When I reach Galaha in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, the sun is high in the sky and the streets are clouded with dust. Tuk-tuks rattle around women in red saris flecked with gold, narrowly missing the one-eyed dog sleeping in the road. Amid the honking and coconut selling, I hear a familiar sound — Beethoven’s Für Elise — moving closer, crackling from a tuk-tuk selling fish buns, and bringing with it the smell of freshly baked bread.
This is where, 12 miles south of Kandy, my journey along the new Pekoe Trail — Sri Lanka’s first long-distance hiking route — begins. Its name refers to the high-grade black tea made from young leaves — a speciality of the country’s central highlands. Spanning 185 miles from Kandy in central Sri Lanka to Nuwara Eliya in the heart of the hill country, it links, with US and EU funding, an existing network of footpaths created when the British established a tea-growing industry here during colonial rule in the 19th century.
At that time thousands of stone and dirt roads were cut into the forest to transport plantation workers and cargo between tea fields, factories and the newly built railway line, so that hardwood boxes branded ‘Ceylon Tea’ could travel to Colombo’s harbour for export to Britain. It’s hoped that the new trail, which passes through dozens of remote villages and tea estates, will encourage visitors away from the country’s well-trodden Cultural Triangle and into Sri Lanka’s less-visited interior. Many of its 22 stages are now open, with the remaining ones due to follow by December.
Rather than completing the route in its entirety, my plan is to experience it in manageable sections. My guide, Ramli Raban, and I are first headed nine miles southeast to Loolecondera, where the Scottish tea planter James Taylor established Sri Lanka’s first tea estate, via the market town of Deltota. Passing a Hindu temple painted in pastel yellows and blues, we swap Galaha’s tarmacked road for a dirt track lined with pepper plants and papaya trees.
The footpath crosses the Deltotte Tea Estate, where rows of parakeet-green tea bushes — each exactly a metre apart and pruned to waist height — carpet the undulating hills. When we arrive, women are walking silently between the bushes, plucking young tea buds at lightning speed and depositing them into tarpaulin sacks. We accompany them to a weighing station, a wooden shelter where their sacks are hung from hooks to assess their morning’s work. A man in knee-high socks and side-slicked hair — the assistant superintendent, Ramli tells me — scribbles the weight of the bags in his notepad. The quota for the day is 20kg per picker, says Ramli, which will earn the women around 600 Sri Lankan Rupees — or around £1.50.
“Many of my school friends work on these tea estates,” says Ramli, who grew up in the highland capital Kandy, which was Sri Lanka’s last independent kingdom before the British took control in 1815. “It’s a hard life. The day starts at 5am and you have to walk long distances to pick leaves — we’re talking 10 miles before breakfast.”
Ramli explains how years ago he trained as a chef, and later achieved his dream of opening a burger restaurant in Colombo, but the city’s Easter bombings forced him to close his business in the capital and return to Kandy in 2019. “Three of my friends died,” says Ramli, as we climb through a field of pine trees, golden sap seeping from their blackened bark. “I was in Colombo when it happened. It was terrifying. Then Covid hit, followed by food and fuel shortages. So I decided to start afresh and train as a guide.”
Becoming a guide when Sri Lanka had already lost the majority of its tourists seems like a risky career move, I say. As we cross into the Loolecondera tea estate, Ramli tells me he’s only guided a handful of guests all year, but he’s hopeful things will change.
"No matter how hard the situation gets, tourism will bounce back. And when it does, I want to show people the real Sri Lanka" he says. “With the Pekoe Trail, you see Sri Lanka on a grassroots level. This isn’t like the tour buses — there’s no script for me to follow.”
Over the next two nights I base myself in the village of Ambadandegama — four hours’ drive south of Loolecondera near Ella — from where I plan to hike a further section of the Pekoe Trail. I’m staying at Amba Estate, an organic farm and guest house that’s producing hand-rolled teas for restaurants such as Copenhagen’s Noma.
“We don’t use terms like ‘tea plucker’ or ‘superintendent’ here,” says Neethanjana Senadheera, Amba Estate’s production manager and tea taster. Born and raised in Ambadandegama, Neethanjana joined Amba Estate after writing his master’s thesis on Sri Lanka’s tea industry. “It’s colonial language,” he says. “At Amba, pluckers are tea artisans, and we call each other brother and sister.”
Focusing on small-scale, high-quality production, Amba pays its tea artisans up to six times more than the average tea plantation. Whereas a tea plucker’s working day usually ends at the weighing station, Amba’s staff are involved in the process from plant to cup, from drying and rolling to tasting and packaging.
“Some tea estates in Sri Lanka are still being run like colonial plantations,” says Neethanjana as we enter Amba’s small production room, where leaves dry on wooden racks and women hand-roll tea in muslin cloths. “Tea workers are treated as the lowest of society in Sri Lanka. But at Amba, there’s pride in making Sri Lankan tea.”
The next morning I meet guide Thilantha Abeysinghe. We plan to spend two days travelling through hill country from Lipton’s Seat viewpoint — where Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton is said to have kept an eye over his empire — to Demodara train station.
The views are mesmerising. The morning mist clings to layers of forested hills. Below me, the tea fields are a sea of electric green, but in a valley to my right is a patch of virgin forest bursting with pockets of orange, yellow and red. We pass Hindu shrines and Buddhist temples draped in colourful silks. All around, the air ripples with the song of flycatchers; a serpent eagle perches on a nearby eucalyptus tree.
“Many Sri Lankans take these landscapes for granted,” says Thilantha, who’s a former banker and chef. “Those with enough money to go on holiday go to the beach resorts. They don’t walk these trails — they think walking is something you do out of necessity.”
He explains that while the trail seems to be popular with foreign visitors, its impact could stretch further: “On the Pekoe Trail, you’re given the chance to understand people who live and look differently to you. That’s important not just for tourists, but for Sri Lankans, too.”
Under the shade of an empty tea-weighing station, he magics up two china cups and a flask of hot ginger tea from his backpack. Coconut sambal and still-warm chapatis appear next, served on a palm leaf. As I take my first bite, the winds carry a hollow rumble to our ears from the valley floor. It’s the Muslim call to prayer, Thilantha tells me, mixing with Hindu drums, Christian bells and Buddhist chanting. Even this far from any town or city, there’s a lot to learn about Sri Lanka’s cultural identity.
“We’ll spend many more hours together,” says Thilantha. He’s packing up the tea and sambal ready to walk again. “We started not knowing each other, but by the time we finish the trail, we’ll be good friends. You’ll see.”