A Perfect Day in Ella

11th February 2017

***

The most perfect day starts with a cockroach. It’s a giant one, light brown in colour, lying half-dead in the corner of the bathroom with its legs up in the air and its long antennae twitching wildly. I have a huge phobia of cockroaches, and it takes me a good five minutes to be able to approach it. My friend offers me a shoe and I thwack the critter over and over again. The bloody thing seems to be tougher than steel and refuses to be squished. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Eventually, there’s a crunch. I work up the courage to pick up the remains in a wad of tissues and quickly fling it into the toilet, before flushing it to a watery grave. And one more flush, for good measure.

Undertaking a cockroach extermination mission may not be the most ideal way to begin one’s morning, but the drama is quickly forgotten when I step outside and see this glorious view from the balcony of the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn.

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The day is warm, bright and beautiful, as my friend and I set off into town to have breakfast. We enter a cafe, and the waiter asks if I’m Sri Lankan as he leads us to a table. Not quite, buddy! We start the day with coconut roti, though this roti is nothing like the roti we had the day before. It’s still tasty and filling, though, which is just what we need to see us through a day of hiking through the hills of Ella.

The beautiful views begin as soon as we head out for Little Adam’s Peak, which is about a 2km walk from the town centre. We pass by several home stays and cafes, which are nestled between a colourful maze of tropical flowers, ferns and palms, before the path starts winding gently upwards through glossy tea plantations. Along the way, local women pose for photos while picking tea leaves, a snake charmer plays a pungi to a cobra in a wicker basket, and a young boy runs up to every tourist he sees, asking for lollies.

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Reaching the top of Little Adam’s Peak involves climbing some stairs, but it’s nowhere near as taxing as the climb up Adam’s Peak. This is a good thing, as my legs are still sore from Tuesday’s hike, so I take it easy. Besides, the views are absolutely spectacular, and deserve to be savoured. I have never seen such lusciously green country before in my life.

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When we get to the top, it’s not crowded, which makes it far easier to appreciate the view. We take some time to sit and simply enjoy the stunning landscape that stretches out before us, as far as the eye can see. Ella Rock lies directly in front of us, a striking formation which is softened by the vibrant vegetation that blankets it, as well as the rolling hills that surround it, rising like waves before fading away into misty horizons. I could easily stare at this view forever, and find myself rating this hike far more than Adam’s Peak. With Adam’s Peak, it felt like an experience I did to say that I’ve done it, but with Little Adam’s Peak, it’s an experience I’d come back to do again and again.

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With the midday sun starting to beat down upon us, my friend suggests visiting Cafe 98, which is located at 98 Acres Resort & Spa, a five star accommodation complex tucked away in the hills. The thatched roof bungalows which make up the property are visible from our vantage point on the top of the peak, and we make our way down towards them. Once we reach the cafe, we order a refreshing iced tea (since they’ve run out of the passionfruit juice we’re both craving), and dream about staying at the resort. How lucky are the guests, to be staying amongst such panoramic views.

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We decide to visit the Newburgh Tea Plantation after finishing our drinks, as it is only about 500m away from the resort. We don’t stay long, as the factory is closed, although we are still able to sample and buy some green tea.

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After consulting her guidebook, my friend realises that we are not too far from the famous Nine Arches Bridge, which is situated between two railway stations, at Ella and Demodara. The bridge, which is 24m high and spans a length of 91m, was built in the British Colonial period, and is considered somewhat of an engineering marvel, due to the fact it was constructed without any steel. Instead, the entire bridge is made up of rocks, bricks and cement.

We reach a lookout point and settle into some plastic chairs, as the next train is not due to pass for another 45 minutes. Conveniently, there is a juice store on site. The sun is now shining directly onto us and has reached its peak intensity, so the mango juice I order goes down a treat. While we wait, a small group of people starts to gather, and I have a chat with a Canadian lady whose husband has walked down to the tracks for an up close and personal experience. There are several people walking along the bridge, though they look like ants from where I’m seated. I’m content to observe the train from the lookout point, and fall into a drowsy reverie as we wait in the heat of the afternoon.

At 3.30pm, the train horn sounds, and shortly after, a rusty-coloured train chugs into view, its gleaming roof shining silver in the glare of the sun. It comes and goes in a flash, and with the main spectacle now over, the group of people on the bridge rapidly begins to disperse. The onlookers from the higher viewpoint also begin to leave. My friend and I follow suit, and we begin our leisurely stroll back into town.

