Recently I read ‘The New Odyssey’ by Philip Kingsley, New York Times journalist and at the time of writing, migration correspondent for the Guardian. For anyone who has not read this, it is an in-depth account of the migration routes across Europe in 2015 and follows the story of one particular man, Hashem al-Souki as he and his family leave Damascus, in the hope of a new life in Sweden.
Although I could never do justice to the depth at which Kingsley immerses himself in the Middle East and Europe, I was struck by how different the situation is now, just three years on. As a result, I have decided to capture some of the refugees stories I have met and paint a picture of how the current situation is for migrants traversing Europe.
The situation across Europe is ever changing. Borders are harder to cross; refugees are having to wait, in some cases years, for asylum but the one constant, is people are still coming. Although we are not seeing the scale of 2015, over 80 000 have crossed the border into Europe so far in 2018 (UNHCR) and working on the streets in Greece, I cannot see this changing in the imminent future.
I have therefore decided to explore, in a series of 5 articles, individual stories from some of the people I meet. I am currently based in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece, working alongside a medical organisation as a physiotherapist and the most common route onward from here is Macedonia.
At the time of Kingsley’s writing in 2015, Macedonia was still relatively easy to cross. The situation he describes was a ‘legal illegal’ border crossing, which refugees (predominantly Syrians) queued at and passed through. During the crossing he undertook, the refugees tried to cross a few miles further down and were caught and redirected by police to cross at the illegal checkpoint.
Reading this, I was surprised at how easy it had been. Working for two months in Northern Greece I was regularly seeing people return to Thessaloniki who had failed to cross the Macedonian border and had been turned away by police, often sustaining beatings. The other stark difference is, in 2015 many refugees travelled independently, following friends instructions on whatsapp or facebook, who had previously had successful crossings. Now, as the borders have become increasingly difficult, the majority of people I meet, are resorting to smugglers to reach Skopje.
Predominantly the stories I tell will be from Afghan and Pakistani men. The men I meet on the street are more frequently from these countries as they do not have priority for the camps and often want to reach other countries before seeking asylum. Within the refugee world it appears to me, that single male migrants face a huge amount of discrimination, both inside and outside of camps. I want to share their journeys and challenges, as they endeavour to reach Western Europe.
Although these series of articles will explore individual stories, primarily my work is medical. One of the boys featured in this series recently returned after another failed border crossing with severe knee pain and swelling having been caught by police. When captured, they are taken back over the border and made to walk back in the direction they came; the majority return to Thessaloniki. Those that return to Thessaloniki, return to see us the next day, so we can attend to their medical needs. After walking a 250 km round trip in just two days, as well as sleeping rough and the anxieties that come with using smugglers, our services (and friendships) are in high demand. I am writing to inform people not only of the current situation in Northern Greece but also to share individual stories from some of the incredible people that make my working day so special. However, neither this, nor my work would be possible without donations, so if any of the stories make you feel empathy for the boys and their struggles and make you realise how essential the medical work we do here is, please donate below.
I met Abbas and his mother Lela on my first day in the camp. This is his story.
Abbas suffered a spinal cord injury after rebels opened fire on his car in 2016.
Abbas lived and worked near Ramadi, Iraq, with his mother, Lela. Since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003 Ramadi has been a centre of insurgency for many groups. In May 2015 Ramadi was lost to ISIS and, according to the UN, it has seen the worst destruction of anywhere in Iraq. A city reduced to rubble.
When Abbas’ car was hit, it spun and crashed, killing all the other passengers and damaged his spinal cord at T11, paralysing him from the waist down. After initial surgery in Iraq, Abbas had a metal rod implanted to fixate his spine. After 6 months this began to rub and became very infected, leaving him with a hole in his back and as a result, the rod was then removed. Abbas and his mother decided they needed to leave Iraq for their safety and for the medical care they could no longer receive, given the security situation at home.
In 2017 they began their journey to Europe, flying from Iraq to Turkey and making the rest of their journey by foot. It took 10 hours to walk to the coast, stopping and starting often, with friends and strangers helping push his wheelchair. In the forests of Turkey, Abbas had his wheelchair taken by the smugglers and sat for a day on the forest floor, before making the dangerous journey by boat across to the Greek Islands.
The boat journey lasted for seven hours and during this time Abbas was sat in one position, on a wooden board and unable to re-position himself due to his spinal-cord injury. They arrived on the Greek Island of Samos on 16th September 2017 and were arrested on arrival. There they were taken into custody and Abbas was left on the floor of a police cell for two days. From here they were transferred to a refugee camp. On arrival in the camp, after 4 days of sitting and being unable to change position, Abbas developed a grade 4 pressure sore on his right buttocks. This is an extremely deep and painful sore which he is still struggling with today, a year later.
