If Kerala is God’s Country, Kolukkumalai is heaven.
Climbing down Meesapulimala, the second highest peak of the Western Ghats, the mist began to clear. Below me, hanging on to the mountain side, fields of brilliant greens sprawled in intricate patterns almost too symmetrical to be real. Walking into the plantation itself, women walked by with bags full of tea leaves gossiping to themselves, handkerchiefs tied around their heads to protect them from the intense sun exposure one endures at 7,900 ft. above sea level. A cool, mountain breeze blew past as I relished in the views of the Tamil Nadu plains and surrounding hilly landscape. Eight hours of trekking; heavy breathing, red face, doubting thoughts, and surreal accomplishment- I had finally made it to Kolukkumalai, the highest tea plantation in the world.
Background- Kolukkumalai Tea Estate
The history of Kolukkumalai is patchy at best, at least in English. The estate was built somewhere around the 1930’s, possibly by a Scottish planter. While the original colonial owners are long gone, their legacy has been frozen in time. In the factory, workers use the same equipment that was brought up from England in between the 30’s and 50’s. I didn’t see one piece of modern machinery, but tea afficionados claim that the organic tea produced at Kolukkumalai the ‘old-fashioned’ way is incomparable to the tea which is mass-produced in most factories.
Most of the plantation workers have been brought over from the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. The plantations offer a small salary, healthcare, schooling for children, and accommodation. While the standards of living and work conditions may seem shocking to Western visitors, for many working the fields the plantation life offers their families opportunities that they couldn’t have back home.
Locals say that the name ‘Kolukkumalai’ comes from the Tamil words ‘kaluku’ (eagle) and ‘malai’ (mountain).
Touring the Kolukkumalai Factory
After a thirty minute walk from highest point of the estate, we arrived at the small factory where the hand-picked leaves are rolled, cooled, fermented, dried and then hand-packaged one by one for distribution. There are no computers, no digital systems on the machinery, and many of the machines still proudly display their labels from English manufacturers with time stamps in the 40’s and 50’s.
I asked my guide why the estate hasn’t attempted to bring in new equipment over the years. (Granted, this would ruin much of the appeal, but it would surely make the lives of the factory workers easier.) I was told that the original equipment was brought up using man power, hundreds of men pushing the equipment and supplies up over a kind of log track. It took a very long time, and was extremely labor intensive and dangerous. The one road leading up to Kolukkumalai is not large enough for a truck and isn’t paved, and the old way of getting it done no longer seems like a plausible option. So, they make do.
After purchasing your admission ticket into the factory, you are able to walk around alone on the top floor. The old wooden building is charming, but it also needs a lot of work; the floor upstairs looked unstable to walk on in areas. You are then lead by a factory worker into the different rooms of the factory, each dedicated to a different step in the process. The factory is very small, so you can expect the factory tour to take no more than 30 minutes of your time.
When you are finished you are released outside, where you have permission to walk around the tea fields. Trust me, this is all you will be wanting to do anyway. It doesn’t matter where you are, the views are spectacular.
The world’s highest tea estate may also be the hardest to reach. You have two options: walk over the mountain as I did or hire a 4×4 jeep with a company in Munnar. You can expect the former to eat up a good 6 hours of your time minimum and the latter to cost you around 1500-3000 rupees each way. (Approximately $25/£15- $50/£30)
We hired a jeep for the return trip, and let me tell you it was an adventure I wasn’t expecting. It was also one of my favorite experiences in all my time in India. The road going down the mountainside is the only way to or from Kolukkumalai, but it is a road only in name. Huge boulders, very steep shoulders, and a winding path make this a drive for only the very adventurous. Our driver was a Tamil boy, who looked like he was 12 but was apparently 19. Every time he needed to back up in order to get around a turn, we all stopped breathing. Driving off this road is surely a death sentence, but with my adrenaline high, the sounds of the radio booming through the misty plantations around us, and an uncontrollable laughter- I had the time of my life.
Please, please, please. If you have limited time in Munnar, make a trip to Kolukkumalai. I promise it will be one of your most memorable days in India.
This video is bumpy, chaotic, and my favorite ever. The music was not added, it was what was playing on the jeep radio by our lovely driver. Although it may be shaky, it gives you a very real idea of what a drive to or from Kolukkumalai is like. Enjoy 🙂
With the incredible views, an amazing opportunity to observe plantation life, and a factory tour that feels like you have gone back in time- Kolukkumalai Tea Estate is easily one of the most incredible places I have visited in the world. Because of its location, the estate is not touristy in the slightest. Do yourself a favor and visit a place where ‘untouched’ is still a reality.