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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sri Pada - The ascent of Adam's Peak

I had many plans for my month in Sri Lanka but my serious ambition was to climb Adam's Peak in the Ratnapura area of Sri Lanka. A religious pilgrimage undertaken by many Buddhists, it's is famous for the huge footprint (the "Sri Pada" - Buddha's Footprint) at the top, the climb is done at night, ascending thousands of steps. Curiously, it is claimed by Christians' and Muslims' as Adam's footprint, and in the Hindu tradition it is honored as the footprint of Shiva. My intention to climb it wasn't based in religion but more personal achievement - Adam's Peak clocks in at a respectable 7, 359 ft above sea level, and although that's paltry by Kilimanjaro or Everest standards, it would be the highest climb I'd ever completed and many describe it as pretty tough, even for experienced hikers. It is a hike, rather than an actual climb - I'm not sure if you could climb it, given that it is conical, but apparently there are 6 different trails up.
Sri Pada, looming over Dalhousie

I had limited time in which to do the hike, given the travel I had to do to get there. Although, Hatton (the nearest town to Adam's Peak) doesn't look that far from Hikkaduwa on a map, I had already discovered that public transport in Sri Lanka doesn't always go where you want it to, even when you're on it. So, I took a 7am train from Hikka to Colombo, standing in 3rd class on a Saturday morning, much to the abject curiosity of the locals around me. Given that I had my backpack and very little sleep, I sprung for a first class carriage from Colombo to Hatton (for the princely sum of approximately 9 euro). First class is an air-conditioned carriage where you have an assigned seat, and they show films (often in Sinhala but sometimes in English). At certain stations, men come on with baskets of various treats. I couldn't definitively tell you what anything they sold actually was but I had some pickled fruit and something hot and spicy that may/may not have been fish. It may not have been the best decision before undertaking a pre-dawn hike but I took my chances.

When I arrived in Hatton, it was absolutely bucketing rain. I had been told to avoid overpriced tuk's and minibuses, that I would find a Hatton-Dalhousie bus in the town. I crossed the bridge with a tuk-tuk driver chasing me, calling new prices as I studiously ignored him. Once I stopped, named my price and he refused but continued to follow me. As I went to cross the road on the other side, a bus drove through a puddle and drenched me from head to toe. The tuk driver appeared before me, trying to wrestle my backpack off me and said "Ma'am, come, 900 rupees." It sounded like a reasonable deal, so I went with him. It turned out to be a great decision, he chatted about the local history on the hour's journey and stopped at sites of interest, including a two-hundred year old tiny Catholic church, a tea plantation and factory and some staggering view-points over the lakes. I tipped him well and he laughed, because I had bargained so hard, but he was definitely worth it.

It was freezing in Dalhousie, having left Hikkaduwa where days were around 30 C, it was an unpleasant shock. I checked in at Achinika Holiday Inn and ordered some food. Unsurprisingly, everyone was doing or had done the climb. I met an English man, German woman and Sri Lankan man (who had been in the U.K and U.S for years) travelling as a group, who were going to attempt the climb that night. As it was out of season, we were strongly advised to get a guide - the path is not lit in November and conditions were very damp, many things could happen. We decided that between us we would hire a guide to lead us, starting at 1.45am, and after tea and biscuits I retired to bed.
Steps, thousands of steps

I'd like to say the room was nice, but it wasn't. There was a leak outside my door, the floors were wet and there were no heaters so I slept with double layers on, under the single blanket they gave me, and my own sleeping bag. I knew I needed to sleep before the ascent and it was only 7.45pm so I popped a couple of Xanax and went off to sleep.

When the alarm went off at 1.30am I wasn't as disorientated as I thought I'd be. I made my way up to reception in utter darkness, squelching through muddy puddles. It was drizzling slightly and I hoped the steps wouldn't be too precarious. There wasn't much conversation as the six of us set off (the group from the night before plus the guide and his dog). Dalhousie is a tiny hamlet and the only purpose it seems to serve is a pit-stop for the pilgrimage to the mountain, all tin shacks and snack shops, with a handful of guesthouses.

It was a twenty minute walk to the beginning of the steps, and our German comrade had decided we weren't going quick enough for her. The guide gave her a spare torch and she strode off, but when we reached the base point the guide had to call out to her, as he could see her torchlight over to the far right - she had gone in the wrong direction! I was relieved we'd stayed with him and silently vowed that I was sticking to the guide like glue for the rest of the hike. Between her and her husband going forward and the Sri Lankan man dropping back, soon it was just the guide, the dog and myself. The guide warned to watch and listen for wild boar (awesome, and my biggest fear had been leeches, not being torn apart by a wild animal) and said that snakes were unlikely but not unheard of. All very reassuring when Sri Lanka has the highest death-rate from snakebite in the world! Still, I soldiered on. I wasn't finding the pacing that hard-going but it was quite monotonous in the pitch dark, the only sounds our shoes on the wet steps. I had heard stories of water gushing down the steps in November but we seemed to be lucky and the rain was holding off. I was regretting my many layers of clothing though as I was building up quite the sweat.

Around 5am, light began searching across the mountainous landscape, finding lakes in the shade of valleys and I realised how high up we were already. As my legs grew weary I asked the guide how much further and he said "Ten minutes more,". The steps became steeper, on such an incline that made it necessary to hold onto the railings provided and still he told me "Ten minutes." When I figured there really only could be ten minutes more, he told me "Maybe fifteen minutes, I promise, and then the top.". Realistically it was about twenty but I so happy to see the temple at the top I didn't care. I was surprised by how many people were waiting, particularly as very few had passed on the way. There were probably 25 people there, eating sandwiches and having flasks of hot tea. I didn't feel hungry but I noticed the cold immediately. It was absolutely bitter up there, like mid-winter in Siberia (well, so I imagine - maybe Ireland in one of the freezing periods that have become the norm of recent winters). I apped back up and gazed around in awe. The views were tremendous and the air was the freshest I'd ever felt, like my lungs were being cleansed with each breath. It would have been the wrong time to have a cigarette, although a few were puffing away.

 Then, dawn. The sky broke apart slowly, the sun filtering through the cracks, lighting us up in a perfect moment. I felt completely blessed and maybe that's the power of the place - the truly awe-inspiring beauty from that view, maybe that's what some people ascribe to their faith, or believe that their God makes possible. Who am I to say?

It was magic.

After a quick trot around the temple (where the footprint is almost hidden, even though it's so large) I had to make my way back down. I intended on having a quick shower and making the 9.20 bus to Hatton so I could get back to Hikkaduwa by bedtime.

I thought the way down would be a doddle. How wrong I was. It's steps, and having climbed all the way up and resting for a bit, my knees weren't at all happy to have to go down again. By ten minutes down, I was almost dragging my right leg along, an old ballet injury acting up after years. By thirty minutes down, leaning on the left leg was causing that knee to buckle. Now I was asking the guide "How many more steps?" and he was saying "Not much longer." Still lying. I was hot (the sun was well up in the sky now), a little injured and very bothered. Triona at her worst. When I got back to the hostel and discovered that my room had no power and cold water, well, let's say they didn't get a good review on The guide, however, got his tip (and had to go back to find the others - our German friend had disappeared again) and I was finally rewarded with a big breakfast (omelette, fruit, salad, 4 slices of toast with butter and jam) but unfortunately no bus.

Suffice to say I did eventually get back to Hikka at 8.30pm that night, where I was greeted by a rat in the house. Sigh. From great heights....

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