It was as we were hurtling along a ludicrously winding, unlit metal road, in the middle of nowhere, in a 1960s-era bus, original condition, that I realised just how bizarre our pilgrimage had already become. We were essentially rally driving in a bus, watching the left hand side swing wildly to the right, and back and forth; trees, houses and small temples flashing passed, in and out of darkness. Beep, oncoming tuk-tuk; beep and veer, oncoming van; beep, veer and slow down, oncoming bus.
On paper, it had always seemed like a pretty crazy proposition: catch a bus, maybe two, to what sounded like the back of beyond, to wait for the middle of the night, to climb a mountain, using a festoon-lit path of 6,000 steps, to see a sun rise.
Sri Pada, or Adam’s Peak, is perhaps Sri Lanka’s most preeminent religious site. Every year, from full moon in December until full moon in May, untold numbers of pilgrims come to ascend its peak and see what is believed to be the footprint of Buddha as he ascended to paradise.
If your beliefs are elsewhere, it is the place where Adam (of Adam and Eve fame) first came to earth after being turfed out of heaven, or, further still it’s the footprint of St. Thomas, the early apostle of India, or even Lord Shiva himself. Essentially, what this means is that the site is rather holy for a whole lot of people, and January is right in season!
Cleverly, actually more just dumb luck of timing, the night chosen for us to make our ascent was neither a weekend nor a puja night (full moon). On these nights, the reported crowds add hours to the climb, as the masses descend on the area to heave themselves up the lit path to devotion. Of course, there is a certain appeal to timing the experience to coincide with this.
Our night was far quieter. The carnivalesque scenes I’d read about, and quietly hoped for, even just a little, transpired as sitting in a brightly-neon restaurant waiting out the ticking clock, listening to what sounded like a local equivalent of love songs to midnight on the local FM station…groovy!
Thankfully our bus ride included an unscheduled local cultural experience, added in for free.
We thought we’d struck it lucky: a direct 4pm bus from Nuwara Eliya (I still can’t give a pronunciation guide), where we were staying, to Dalhousie (as it looks), at the foot of the mountain.
Then the bus filled up. Then it filled up some more, and for the next 90 minutes, we were squashed into the back seat with three adults and a child. No mind, it was lovely ride through gorgeous tea country; the estates and plantations holding our attention the whole way.
We arrived at Hatton, a major interchange, half an hour earlier than expected, so thought we were #winning. The conductor said that we’d break for about ten minutes. We’d already worked this out, the ‘local bus pros’ we are now, that the bus in front of us would leave once full, then we’d take its place, filling up while inching forward until we breached the traffic current and either moved off or got tooted into oblivion.
The road out of Hatton slowly becomes more rural, windy and narrow, and, as the last light disappeared from the day, the rally driver was awoken. The bumper car part of the ride began, and it looked like we were going to make excellent time. I had read that the road can become log-jammed in season, so I wondered if that’s what the driver knew lay ahead.
However, as we got closer and closer, no scenes of mass pilgrimage appeared, nothing but chilly darkness. That sinking feeling that we were going to arrive into a ghost town with hours to burn added to the rally-induced knots already performing acrobatics in my stomach.
Until suddenly we stopped.
There, in front of us, around a sharp bend, a bus had broken down. The road was too narrow for anything larger than a small van to pass by, so it soon became pretty clear that, until the other bus moved, we were going nowhere. Ignition off.
The first hour passed by easily enough. After ten minutes or so a local man, who works for the local education office, got on the bus and started chatting to us about all manner of subjects: education, jobs, NZ (of course), Sri Lanka (of course), cricket, and how easy it might be for his sons to migrate.
After an hour, I lay awkwardly across half the back seat, head resting on bag, and dozed as the kids became ever restless and fellow passangers’ conversations louder. Our new friend moved on to practicing his English on a Russian woman who got on. The whole atmosphere was fortunately pretty jovial; an acceptance that sh*t happens.
Suddenly, at 9.17pm, the bus roared back into life, and the traffic jam slowly cleared. Where I’d thought that the bus driver might think, “well, f*ck it, we’re already two hours late, might as well just cruise in”, he instead seemed even more determined to test the limits of his bus’ suspension. And so it was we found ourselves hurtling down the road, me considering my life’s choices. That we made it safe with internals albeit shaken is a testament to both the driver’s skill and obvious muscle memory; he knew these roads, every corner and bend.
And so we found ourselves in Dalhousie, in a restaurant, drinking tea and diving into a bag of fried ‘short eats’ deliciousness.
It’s 11.07pm, and I’m now so wired from the afternoon’s ‘adventure’, I’ve started writing this post on my phone. A large group of young local teenagers left a little while back to begin their ascent. Another group wandered passed a few minutes ago, and now three young local guys have wandered in, in search of pre-climb sustenance. When we arrived there were a couple of groups of tourists at the bus stand; I assume they started the climb early too. Otherwise it’s fairly quiet.