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After a long day of walking, my friend and I stop by a street vendor and treat ourselves to a final dessert-style roti. Again, it’s completely different to the previous rotis I’ve eaten- more like a crepe- and I wash it down with a wood apple juice. Then, we buy some snacks and souvenirs from the local supermarket, before heading back to the guest inn. The perfect day ends with a delicious home-cooked Sri Lankan dinner in the evening. The view of the hills on the balcony is now cloaked by a curtain of darkness, but far off, under the pale glow of the moon, the tiny lights of a train can be seen. They twinkle like stars on the horizon, before disappearing into the shadows of the night.

The Third Class Train Ride

10th February 2017

***

For the first time since my arrival in Sri Lanka, I am able to have a lazy morning. It’s 9am by the time I hobble out of my room to have breakfast. Walking is more painful than ever after my recent hikes, and Nawanga is very amused at how slowly I make my way to the dining table. I’m sure even a snail could beat me in a race right now.

As usual, there’s a huge spread of food before me, much more than any one person could hope to eat, and I am filled up with a hearty meal of milk rice, yam and coconut. At 10.30am, I farewell my humble and hospitable hosts, and depart my home stay.

The train bound for Ella doesn’t leave Ohiya until 11am, but when I ask for a ticket in second class, I am informed there are only third class tickets available. No problem, I think- until I try to board the train. There are people hanging out of every compartment door, and no-one shows any indication of moving to allow me on. It’s the first sign that today’s train ride will be a rather different experience to my previous journeys, which have been a dream.

There’s nothing to be done except to push my way onto the train. I manage to squeeze through a horde of people, and quickly scan to see where there’s some free space for me to stand. Sitting down in a seat is absolutely out of the question, and the only area which is not fully packed with people is the middle section between compartments. I move into an empty space and drop my bag in front of me, relieved to have claimed a spot where I still have some breathing space.

As the train begins what is meant to be a two hour journey to Ella, I realise why the section where I’m standing was relatively empty. I’ve chosen the most rickety part of the train, and every time the direction of the track turns even slightly left or right, the two compartments on either side of me feel like they’re straining to pull away from each other. I have a vision of my bag falling out of the sizeable gap that is created by this jarring motion, and me following suit.

Apart from picturing myself tumbling out of the train, I also try to imagine the landscape that is passing by. The train ride to Ella often ranks as the top rail journey to experience in Sri Lanka, due to the spectacular scenery. Unfortunately for me, my view is limited to a wall of chipped paint and a dusty floor. What riveting surrounds. There’s an occasional slice of sunlight, or a flash of wire overhead. Sometimes, the green blur of a tree is visible through the gap. For the most part, though, I just watch a layer of dirt and dust begin to accumulate on my arms.

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It’s hot and stuffy in my enclosure, and as luck would have it, there’s a delay at one of the stations. During the wait, a considerate gentleman shoves into me and treats me to the sight and smell of his sweaty armpit. From underneath his arm, I observe a group of laughing German tourists, who are filming their process of entering the crowded compartment. Their sense of humour is quickly soured when they realise how nigh on impossible it is to lug huge, shiny suitcases onto a train that’s packed tighter than a tin of sardines. Watching their struggles makes me grateful for my small carry-on bag, not to mention glad that my tiny spot of personal space is out of the way of the cramped conditions they have found themselves in.

Time passes by, and everyone’s expressions are a reflection of discomfort and exasperation. But it is what it is, and eventually, a local who I had a brief conversation with at the start of the journey taps me on the shoulder to say the next station is Ella. I’m glad for the heads-up, especially considering there are no announcements on the trains to inform you where you’re stopping, and I sure as hell can’t see any station names from where I’m standing.

Although there’s a lot of people disembarking at Ella, like me, it’s still a nightmare getting off the train, as there’s a mass of people waiting outside who are clambering to get on the train, and they have absolutely no patience for the people trying to get off. Add to this, there’s a bit of a gap between the set of steps leading out of the compartment and the actual platform, and my exit off the train turns into a tumbling fall into the crowd.

With nothing harmed except my dignity, I make my way through the jumble of people and am glad to inhale some fresh air when I finally make it outside. Of course, there’s hardly any time to breathe, as the expectant tuk-tuk drivers who have been lingering by the road now descend upon all the exiting tourists. The local who I spoke to told me the fare shouldn’t be anymore than 150 rupee, so when one of the drivers refuses to budge from 350 rupee, I decide not to waste my time with bargaining, and opt to walk to my accommodation instead.

I’m staying at the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn and although the main street is easy enough to find, a lot of properties are situated off side streets and I can’t see it, despite Google Maps showing me I am pretty much there. Luckily, the local guy who helped me out on the train passes by in a tuk-tuk and his driver gives me a free lift to the guest inn. He also asks me out for lunch, which I decline, as I’m staying in Ella with a friend from my G Adventures tour, and she is due to arrive soon.

