We are now in Coonoor, a hill station in the state of Tamilnadu, which sits 6,250 feet above sea level. It’s cool up here, 15 degrees centigrade and its lush green. The hill sides are decorated with tea bushes which are bathed in early morning and late afternoon mist. It often rains here in December and the tea plantation factory we plan to visit is usually closed for maintenance on Mondays. But today, the mists have vanished, and the mid-morning sunshine is glorious. We have blue skies and the factory is operating today ……. Another lucky day!
Swami and Swami have been growing and producing Highfield Teas since 1930. The tea gardens are planted on a slope and the bushes are planted out after 1 year and trimmed every 5 years. Different portions of the tea bush are used to produce different teas and our guide James, tells us that white or silver tip tea, has the greatest health benefits, and is produced from the very newest shoot of the tea bush. These shoots are picked from the youngest plants (<15 years old) and are always plucked before sunrise. The next highest grade of tea is green and then black and finally Indian tea powder which is picked from the oldest plants and is considered the lowest grade of tea. After plucking, the leaves are initially dried or ‘weathered’ for 8 hours, collected and then crushed, rolled, oxidised and roasted. James tells us that the women do the more monotonous jobs, which require more patience and the men will do the jobs requiring more physical strength. Women and men both work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week and are payed the same for the jobs they do. The workers receive many benefits; homes, health and education for all their family members. We partake in some tea tasting; masala chai, black tea, white tea, ginger tea and chocolate tea, which taste like hot chocolate…. yum. The views are stunning over the tea gardens and it’s a million miles away from hectic north India. The houses are painted vivid colours, blues, pinks, greens and purples and are scattered across the hillsides in groups …. a bit like a hilltop Tobermory.
We head to the train station to catch the ‘toy train’ to Ooty, the main town and highest hill station of this region. The toy train runs on a smaller gauge track and was previously used to transport the tea workers from plantation to plantation. We chug slowly across this amazing landscape, leaning out the window, breathing in the mountain air and stopping at stations; Wellington, Aravankadu, Lovedale and finally Ooty. We spend some time in Ooty’s botanical garden which is filled to the brim with schoolchildren, Indian tourists and families before heading back to Tiger Hill cottages, passing a fish and chip shop, advertising ‘live fish and chips’! We all chuckle, hoping this isn’t on the menu for dinner.