Tea planting and motorcycle mayhem

There is, in my distant past, a three-year period when I worked as a tea planter. The desire to quit was one of the reasons I migrated to Australia. For many years afterwards I couldn’t revisit those times because I couldn’t stop bitter regret from creeping up and plunging me into a deep melancholy state. Now, in my seventieth year, regret no longer thwarts me, and I can return to those days. Here goes.

July 1971 was a bleak time of my life. I had failed to get into university and had no more tries left in me. My brother’s illness and incarceration in a hellhole passing off as a mental institution had heaped shame and stigma and depression on my family, already reeling from the shock of sudden poverty caused by my father’s retirement.

The principal of my school secured an interview for me with George Steuart and Company Limited, one of a few well-known companies that managed tea estates for their owners. Dressed smartly in a crisp, ironed white suit and school tie, I faced a panel of men and impressed them enough to be offered the position of a trainee tea planter. The principal was jubilant. I accepted the offer. How could I not? I needed a job. And I couldn’t let down the principal.

But I was aware of a looming problem. Tea planters rode motorcycles. I couldn’t ride a bicycle. I had a fortnight to do something about it. I could have borrowed a bicycle from a friend, but that would have necessitated an admission that filled me with crippling shame. So, I turned my attention to other things, like borrowing three hundred rupees and using the money to kit myself out in attire that tea planters wore.

On the first of August 1971, Lorensz, a tea planter married to my cousin, drove me to Brownlow Estate, Maskeliya, 140 kilometres from home in Sri Lanka’s high hill country, where I was going to spend six months being trained by the estate manager. Brownlow, lush and green, rolled down from a high forest fringe to the shores of the Mousakellie reservoir, on the other side of which rose mighty Adam’s Peak.

My mind raced back to the moment some twelve years earlier when I first saw Adam’s Peak and an enduring love of hills and mountains was born. My father and I were about to cross the road that ran past his office in the Colombo Fort when he pointed and said ‘Look!’ Set high against the distant sky, the silhouette of a cone poked through clouds and mist and shimmering obscurities caused by distance. I could hardly believe that I was up there now.

From the first morning, when Dickie the manager took me to a recently pruned field to show me some tea pluckers skilfully removing the tips of the new shoots to fashion a uniform flat plucking surface at waist height, I spent almost every working moment in the tea fields learning about leaf quality, pruning, forking, manuring, planting, cutting drains, soil rehabilitation and pest control.

I learned that every tea estate was divided into numbered fields demarcated by paths and drains and the stage of the pruning cycle. Tea bushes were pruned close to the ground every four years to get rid of dead wood, stimulate new growth and force them to grow into bushes with plucking tables at waist height, suppressing their natural inclination to be trees. I became familiar with factory processes that converted fresh tea leaves to desiccated black tea.

I learned about the tea estate community, divided into three socially and economically distinct groups. At the top was the executive, to which I would soon belong. Next came junior staff like clerks, factory staff and field supervisors. The largest group comprised the labourers. They lived with their families in single-room dwellings arranged end-to-end in long buildings called lines.

As the days turned into weeks and months I became aware of growing anxiety. I could have borrowed a bicycle from someone and used it to acquire my balance before jumping on a motorcycle. But I couldn’t rise above my shame or even suppress it in recognition of my predicament.

The end of my sheltered life as a creeper, as trainee tea planters were called, was signalled by a letter from my employers informing me of my first posting as assistant manager of Alton Estate in the nearby Upcot district. I’d be given a furnished house to live in, but I had to equip it with bed linen, crockery, cutlery and kitchen utensils, and also purchase provisions. But those matters paled into insignificance beside what dominated my mind.

The problem I had identified at the very start finally tumbled into the present. I could no longer run away from it or kick it down the road. Dickie’s assistant Bryan invited me to take his motorcycle for a slow ride in the tea factory compound. He showed me how to start it, engage the gears, control the revs and find the brake. I understood it all, but the moment the bike began to move I lost balance. In a blind panic I tried to hit the brake with one foot while my other stayed on the ground but my swivelling right hand increased the revs and the bike took off. It hit an embankment and stalled. Normally such an initiation would have put me off motorcycles for the rest of my life, but I didn’t have that option.

Bryan was astonished. ‘Can you ride a bicycle?’ I shook my head. His puzzled, uncomprehending smile needed no words.

