Just my cup of tea

A nos­tal­gic stay in Sri Lanka’s high coun­try

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - KEN­DALL HILL

The first time I went to Ha­putale was to chal­lenge Mrs Quee­nie Daniel to a game of Scrabble. Mrs Daniel was renowned through­out Sri Lanka’s tea coun­try as a for­mi­da­ble (if not en­tirely scrupu­lous) board game player.

But when I checked into Hy­acinth Cot­tage, her quaint B&B, Mrs Daniel was off vis­it­ing rel­a­tives in Kandy. Her son greeted me in­stead. He did not play Scrabble but he did broil me buf­falo hearts for din­ner, a meal as aw­ful and un­for­get­table as it sounds. De­spite these set­backs, I was swiftly smit­ten with Ha­putale. The French have a say­ing, coup de coeur — a blow to the heart, a crush — to de­scribe pow­er­ful life ex­pe­ri­ences that leave you speech­less. That’s how I felt about this scrappy town cling­ing to an es­carp­ment high in the sky, the earth fall­ing away on all sides to rolling hills and emer­ald plains ex­tend­ing to infinity. That was al­most 20 years ago. I hadn’t been back to Sri Lanka since but late last year got the chance to re­turn and my travel agent, In­dia Un­bound, asked was there any­where spe­cial I would like to see. So I said, Ha­putale.

Few tourists go to Ha­putale. That’s a great part of its ap­peal. The trav­ellers crowd­ing the toy-like train that snakes its way from Colombo up into the is­land’s misty high coun­try mostly dis­em­bark at Nuwara Eliya, a pretty town over­run with back­pack­ers. I am the only tourist who gets off at Ha­putale. Driver Hassan Mo­hammed meets me at the sta­tion to take me to Tho­ta­la­gala, a for­mer tea planter’s bun­ga­low re­opened as a seven-room ho­tel on Christ­mas Eve, 2015. Mo­hammed has worked for the ho­tel for nine months but is as wide-eyed as I am at the scenery along Dam­bat­enne Road.

Clouds and mist ap­pear then van­ish like a magic trick that never tires, re­veal­ing hill­sides sculpted into Seussian shapes: feath­ery mara trees, top­i­ary tea hedges and pol­larded Truf­fala trees (not their real name, ob­vi­ously). The moun­tain range forms a vast nat­u­ral am­phithe­atre that peaks at Lip­ton’s Seat, some 450m above us (we’re cur­rently at 1430m) and de­clines all the way to the coast. On a clear night you can see the flash of Ham­ban­tota light­house, al­most 150km dis­tant.

Mo­hammed is from a vil­lage 20km away. As we mo­tor along slowly, swoon­ing at the panora­mas, I ask if his vil­lage is this beau­ti­ful too. “Nooo!” he says. “Ha­putale is one of the best places I ever ...” and his voice trails off be­cause, really, there are no words. Pink cro­cuses bloom on the verges as we de­scend a nar­row road, past the “Sprayers’ Chang­ing and Bathing Cabin”, to an el­e­gant bun­ga­low perched on the es­carp­ment in ex­trav­a­gant gar­dens of African tulips and golden rain trees. Tho­ta­la­gala’s beam­ing as­sis­tant man­ager Deepika Jayawar­dene gath­ers me on the ve­randa and leads me in­side for a cuppa. The tea leaves were grown on this very es­tate, part of the 6000ha Agara­p­atana Plan­ta­tions that in­clude Dam­bat­enne, the tea gar­dens planted by Sir Thomas Lip­ton him­self.

Tho­ta­la­gala’s suites are named for no­table and no­to­ri­ous colo­nial char­ac­ters, from tea en­trepreneur Lip­ton to the abom­inable hunter Ma­jor Rogers, in­fa­mous for slaugh­ter­ing more than 1400 ele­phants be­fore he was struck dead by light­ing in 1845. “They say that light­ning con­tin­ues to strike his grave to­day be­cause na­ture is still an­gry with him,” Deepika nods wisely.

My ju­nior suite, scented warmly with cin­na­mon, is called Ge­orge Pilk­ing­ton after an English­man who came to Ha­putale on horse­back in 1898 with Lip­ton and Thomas Vil­lier and “roamed the cold and dan­ger­ous hills”. A typed note in my room ex­plains the trio was, pre­dictably, en­chanted by the beauty of this coun­try­side. “They ‘felt a whiff of Eng­land and Scot­land in the at­mos­phere’ and en­hanced the beau­ties of na­ture by clear­ing hill slopes to plant tea.”

The gen­er­ous bones of the ho­tel are very much of an era (the bun­ga­low was built a cen­tury ago) but in­te­ri­ors feel brand new. Fur­nish­ings are a mix of smartly re­stored an­tiques and con­tem­po­rary pieces that share the same DNA, so gue­strooms such as mine feel both timely and time­less with an orig­i­nal writ­ing desk and mod­ern chaise and arm­chair in match­ing grey vel­vet. Ceil­ing-to-floor drapes frame French doors lead­ing to a pri­vate ve­randa and the rear gar­den.

I while away hours between the lounge, with its an­cient up­right pi­ano (Deepika ad­vises “some notes are not work­ing”) and tall win­dows on to the as­ton­ish­ing world out­side; the 20-seat din­ing ta­ble where guests feast on freshly baked breads and a cockle-warm­ing curry leaf and lentil soup that I will crave for the rest of my life; and the break­fast ter­race with its cin­e­matic scenery shim­mer­ing and shift­ing in the clouds.

The next morn­ing I feel like I’ve wo­ken in a large fam­ily home, privy to its mun­dane sounds. Curled in bed against the cool dawn I hear the dis­tant hiss of hot wa­ter shoot­ing into a pot and then, min­utes later, the foot­steps of but­ler Man­jula Rath­nayake com­ing down the cor­ri­dor to de­liver my cin­na­mon tea promptly at 6.30am. Propped up in bed I hear sirens ring out over the hills, call­ing the tea pick­ers to work at 7am, and again just be­fore 7.30am.

I have an ap­point­ment at the tea fac­tory too. Mo­hammed and I set off mid-morn­ing down a nar­row road hedged with hi­bis­cus, past a de­liv­ery van bear­ing the wind­screen leg­end “God is Grade”. A road sign de­clares

Tho­ta­la­gala, Ha­putale, top; the bun­ga­low ho­tel’s com­fort­able lounge, above

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