The slow rhythmic booms and vibrations of a gong. Buddhist monks murmuring their prayers. And the sun rising up over the mountains. Welcome to the mountain of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka.
The Rickshaw Drive to the Mountain
I’d arrived the afternoon the day before after a forty five minute rickshaw ride up the southern reaches of the Central Highlands. A man I struck up a friendship with told me the driver was reliable, and because he was already heading my way I would get a good price. You get sceptical of such claims in Sri Lanka, but he turned out to be true to his word, and I barely spent anything on the journey, happily waiting while my driver stopped off along the way to pick up some shopping.
Arriving in the village of Nallathanniya, I drop off my things at a hotel and go for a wander. The only reason anyone comes here whether Sri Lankan or foreigner is to climb Adam’s Peak, so every stall is geared towards ‘tourist tat’ – cheaply made goods and souvenirs to commemorate your climb. There’s also tons of sweet stalls filled with sugary snacks. Helpful for a boost on the climb to the top maybe.
Adam’s Peak, or ‘Sri Pada’, is claimed to be holy to just about every major reason. The Buddhists say the footprint at the top of the summit belongs to that of Buddha, the Christians and Muslims say it was Adam while the Hindus say it was Shiva. As I leave the stalls and head back to my hotel, I can’t help but think that a decision should be reached as to who really owns this bloody mountain!
Walking through the village, I notice two white girls sitting in a cafe. I don’t want to climb the mountain by myself, so I go over to introduce myself. Turns out they’re from France, and yes, they’re climbing the mountain tomorrow. We agree to meet at the start of the climb at 1:30AM.
Sitting back at my hotel I have a spectacular view of Adam’s Peak from the balcony (it’s reasonably budget for this backpacker – honest!), and I fill myself up with a hearty dinner for the night. Packing snacks and water for the climb ahead, I feel well prepared.
The Trek Begins
I’m an eager man for trekking up hills and mountains, so when my alarm goes off at 1AM I jump up without a grumble. But Christ, the moment I step out of the hotel and into the early morning air, it is pitch black.
I stumble along the path (my hotel is one of the furthest from the village – told you it was budget!) something unseen growls at me, and I freeze. I not about to be attacked by some rabies infected dog, or some wild pig or whatever the hell lives in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. I flash my torchlight around and carefully continue forward.
As I get to the village, I notice the shadowy figures of small groups here and there making their way to the mountain. Yes, travellers make this journey, but no, they are not the majority. This hike is still a major spiritual (and I reckon simply dutiful) undertaking for Sri Lankans, and they are bused in from all over. Mothers, fathers, children and grandparents all making the climb together.
I meet up with my French partners and head off towards the start of the climb, where we are greeted by smiling Buddhist monks. They’re building a new temple they say, and so donations are
expected welcome. I donate slightly less than the average amount (I’m on a budget!) after which they tie a white string around and my wrist and utter some kind of prayer. I actually enjoy this; it helps me become present to the undertaking before me, rather than consider it as something pedestrian for ticking off my tourist to-do-list. Maybe I’ll donate more next time.
We leave the monks and begin the climb. And boy, was it the hardest climb of my life yet.
It Always Starts Off Easy
It starts easily and in good spirits, but as the increasingly vertical and large steps ahead come into view, we now understand just how far we have to go. Jesus. This is going to be four to five hours straight, and as the crowds thicken and the pace slows, I’m in no mood to be late for the sunrise.
Seriously, things take on an atmosphere of self flagellation for some of the Sri Lankans, particularly the elderly people. They agonisingly recite something that reminds me of work songs depicted in films about American slaves, only more torturous sounding. Families grab hold of the young and elderly who are already struggling and dutifully pull them onwards.
Me and my French partners separate every now and again, only to meet up again at the checkpoints where we stop for a breather, a snack and some water before heading off again. I’m not too humble to deny that one of my strong points is resilience in the face of a steady climb. People might sprint faster than me, punch harder than me and lift heavier weights than me, but when it comes to endurance at a steady pace, I leave them crying like babies in my wake! But I digress.
We’re nearing the top and it starts to get cold. When this cold air mixes with the sweat that has steadily built up, you’re left with this horrible chilly feeling. I curse that I haven’t bought a woolly hat like so many of the Sri Lankans, and stop off for tea at the last checkpoint.
Around me, some people looked like they’ve already given up. They huddle together, heads down, fighting their inner demons. Maybe this is why we climb, why anyone undertakes the hard pilgrimage to holy sites. You learn that the climb to anything will be tough, but, simply put, just do it, and you will get there. Nike were right all along.
I empty my cup and collect myself for the last stretch.
Here we go.
Two lines had formed by this point, separated by a railing presenting opportune gaps every now and again. I dart under and around it when I can, like lane hopping on the motorway. Other times I straight up tailgate people and lose my patience. And then suddenly, a welcome sign.
I’ve made it.
The Summit of Adam’s Peak
A guard warns me about pick pockets, and
expects invites me to leave my shoes to the side, as with all religious sites in Sri Lanka. After being warned about pickpockets, the last thing I want to do is leave my beloved North Face walking shoes out of sight. But I do as I’m told and head to the summit.
Tons of people throng together on the floor. Collections of young tourist groups have already made it, college trips from Europe or something. While the Sri Lankans wander in and out of the temple in the centre and pay their respects, I huddle on the floor to try and stay warm, wondering when the sun will come up.
And not long after, people start jumping to their feet.
Dawn Over the Horizon
Damn. Why hadn’t I got next to the railings at the edge? Somehow I fight my way to a good spot, and join in the collective awe and respect that washes over us as the first ray of sunshine flies over the horizon.
The monks start to hit the gong rhythmically. Excited voices call friends to better spots as more sunlight pours in. And at the most special of times like this, there’s only one thing to do:
Whip out your camera phone.
Seriously, people think there’s something mentally wrong with you if, rather than enjoy the moment and get in touch with your feelings, you don’t instead choose to get lost in the technical details of taking hundreds of pictures that you can show people in the near future for all of a couple of seconds.
So naturally, I start taking a lot of photos.
Soon, the moment passes and the daylight is everywhere. In the swarm of camera phones with people attached to them when I realise I’ve lost my French partners. Unable to see them, I decide to leave. Going down is equally as hard, so I jog it in order to get over the exhaustion as quickly as possible. In fact it gets really weird going down as I leave the crowds and the people become few and far between. It’s almost as if there has been no struggle to the top, no huddled masses and no elderly folks killing my vibe.
Finally making it back to my hotel, I immediately pack my things and prepare to catch the next bus out of the village. No time to rest for this weary traveller. And as luck would have it, I bump into the French girls on the next bus! So where did you run off to, ay?
The White String
Months after, that white piece of string was my favourite souvenir from travelling. It became increasingly dirty through the sweat of Sri Lanka, the diving in Thailand and the dishwasher jobs in Australia, until it finally fell off in my new home in St Kilda, Melbourne. I’m looking at it now as I type, grey and dirty, but still highly prized.
So if you’re looking for your next mountain to climb or have never tried one before, I heartily recommend Adam’s Peak. If you’re religious, then apparently the footprint up there belongs to you (not the other guys), so you might get a kick out of it. If you’re agnostic, atheist or just spiritual, then still you get to experience a breathtaking (literally) journey.
And if you do go, then you might just bump into me; I’m very keen for a new white piece of string to tie around my wrist.