Tea Break

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Tea Break

By Catherine Quinn

It’s an odd take on the usual morning cuppa. But I am surrounded by tea. Lots and lots of tea, stretching in soft green waves towards the very edge of the horizon. In front of me my guide Joel rapidly fills his out-size basket, whilst trailing behind I do my best to imitate. Luckily for me this is a temporary excursion. Whilst Joel snatches up leaf after leaf in a rapid double-handed cull I’m still trying to work out which part of the plant can be gainfully added to the basket. But despite being laden-down and set to work I am actually enjoying myself. In amongst the lush rows there is a sort of serenity unique to Africa.

For many travellers, Kenya operates as a sort of continent in microcosm. Traversable in hours rather than days, this is a country of rolling desert planes, lush valleys, and zebras just about everywhere. It’s also an area replete with national resources. Whilst most visitors fly in, spot wildlife from a jeep, and fly out again, other parts of the country quietly manage some of the world’s largest coffee and tea exports.

And it’s the latter exports which make the small town of Kericho worth a diversion from the well-trodden safari routes. Whilst classic African scenery might not conjure up images of tea, this enormous expanse of plantations stretches for some sixty-kilometres across Kenyan soil. What’s more, the town is on the Moi Highway which slices east to west of the country, constituting the only sizeable portion of decent road. It’s easily reachable direct from Nairobi by public bus, which is a five hour trip through some of the country’s best scenery, for the princely sum of £3.60.

Kericho has been slow to capitalise on the tourist appeal of its beautiful tea plantations, which have been in abundance since the 1930s. During the 1950s, the legendary Tea Hotel was built in the town by Brooke Bond as a kind of colonial club-house for expat executives ensconced in Kenya. Some years later the hotel was bought privately by locals, who now run it as a luxury accommodation service for guests. The main lure is the scenery, which sits lush and green on every side of the hotel, thick with native birds and monkeys. Due to its fifty’s heritage, the accommodation has a rather charming public school feel about it, and a certain well-worn air of post-war Britain. But it also offers activities for modern tourists, including nature walks, and a tour of the local tea plantations.

The tea here is farmed by PG Tips, who launched as Brooke Bond’s signature brand in the 1930s. And for a few pounds the Tea Hotel can arrange for visitors to don the heavy tabard of the local workers and get stuck in amongst the tea leaves. I was fortunate enough to arrive to bright skies and clement weather. Kericho is cooler than the rest of the country, and even in high summer temperatures rarely rise above 288?C. In recompense for the haven of cool conditions, however, the high altitudes do attract almost daily showers – ideal for tea, but admittedly less so for tourists.

The first thing I discovered about tea picking is that the advertising spiel is true – it really is just the tips which are selected for. Not just the tips in fact, but the soft duel leaf and bud arrangement newly sprouted at the top of the bush. Anything else is dismissed as tough or inadequate, making picking work a combination of speed and accuracy. I also learned that there are many ways to pick tea, of which my single-handed technique was the least effective. Fully-trained pickers can deliver their own body-weight in tea on a good day, and can expect to pull in ten kilos of leaves in around an hour. That’s a lot of tea. In comparison, loading my sack was an agonisingly slow process. But it’s soothing work, waist deep in the plantation, with swathes of tea panning-out endlessly into the distance. The plants are also mercifully free of pesticide coatings, which means that picking can take place without protective gloves. Rather remarkably this area of the country lends fosters no natural pests which prey on tea. Instead the plants grow happily unchecked by hungry insects or chemical sprays.

Tea production employs 20,000 pickers in Kericho, most of which also take accommodation provided on-site. The drink itself is also integral to the culture of the workforce, who run tea-shops and tea-rooms across the complex. The branded tea-bags which arrive in UK supermarkets are not available in Kenya. Instead, workers buy tea direct from the plantations, and package it to sell locally in jaunty yellow bags.

In fact the humble cuppa is somewhat evangelicalised in the area, as a cure for all kinds of physical ailments, as well as a general pick-me-up. The broad-leafed Assam tea grown in Kenya holds more health-giving flavanoids than other varieties – an attribute which is currently being recognised as a selling-point in the UK. Flavanoids are associated with a number of benefits from cancer reduction to heart-health, and a quick glance at the glowing skin of the workforce here seems to prove the theory. Although the exhilaration of heaving ten kilo sacks of tea to be weighed might also play a part. After an hour in the fields I’ve managed a rather paltry two-kilos, although Joel assures me that my technique will improve. As we speed away through the tea-bushes I notice I have developed a kind of leaf-tip myopia – I now see the lighter coloured parts of the plant which are good for adding to the sack.

If tea-picking seems a little like heavy labour, then there are more relaxing ways to enjoy the prime industry of this African town. Rather fittingly, PG Tips also runs a sanctuary which protects endangered species of monkey. Tourists interested in paying a visit need to make a special request for a visit, but as entry is free, it’s well worth the extra effort. Inside various troops of monkeys scamper around man-made pathways and bridges, bordered by a dramatic fast-flowing river and rapids. Traditional Kenyan style mud-huts offer shelter in case of rain, and effusive staff are on hand to feed the animals and answer questions.

Kericho’s most practical appeal is a simple question of geography. A few hours on good roads makes a world of difference if you’re planning a short trip to Kenya. But it’s also an ideal focal point around which to schedule a range of other activities, including the compulsory Kenyan safari. Particularly recommended is a short stay at Lake Navaisha, which affords a comfortable stop-off between Nairobi and Kericho. Heritage Hotels run stunning lodge accommodation here, set into the side of the Great Rift Valley. It’s a great place to enjoy international luxury against a breathtaking African panoramic before setting off a little deeper into the wilds of the countryside. The Great Rift Valley Lodge can arrange short excursions into the surrounding valley, including trips to the rather incredible natural saunas which dot the area, which is set on volcanic terrain. And if you fly into Nairobi, Heritage can arrange transfers direct to Lake Naivasha, saving you the headache of negotiating Kenyan transport with jet-lag.

With or without a stop-off, endless cups of fresh tea make a welcome pick-me-up on arrival in Kericho. Teaming African colour with colonial grandeur makes for well-balanced blend in a community where it’s always tea-time.

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Also in this issue:

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  • GlobeSwotter - Venice
  • Streetlife - Khao San Road – Bangkok
  • Upgrade - Great gadgets
  • Do what we did

    The Tea Hotel, Kericho

    Double rooms from £18 per night including breakfast, tea plantation tours from £4.

    teahotel@africaonline.co.ke

    Chebown Monkey Sanctuary, Kericho

    Prices on application

    regina.kibwana@unilever.com

    Great Rift Valley Lodge and Golf Resort

    Double room - £232 per room per night on a full board basis. Transfer cost £80 per eight-person car.

    www.heritage-eastafrica.com

    Caffeine Rush

    It’s not just tea for which Africa is justly famous. Coffee and chocolate are also major exports, and in fact more coffee bushes and cocoa pods are grown here than in any other part of the world. In Kenya the verdant soil and areas of altitude means that the land is particularly well suited to cultivating quality coffee, and exports from this region are admired by gourmands throughout the industry. The country has also cultivated a world-class grading system for its coffee which has been adopted by several other major exporters.

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