As the sun set over the quiet mountain town of Nallathanniya, a cool night approached. We sat together on the on the rooftop of our guesthouse, huddled quietly over steaming cups of tea.
Apprehension hung in the air like a thick fog as we stared out over fields shrouded in dusk’s golden shadow. Over our shoulders, a subtle presence loomed high above us. Although we fought the urge, our eyes would occasionally drift off in to the distance, catching sight of the colossal mountain which sprouted dramatically from behind the tree-line. It was a daunting sight, yet astoundingly beautiful. It caught our gaze and wouldn’t let go.
Sri Pada, or Adams Peak as it is commonly known, climbs 7359ft into the Sri Lankan sky. We’d travelled for hours by train and bus into the central highlands and now found ourselves sitting at its base, nervously waiting to climb and wishing our cups of tea would never end.
It might have been the worst sound I’ve ever heard when my alarm rang at 2am. For an endless minute we considered just ignoring it, disregarding the climb and falling back to sleep. We’d both slept terribly, partly from the cold but mainly from an abundance of nervous energy pulsing through our tired bodies. Luckily, sense prevailed, and setting aside our currant despair we pulled back our covers and hurriedly dressed in to what felt like all the clothes we owned. The twilight was desperately chilly and for the first time in months I could see my breath as I slowly exhaled.
Wrapped up against the harsh morning cold and carrying our stuffed rucksacks, we set off up an ironically steep hill out of the guesthouse. Once on to the main street we could see the bright torchlights of fellow walkers heading towards the start of the trek. We snaked quickly through the town trying desperately to get the blood pumping through our legs. The streets were brightly lit by the locals who had, quite cleverly, set up stalls all along our route to sell snacks and warm clothing to unprepared backpackers. But once through the town we were instantly plunged back in to darkness, a stark reminder of the task ahead.
The story goes that the peak of this mountain was the spot Adam first set foot upon the earth after he was banished from the Garden Of Eden. His footprint remains enshrined at the peak. But for now all we could see were small lights guiding the way up the mountain and in to the sky. It was a beautiful moment as we looked above us and tried to decide where the lights ended and the stars began.
Pressing on, we passed over an old red bridge that the locals had told us to look out for. Below, the ominous sound of rushing water raged in a torrent as we peered over the side in to a seemingly endless abyss. It helped our cause that we had no idea what we were walking into. The size and distance didn’t seem to matter as we couldn’t see more than five steps ahead. We concentrated on that, looking only for our next landmark as it emerged out of a concealed darkness.
At the top of a slightly inclining set of steps we arrived at the Japanese Temple. It shone brightly in the surrounding blackness, the perfect spot for a moment of respite. We knew that from now the path would incline sharply and we prepared ourselves for a lung-busting climb. Ahead of us a daunting rocky staircase leading up to the heavens lay hidden in shadow. But we knew the steps were there, all 5,400 of them.
We slowed our pace to match the terrain and began to encounter more people on the route. Despite our usual cheery nature, we could only manage mutters of good morning as we passed them. Often we received nothing in response. The trek was a solitary and silent experience, perhaps it was the the sense of pilgrimage which everyone felt. Despite walking in tandem with Liska we both descended inward, deciding to tackle the climb alone in our minds. We put our headphones in, zipped up our jackets and focused on a steady forward rhythm against the biting wind.
The intense incline came in chunks, with the steps periodically levelling out to a small, flat landing perfect for a pitstop. It’s possible that the stopping was actually worse than the going. Our legs burned and our breathing was laboured, but we would smile and give a determined nod to continue before pressing on into the approaching morning.
It would be nice to describe more of the walk but for most of the time we were engulfed in darkness. Looking around we saw nothing. Whenever I looked back I tried to imagine the view that this long night was hiding. I was sure we were above the clouds, but my only thoughts involved putting one foot in front of the other. There were no sounds but for the gentle tapping of our feet upon the uneven ground and no smells but that of the fresh, chilly air.
It wasn’t until about 3/4 of the way up the agonising climb that we came across anything of note. A bunch of brightly lit stalls selling tea and coffee appeared out of the darkness. The scent of fresh tea was enticing, but we resisted, deciding instead to ascend in one big push and enjoy our well earned rest at the top.
