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Mounting Adam’s Peak

Posted by on April 8, 2014

Adam’s peak – also known locally as Sri Pada – is the most sacred mountain in Sri Lanka. However, while everyone else climbs it for pilgrimage purposes – or under the erroneous, yet wildly-held assumption that getting to the top of mountains makes your dick bigger – I decided to do it because I have a good friend called Adam and thought it might make for a vaguely amusing pun at some point in the indefinite future.

To date – and I hope for the rest of my days – it remains the most ridiculous thing I’ve put myself through for the sake of a bad joke.

Adam's Peak Sri Pada Sri Lanka

Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada), Sri Lanka

That day I’d already travelled overland from Pasikuda to Anuradhapura. My tuk tuk driver turned out to be something of a tour guide and produced, from some hidden place in the roof of his vehicle, several glossy, laminated images of local tourist sites and a “guest book” filled with (to be fair, very positive) reviews of his services, in English, French, German, Korean, Japanese and many a language I didn’t recognise. I forget his name, except that it begins with ‘P’ and was spelt differently by just about everyone who wrote it in the guest book.

He was determined to take me to the ruins near Polonnaruwa, the cave temples at Dambulla, the much tempting Sigiriya (Lion Rock) and other such places I’d already passed close to and could’ve gone to myself if I’d given two shits – just as he had for all his other happy customers, and was pretty peeved to find that, despite his numerous offers, I was only interested in going to “the tree“.

(Everything I read about Sri Lanka before I left, and every other traveller I met there, confirmed that, while Sri Lanka’s a cheap country, they milk the shit out of tourists. Rental cars, tickets to temples, ruins, etc…these things are ridiculously overpriced. The stilt fisherman down south, from Hikkaduwa to Tangalle are all dead, replaced by grand-kids who pose on stilts for tourists’ photos and then demand a hefty fee – to be fair, a far more profitable (and comfortable) living. In short, that’s why I couldn’t be arsed to “see the sights”.)

“Where are you staying in Anuradhapura?” He asked, and on a whim I said I wasn’t. I decided I might attempt Adam’s Peak after all. (I had wanted to do this first and most of all, but illness and lack of knowledge of the local bus network had got in the way.) In a cybercafe I hastily booked a dorm bed in a small town back down near Kandy, and then made it the afternoon’s goal to get there.

Rather than rest, I caught another tuk tuk to the train station, jumped on a Colombo bound train and established myself in a nice seat…but it was short-lived.

For some reason, even though I’d paid the extra 20 pence for a reserved ticket, I was kicked out of the carriage and forced to squeeze in with the sweaty masses.

I changed trains at Polgahawela and, when the same thing happened, I thought ‘fuck it’ and rather than stand crushed in third class, I took up a spot on the floor in the open doorway, and from there watched the Sri Lankan landscape pass by, then everything got dark, and finally I started to nod off. I laid down with my bag as a pillow, rather than risk falling asleep and out of a fast-moving train.

I arrived at Peradeniya around 11pm, which in Sri Lanka is already the dead of night, and having seen that my hostel was up in the mountains, a little closer to Sarasavi Uyana station, I jumped on a train headed there…

…only to find that there were no tuk tuks there, everything pitch dark and asleep, and the only person anywhere was a sleepy station attendant, who I would like to meet again to thank, because he went far beyond his remit to try to figure out a solution to my dilemma, even though no solution was there to be found and in the end we both slumped down in total mental exhaustion.

I had been travelling all day, buffetted about on roasting hot buses and clammy, claustrophobic trains and let’s not forget I still had the flu, not to mention yesterday’s dehydration, sunstroke and suspected conjunctivitis. Basically, I was beat.

He was covering this station, was usually based in Nuwara Eliya, and so didn’t know the area or anyone local who might be able to help.

He went and banged on the door of a nearby shack, woke up a stretching, sinewy old man, who only confirmed the hopelessness of the situation and went back to bed.

At my request, he called Peradeniya and asked if there were any tuk tuks there. There weren’t.

When I proposed walking, he told me I’d never be able to find the place in the dark (and he was right).

There was a train due for Peradeniya, but that was no help. All he could suggest was that I take the train at about 3am to Kandy, where there would probably be tuk tuks and guesthouses.

In the end I decided there was only one thing for it, shouldered my bag and trudged off down the road.

After about five minutes of walking in perfect darkness, miraculously a tuk tuk did happen to pass by on his way home. I didn’t quibble the fare and he drove me up a labyrinth of ever-thinning mountain roads until we were bouncing along a dirt track barely wide enough for his vehicle.