Abbas remained in Samos a month. He was provided with a new wheelchair and, although he received some medical help, he says the conditions were poor and impossible to manage for someone needing disabled access. He reported it was so hilly that he could not get around and as a result was unable to access a bathroom for 15 days. As Abbas was identified as a more vulnerable patient, he was transferred to the mainland, to the camp at Diavata, on 20th October 2017. This is where he remains today.
On arrival in Diavata he was hopeful he would receive some physiotherapy and further medical care. However, he did not receive any therapy from the Greek health care system; the only rehabilitation input he received was from another volunteer Physiotherapist, Hannah, for a few weeks in July and after my arrival in September. Despite the severity of his injury, the Greek surgeons do not want to operate on his pressure sore. Instead, his mother Lela dresses it every two days and although she worries that she is not a nurse or medically trained, it says so much about their relationship, that it is as clean and in as good a condition as it is.
One of our volunteer doctors reviewed his pressure sore recently for me. The wound itself has a 5cm sinus and they believe he needs debridement under anaesthetic and will likely need a long period for recovery. Abbas is hopeful that soon he will have papers that allow him to seek asylum elsewhere in Europe, as he does not feel Greece is meeting his needs. As soon as he is able to travel onwards, I will ensure a letter of recommendation travels with him, in the hope that the next country can attend to his care more appropriately.
When I began my work with him, Abbas had not left the camp since he arrived a year ago and seldom ventured outside of his container. We have been having rehab three times a week to increase his muscle strength and wheelchair independence for when he is able to leave. He is now able to get to and from the doctor’s office to collect his wound dressings independently and we are beginning to tackle curbs and steps. The terrain is still difficult as it is very rocky but he is exceptionally motivated and amazingly strong, which makes my job easy.
Abbas’s main limitation to rehab and becoming more independent is his pressure sore. Due to the severity and location he is not able to sit out for long periods and tends to sit out only for an hour or two per day. This means that even though he is now strong enough to get about the camp, he is unable to attend any of the language classes put on as he cannot physically sit in his wheelchair for the required amount of time. On his wheelchair he has a thin, foam cushion that he and his mother cut to size themselves and this offers nothing in the way of pressure relief for his sacrum.
He spends the rest of the day repositioning himself in bed but his mattress is equally poor. It is the same thin foam, positioned on top of some cardboard, perhaps explaining why his wound is refusing to heal.
Although ultimately Abbas will require surgery, having a suitable pressure-relieving cushion to sit out on would completely change his day to day function. He will be able to sit out more, get out more and maybe even attend language classes, in the hope that one day he will be able to make a home here in Europe.
Abbas and Lela have particularly touched me whilst I have been in Greece. They have the most beautiful relationship, which is difficult to put into words, although this image captures a tiny glimpse of it.
I want to be able to help them as much as possible whilst I am here and once they move on. An appropriate wheelchair cushion will cost between £100-300. Although getting a mattress, too, would be preferable, it would be better to purchase that once they are settled in their new country, which hopefully won’t be too long now.
If this story affects anyone in the way that it does me, then please donate to my just giving page and we can purchase a cushion for his wheelchair. For anyone wishing to help further, if you donate to my just giving page and comment ‘Abbas’, along with any other comments, I will ensure that 100% of the donations are passed onto him and Lela. This is in the hope that when they finally get a new home, two years after fleeing Iraq, they will be able to purchase anything they need for Abbas’s ongoing care.
When I said I was going to Europe to volunteer with refugees, many people asked the same questions. “Is that still happening?”, “What is going on now?”
In truth, I didn’t know the extent of the current situation. Yes, it is still happening but how many refugees and what the circumstances are, is difficult to describe until you see it for yourself.
The media has gone quiet.
A young boy washed upon the shores of Greece in 2015 was enough to finally awaken the press to the refugee crisis but since then little has been reported. The hype is over. But after 6 weeks working in Greece it is safe to say that despite the lack of publicity, the crisis is far from over.
The conditions I have seen whilst working in Greece, are in some cases, shocking. I have seen a child with a severe disability, living in an empty container in a refugee camp, alongside 4 other families. 28 people, adults and children living together in under 250 square foot.
These disused cabins have no furniture and no belongings other than simple blankets to keep out the winter cold. On meeting the child and his family, I also discovered that two of his siblings had infected scabies which needed urgent treatment and which, as they are unregistered, the camp and camp doctors would not provide.
As a medical organisation that is currently funded entirely on donations, we are having to provide high cost medications, to offer basic care to children in need. Children, who are living within EU funded refugee camps in Greece.
Although the conditions inside the camp are bad, and likely to get worse with the expected influx of people from Moria on Lesvos, the conditions outside are worse.