At around 5 am we came across the final rest station below the summit. A scramble of wooden sheds clung to the mountainside like a favela. Here we treated ourselves to cups of tea and fresh roti bread. It might well have been the greatest snack since the dawn of time. The tea was served in large, dirty glasses but tasted like it had been brewed by the gods. The hot liquid flooded to the tips of my toes, giving me a pleasant reminder that they still existed. We savoured every bite of the chewy roti bread, licking the hot oils from the frozen ends of our fingers. Now that we had stalled, we threw on another layer of clothing and stood huddled in a crowd, not daring to sit down through fear of never getting up. We clung tightly to our cups of tea, feeling the warmth all over as the hot liquid heated our insides and steam engulfed our frozen faces.
All around us fellow pilgrims laughed and smiled. Music was playing loudly and the sense of achievement made our hearts burst. It was nice to end the climb surrounded by strangers who had all shared the same experience.
After draining the last dregs of our tea we made our way to the final brutal ascent. The staircase was the steepest incline we’d tackled yet and we had to walk in single file at a horrendously slow pace all the way up. Above us we could see the feint outline of prayer flags fluttering in the icy breeze. We followed them to the top and rejoiced as we crossed the threshold to the peak.
As 5.30am rolled around we found ourselves sat on a set of crowded stone steps looking out over a horizon hidden by darkness. In the temple behind us monks chanted in unison with the clanging of giant bells. We sat quietly, lost in the hypnotising tide of sound, shielding our frozen faces from the biting breeze. We considered heading into the temple to see the famous footprint of Adam, but it was so crowded we didn’t think it would be worth it.
Instead we waited for the morning, huddled together under layers of coats and hats. By now everyone had arrived at the summit, there were people everywhere, all clambering calmly for a view of the sunrise. Despite the crowds, the atmosphere was solemn, as if everyone knew they were about to witness something quite remarkable.
At first it was just a light blue glow that broke the darkness. It stretched out slowly along the horizon, revealing the silhouetted mountain peaks creeping above the cloud line. Soon the sharp mountain tops began to glow a fiery orange as if a cauldron had been lit below them. The sky warmed and the colours of the morning slowly erased the nights endless dark.
At 6.45am the first glimpse of the sun peered cautiously over the horizon. Its orange brow eased itself into view before erupting emphatically into the morning sky. Magical colours began bouncing off the streams of prayer flags draped across the mountain top. They danced in the brisk breeze, creating a kaleidoscope effect as the morning light graced their surface.
We stood up and let the warm morning rays bath our chilly faces. It was only now, stood upon the magnificent precipice, that we could see the endless green running from the mountain tops down to the lush valleys below us. Only now could we appreciate how high we’d climbed. Far below us the tea fields were a distant dream away, flowing from the mountainsides into smooth rolling hills.
From above it all, I felt a strong connection to the country I looked upon. It made sense that this would be the place to arrive if you were Adam stepping down from the Garden Of Eden. Although we were too high to see, we knew that below us there was life. Ladies swarmed the tea fields, picking leaves and gossiping the day away, large families ran their markets stalls selling warm clothes to pilgrims, and drivers scooted around the landscape, probably unaware as to how wonderful it all really was.
Our descent was a wobbly legged affair. Each time we tackled another treacherous section we would look back in awe at where we’d come from. From below, and with the hindsight of bright daylight, the peak was a daunting prospect. It was actually a blessing that we’d climbed in the dark, if we’d seen the sheer scale on the way up we might have high tailed it straight back to bed.
We walked back down into the valley passing bustling tea stalls and the Japanese temple along the way. The steep decent caused us to skip down most of the way rather than endure the painful trudge. We eventually arrived at the red bride which we’d crossed in complete darkness just a few hours earlier. What had seemed like a raging torrent at the time turned out to be a rather pleasant stream which was now being used by locals for their morning wash.
Strolling back in to town we stripped down to our vests and collapsed at the nearest table. We had an incredible breakfast of coconut hoppers and a pot of tea as we looked up in awe at Adams Peak. With the full effect of the mid morning sun it was truly breathtaking. Hoards of trekkers ambled back into town, all looking bedraggled and crazed by fatigue and hunger. But the mood was ecstatic, a giddy sense of achievement was ripe in the air.
On reflection it was a shame perhaps that we didn’t get to see the footprint atop the mountain. For some people that footprint and the legend behind it, is the whole point of the trek. But that wasn’t our motive. We wanted the challenge and we wanted the view. We got everything we came for and more. We never saw the place that Adam first stepped upon the earth, but we did share the view he was greeted with and that was more than enough.