I can't really tell why, but I am enormously attracted by tea plantations. Just a few weeks ago I spent some time strolling around the gorgeous Cameron Highlands and when I heard about the Sabah Tea Garden, I knew I had to go. The Tea Garden is more or less right behind Mount Kinabalu and not only Borneo's biggest tea production, but one of the only organic plantations in the world. Thumbs up, I am hitchhiking again. Next stop: Sabah Tea Garden!
Over and over again I am surprised how easy it is to get around Borneo by hitchhiking. After two nights at the Poring Hot Springs I set off for the Sabah Tea Garden by foot. Within half an hour I was picked up by a young couple and was on my way to Ranau. After a short drive and a nice chat I was dropped off, save and happy. Minutes later I found a bus driver who felt pity for me and took me the remaining distance to the access road towards the plantation. Even now, walking up the hill, I was offered a ride by one of Tea Garden's employees. It turned out he not only saved me from an exhausting walk, but offered to give me a tour around the plantation the next day. I was told that the Sabah Tea Garden had a campsite where I could pitch up my tent. I was tempted to stay the night in one of the traditional long houses but in the end decided to save the money.
According to my experience camping is not very popular in Borneo and I don't really know why?! Once I made it to the main office of Sabah Tea Garden I actually found a little handout advertising the campsite. But when I asked the lady to check in, she tried really hard to talk me out of camping. I just had a very similar experience at the Poring Hot Springs were I ended up setting up my tent at a random hill. This time I was assigned a little green spot right in front of the traditional long houses and was told to use the long house's facilities. It felt a little strange to pitch up my tent right in front of the other accommodations but as it turned out, I was the only guest at the whole plantation.
Beeing the only guest I could pretty much do whatever I wanted to. The first thing I did was to check out the traditional long houses. It's a wooden structure raised off the ground on stilts to protect from floods during heavy rain, something I would have to encounter on my own later into the day. The single room building is divided into several private rooms on one side and a narrow public space on the other side. Usually each room is inhabited by one family and the public space is used to host guests and spent time together.
Weather was not looking to promising that day. It was still hot but I could already tell some heavy rain clouds on the horizon when I left the long houses for a hike around the Sabah Tea Garden. It's a pretty big plantation and I was told to be carful to not get lost.
Since most of the tea picking is done in the early morning hours I did not come across a single person. I walked for about two hours when I decided it was time to turn around and head back to my tent. The tea plantations at Sabah Tea Garden differs quite a bit from the once I had seen in the Cameron Highlands. It's much more natural with less monocultures. Somehow you can tell it's organic.
On my way back I came across a little shelter. To my surprise the tree next to it turned out to be a pomelo tree, the first one I have ever seen in my life. Ever since our various stays in Singapore I am a big fan of this particular fruit and did not get around climbing the tree to pick a pomelo. I hope I did not steal from some employee's secret stock and if so, and in case you read this, I am very sorry. Drop me a note and I will make up for it.
Here it is: my first handpicked pomelo! As much as I enjoy planting and growing fruits and veggies, I really love harvesting and eating them. It's such a good feeling to eat something straight out of mother nature's arms. To my defense, I know I did not contributed anything to the time and effort it took to grow this beauty, but at least I climbed the tree and know to truthfully appreciate the treat I was given.
Like mentioned before I would soon encounter why long houses are built on stilts. You can't really call it a surprise, but I was somewhat speechless by the amount of water that hit me down the road. I could have stayed at the shelter but thought I might just make it home in time. Well, I did not. Instead I had a serious problem to keep my camera dry. It was warm, so I was not to much concerned about myself, but I had to find a place to shelter my digital companion from the heavy rain. I ended up climbing under the perforated roof of a long abandoned wooden barrack. I found a little corner, big enough to protect my camera and nothing more. The rain lasted for more than an hour, enough time to pleasurably eat my pomelo.
The next morning I woke up to gorgeous weather. Sitting in the heavy rain the day before I was a little concerned about my tent, but it took the beating without any harm. The night was great. I had a few animals getting close to my tent, nothing I am not already used to. I had breakfast at the little restaurant with an impressive look at Mount Kinabalu and caught up with the employee I met the day before to take a tour around the plantation.
The Sabah Tea Garden is proud to be an organic plantation. This is not only restricted to the way the plants are grown, but further more to the whole process of production. Here are the two major things I learned that day. First, green tea and black tea are actually made from the same plant. Green tea is more or less natural while black tea undergoes a heat treatment called fermentation. Second, you can tell natural tea from tea that has been treated with additives by poring the tea into warm water. If you see little brown streak running down the glass like in the picture, the tea has been treated with additives.
Natural tea instead will slowly turn the whole water brown. I was surprised how uniform the staining takes place. The day before I had seen a fair bit of the plantation and it looked pretty organic to me. Today I walked down the whole production process, from the fresh harvested leaves to the packaging of the final product. I can tell, it's a pretty low-tech procedure without any chemical treatments. With such a pure product I bought myself a good stock of black tea before I left the factory.
It was time to leave, not only the Sabah Tea Garden, but Mount Kinabalu. For days this gorgeous mountain had overshadowed all my actions. Be it climbing the mountain and hiking in the surrounding jungle, relaxing in the Poring Hot Spring or exploring the tea plantation. Now it was time to say goodbye. I celebrated the moment with a last cup of fresh tea at the picturesque restaurant, overlooking Mount Kinabalu, saying farewell to my new friends and leaving by foot to hitch another ride, heading further east.