The Other Mauritius – The making of the tea

Tea plantations sprawl across these southern uplands.  It was several years before I finally got to visit the most touristic and famous, the Bois Cheri, but it was like going back to childhood.  I picked up a friend of mine from Vacoas, Clarel, and he first took me to another of the restored plantation houses at the top of the hill above Curepipe, the Domaine des Aubineaux.  But when I got to the tea factory, I was in seventh heaven.  The only other tea factory I had visited had been in the hill country of Sri Lanka, and the machinery was silent as we went through.  Here everything was working.

An enthusiastic guide took us on the grand tour. It was more than just a tour, it was a detailed explanation of the whole process.  We entered the factory next to a raised concrete platform. Trucks would come in from the field loaded with sacks filled to the brim with the green leaf tips.  They were hooked up to an overhead conveyor and transported inside where they were offloaded and initially sieved.  They were washed and pushed through an initial roller.  The machinery was painted in bright colours – the outside yellow, the components red.  It was obviously a warning system from “please do not touch this” to “your arm is going to get chopped off if you go near this”.  However this was the only health and safety we saw on the whole tour.  We were invited by the guide to pick up the tea leaves from conveyer belts, to rub them between our fingers inches away from rollers.   Inspectors in Europe would have had a field day and closed the factory down in a day, but I was so grateful to be allowed up close to this.  I could not stop grinning and Clarel looked at me despairingly.

I could not quite explain the thrill, but this was no museum, no set of interpretation boards or badly scripted videos telling you about things.  This was the thing itself, the process of making the cup of tea you had every day.

Between each machine, the tea on the conveyor would look just that little bit different.  First it was chopped finely, then it was made drier in huge heaters, then the darkened fragments were flattened by rollers.  They were graded by size and quality into different streams and finally bagged up into large sacks for the ultimate stage of packaging.

The packaging shed was the strangest place of all.  So much of the process to date had been automated.  But the act of putting the right amount of tea in little see through plastic bags and boxing them up was still done by a small group of ladies sitting round a table.  That was not strictly true; a machine was tipping out an amount into one branded set of bags but the ladies were the ones bagging and sealing.

There was the most curious machine operating in the centre of the room that looked like it could have been designed by Heath Robinson.  Loose tea was placed in a large silver cone.  It appeared to drop down onto some paper, which was gently being released from a large roll to one side.  Our guide invited us to inspect more closely and we could see that it was in fact two long sheets of paper coming off the same roll (almost like toilet paper) and the tea was being carefully measured in between them.  Hidden away in a box two sheets were periodically stitched and sliced off to form the tea bags.  But this was not the end.  From another roll above the machine came a long strip of paper containing purple stickers.  These were fed into a series of rollers and somehow became separated from the paper.  They were rotated around a wheel and had been stuck around a piece of string.  This string was then affixed the tea bags rotating in from the other direction, and the resulting construct of tea, bag, string and label were rotated around once more before dropping in to a container at the foot of the machine.  The classic dunking one cup tea bag lives!

Our tour completed we were invited up to the Bois Cheri restaurant and shop.  Of course the tour is less education, more a temptation to make you buy something.  But I was OK for that.  Bois Cheri is not the best tea in the world.  In fact I found the tea leaves a bit too powdery, but it was good to have a useful souvenir of my time in Mauritius.  The restaurant is a fairly recent addition to the estate, constructed overlooking Bois Cheri’s own crater lake, perched between it and a superb outlook of the southern plains.  It sits below the largest massif on the whole island that covers the far south west and from its location you could see most of the central plains as far as Pieter Both in the north.

The Other Mauritius – Where few tourists ever go

Mauritius is known from the outside for its tourist resorts and beaches; nationally it is inextricably linked with sugar, but it does get a bit sickly after a while.  I craved a different scenery.  To the south of Moka, I eventually found this.  Instead of taking the main motorway south from Curepipe I would head off from Valetta on a quiet back road.  I remember the cross roads where I would turn off well ,it was in amongst a small wooded grove.  As soon as you left the main road you could see an industrial complex on the right.  It was quite modern.  Indeed I had seen several of these dotted around the island.  It was an attempt in the 1960s to diversify Mauritius’ dependency on the sugar.  Incentives were given to build garment factories and women, yes it was mainly women, were encouraged to sit at row after row of sewing machines and looms.  It was all quite modern for the time, but as usual with small islands, they were eventually undercut by much larger factories in south and south east Asia.  Now only a few remain, and the rest are industrial relics, albeit more modern than the old sugar factories.

The scenery changes to the south into a scrubby woodland.  I realised this was not the natural vegetation but a sprawling regrowth over what had once been tea plantation.  I could spy the odd tea plant sitting in amongst the weeds.  As I went further south,  I saw active tea plantations.  There were always people in these fields as I went by, tending carefully to the small dark green trees, or weeding in amongst them, or occasionally I would see the ladies with baskets on their backs nipping the new tips off and tossing them behind them.

I passed through this area a few times, but once I noted from my map that in amongst the plantation was a small village called Dubreil.  Curiosity got the better of me once and I turned off.  I was always a little cautious about heading off the main roads; for one thing the maps never made it quite clear whether these were public roads.  But I passed by a lot of people walking the road in their different colour overalls.  I entered this rather drab little village; I think again the drabness was more the constant battle against the cool moist air in these upland areas than the motivation of the locals.  But this village had a quietness that most of Mauritius lacked.  People were going about their business but there were few bright colours in their clothes, the children were not playing around in the streets and there was a distinct lack of vendors on the main road.  I realised this was really a corporate village.  The houses all looked similar; many detached with their own gardens but all so similar and plain that it was like all life and individuality had been sucked out of them.

The village was set behind the offices and complex of the tea factory; whose gardens were the best tended and most colourful around.  The village was there to house just the people who worked in the fields or the factory.  Who would live at the end of this cul de sac, miles from the nearest town with nothing more than tea plants to look at.  I felt uneasy and quite melancholic to spend any more time there so turned the car straight around and headed back.