It was 6.30am and I was 2.2km above sea level on the summit of Adam’s Peak, one of Sri Lanka’s holiest mountains. According to legend, Buddha is believed to have left the print of his left foot on Adam’s Peak when he visited Ceylon. Or if you believed the Hindus, the footprint is that of Lord Shiva who is supposed to have settled on the summit to shed his divine light upon mankind. Or, according to the Christians and Muslims, Adam fell on top of the mountain after being expelled from the Garden of Eden where he stood on one foot for one thousand years. Either way, the ascent up Adam’s Peak has been an ancient pilgrimage which has long attracted thousands of pilgrims from perhaps all faiths and the occasional tourists.
But I digress. I had started my pilgrimage from the base of the mountain at around 3.00am on Saturday in order to reach the peak at around sunrise, a glorious sight to behold when the distinctive shape of the mountain casts a triangular shadow on the surrounding plains. Apparently, you can even see Colombo from here.
Instead of the beautiful sunrise I had imagined in my mind, I was sorely disappointed at the summit. It is the monsoon season. The clouds at the top had completely obscured the view and all I could see was a heavy greyish mist. The winds were howling and it was freaking cold. To top it off, the temple at the summit which holds the sacred footprint was locked outside of the pilgrimage season (which runs from December to Vesak Day sometime in May). I was so discouraged that I did not even ring the bell which every pilgrim does upon reaching the top (one ring for each visit). After waking up in the dead of the night and braving the intermittent rains and the freezing coldness and climbing up 4,500 hard (and sometimes broken) steps, it was pretty anti-climactic at the summit.
But then I thought of the seven-hour journey from Ragama to Hatton and then Maskeliya and finally Dalhousie where I started the climb. On the train passing through the Hill Country, I saw the prettiest sights Sri Lanka has to offer. I was lucky to get a window seat on the train from where I could stick my head out and enjoy the views. I saw towering mountains, verdant rice paddy fields, gushing waterfalls and rolling rivers everywhere. I had a glimpse into the lives of the locals, whether they live in busy cities or isolated villages. I enjoyed a chat with a youngster who pointed out the most opportune moments to take photographs.
On the bus snaking its way up the highlands to get to the elevated towns of Maskeliya and Dalhousie, I saw countless neat rows of tea planted on acres of tea estates. There were many colonial-era bungalows in which plantation managers continue to live in today and a couple of quaint stone churches overlooking the deep valleys. I saw the tea workers in their colourful saree hard at work among the tea plants. It was my first time riding on a local bus and the locals sitting at the back squeezed and kindly offered me a seat. I continued to enjoy the stunning beauty of the highlands.
I also thought of the six hours at Delhousie before the ascent. I did not plan on staying in a guesthouse for the night as I thought I would be climbing the mountain. Although I knew it was the off-peak season and there would hardly be any pilgrims making the climb, I did not expect it to be that bad. In the pilgrimage season, there are lights illuminating the path all the way to the summit; outside of it, the route is totally pitch-black. The pouring rains and the strong winds made it worse. I brought a torchlight and warm clothing as suggested by Lonely Planet, but the prospect of making the climb alone in total darkness and poor weather did spook me a little. Alas, I did not bring enough cash and could not afford the 1,000 rupees per night at the guesthouse. Thankfully, the owner told me to give whatever I could afford and stay until around 2am when I could join other fellow travellers who were in town on Saturday night. I could only muster up 240 Rupees.
When travelling alone, I learnt to rely on the hospitality and generosity of complete strangers.
Eventually, I waited for the rains to subside before venturing into the unknowns at 3am. I did not see any other travellers until near the peak. It was an unforgettable experience walking up in total darkness, with only my torchlight illuminating the few metres ahead of me. Nature sounded very alive in the dark; I could hear the insects’ sounds and the pouring of the waterfalls. I had to tell myself to be focused and not be spooked by the various statues of Buddha and Hindu deities whose eyes seem to be watching my every movement.
The climb took some three hours and I found myself panting heavily thanks to the physical exhaustion and lack of exercise in many months. I could never forget the dog that followed me at the start of the climb and led the way up and kept me company. As I got higher above sea level, it got more misty and cold that it was like walking amongst the clouds. Before long, I have reached the final flight of stairs where I met three other weary travellers. We got into a tiny room in the shelter besides the temple at the peak where we were served piping hot tea and biscuits by a local who stays at the top. It sure felt warm and cosy in the room. We bitched about the tiring climb and were in good spirits despite the cloudiness around the summit which had made it impossible to see any sunrise.
Like all things in life, the journey to and up Adam’s Peak was the most enjoyable. The destination really never mattered.