Suddenly he stopped beside a “23” and said this was the place. I didn’t have a phone number for the place so we opened the gate and walked cautiously, one step at a time, down a mud path.

“What are we doing?” I heard him mutter in English.

Then from the shadows a dog started barking and snarling. The driver did his best to calm it in its native language as it snapped at his heels.

Eventually the commotion woke the owners and after some explaining they realised who I was. (They’d assumed I wasn’t coming.) I thanked and paid the driver, who left for home. Then the owner showed me my bed and I slept blissfully.

In the morning, fully refreshed, I took a shower, ate a simple but tasty breakfast of toast and tea, and reveled in the peace of my surroundings.

HillCrest Home Hostel, Peradeniya, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Hill Crest Home Hostel, Peradeniya

I made the decision to stay here and rest for the remainder of my time in Sri Lanka.

Then I met the only other person staying in the hostel – a Latvian girl who’d been working on a resort in the Maldives – and she mentioned she was leaving for Adam’s Peak and happened to drop all the information on how to get there. My peace was ruined.

Within a few hours, I was packed and trudging along that dirt road again. I walked to Uda Peradeniya and waited outside the local village shop, where it commenced pissing it down – huge drops of rain that brought a welcome coolness to the back and neck – and I was forced to shelter under the awning, where I became well acquainted with the locals and every visitor to the store, as well as several passers by- all of whom showed the utmost interest in where I was from and where I was going.

Finally the bus arrived, took me to a train station – I don’t know which one, except that it wasn’t either of the ones I’d asked for – and I caught a train to Hatton. I opened the windows and the rain poured in and we slid through the wet, lush landscape – the dripping trees, those little rustic houses, those palm-esque trees with long drooping yellow leaves that I always call banana trees, though now I’m wondering whether I’ve ever actually seen a banana growing on one.

The sun set slow and soft over the layers of blue, green mountains. I realised that this hill region around Kandy, which I had never planned to even visit, is the highlight of Sri Lanka – the real epicentre of the island’s beauty.

From Hatton I took the Nallathani bus to Delhouse/Dalhousie, which raced in the darkness up bumpy, winding mountain roads and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop feeling sick. The Sri Lankan guys laid down and slept in all kinds of strange, unlikely positions while an alert white guy and his porter sat up straight, pulled up socks, prepared water bottles, kept their eyes on the road and never stopped talking enthusiastically about the climb ahead.

I fell asleep in the manner of the Sri Lankan guys.

At Delhouse most people get a bed and start the climb at around 2am. I asked around but couldn’t see much point in spending money on a bed for a few hours when I knew I wouldn’t get to sleep until about five minutes to two anyway, as is always the way. So I gorged myself on fried rice in a dirty, smoky, covered hut affair run by a family playing cards and drinking beers under a lantern like a scene out of the Wild West. Then I began the climb.

Adam's Peak Sri Pada Sri Lanka Trailhead

Adam’s Peak trailhead

The whole length of the trail is lit throughout the night, as this is the best time to make the pilgrimage. (Remember it’s 25 degrees  at four in the morning here!) The lanterns are regular and just far enough apart that you can always see one, and you could see them in the very distance, winding up to the summit and hanging in the black night sky like an unknown star-sign. But the scene was one of darkness and photos didn’t come out without flash.

The trail is lit at night.

For a long time the trail is lined on both sides with market stalls and tea houses, simple huts mostly closed-up with tarpaulins, from which local music can be faintly heard from within. Apparently recorded music, smoking and alcohol are banned in order to create the right vibe. However, I lost count of how many people or saw smoking or heard playing music from their phones. And of course I was fully laden with alcoholic beverages, as always.

I bought a stupid hat for a few pence, simply because everyone else seemed to have one, and because I’d read that leeches were a genuine concern and didn’t really fancy having to put a lighter to my scalp later on. I thought it was amusing that the guy kept trying to push the the pink and purple hats, as though they were his prized specimens, despite my interest in the blue and black ones. The guys do love pink and purple in these parts. I wonder if I’ll ever find out why.

I didn’t encounter any leeches, the hat was too small and far too warm for trekking, but it did come in useful for sleeping on the cold summit later.

Buddhist statues, strange caves, gates, candles and so on also gave a distinct character to the path, which passed over rivers and up an ever-increasing number of steps. In fact, pretty soon it was almost entirely steps, and it was these that eventually killed me – fully laden as I was with everything I might need for the next two or three years of my life.