As mentioned in a previous blog post, the abandoned building currently houses over 100 refugees. I am not saying I promote the use of the abandoned building; I know the locals are resolute in their fight to get rid of the refugees, all I’m saying is this is fact.
There are over 100 homeless refugees that seek refuge here and for however long or short a period they remain in Thessaloniki, they use this as their base. On some occasions, the refugees who initially look for the comfort of the camp, realise after arrival that they are not going to get shelter/ accommodation, access to showers or even food, they often leave again and opt to sleep in the building, as at least it is near the city centre and they are more likely to find food. A few centres in the city offer food during the day and another organisation distributes food in the evenings to the homeless refugees.
On arrival to clinic last Thursday, our car park was deserted.
Admittedly, there has been a large turn around in the last few days and many familiar faces have moved on to try and cross the border. Despite this however, there are generally a few people already awaiting medical care when we arrive. To investigate, we walked around the area behind the abandoned building and saw some local tradesman fencing it off, so it was inaccessible. When a colleague and I asked one of the workers where he expected the people inside to go after it was sealed, he said he did not know. He replied that we should ‘take them to Germany’ with us.
When we walked around the building the police were present. They had lined up all the refugees and began evicting all of them from the building, without any evidence of papers. Any who didn’t already have police papers were arrested on the spot and the remaining few were advised that if they were there later on, when the police returned, they would be arrested with or without documents.
When we left the clinic that evening, two further refugees had been arrested walking in the area, as they did not have police papers. As we drove away, the streets either side of the abandoned building were lined with boys and men, unable to go inside and waiting with their possessions for who knows what.
They are not allowed back in, as they will be arrested. They will not be allowed to sleep on the ‘streets’ or in ‘parks’, as suggested by the police at the time, as they will likely be arrested. Just a fortnight ago, refugees gathered in Aristotelous square, Thessaloniki’s main square. They camped outside the police station in order to be arrested, just to try and obtain the papers they need to seek asylum. With winter approaching, they are anxious to submit their requests for asylum in order to get a place within a camp for winter. However, the majority of people that camped out in Aristotelous square were families and therefore more likely to attract publicity and subsequently actions.
The refugees from the building are often single men. If they get arrested they run the risk of being detained from a few days to months and are much less likely to get a space within a refugee camp unless they are a minor. These men have no options.
In the six weeks that I have been in Greece, I have seen that the crisis is not over. It is as bad as ever.
I have seen within refugee camps disabled children without any therapy input or basic equipment, such as seating or a wheelchair. I have seen a severe pressure sore with a 5cm deep sinus in need of surgery, managed and dressed by the refugee’s mother without any regular support from the medical team in the camp. There is a man sleeping outside in a tent with brachial monoplegia from a bullet wound through the shoulder, unable to use his arm and yet having to manage without help in such conditions. Next to him is a man unable to walk who suffered a leg injury and burns from a bomb blast; unable to walk yet living in a two person tent. We have discovered severely ill children, one with a temperature of over 40 degrees, again sleeping in tents pitched on hard floors.
I have spoken to those that are medically well but not registered in the camp, who are without access to showers and food. I have tried to help heavily pregnant women that can not be housed. I have seen numerous children with infected scabies that as they are not registered cannot receive treatment. I have seen streets full of men, with nowhere to go and who sleep at risk of being arrested and having all their possessions taken (in some instances not returned).
I have seen all of this and the Greek government want to reduce the number of migrants in Moria camp, Lesvos from 8 500 to half that in a few weeks. Currently Moria is a humanitarian disaster; MSF have reported that even children are attempting to commit suicide. Our own response team in Lesvos is struggling with the psychological pressures and MSF, recently stated that since May, at least one person a week is being raped within the camp. The truth is these statistics may be even higher. Half of the victims are boys and girls under 18 and two children as young as 5 years old.
At what stage do we say these conditions are unacceptable for refugees in Europe?
Around 186 000 refugees crossed into Europe last year and UNHCR estimate around 116 000 have entered this year so far. Although down from previous years figures with over 1 million refugees arriving in 2015 alone it is unlikely that this situation is going to go away quickly. It is a basic human right to have access to food, shelter, washing and health facilities. I am shocked and upset that I have to leave people in this position and that despite all our best efforts, we can do little to help beside offer basic medical care and friendship.
I think most people would be shocked to hear of the conditions these people live in within Europe. Many have said that if they had known how bad it was, they would not have left their home countries. A Syrian family with a disabled child said he was seen monthly in a hospital in Turkey and yet they feel abandoned here in Greece. His parents fled during the war, at which stage his mother was heavily pregnant and the stress of the bombings and shootings greatly impacted her pregnancy. As a result, she eventually had a very difficult birth in Turkey and her baby suffered asphyxia. He is now three years old, fed through a tube in his nose and has no sitting balance or head control. He sleeps on a mattress, on the floor in a container.
