Adam’s Peak – Attempting the ascent.

 Go to the first post for Adam’s Peak

Despite seeing the mountain in the distance, we were still about twelve miles from it, and we had to take a circuitous route around a dam before we got to the dead-end road which leads up to the foot of the walk.

 We continued to climb around the bottom of the dam.  We now saw a lot of minibuses parked on the roadside, obviously heading for Adam’s Peak.  We thought they must be camping there until later in the night when they would start walking.  We rose to the top of the dam and crossed, turning off the main road on to a small road which led up to the path to the peak.  We now could not see Adam’s Peak, but the traffic was intense.  I was sitting in the back with Choi and couldn’t really see what was going on.   We were flagged down by two young men who told us to park here.  We wondered why.

 There were a whole string of other vehicles there, but we knew we were several miles from the foot of the stairs, so when the marshals were not looking, we started our vehicle and tried to go down the road to get closer.  We had to rush between all these other people walking along the road, and we must have covered a couple of miles.  Suddenly the outline of a policeman loomed up in the centre of the road; he shined a torch at the vehicle, but even in the gloom beyond we could see him shaking his head.  Our driver exchanged a few words and then backed into a tiny gap between two parked minibuses.  We could go no further so we were forced back.  We scoured the line of parked vehicles along the road, hoping there might be a gap, but for the two miles back to the dam we saw nothing, and indeed we had to park beyond where we had first started.

 It was now past midnight.  We stood outside for a while trying to find out about what was going on.  The pilgrimages up Adam’s Peak are always strong at certain times of year, and also around Full Moon or Poya.  There was nothing much left to do except to try to get some sleep and reassess the situation in the morning.  Sleep was pretty difficult, up in the southern mountains of Sri Lanka on a clear night it gets very cold.  The van gave little protection against the outside, and the various loose windows and gaps in the sliding doors meant that the freezing air seeped around us.  And there was still a lot of activity at night, even though we were one row behind the main road, we could hear all the people and several vehicles trying to get up to the path to the peak.

 We exchanged occasional words, none particularly coherent, Saturday Night at the movies thankfully did not come around again and eventually we all drifted off.  No sooner than we were asleep than we seemed to be roused, a dim light was growing in the east, the temperature was at rock bottom.  One by one we emerged from the van and tried to stretch our legs.  As organised as we were we had no food or drink, apart from a few sweet biscuits and mints, certainly nothing warm.  A couple of Polos later, we started to realise that some people were coming back along the road.  Once their stories had been translated, it appeared to be pandemonium at the entrance to the peak path.  Thousands of people had already crammed onto the peak, and more had got stuck going up the hill.  Many more thousands had never even made it to the stairs and had bottlenecked at the end of the road.  The people coming back had given up on their attempt.

Minivan Park

Minivan Park

 Very disappointed that we had never got there, we wanted at least to try and get closer.  We decided to have one last ditch attempt to get to the peak; we could at least try and climb it in the day time, the view would still be incredible. So the van was started again and we headed back along the road.  The true spectacle opened up before us now in full daylight.  Every inch of road was parked bumper to bumper with vans, and we went through areas where our van could only crawl through the throngs of people.  We drove for about five miles, a gushing river visible through the pine trees in the valley to our left.  We managed to get over several hilltops and could see the long slender shape of Adam’s Peak ahead, and the faint outline of the Buddhist monastery just below the summit.  But the sheer volume of minibuses and people halted us once more.  I could just make out the monastery on the peak and the line of the footpath, the specks of colour I could see were probably a million saris and wraps.

As close as we could get to Adam's Peak

As close as we could get to Adam’s Peak

 Reluctantly we turned the vehicle around and headed one final time along the road towards the dam.  Even now, our progress was halted by chaos on all sides.  Hundreds of families walking down the middle of the road, minibuses trying to do U-turns in the road, people cooking on the roadside, children running around while their parents tried to control them and do six other things at the same time.  The occasional family dog which had got lost in the throng and was mindlessly walking out into the road in front of us.

Strathspey

Strathspey

 We were quite relieved when after a further hour we managed to reach the main road again.  We stopped for Choi to take a picture of me above this gorgeous valley and then descended through the tea estates.  Although disappointed that we never got up the famous peak, the morning was so beautiful that the Strathspey Tea Estates and the mountainous terrain almost made up for it.

On the way back

On the way back

 Sometimes you are not expected to do what you want.  I had missed the Independence Day celebrations, the fireworks, well I saw 10% of them, and I never got closer than five miles from Adam’s Peak.   However, I may not have been able to cherry pick the popular attractions of Sri Lanka this time around, but instead I experienced mass humanity in practice and events that most tourists never got close to.

