrambled up to the top to see the sun appearing through the clouds over the captivating mountains, the tea covering them like fur. We used the tea pickers route back and found ourselves in and amongst the beauty, continuing the 5km along the main road to the tea factory, the sun starting to warm up while the icy breeze kept us cool.
It was 9am by the time we reached Dambatenne Tea Factory and we were told to take a seat and wait for a guide, 40 minutes later we were still waiting. Eventually we were called in and the guide talked us through the process. Dambatenne have 1500 people working for them in over 370 hectares of land. Over 80kg of tea a day is picked and it takes them 3 days from picking to packing. They start by drying the leaves, and then place the tea into rollers that begin to break up the leaves, they are sent through a series of conveyor belts and machines that refine and cool the leaves. Eventually the tea powder is removed and then fired at 260 F and sifted removing any additional fibres. Five different grades of tea are produced at the factory and we tried tasting it alongside some french wine enthusiasts rolling and spitting expertly. We just drank ours and thought they all tasted the same - bitter and strong with tannin! Couldn't help feeling they needed a bit of milk and sugar!
We continued to walk further through the tea plantations not quite ready to take our eyes from the stunning views around us and eventually once our feet were hurting and we needed another cup of tea, caught the bus back. Ali had recruited a few more couples for his homestay and it turned out we had already met the German couple, Felix and his girlfriend on the train the previous day, we sat on the balcony watching the dark rain clouds roll in, and later as we sat down to vast amounts of assorted vegetable curries that Ali's daughter prepared and we were introduced to Arrack, the local liquor fermented from coconuts and surprisingly drinkable, especially when mixed with fresh coconut milk. The eccentric and drunk Ali was good entertainment, massaging the heads of the English couple with Vicks where they were suffering from colds.
The next morning the rain had cleared and we were woken up too early by unreliable cockerels and happy birds. After a breakfast of string hoppers, coconut samba, coconut curry, eggs and papaya, we caught a bus to Wellawaya and then waited for the next bus onto Tissamaharama. We were told by the enterprising locals that the next bus wasn't for another 3 hours and we should definitely get a tuk tuk, as the buses would be standing room only. Once they realised we weren't going to cave in, a bus was suddenly and immediately available and we settled into our seats for the 2 hour journey to Tissa.