Predominantly my role in Greece has been working as a physiotherapist, I can provide much needed care and rehabilitation to those who need it. However, I have also been coordinating the project along with a German nurse. I have been arranging appointments for people the red cross have not made; putting vulnerable homeless families in contact with the right organisations to provide shelter and discussing with a legal volunteer team the legalities to the police evictions and retention of the refugees possessions which I believe is in violation of the refugees rights. We have been working with the new camp manager to try and find containers for the most vulnerable and ill children and adults, as well as working out a way we can improve the effectiveness of the medical care we give.
Ultimately the people in Europe need to open their eyes and hearts to this situation. Greece, chronically underfunded and struggling with their own economy needs more support from the EU and UN to improve the basic circumstances of the thousands of migrants that arrive weekly, risking their lives. We need to share the burden of the crisis amongst Europe to relieve pressure on countries like Greece, Italy and Spain before it is too late and we need raise awareness of the reasons why these people are making these perilous journeys to Europe to eradicate the racism associated. However, until then, if anyone reading this believes this is a worthy cause then please donate to my just giving page. This work means a great deal to me. I was extremely upset the other day when we had to leave one of the refugees I am close to on the streets for the night. We treat him like a friend and then we have to leave him to this awful situation and it was truly heartbreaking. If I could do, more I would, I have five more weeks to try and make as much as a contribution as possible. All of our work is funded by volunteers and by donations. If anyone wants to contribute to my work and all that I am doing please visit my just giving page. None of this work would be possible without support and it scares me to think how the refugees would manage without any support from our organisation.
The abandoned building… that’s what we all call it.
This is a building in the centre of Thessaloniki. It, along with others, is a partially built and disused building that offers some shelter to hundreds of homeless refugees.
The majority of refugees living here do not have papers and they are unable to travel in Europe or seek asylum without them. Although some want papers, EU law states that any refugees seeking asylum, must do so in the first country they reach. Obviously for many refugees who want to travel further or have families in other European countries, they want to get as far as possible towards their destination before claiming asylum.
However, for some of the refugees hoping to stay in Greece it can still be difficult to get papers. In extreme but not infrequent incidences refugees have turned up at the police station and asked to be arrested. Once arrested, the police have to issue a police paper that the refugees have to activate within a two week window, by undertaking a skype interview.
The building has been frequently used since 2015 and the peak of the refugee crisis. The police are aware the building is in use and will occasionally review the situation. Last October, 2017, the police emptied the building and arrested many of the men before sealing it off. However over the course of a year it has been frequented by many passing through on their way to mainland Europe and has once again become home to over 100 refugees who have nowhere else to sleep.
Last week the police came again to the building. They arrived early on the Friday morning and arrested everybody in the building. Anything on the ground floor was removed, including any possessions and sleeping equipment.
Most of the refugees have now been released. Any that decided not move on and weren’t detained have returned to the building. On leaving the police station, they state that their possessions were not returned to them, which I believe to be a violation of refugees rights. They now have no belongings and although most of them did not have much to sleep with in the first place, they now have nothing.
Winter is coming, the nights are getting colder and darker and as volunteers we are now trying everything we can to get them essential sleeping bags and blankets.
We visited the building the day after the raid. After our clinic finished on Saturday, we went with the boys and took a list of names of anybody who had their things taken.
On Monday we managed to gather some blankets from another organisation in order to distribute them to those who now have nothing to sleep with.
We returned at night, after the evening clinic to distribute the blankets with the least attention. If word had gotten out that we were distributing sleeping goods, many others would have come from the city but we only had enough to give to the few whose names we had taken.
After packaging up the blankets outside our apartment, we arrived to the car park around 11.30pm; scaring away some of the local prostitutes who frequent the car park when we are not there. With the help of our translator we rounded up anyone in the building who needed blankets and brought them to the car park.
It took over an hour to distribute 60 blankets.
We finished our work at 01.30am and returned home. Although predominantly our work in Thessaloniki is medical, we also work closely with various voluntary organisations. We have regular street team meetings to ensure we are all aware of what is happening at ground level in Thessasloniki and with other charitable organisations in Northern Greece. These links ensure when incidences like this happen we can help as much as possible and try to support the refugees during these difficult times.
For anyone who wants to support this work, please visit my just giving page.
Thessaloniki is Greece’s second biggest city and for the next few months I will be based in Diavata, a small town about 10km from the city. I am working as part of a medical organisation that offers medical care to refugees. Our two main bases of operation are within a camp a short walk from Diavata and in a car park, about a 5 minute walk from the train station in Thessaloniki.
