Travel

Travails of the tea travellers

A tea plantation in Coonoor. Photo: Anusha Parthasarathy  

This isn’t a normal vacation. It is an unspoken competition between boot-clad, sweater-cloaked us and Siva, in his thin jerkin and sandals. We march right up to the starting point, looking downhill towards the sloping tea estate that ends in a rainforest trail. “Ok, let’s go,” we breathe, disappointed that vapours don’t swirl out of our mouths even during winter. Drat! Coonoor isn’t that cold.

We parade down, sometimes on twos and other times on all fours, breathing hard and trying harder to keep up. Siva, on the other hand, climbs down with cat-like grace, his slippers holding on to the wet mud like mountain boots while our branded footwear slip and slide. He waits patiently at the other end, for the second time.

No dams, lakes, view points and boat rides! We aren’t traditional tourists armed with a point-and-shoot camera, scooting about holding the rolling hills and Coonoor’s quaint charm at lens point. We want to do nothing, if we can help it. So, we pack our bags and head about 6 km outside town to De Rock Jungle Living, nestled between the Shola rainforest and a tea estate. We are so far away from civilization that even our phones are dead. Great. Now we really have to improvise.

Winter looks beautiful on Coonoor and we wake up to misty mornings and warm, sunny afternoons. The blue, silhouetted mountains paint stunning landscapes against a clear sky and rows of neatly stacked tea plantations leave a permanent aroma of fresh tea all around.

There are points where we’re tempted to get touristy, when the ‘Sleeping Maiden’ viewpoint has us deciphering it on the opposite hill and a short stroll in Sims Park leaves us wondering what else we’ve missed. But for most part, we stick to the road less travelled.

Our trip to Highfield Tea Estate is memorable, where we watch dried tea leaves being packed, heated, rolled and dusted into different grades of tea. We poke our hands into machines, feel the different textures and begin to consider ourselves connoisseurs. By the time we head to the tea tasting, where we sample drops of ginger, masala and chocolate tea, we have an aura about ourselves. The business of tea is no longer a mystery and we decide that’s what this vacation will be about.

De Rock’s manager Charles Nathan, who was once a tea planter himself, enlightens us even more about the tea business. As we watch the panoramic night view of the Coimbatore plains from the cosy comfort of the veranda, he talks about tea brokers and tea tasters, wherein we are already imagining ourselves in front of a long table with a hundred cups of tea ready for sampling. In the end, he agrees to fix something up.

Paramount Tea Marketing on Club Road is a tea auctioning company that has been around since 1987. We meet M. Ravichandran Broos, the manager, who takes us into a room filled with apothecary-like tables with drawers full of tea. Ten china cups are out. They each contain a different grade of tea and after it blackens, it is filtered into bowls that contain a few drops of milk. “Sugar, spice and everything nice,” we smugly think.

From dark brown to milky-white and green, we are given a spoon each, at which point Raghu drags a large conical spittoon towards us. He demonstrates, taking a quick spoonful and forcefully spitting it out. “This,” he smiles, “is tea-tasting. Sometimes we taste up to 400 kinds of tea each day.” After a couple of disastrous spitting attempts, we decide to salvage whatever is left of our dignity by gulping down the rest.

Auctions are held online every Thursday and Friday in Coonoor, where tea is sampled and sold. “After a while, you can tell how any tea will taste just by looking at its colour. Over here in Coonoor, most of the tea goes to north India, where they prefer lighter infusions. People in the south like dark, strong tea,” says Ravichandran.

To wrap it up, we take a train to Ooty from the Coonoor railway station, a heritage building constructed in 1897, and have a sumptuous lunch at the Sidewalk Café. Still greedy, we fill our rucksack with home-made chocolates from all over town, Toda-made bags, boxes of tea and head into Walsham Road to Willy’s Coffee Pub. A library-cum-café, it has a few tables and chairs spattered around, where people can relax with a book and cuppa. We order Orange Honey Cake and Fudge Brownie and drown in sugary warmth.

Back in Coonoor, we are hoping to spot a gaur before we leave but instead feast our eyes on a bushy orange tail on the tree top: a Giant Malabar Squirrel. We let our cameras go wild as it cockily poses under the shade of leaves.

Siva, who works at De Rock, is standing on a boulder against the backdrop of mist-swathed peaks. He is a child of the mountains but not from anywhere around here. We’re running out of time as we’re leaving by the age-old steam engine train of the Niligiri Mountain Railway. We bid adieu to him as he tells us about his six-day train journeys to Nepal. “I’m going home tomorrow,” he smiles.


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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 7:25:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/travails-of-the-tea-travellers/article2741708.ece

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