Jim, my soon-to-be-manager, lent me one of the Alton motorcycles, a Triumph Tiger Cub, to learn on during my last days on Brownlow. I kept falling off and soon my body was covered in gashes and grazes and bruises and burns. I was lucky not to break any bones. I persevered and learned how to ride, in first gear. I was too frightened to change gears. The motorcycle suffered a severe battering and had to be sent away for major repairs.

Dickie and his wife Jenny’s generosity solved my other immediate problem. I left Brownlow with boxes of household items and about five hundred rupees, enough to see me through to my first pay day.

Jim told me that I would be using the Triumph until I got my licence and then he’d give me the BSA Starfire motorcycle that was assigned to the assistant manager.

For a few weeks I was forced to manage without a motorcycle. I walked fifteen miles a day to do my field rounds. Alton was higher and steeper than Brownlow, the climbs more arduous, and Adam’s peak was further away although still visible.

After the Triumph was repaired, I confined my riding to the estate and Upcot town. My balance and confidence began to improve. Three months later on a wet morning, riding downhill on a muddy estate road, I skidded over the edge of a hairpin bend and fell about three metres into a tea field that been pruned a month earlier. I landed on soft earth between two rows of tea bushes. I felt no pain and for a moment was sure I had escaped injury. Then I saw a pulsating artery stretched across my left palm which had been sliced open by the sharp edge of a pruned branch. I have only intermittent recall of what followed. I was taken to the Maskeliya hospital where my hand received twenty-five stitches. I still have a prominent scar to remind me of that day.

The motorcycle was again sent away to be repaired. This time it took much longer to be returned to me. For close to six months I had to manage without personal transport. It wasn’t easy to supervise almost a thousand acres of tea on foot. My work suffered and Jim was displeased with me.

After I resumed riding, my confidence improved. I became comfortable riding all over Maskeliya and Upcot and soon thought nothing of going further afield to the Darrawella club and Hatton, the largest town in the region. My social life took off. I made friends with other tea planters. Like them, I enjoyed lots of eating, drinking and laughter. Like them, I hopped on my bike and swayed and lurched homeward late on a Saturday evening or approaching dusk on a Sunday afternoon.

I obtained my licence and Jim handed me the flashy, dark blue BSA Starfire. After a few cautious days I felt comfortable enough to take it to all the usual places. Before long, I was sure I had left my motorcycle troubles behind me.

The next fateful day arrived four months later. I was driven in the estate jeep to Hatton to represent Alton in a court case. On the way there the driver told me that Jim needed the jeep and that the estate dispenser would bring my motorcycle. He arrived on the BSA shortly after midday. Clad in a suit, I hopped on and commenced the thirty-kilometre ride on the narrow road back to Alton. At my normal sedate speed I negotiated a blind corner and came face to face with an approaching bus. Normal practice was to stop on the side to let the bus pass, but I thought it might be possible to squeeze past close to the cliff face. The narrow, shallow drain that ran along the bottom of the cliff face looked innocuous. I steered into it and something went horribly wrong. I shot off the bike as the bus went past and fell onto the road. I got up and dusted myself, noting that my suit was torn above my left knee and a white gash was visible under the tear. I expected to start bleeding at any moment. I picked up the bike and tried to straighten it but the front wheel would not align with the back wheel. I learned later that the forks were bent. I stood on the roadside holding the bike, at a loss what to do next. The Maskeliya police drove past in a large van. They took the bike and me back to the estate. Jim wasn’t happy. He confiscated the BSA and said I had to use the Triumph for the rest of my tenure at Alton, however long that lasted. Maybe because of the battering to which I had subjected it, the Triumph constantly broke down. Sometimes it wouldn’t start. Sometimes it leaked oil. More often the chain slipped off. I dreaded taking it out.

I began to hate the job, hate my life and above all hate myself for my ineptitude. I craved a life without motorcycles. When my sister wrote asking me if I’d like to live in Melbourne with her, I replied without hesitation that I would. I resigned in September 1974 and arrived in Australia two months later. I was categorised as an unskilled labourer because a tea planter had no Australian equivalent.

The sight of hills and mountains still takes my breath away. Even the gentle undulations of my Melbourne outer suburb at the foot of the Dandenongs are a joy to experience.

I have not ridden a motorcycle since my tea planting days, but I own a bicycle.

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