In truth I did not know much about the city until my arrival, other than its location in relation to the recent migration route across Europe. However, I’m really glad my work has brought me here. Thessaloniki itself is a beautiful port city, founded in 315 BC and steeped in history. It is the capital of Greek Macedonia, named after the half-sister of Alexander the great and has been ruled by the Kingdom of Macedonia, Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire and even fell under Nazi rule during the Second World War. As a result of its history there are an impressive 15 monuments in the city that make UNESCO World Heritage Status.
I’ve briefly spent some time in the city centre but as our main places of work are just to the west of the city we don’t often venture into town. Hopefully I’ll be able to explore more of the city during my stay but Diavata has everything we need, including an amazing market outside our flat on Wednesday mornings, where you can get the most incredible fresh fruit and vegetables!
Since my arrival my work has been split between working in the camp at Diavata and the car park clinic. I am the only physiotherapist working with the organisation and the first fortnight has been used to establish a client base and routine; my usual week will be Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the camp and Tuesday, Thursday and occasional Saturday in the car park.
I tried last week to try and attend all three clinics in a day but not only do they overlap, so it makes you late for the afternoon clinic but it also makes it over a 12 hour day, which is just not functional when it’s as busy as it is! Instead, I’ll be using the time between clinics to take over the role of coordinator for the Thessaloniki project.
The camp operates a morning clinic during the weekdays for registered refugees and we work alongside a Greek organisation PHILOS, funded by the European Commission. At the minute it is estimated there are around 2000 in the camp 700 registered and 1300 unregistered refugees. Predominantly my work will be in the camp as the majority of the residents are considered more ‘vulnerable’, for example, women, children, families and people with disabilities. Although PHILOS provide medical care, the residents of the camp do not have any other access to a physiotherapist. The benefit to my working in the camp is that a large majority of my patients have been female, which means I am able to treat them in privacy, without too many cultural barriers.
At the end of my first week we managed to negotiate a static caravan for me to use belonging to UNHCR (the UN charity for refugees). This has enabled me to have my own working space and means I can arrange to see people who need ongoing input regularly, on the days I am in the camp, as well as seeing any day attendances the doctors want me to review.
The facilities although fairly basic are more than adequate. I have taken a camp bed from our warehouse to use as a plinth to assess and treat patients and have managed to gather a collection of different items to use including towels and creams.
Predominantly the conditions I see in the camp are muscular in nature, often complaints of lower back, neck or shoulder pain although I have also splinted broken fingers before they get referred to hospital. As mentioned earlier, the camp hosts some of the more vulnerable patients and I have been regularly seeing a gentleman with a spinal cord injury for neurological rehabilitation (A).
I met A on my first day and may have been slightly biased towards him, as not only are he and his mother the sweetest people you could hope to meet (despite a lack of English, we communicate mainly via google translate – it’s a life saver!) but also, when I met him for the first time he was sat up in bed wearing a Leeds Beckett University T-Shirt! It was one he was given on arrival in camp but I couldn’t stop smiling. Only I would come to Greece and have my first patient wearing a top from Leeds!
THE CAR PARK
Unlike the camp, the majority of the refugees that attend the car park clinic in the afternoons and evenings are unregistered and generally male, often between late teens and early twenties. More often than not, they live around the city centre in abandoned buildings and squats which is why we base our work here. Between the car park and the train station there is at least one abandoned building currently housing 50 refugees.
Logistically it is a little harder for me to work in the car park as we work out of an old ambulance, however in the recent days we have established more of a routine to get physio incorporated. We aim to have at least one volunteer doctor at a time who operates within the ambulance (accessed via the sliding door) and a wound station set up outside the ambulance for other medical professionals e.g. nurses/ paramedics/ students to attend to wound dressings.
The most common problem is infected wounds from mosquito bites but scabies is also common and we provide treatment and fresh clothes to everyone who requires it. Any minor ailments can be treated in the ambulance but for more serious conditions that arise, for example, an epileptic with poorly controlled seizures, we can refer into the Greek healthcare system or take more urgent cases to hospital ourselves.
In recent days as more people are requiring physiotherapy I have set up a station operating out of the back of the ambulance to treat general musculoskeletal injuries for either upper limb or lower limb. If more privacy is needed I try and jump into the ambulance between medical patients and this seems to be working at the minute.
We operate the system using separate numbers for the doctors (1) and the wound station (W1) but with the recent increasing number of patients for physio, I now have my own number system (D1).