Still near the beginning, four men passed by in silence bearing what looked like a body on a stretcher, wrapped in a blanket. It could have been supplies perhaps, but it was coming down, not going up, and in any case felt like a bad omen in this strange place in the middle of the night.

I was pouring with sweat and removed all unnecessary layers – including that fucking useless hat.

As everyone who treks knows, it is a hard thing to describe. The route changes, slowly and somewhat imperceptably. The summit seems always very close and very far off. Your mind, despite being focused at all times on the next step ahead, turns elsewhere. The hours pass. All the time you are walking, thinking. But about what?

I forget.

I bore my bags up each steep step, pushed on at a good pace and overtook everyone I came across- sometimes twice or three times if they got the better of me again while I stopped for a break. I got smiles and waves from the locals, and realised I was the only person carrying anything more than a day bag or a bottle of water. (I also had a bottle of water). Stops for rest became more frequent as the trail, as well as each step, became steeper and steeper. Eventually, the air got cooler, the crowds of pilgrims grew denser, but the summit, seemingly back-lit by a red-gold haze against the darkness and in contrast to the white light of the trail lamps, was still distant.

The distant summit

The sounds of the night, chirping insects, the sound of my own footsteps took on the feel of silence.

The last stretch is like climbing a ladder. Hand rails are now a necessity and segregate those ascending and descending. The trail is now barely wide enough to pass, and a long queue forms. I squeezed past old ladies and groups of youths stopping to rest and for a smoke.

Looking back…over my shoulder

When I finally reached the top it was the strangest place I’ve ever been – a kind of concrete plateau. A cold wind blew across the summit. Great bells, the ringing of which had crept into my sub-conscious for much of the journey now bellowed out over the landscape. You had to take off your shoes and socks and hats to enter – it being a holy place.

In the distance was the winding trail of lights I had come up by. It seemed impossible, looking at them, that I’d come all that way, but things always look somehow unreal at night, and also from a mountain top.

Apparently, there’s a big footprint in the top – Buddha’s maybe. I explored man-made caves that ran beneath the stupa and were packed with sleeping pilgrims and butterflies. Sri Pada is also called Butterfly Mountain, and there are butterflies (or moths) fucking everywhere! On every surface and saturating the air.

I got in line and rang a big gold bell, even though I don’t know why.

Barefoot, I looked in vain for a place to lay down, but every available patch of ground was taken.

Finally, after a full circuit of the complex, I decided to take my chances on a series of large stone steps. I climbed to the top, got in my sleeping bag fully clothed, pulled on the hat, drew the draw-string tight and lay down.

As often happens, all it takes is one person to do something… I set a precedent, and every time I woke, which was more often than I slept, more people were asleep around me. Pretty soon I was in a pile of sleeping Sri Lankans.

Everytime I opened my eyes and came up for air it was still pitch black.

Finally I saw the first twinge of dawn and heard instructions from some source and had to stand up, my belongings immediately buried by the crowd, who all gathered together on the steps.

We watched patiently as out of the darkness a jagged horizon took shape in blue, then this horizon separated into several layers and shapes or varying distances. Some turned out to be mountains, some clouds. I have never watched the sunrise in such detail. Like watching paint dry, you would suddenly realise that a whole new object or area had been made visible and you hadn’t noticed…even though you were staring right at it the whole time. Shimmering lakes, great peaks and long strings of cloud came out of nowhere. Blues became golds, reds, whites…I could go on to describe this one dawn for hours. But nobody wants to hear that. (Probably no-one has made it this far.) So, all I’ll say is…go there and see for yourself! And here are some photos which completely fail to capture the experience.

Dawn at Sri Pada

Dawn at Sri Pada

Panoramic of Adam's Peak (Sri Pada) at Dawn

Panoramic View of Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) at Dawn

Panoramic Sunrise from Sri Pada (Adam's Peak), Sri Lanka

Sunrise from Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), Sri Lanka

As soon as the sun was up I kicked my belongings through the legs of the crowd, fought my way to the bottom and started my descent. I had crushed only one butterfly while sleeping, which was a miracle considering the space to butterfly ratio up there.

While most people descend back down the Hatton route, I had a romantic notion in my head to actually “get somewhere” by traversing this peak, so I took the Ratnapura route, down the other side. It was the first time I’d ever passed over a mountain in such a way, and it felt good.

My knees jarred with every step down and I had to brace myself.

The Ratnapura route is greener, longer (one and a half times as long) and is supposed to be the more difficult of the two.

I spent the morning amidst incredible views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, with the shadows of the neighbours leaning on their slopes and creating quite a vista.

