11 Mar 2015


Carl Pendle visits Sri Lanka to investigate their new resource - elephant dung. He also drank a lot of tea, but not while knee deep in elephant dung.

Up until my recent visit to Sri Lanka I’ve never given much thought about tea. What I like is that you basically just drink it, then you make another one. You don’t froth it, throw whipped cream on the top, mix it with crushed ice, stick cinnamon sticks into it or pay over $300 a cup for it like you would for a luwak coffee whose beans have passed through the digestive tract of a weasel.

Your tea drinker is a charitable, down-to-earth sort who enjoys scratching their bodily parts in public whereas your soyamilk-mocha-strawberry-frappucino drinker tends to have frequent nervous breakdowns.

Why do I mention this? I’ve just returned from a week-long trip to Sri Lanka where I learnt far too much about the tea producing procedure to hold the attention span of your average reader. But don’t worry because soon I want to talk about elephant poo. 

I learnt that tea is a lot like wine but obviously with less grapes. There are, like the wine industry, professional tasters who have a brain full of useless and meaningless adjectives to describe a popular drink. The big difference between tea tasters and the winos is that the tea tasters terms don’t sound like a florist describing the sex life of preserved fruit – “What a wonderful flowery bouquet, with just a hint of crystallized lemons and oranges mating.”

This is a lot different from your professional tea taster who has a pre-approved list of descriptive terms and can’t deviate from this list if ‘snail snot’ is the first thing that pops into their head after tasting a pot of Darjeeling.

I know that many of you don’t believe much of what I write but I can assure you that I’ve seen a tea tasters tea chart while visiting the Pedro Tea Estate in the cool hills of central Sri Lanka and I can faithfully report that ‘cheesy cresty’ is a pre-approved term to describe, no not underpants, but a cup of freshly brewed tea.

For starters, your professional tea taster won’t begin tasting, and again I’m not joking, until they have personally witnessed the ‘Agony of the Leaves’. This is a term tasters use to describe the moment when the leaves are doused in boiling water. You don’t get this with wine. I’m not aware of any ‘Agony of the Grapes’ ceremony where wine tasters gather round to show their last respects for a vat of grapes being crushed to death by a gang of unwashed French farmers.

Once your tea taster has wiped the tears from witnessing the ‘Agony of the Leaves’ they can then begin tasting the tea, all the time appreciating what the leaves have just been through. The taster then moves along the line of cups dipping his soup spoon into a cup, sipping the tea which he then thrashes about in his mouth before gobbing the backwash into something that looks like a wooden milk churn. I watched our guide perform a tea-tasting and I can reveal that it wasn’t pretty or scientific-looking. It invoked a lot of choking and throwing-up memories.

Next comes the moment when the taster describes the tea from his pre-approved list. They could use baggy, brassy, choppy, shotty, grumpy, sleepy, dopey or sneezy. The latter four are of course members of the Seven Dwarfs who also happen to be big tea drinkers.

Once the tea has been tasted it is then graded. One of the top grades is BOP (broken orange pekoe) then it goes down in scale into OF (orange fannings), PD (pekoe dust) and then just D (dust), the lowest grade that is put into tea bags, that’s right, the stuff you drink. Dust makes a good strong cup of tea to mask the flavours of sweet wrappers, rat’s droppings, nasal wastage and anything else that happens to get swept into an empty tea bag. There is another grade of tea you might not have heard of. It’s TWBODBFITB or (tea with bits of digestive biscuit floating in the bottom).

Apart from tea, Sri Lanka is very famous for its elephants. But how did they arrive on this small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean? History can help here. As you know elephants are very good at crossing unsurpassable geographical obstacles. I recall crampon wearing elephants abseiling down the Alps, and now I’m hearing of early elephant explorers in very large boats using jet propelled trunks. Of course I have no idea how elephants arrived in Sri Lanka but I’m thankful that they did because just an hours drive east of Colombo is one of the best animal sanctuaries in the world.

There is nothing fantastically entertaining about the sanctuary. The elephants don’t sit around and tell you jokes. Basically it is a bunch of elephants standing around eating and pooing. But it is this elephant by-product that I want to talk about because some strange human has formed a business empire out of converting elephant poo into recycled paper.

I don’t have the facts behind the evolution of this idea but going from elephant poo to paper must have involved quite a lengthy and creative thought process. It is possible to buy a sample at the ‘Elephant Dung Paper Shop’ near the sanctuary where there is a helpful placard outside telling curious tourists how the paper goes from the elephants bottom, to being collected, boiled, disinfected, pulped and transformed into paper.

Before you go thinking about feeding your dog Post-It notes and taking it for five walks a day - I would say that the elephant paper dung inventor is ahead of you. His paper poo idea is manufactured under Patent No 11440.

Not far away from the elephant sanctuary is a very unique hotel that my girlfriend and I stayed in. It is called the Hill Club in the small village of Nuwara Eliya at 1900 metres above sea level and therefore quite a high dive. This area is often referred to as little England, and it’s not because it looks like the outer London suburbs. The explorer Samuel Baker settled here and got uncontrollably homesick and, like you do, he imported Hereford cows, planted strawberries, leeks, potatoes, built a brewery, country house and even got a horse-drawn carriage to come over complete with its own English blacksmith.

The Hill Club Hotel still lives in that world. To be any more colonial it would have to offer elephant hunting trips with big flared barrel guns where the most useful thing for a dead elephant would be to turns it feet into umbrella stands. Obviously a close relation of the elephant paper dung entrepreneur.
Anyway, at the hotel you’ve your usual pictures of the Queen, Princess Diana and Prince Charles, loads of silver cups, cabinets full of old books and pictures of important members that are now probably dead. On the walls are many heads of stuffed animals who don’t look particularly happy about being there. There’s a cheetah, lion, and, most unusual of all, a water buffalo, two in fact. Now I’m no expert on shooting wild and dangerous animals but every time I’ve seen a water buffalo it never looks very threatening and is knee-deep in mud.

So, I’m happy that hunting is no longer practiced in Sri Lanka and the civil war ceasefire has lasted over a year now. So I can faithfully report that the most dangerous and upsetting thing you are likely to see in this fantastic country is the ‘Agony of the Leaves’ ceremony, oh yes, and the local populations driving skills.

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