Although we run both an afternoon and evening clinic with a short break, the evening clinic is far more popular as another organisation works alongside us in the car park to offer food distribution. The car park regularly gets the same refugees attending until they decide to move on which means that anyone with longer term needs has been coming back on the days I am there for further treatment as well as getting food and their wounds dressed at the same time. Just last night a gentleman returned to the clinic to say that his knee pain was completely better.
At times there can be a more intense atmosphere in the car park compared to the camp as often the refugees are from different countries, with their own individual tensions and any system that involves queuing for food, when they normally have minimal access to food and water, is likely to have its problems. During an evening on my first week someone got glassed in the head with a bottle and needed suturing and the week before I arrived someone was stabbed in the ambulance itself, trying to get away from another man.
However, this is rare and hasn’t happened until now. With the end of summer and the nights soon to get darker we have brought the evening clinic forwards to finish at 9pm instead of 10pm and are trying to not run over. Despite the odd difficulty the work is good and between clinics we often stay around or return early to play football or vollyball with some of the guys. After clinic last Thursday when everyone had gone a few refugees remained and we played some Arabic music and all tried our best dance moves – mine were less than average but scored 10/10 for enthusiasm.
Over the next few weeks I’ll try and share a few more specific stories, photos and hopefully introduce you to some of the people I meet along the way 🙂
From September 2018 I will be leaving my job as a physiotherapist in the NHS to volunteer as a physio overseas for 8 months. You can keep up-to-date via my just giving page or by following my stories on my blog.
My work will begin between the refugee camp Diavata in Thessaloniki and a railway station; providing physiotherapy and minor injuries care for the homeless refugees.
I already have some patients to see in the camp who would benefit from regular physiotherapy including those with paraplegia and muscular dystrophy. Outside the camp my work will predominantly be treating musculoskeletal ailments from walking, often hundreds/thousands of miles; muscular aches from sleeping rough and wound care for those who have come into difficulties on their journeys, including police beatings.
All of my work will be completely voluntary and to see how far your money could go visit my just giving page. In Greece, if I make enough funds, any additional money will go directly to funding equipment, which at the moment we have a very limited budget for.
Nuwara Eliya (pronounced as one word) is often referred to as ‘Little England’ and it is easy to see why. This beautiful city in hill country in Central Provence is full of quintessentially British charms and with the addition of the temperate climate, it’s a welcome change if like me, you struggle in the heat!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that all Brits LOVE tea and being a stereotype, tea was one of the things I was most looking forward to in Sri Lanka and it has not disappointed. The first tea plantation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was cultivated in 1867 by James Taylor, having made a trip over to India to learn about tea plantations. From here the business boomed.
Nuwara Eliya is world renouned for tea and if you have the time in Sri Lanka I would definitely recommend visiting the tea plantations here instead of Ella. 2 days is a good length of time to spend here and below is my suggested itinerary:
Visit Victoria Park
Tour of a tea factory and estate
Lover’s Leap waterfall
Take high tea at the Grand Hotel
Walk around the racecourse and down past the lake
Onwards train from Nanu Oya to Ella
Visit Victoria Park
Victoria Park is a public park by the centre of town and a nice place to walk around and sit and read a book. Compared to the rest of our trip around Sri Lanka, Nuwara Eliya was a good place to wind down and relax a little, so take the most of these opportunities.
Despite being a public park, tourists are expected to pay entry to maintain the park and this is a common theme in Nuwara Eliya, even some footpaths have tourist fees!
Also the disadvantage to this is that often it is all fenced off so there is only one clear entrance and exit and you essentially become trapped, so to get out we cheekily jumped a bit of fencing by the bus station in order to get out without having to go all the way around and along the main road again.
Tour of tea factory and estate
On the drive in to Nuwara Eliya we passed hundreds of tea estates as we winded our way around the hill sides passing through plantations with very English names, my favourites being Devon, Somerset and Blackpool!
Just out of the main centre of Nuwara Eliya there are tea plantations as far as the eye can see and some are better renowned than others and produce better quality teas (so do your research before hand – we were advised against the main ones such as Bluefield Tea Factory on the road from Kandy) and instead were recommended Pedro Estate by a few Sri Lankans. It may not be the most picturesque but it was very convenient; just a short tuk-tuk ride from town and a short walk over to Lover’s Leap waterfall.
Many reviews discredit Pedro on the basis that it is not as beautiful and has some pylons running through the plantation. This is true, however, I don’t think it dampend the experience at all as we had already seen the untouched, picturesque plantations on our 3 hour drive to Nuwara Eliya. Also, I think it’s impossible to expect a fully operating tea factory next to a town not to have pylons.. this is 2018 and although some people are searching for that fully Nomadic experience we are about 100 years too late.