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Adam’s Peak – Saturday Night at the Movies

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.

Adam’s Peak – Shaky starts

It sounded like a good idea.  At least it did when I was sitting in the office at Polgolla Dam, just north of Kandy, talking it over with Choi.  A chance to get away from Kandy for the night, see one of the most exciting places of pilgrimage in Sri Lanka and get some walking done in the dark.

The stories that were told of Adam’s Peak were amazing.  Everyone had been at some stage or another – you can see it from miles away – electric lights in the dark reaching up into the sky for over a mile. Thousands of pilgrims going up three thousand steps to view the full moon and the dawn.  The Peak casting a shadow over the western plain towards Colombo, a perfect triangle, which quickly shrinks towards you as the sun rises higher over your shoulder behind you.  All the stalls selling drinks, trinkets, showing you cobras, or scorpions (my eyes lit up).  It is a fantastic experience.  I had never climbed a mountain in the dark.

Choi and her boy friend Amal arranged it.  We were to hire a minibus (one of Amal’s famous friends of a friend) and we were to drive down to Adam’s Peak through the night, get a couple of hours sleep then walk up the mountain to the peak in time for the fantastic sunrise.  I was warned that we night not reach the absolute summit, because it could get quite busy with people at this time of the year, but Poya, the full moon holiday had been the week before, so it should be a bit quieter at the moment.  It was recommended that we try and drive up to the Fishing lodge off the main road, instead of trying to climb it from the bottom, because it always got too busy down there, and anyway this was a way of avoiding the first thousand steps or so.  We had the lodge pointed out on the map.  With all this good advice, it should have turned out to be a fantastic experience.

So, full of expectation (the details were still a little hazy, but what the hell), Amal and Choi turned up late afternoon to the coffee house in Kandy.  Roger was quite pleased to see the back of me for a weekend.  Due to the 50th anniversary of Independence celebrations that had been planned in Kandy that February, all the hotels in town were fully booked, so for my second visit to Sri Lanka, Roger had invited me to his house to stay.  After two weeks, he was quite happy to get me out from under his feet for a few hours.

As it happened the Independence celebrations never took place in Kandy.  Two days before I flew out to Sri Lanka, the Tamils planted a bomb at the entrance to the Temple of the Tooth.  Roger described how he got through it – he and Flo were in bed early on the Sunday morning and the bang ripped through the city.  Flo remembered saying “That was a bomb” and Roger said “yes”.  No other reaction seemed necessary.  The next thing they noticed was that the dust that habitually settles around all tropical houses was drifting around the room in a grey fog.  They noticed a whole load of windows had been blown out by the force of the blast.  Roger’s house lay straight across the lake from the Temple of the Tooth and must have received the full weight of the shockwaves.  This was confirmed when there was a loud crack.  Flo thought Tamils were taking over the city and wanted to requisition the house as a look out post, but when Roger got up, although the doors were off their hinges it was through no direct human interference.  The force of the blast had moved the portico in front of the house as if an earthquake had hit it, and it leant outwards at a five degree angle, a large crack appearing where it had become separate from the rest of the house.  The doorway had become misshapen and the doors come off their tracks.

I got a hasty message in Chatham the next day that not to worry, the visit could still go ahead.  But the planned celebrations in Kandy were cancelled and moved to Sri Jayewardenepura (Kotte), the new capital on the outskirts of Colombo, where security was always tight.  This was a big disappointed to Kandians, but they were promised the firework display.  Like a lot of times I have spent in the third world, information is passed round fairly informally, so no-one quite knew what form the firework display was now going to take.  Some said that it was to be across the lake at Kandy, in which case Roger’s house would have been a prime viewing point.  Others said it had been moved out of town.  Roger and Flo organized a party at their house on the night.  It was a great barbecue out on their lawn.  Throughout the evening we peered into town to see whether there was any activity.  Quite a few people had gathered but there seemed to be no officials there.  About eleven o’clock when we had all but given up hope that we would see a sparkler, a loud bang heralded the start of the fireworks (at least we hoped it was this and not another attack by the Tigers).  We could not see any activity in the lake but we could hear all the noises, whistles and bangs you should expect from a display.  Finally, someone spotted the exploding head of a rocket, about five miles off to the east through the trees in Roger’s garden and beyond some hills.  The display lasted for some twenty minutes, but all we saw were the tail ends of the largest rockets, and we heard all the explosions.  After timing my last visit so well for the Perehera, it seemed like this time round I was going to miss out on all the fun.