As I got off the bus at Dambatenne, I got a warning. ‘Careful’, the driver said, ‘yesterday two person die.’
‘Yes,’ he said, indicating lightning with his hands and pointing up the hill, ‘Big storm. Two are die.’
It’s true that the previous afternoon there had been a big storm in the area. I’d seen the rain coming, rushed back from the cemetery I was visiting to the shelter of my hotel’s balcony, and spent the next couple of hours watching the lightning.
I looked at the driver, at the endless blue sky without a cloud in sight, and said yes. I’d be careful.
I love tea, so of course when I was in Sri Lanka I was going to walk up to Lipton’s Seat, where Sir Thomas Lipton used to sit and look out over his empire.
Back in 1890 Sir Lipton saw an opportunity to bring tea to the masses, to change it from a drink that only the elite could afford to one that even the poorest folk would be able to enjoy on a daily basis.
So he bought miles upon miles of tea plantations in Sri Lanka, cut out the middlemen, and shipped it all back to the UK, selling huge quantities of it for a fraction of the price it had been. And the people loved it.
Now everywhere you go in the Sri Lankan highlands there are tea plantations: endless shining rows of leafy bushes in the brightest and deepest shades of green you can imagine.
And Lipton tea is worldwide. It’s the tea I bought by the large boxful in Hanoi for my everyday consumption. I had a box in my desk drawer at work and consumed at least 2 cups each day, often more. I am grateful to Sir Thomas, for making tea accessible to me.
Lipton’s Seat is not hard to get to. An hour’s bus ride from Haputale takes you to the Dambatenne tea factory, which can be visited but unfortunately was closed on the day I went.
From there it’s a 7km walk up to the top, between rows and rows of gleaming tea plants.
I strolled through a small village and then the road started to climb, a long, slow zig zag up the hill. As I walked at least two more people and a policeman stopped their vehicles to warn me of the danger. Each time I nodded in agreement. Yes, I’d be careful. There was still no sign of any clouds.
Eventually I crested the hill and entered a small valley, which the road wound through and then up some more. In the valley there were more houses, and entire families were emerging from these to also make the walk up to Lipton’s Seat.
Was the crowd due to the storm the day before? Did they want to see the damage, or were they curious to see where and how the people had died? Or was it just that it was a Sunday, and this was a regular day-off activity? I never found out.
At the top the view was spectacular. Or, it would have been, had it not been such a hazy day. Lipton’s Seat is perched on the edge of a huge cliff, with views all around, and on a clear day you can see the sea. But it’s known for having mist that moves in late morning and stays all day, so go early!
Having never been there before I couldn’t easily see any storm damage, but some people pointed out a broken post on a small shelter that was there. I never found out how the people had died. Were they struck by lightning? Or was the wind too great and they simply got blown off the cliff?
My camera made me a minor celebrity. I took numerous photos which I was only sometimes required to actually be in. People just wanted to see themselves on the screen.
The locals were very relaxed and happy, and curious about me. As I wandered back down I made friendly ‘conversation’ and had a few laughs with some of them.
The family groups had splintered off into groups of happily chattering women, groups of men who were probably discussing cricket, and children running ahead and through the rows of tea, playing and looking for insects and other curiosities among the tea leaves.
And wouldn’t you know, by the time I was halfway down there were actually clouds moving in, and by later that afternoon another storm had arrived. I guess all those people warning me knew what they were talking about!
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