We actually met a lovely French couple who were going to try find a smaller and less corporate plantation, however, most of the tea production in Sri Lanka is government controlled and have certain standards to meet. You can’t always sure that what you’re getting is 100% fair trade and that people aren’t over-worked but I believe the larger estates will be better at maintaining workers rights. Pedro, at least from the outside, appeared to try and uphold these values.
Also, it turns out Prince Philip visited in 1954 and if its good enough for Phil, then it’s good enough for me!
Whichever tea factory you visit it will be an amazing experience. We learnt so much about tea that I’ve filled about 3 pages of my travel diary just with interesting facts.
Also, I was exceptionally lucky to be travelling with a fellow tea-addict. Normally, we are proud Yorkshire Tea girls but I have to admit, since my return I have only been drinking black Sri Lankan tea.
Lovers Leap Waterfall
Just over the road from Pedro Tea Estate is Lovers Leap waterfall.
We were short of time when visiting as wanted to get back in time for tea (yes – more tea! But this time of the afternoon variety) so we actually asked our tuk-tuk driver Samanta to take us up. This is definitely not accessible in a car as the roads are very narrow and bumpy but after nothing but trekking for our first week I rather enjoyed the bumpy tuk-tuk ride.
Now for anyone like me who just thought Lover’s Leap was a lovely name it has a bit of a darker story attached. It is a small waterfall which got its local name as it was the rumoured point where a prince and his fiancee jumped to their deaths after they were refused the right to marry….. maybe not such a sweet name after all.
High Tea at the Grand Hotel
The only thing better than tea, is tea with all the trimmings, aka. an English Afternoon Tea. Coming from Yorkshire and being a frequenter of Betty’s I know I probably have high expectations when it comes to this and The Grand Hotel did not disappoint.
A beautiful establishment and very colonial. It reminded me of being in Kenya and some of the hotels we stayed at with a traditional facade, decadent interior, bellboys and chauffeurs. I have never seen so many waiters, overstaffed is probably an understatement and working in the NHS it is something completely foreign to me!
Initially our intention was to sit on the front lawn and take tea in front of the hotel but the waiters (who were obviously more knowledgeable then us) wanted us to sit closer to the hotel and we took a seat of the veranda.
Lucky we took their advice as the weather in Nuwara Eliya can change. Like I said previously it is much cooler than the rest of Sri Lanka, with low cloud cover that often creeps down in the afternoon until you are surrounded by a blanket of mist… glad we didn’t stay on the lawn!
High tea at the grand was perfect, just what we needed the day after climbing Adam’s Peak. It is served from half past 3 and as we were enjoying it so much we stayed the entire afternoon and then decided to treat ourselves to a cocktail each… when in Rome.
The highlight of the hotel, despite the incredible tea, stunning on-site jewellers and beautiful interiors, were the toilets. They deserve a mention as they were such a welcome change and were the only toilets of the trip that we awarded a 10/10 – yes, we graded toilets but this is an important element to travelling.
I know for a fact it was a highlight as when I flicked though Becky’s photos it appears we both took snaps of the loo; it was just that good!
Many people if they are short for time often cut Nuwara Eliya out of their trip and instead visit tea plantations around Ella. However, Horton Plains is a good enough reason on its own to visit here.
It is a nation park about an hours drive from the city and boast beautiful views including the famous World’s End. Unlike the rest of Sri Lanka this reminded me more of African Plains than anything I have come across before in Asia, the park being split into two distinct categories, the grasslands and the evergreen forests.
Even if you just stop off overnight and do a morning hike around the plains and then catch the train onwards I think it would be worth it. It is completely unique.
Horton Plains is best seen early morning just as the sun is rising and the whole landscape is surrounded by cloud forest: a thin layer of cloud that covers the floor and transforms this place into something magical.
If you’re planning a visit, you will need a driver, the roads are just not made for tuk-tuks. We actually stopped to pick up some German tourists whose taxi had broken down on the way.
The two main attractions of the park are the viewpoint at World’s End and Baker’s Falls. With a name like Worlds End you would expect a rather impressive view and it doesn’t disappoint.
It is at World’s End that Horton Plains comes to a sudden end, as a stunning vista overlooking the escarpment. Sitting on the edge of the precipice it is easy to see how this place got it’s name.
Depending on which way you are walking there is also a smaller but equally lovely viewpoint ‘Little World’s End’ you will come across. It is a circular walk around the park, we took a left turn on entry which took us to this first, then the larger and finally round to the falls. I personally think this was a better way to see it as in my mind the viewpoints were more impressive and if you are a quick walker you can miss the crowds.
Baker’s Falls, named after the famed Samuel Baker who attempted to settle in Nuwara Eliya and build an agricultural village, is a pretty waterfall within the national park. At only 20 metres it is by no means the most impressive but the setting is lovely and a great way to break up the hike by taking the short walk down and back again to see them.