Morning glory

Bracing myself for a steep descent

Fellow pilgrims on the Ratnapura road

Going down

I descended into forests, the path leading up and down across the range. I bought salty roti bread and bottles of water and pushed on. I saw clans of monkeys swinging about in the trees above, occasionally sneaking down to rob a banana skin.

I was racing the hot sun, which I knew would soon crest the canopy and be directly overhead, but I was having to stop more and more frequently for longer and longer periods of time. I cursed myself for being so arrogant on the route up, and for never learning to “stretch” at school, and for sleeping curled up in a ball in the cold with someone laying on my feet. Now it was everyone else passing me. My state was deteriorating fast. I began to pay attention to the numbers etched in the steps, and soon discovered that they were giving the number of steps remaining. At 6000 steps remaining, I could barely walk. By 3000 I had spent everything I had and was certain I wouldn’t make it to the bottom. I was taking one step every three or four seconds now. Because of my exponentially slowing pace, every time I did the maths and estimated how long it would before before I reached the bottom, the time was longer. I calculated an hour, walked for 15 minutes, then still I was an hour away. I walked another 10 minutes, not including several long rests and now I was an hour and a half from the bottom.

My legs were now seizing up frequently. Countless times my hips or a knee suddenly gave out and I was almost thrown down the mountainside.

Stopping to rest

I tried rolling my bags down the hill and following, but it was no use. They had already done their damage. Without them I felt light as a feather, my balance was affected and it was even harder to walk. My legs were still fucked now, no matter what.

Other symptoms began to hit me. The bags cut into my skin, bruised my shoulders and spine. I wondered what permanent damage I was doing to myself.

I spent more time now laying on the ground, caped in sweat, resting for ten, fifteen minutes just to be able to walk 100 more steps.

Passers-by were now genuinely worried for me. But what could they do? I wasn’t going to have anyone carry my bags for me. So in true Duffield tradition I said “I’m fine, thank you” and they watched me skeptically as I took a few more paces, bent over at a 90 degree angle, wincing with pain at every jolt, taking now at least five second for each step. Count ten seconds in your head, then think about it.

Nearing the bottom

I don’t know how I did it – it is truly amazing what the human body can be put through when needed – but I made it to the 1000 steps mark and from then on there were no numbers. The path slowly flattened out, but now I was used to the single motion of stepping down a step, and my body set in the required pose, so walking on flat ground was almost impossible. I took one step at a time, and with each I careered to one side and stumbled.

Finally I came to tea houses as the sun broke the trees and bore down on me. It got to the point where if I stopped now I wouldn’t be able to get up again for days. I had to keep going.

I asked someone how far to the end. He said “one kilometre”.

15 minutes later I asked another person. Still 1km.

30 minutes later I arrived at the edge of the Carney Estate and asked how far to the bus station. 1km!

There was no other way down. Tuk tuks couldn’t make it up the path. I kept walking, though walking is not the word for the slow, sideways, lurch that I was now managing to muster every minute or so.

Finally I reached the road! How far to the bus stop? 1km.

I flagged down the first tuk tuk and was shuttled a distance that not even the most stereotypically obese Californian wouldn’t walk, my bones and joints rattling with pain.

I was helped onto a bus to Ratnapura, climbed drenched in sweat onto another bus to Colombo, bought samosas, water, downed it, finally got a window seat, passed out and woke up in Colombo in the middle of the night without the use of my legs.

A tuk tuk drove me around for about an hour before finally landing me at a good hotel I could afford.

To top it all off, a monsoon-like rain struck while I was out buying water and within the space of half a second my clothes (jeans too) were soaked through, a waterfall ran over my face, the streets filled up and burst over the curbs, motorcycles pulled into shops for shelter, gutters and pipes pissed from every direction and I had to drag what were effectively now wooden legs through over a foot of water. Probably there was shit in the water. At this point I couldn’t have cared less.

Still, I managed to feel some optimism that this hadn’t happened while I was on the mountain.

I arrived back at my hotel in such a state that the night porter couldn’t keep the look of horror from his face. I had a long, hot shower, ate, changed my clothes, slept soundly, got picked up by a tuk tuk at 4am and taken to Colombo airport and thus ended my adventures in Sri Lanka.

There are a few morals to this story:

1. Climb Adam’s Peak and it’ll be a breeze – an incredible experience! Take all your luggage though and you’re fucked.

2. Learn to stretch in school.

3. Sri Lankans need to learn more ways of expressing distances than just “1 km”.

4. My friend Adam should have been otherwise named.

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