Before we started on our trek up Adam’s Peak, we had a few stops to make in Kandy. One was to drop down to the Peradiniya Rd area to pick up Choi and Amal’s kit from Kathy’s (their landlady’s) house. So we stopped there for twenty minutes. Then, inexplicably, we went to another house, where we sat outside in the taxi. Amal would not explain why we were doing this when we arrived, and Choi and I (with our limited understanding of any Sri Lankan language except English) had to wait for Amal to deign to tell us once we were on the road that our driver needed to search his brother’s place for the right tape for his car stereo.
It was after seven o’clock in the evening when we finally set off. The distance is not great to Adam’s Peak – about 60 miles, but the roads in the hill country are notoriously bad and winding, so we knew it would be several hours before we reached the foot of the mountain.
We drove down across the MahaweliRiver at Peradiniya and turned left to go upstream into the hills. We went through Gampola and on to a small town, where we found a small restaurant for dinner. I hadn’t eaten an enormous amount since breakfast, so was starving. Like many true Sri Lankan restaurants, the front was a confectioners and tobacconists, selling all sorts of short eats, little pies and rolls, sweet doughnuts and cakes, and stack after stack of Coca Cola bottles. Behind was the restaurant. Most of the restaurants I had been to in Sri Lanka up to this stage were the ones fit for tourists (to put it one way), but this was local café. It had Formica tabletops and plastic chairs on a linoleum floor. A couple of large fans stopped quiet conversations and a group of men were sitting around the various tables, not particularly doing anything. We immediately attracted attention, a white guy, a Chinese girl and a Muslim together, plus the driver who was of unknown ethnic origin.
This was not the usual sort of restaurant, there was no menu. There was a list held in the waiter’s mind (a short slim guy in his early twenties who wore a baggy T-shirt and jeans). We ordered some shredded chicken and rice, and got some Sprite or Cokes. I wasn’t sure whether my appetite was going to be satisfied, or whether I would be so repulsed by the quality of the food that I wouldn’t eat for another week.
We talked again about the prospect of seeing this place of pilgrimage. Perhaps I would be lucky enough to put my feet into Buddha’s footprints on top of the mountain.
The food arrived on tables on plastic plates of various colours. A fork was given to the non-Sri Lankans and we dug in. It was the finest Sri Lankan food I have ever tasted. All the ingredients were so finely shredded that they sunk down the gullet without chewing, and gave a wonderfully balanced taste; not too hot, not too bland and immediately satisfying. Well, not quite. After three bowls I was closer to being satisfied. After another bottle of Sprite, I felt like I was human again and we headed back to the minibus (buying a couple of boxes of biscuits before getting back in the vehicle). We now had a long dark drive ahead. The views we had were as far as the verge, or a distant light on a lonely hillside. There was no context to see.
We drove along a river valley, then we could see we were climbing as the road swung one way then the other. We crossed the railway; the lights of a small station and marshalling yard clearly visible. So many lights in the tropics are fluorescent tubes, which look so out of place in the environment they are in that it gives a lonely harsh atmosphere to many a location at night. And so many of the lampposts or lights are unconnected to any other lighting scheme, like they have organically grown in that location.
On we went. We arrived at a T-junction, and mounted one of the main roads from Colombo that has been turned into the famous carpet. The vibrations that had marked our journey so far; the minibus rattling itself to pieces every time we went over a bump, were replaced by a smooth whirr of rubber on faultless tarmac. Although it didn’t have the straightness (and therefore the speed) of the carpet roads further north, it was still a lot better than before and the driver swung around the corners with gay abandon.
It was then that I realised that we were still climbing, then I was horrified to find out that the valley to the left of the bus was over a thousand feet deep, as I could see a group of lights from a village way below me..
There was very little on the roads. The famous yellow bricks (the huge state owned buses that terrorise every other road user in the day) had long since packed up for the night. But most of the traffic that there was was an inordinate number of other minibuses on the roads; many of them packed with whole families. Old ladies in their Sari’s squashed in with middle age men and women, young boys and girls and a range of teenagers, with a few fat men as well and a couple of wizened old codgers thrown in for good measure. Many had over ten people in them. Some were stopped at little lay-bys having a Ruby Murray; some were broken down and taking ten people to try and fix one tyre. I remarked casually that perhaps they were all going to Adam’s Peak. We laughed.
We turned off this road after about half an hour and the bumpy roads returned. All the way along, the same tape was playing. I can remember this because although the other tunes have now gone out of my head forever, I remember Robson and Jerome singing “Saturday Night at the Movies”. This kept on recurring at intervals of less than 45 minutes. Which had become grating on me before we reached Adam’s Peak. However, I didn’t want to complain as the man in the minibus was obviously enjoying it (swinging the vehicle around with every beat), and I didn’t want to be turfed out into the cold dark night half way up the Sri Lankan hill country at 11 o’clock at night.
On we went, now passing through some tea estates. Again the only thing which told me that this was where we were was the fact that I could see a few clumped plants in the headlights as we turned the tight corners.
Looking in the far right, a string of lights zigzagged up the mountainside into the distance. I asked what it was. It was Adam’s Peak. The route had been electrically lit many years ago, because of the sheer volume of traffic that went up there. We passed more minibuses. It did indeed look a little like most of these people had the same idea as us.