As previously mentioned the weather in Nuwara Eliya can be unpredictable and an early morning walk here is essential. If you arrive any later than 9 or 10 am it is unlikely you will see anything at all due to the dense cloud cover often referred to as the ‘white wall’. The park opens at 6am and is an hours drive from town, so it is best to make an early start. Even though we left at 5.15, when we arrived the queue of traffic to get into the park was unbelievable. Although our driver said this was the longest he had seen, it is worth setting off a little earlier so that when it hits 6am you are front of the queue to get through and get hiking sooner, before the swarms of tourists.
By 9am there must have been thousands of people at the reserve, both international and domestic tourists.
A fast pace goes a long way so I’m thankful I was with the Machine Mason who loves a yomp as much as I do.
Racecourse and Lake
My favourite feature of Little England was the racecourse, proud of place in the middle, it even had a grandstand. Although used infrequently for one or two races a year, it was a nice touch, especially for Becky whose granddad is a racehorse trainer… Lets just say the ponies out there wouldn’t quite be up to scratch in a UK meeting.
As we were walking through they actually had the racecourse in use for a sports day with all the governors sat watching and the tannoy announcing the next house events. I could not stop smiling as this was scarily reminiscent of home and yet we were in the middle of Sri Lanka.
The main difference between this scene and home was that a few rouge horses which had been running around the fields, were being chased away by dogs and some of the maintenance team. I’m not sure our school groundskeeper would have been quite so relaxed in this position!
Lake Gregory is slightly further away from town past the racecourse and has that air of British summer times past. There are more ponies around the lake and pedelo swans, as well as picnic spots and well maintained childrens play areas. The perfect place for a summer getaway and mainly utilised by the Sri Lankas, both local and tourists which is amazing to see.
The disadvantage with the lake is, like Victoria Park, you have to pay to walk around it. And yes there is no way around…. I hate breaking rules but we couldn’t see a way in and all around it is fenced off, even with barbed wire in some places. So, Becky and I tried to jump over for a closer look, before being chased away by a security guard – yes, they actually have guards patrolling the lake!
So I would be lying if I said we actually walked alongside the lake, we didn’t. Being cheap (and yes I’m aware it’s probably pennies) we walked along the road adjacent to it instead and got just as good a look at what was going on.
I’ve added this to my list of things to do in 48 hours but having said this, if there is one thing to cut out of the itinerary if you are worried about time, it would be this.
The gardens were unremarkable and although lovely to walk around and sit and read a book, Kandy botanical gardens are equally as good. Also, unfortunately as with the UK because Nuwara Eliya is higher, it has a more variable climate. This brings more distinct seasons and with it, good and bad times to see the gardens.
I was desperate to see the rose gardens but these, along with a lot of the other enticing subsections to the garden do not come into season until May. Therefore my advice would be to visit during Spring and see the gardens in full bloom and they will be beautiful, otherwise it is nice to kill some time but is also quite expensive to visit if none of the displays are actually in flower.
Nanu Oya is the closest station to Nuwara Eliya and the only way to travel from here and onwards to Ella is by train. It is a must. For more travel tips/ advice on this check out my ‘Essential Guide to Travelling Sri Lanka’.
The Travel Stuff
Nuwara Eliya has lots to offer and is completely unique compared to the rest of Sri Lanka, from the climate to the people. Over half it’s population are actually of Indian Tamil origin and this also has a notable impact on the community. There is not as much to offer in the way of Sinhalese cuisine (I was dismayed), instead lots of Indian restaurants and street food. Also, to me there seemed to be a more obvious class divide between the workers and the wealthy living in the larger, typically British houses.
As a result, we were warned by our host to be careful in the evenings as some of the locals have been known to drink and she had mentioned of one or two female tourists who had been walking around had been targeted. This is not something to put you off, it felt a completely safe place to walk around during the day but just to beware it does have a different atmosphere to the rest of Sri Lanka and as a female traveller who often goes solo travelling I would want to pass this advice on. As I said, there is not much in the way of eateries or anything that would particularly entice you out past dark so my advise would be to avoid it unless necessary or grab a tuk-tuk back from town after dinner.
The other thing to be aware of, as I’ve already mentioned is the higher tourist prices that we noticed here more than anywhere else. They maintain the city well and therefore the odd tourist fee is expected but the gardens and the reserve are fairly expensive. If you’re travelling on your own you might want to look into that before you go, or if I were travelling solo just go for the day, try and grab a taxi with some others for an early morning hike around the plains, view a tea factory and then catch the train onwards.
I hope you enjoy Nuwara Eliya and happy travels!
If you decide to follow this at all let me know how you get on. x