“Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage.” – Catherine Douzel
What could be better than sipping a hot cup of fragrant tea on a mist shrouded mountain that boasts of the highest organic tea plantations in the world? This is exactly what Kolukkumalai Tea Estate offers.
At a height of 7900 ft above sea level, it is the highest tea plantation in the world. In addition, Kolukkumalai’s time-tested tea factory still sticks to the orthodox (handmade) methods of tea processing it has practised since the colonial era.
The Kolukkumalai tea estate was started in the early 1900s by a Scottish planter. Little has changed here since the colonial planters left. There are no modern machines or computerised systems, and many of the really old machines proudly display the labels of their English manufacturers and time stamps that date back to the 1940s.
At the small tea factory, hand-picked leaves are still rolled, cooled, fermented, dried and then hand-packaged for distribution.
The tea grown on the slopes of Kolikkumalai is special and much sought after for its distinctive flavour and aroma. The reason for this is that the quality of tea improves with altitude. Also, the orthodox process of manufacture (different from the CTC or crush-tear-curl method used in modern tea production) helps the tea to retain all its flavour.
For its excellent quality of tea, Kolukkumalai Tea Estate, managed by the Kottagudi Plantations, has been awarded the Golden Leaf Award by the Tea Boards of India and USA.
Other than the obvious desire to produce organic handmade tea for a global market, there is another reason why the estate hasn’t attempted to bring in new equipment over the years. The original equipment was hauled up the steep mountain track by hundreds of men for several days. Since the unpaved track leading up to Kolukkumalai is still not large enough for a truck, the estate makes do with its colonial-era equipment.
A two-storey building with rickety wooden interiors, the tea factory oozes old world charm. Buy a ticket to get a factory worker to give you a guided tour of the steps involved in the interesting process of orthodox tea making. Don’t forget to try out different varieties of tea, especially the Broken Orange Pekoe and the Flowery Orange Pekoe, and buy your favourite ones from the factory outlet.
After the factory tour, you may want to go for a brisk invigorating walk around the verdant garden tea estates.
Colourfully attired women, carrying baskets full of tea leaves and gossiping among themselves, will walk by as you tour the estate. Each of these women collects almost 30 kgs of leaves a day. For most of them, working at the plantation offers opportunities they wouldn’t have back in their villages – a salary, healthcare, schooling for children, and accommodation for their families.
The houses of the estate employees nestle among the undulating tea gardens, encircled by high altitude shola forests and the majestic mountains of Munnar. Each building houses multiple families, with communal facilities, such as laundry lines, located outside.
After your stroll through the tea gardens, pack a picnic lunch and head to a nearby viewpoint that offers a panoramic view of the beautiful Anayirangal dam (the name literally means ‘where the elephants come to play’). Watch the water glisten in the sun as you munch on your picnic lunch.
Another way to enjoy the breathtaking terrain of the region is by joining the tricky but terrific Meeshapulimalai trek. At a height of 2,640 metres, the Meeshapulimalai Peak offers a spectacular view of misty blue black hills fading into the distance.
There is also a permanent camp site on the slopes of Meeshapulimalai, Camp Footprint, for those inclined towards spending the night outdoors.
Interestingly, while the estate lies in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu, it can be approached only by travelling through Kerala’s Idukki district.
Accessible only by jeep, it requires a drive through the town of Suryanelli and tea plantations owned by Harrisons Malayalam Ltd onto a narrow, serpentine, and rocky dirt path leading up to Kolukkumalai tea estate.
An amazing out-of-the-way destination for nature and adventure lovers, Kolukkumalai also offers up a little slice of the past in the form of its historic tea estate. Kolukkumalai is indeed a place where ‘untouched’ is still a reality.