There’s loads of stalls lining the streets around us, but 90-95% of them are closed. I imagine they’ll spring to life closer to the 2.30am start time recommended to get to the top by sunrise. I assume that’s when people will emerge from their hotel cocoons.
I won’t be trite and call the climb a religious experience, as I’m not (yet) religious. No it was a physical endurance test through which I was able to experience and appreciate more the concept of religious pilgrimage. It was sublime, a once-in-a-lifetime that will no doubt be recalled for years to come.
It starts out slightly otherworldly: you’re walking between rows of stalls selling everything you could imagine one may possibly need on pilgrimage, like food and drink, religious material and stuff with which to make offerings. But there is also much more stuff that you could never imagine anyone needing: a plastic cricket set, anyone; giant cuddly toys? This is hardly Bruce Forsyth’s The Generation Game.
The stalls slowly start to wane, but are a fairly constant companion most of the way up. Again, mostly closed however. Where they were open, at least at first, the strangeness of two foreigners walking through in the dead of night meant that there was always at least an acknowledgement communicated with eyes: yup, we are all bonkers! Other than that it was just us and the occasional person or people returning from having done an earlier evening climb.
However, from about half way up, we started seeing more people: groups of young people, couples, families including grandparents, the occasional tourists. Not many, but enough to make the experience not solitary.
The grandparents-included family were particularly memorable as they were walking accompanied by a soundtrack of recorded chants, adding a fitting soundtrack to a still might. The way up was accompanied by a lot of music and lights, in fact. There was a monk leading a group of presumably his students, chanting the entire way and becoming increasingly animated with each repetition, and groups of teenage boys and many stalls with boomboxes; Sri Lankan and Bollywood pop the order of the day.
In addition to the street lamps, there were many illuminated and hyper-coloured religious displays and stalls on the way up too.
We barnstormed our way to the top. By 3am we were approaching the summit but sunrise wasn’t until six. Bugger. So we stopped at a rest stop and had a couple of rounds of tea, marvelling at how they manage to cart food and drink supplies all the way up a mountain.
The top is actually quite a large complex, with showers, toilets, shops, a kitchen, waiting rooms, and, of course, the temple. This was a welcome site as the very steep narrow stairs leading there, combined with visual confirmation that the sides of the mountain were rapidly encroaching, and view the backwards, which, even in dark night was spectacularly expansive and exposed, had my vertigo in a very overactive state!
By 4.30am we had found a possie, and rugged up: jerseys, jackets, hats, trouser extensions, double socks, and scarves. We were sitting close to the bell that you can ring, once for every time you have completed the ascent. The number of repeat visitors ringing out to the heavens, combined with annoying tourists taking their instagram selfies, soon extinguished what was left of my over-tired patience, so we moved around to the Eastern side, conveniently, of course, where the sun would soon breach the dark sky.
I took a moment to go into the temple to look at Buddha et al.’s footprint, which you really can’t see, as it’s covered and surrounded by a lot of stuff indicating its significance. But certainly, my fellow line companions, making offerings and kneeling to tap their heads against the rock, were taking it very seriously, as was the policeman making sure everyone behaved.
Not long after 5am, it was becoming increasingly busy (although it was never packed) and was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and cold lying-sitting on cold concrete anyway, so we got into position for a reasonable view, and waited.
Dawn actually broke not too long after, around 5.30am, and suddenly you could see just how far up we had come, as hills and mountains emerged from the cloak of night all around us. And slowly and surely, excruciatingly almost, the sky went from charcoal to blue and green hues with an every-brightening fierce orange glow at the centre; temple musicians playing along, willing the sun to break over the horizon.
And then the pay-off: the kind of feeling and elation that comes from watching a sunrise in a significantly sacred and stunning location, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing the endurance and effort expended to get there.
There was a lols-worthy elderly British gent sarcastically laughing at us all and saying, when you get to my age, all sunrises are the same. And, although he is correct, he is also wrong, for what precedes the sunrises that humans experience in waking hours is not the same, and some are just more special than others.
It was all over relatively quickly. Most tourists buggered off as soon as they had their new Facebook cover photo; they didn’t stay to witness the Monks make their daily offerings and listen to the daily prayers of the faithful. Despite my lack of religion, it was still sublime to witness. It appears they also didn’t know that, shortly after sunrise, if you go over to the Western corner of the complex, you can see a magnificent shadow of the mountain cast onto the landscape below. Luckily, a former colleague, who completed the climb in the 1970s, had told me about it, and we got to experience that final piece of the experience trifecta, while prayers were still going on, more or less alone.
We descended rather more quickly than we ascended, although the pain we are now feeling is definitely the result of the latter. It also allowed us to take in the views that were now before us in clear light and to really make sense of just what a feat we had achieved: our crazy pursuit to climb a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Yup, definitely one for the long-term memory banks, this one!