My friend gets to the guest inn shortly after I do, and her journey from Kandy to Ella turns out to have been an even more flustered experience than my own. She tells me that she also bought a third class ticket for the train, but it was so full that many people simply couldn’t get on, and she ended up taking a bus instead. After hearing her story, I feel that my train ride wasn’t so bad after all.

After dumping our bags in the room, we decide to head back into town for lunch, as we’re both feeling pretty hungry after our full-on journeys to get to Ella. We are both keen to eat no-frills, street-style food, and end up ordering some kottu roti, as well as a coconut and honey roti. While we’re waiting for our meals, I bump into Mark and Wendy, who I met in Ohiya. They have spent the day at Little Adam’s Peak, which my friend and I plan to do tomorrow.

When the food comes out, the serves are absolutely massive, and we soon realise we won’t need dinner. Both dishes are simple but tasty, and we leave feeling absolutely stuffed. We decide to walk around the town for a while to try and burn some calories. There’s not a lot to see in the town itself, and the main street consists mainly of cafes and shops. The true beauty of Ella lies in the lush green hills that encircle the town, but we are far too tired to explore them today. We head back to our guest inn, which overlooks Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock, and spend the evening relaxing on the balcony, drinking tea, and enjoying the amazing view.

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An Afternoon in Ohiya

9th February 2017

***

After finishing the hike through Horton Plains, Mark, Wendy and I arrive back at our home stay in Ohiya around 11am, and are treated to some delicious coconut and ginger pancakes. An hour later, it is time for them to catch the train to Ella (which I’ll be doing tomorrow) and I bid them farewell. The German couple have also left, so it’s just me now.

I go outside to read, and Muthu brings me a plate of tropical fruit. Not long after, I’m debating whether to make a trip to Haputale and check out Lipton’s Seat when a little face pops into view, extending yet more food in her hand. It’s Nawanga, Mahinda and Muthu’s nine-year old daughter. She has just come home from school. Nawanga’s English is great, and she informs me she is in Grade Four. She then asks whether I would like to go for a tour of her village, and I reply that I would love to. The plan for the afternoon is finally set.

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We set off up the driveway, and Nawanga is none too pleased when her younger brother tags along. She is unsuccessful in her repeated attempts to shoo him off. I laugh and tell her that my brothers are annoying, too. The three of us proceed to traipse into the nearby woods, where the two children run around, and I struggle to keep up with them.

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Nawanga then leads us to a clearing, where a rocky stream runs through a golden meadow. It’s as if we have stumbled upon a secret garden. The two siblings climb on logs and play hide and seek, disappearing behind giant tree trunks or fallen branches. I sit in the grass and think about how wonderful it is that these children have such freedom to play. Having a forest as your backyard must be paradise.

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After a while, we leave the open space behind and head back into the shade of the trees. Nawanga treats me to a rendition of the Sri Lanka’s national anthem. Her face is serious and focused as she sings. I sing her the Advance Australia Fair in return, though I can’t say I’m as good a singer as she is. Once the formalities are over, we take turns being monkeys in trees. In this, I am able to monkey around as well as any child!

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Nawanga is a curious child, full of questions, and one thing she expresses particular interest in is my DSLR camera. I let her take some photos with it, and explain some of the different processes involved in operating it. She astounds me with how quickly she learns the basics, and I find myself in the midst of an unexpected photoshoot. In no time at all, she is adeptly changing the settings and clicking away, framing the forest in black and white before switching the scene to incorporate soft filtered light.

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A gentle rain starts to fall, so I snap a final selfie with my young photographer and we head back home. We spend the rest of the day writing letters, drawing pictures, playing games on my laptop, playing ‘magic princesses’ and painting each other’s nails. She is delighted when I give her a small bottle of perfume and some Australian coins to add to her collection of foreign currency. It’s the least I can do for this sweet and clever little girl.

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Walking to the World’s End

9th February 2017

***

Sunrise

The first thing that hits me when I get out of bed at 6am is this intense, dazzling sunrise, which sets the garden aglow in a glorious gleam of gold.

Actually, I lie. That’s the second thing that hits me.

The first thing that hits me when I get out of bed at 6am is the fact that I can’t walk.

Ok, maybe I’m being over dramatic. It’s not as if my legs have fallen off in the middle of the night- but they ache- badly. My ability to walk has basically been reduced to a slow and painful hobble. Yes, I’m certainly feeling the impact of having climbed Adam’s Peak yesterday morning. However, I’m not going to let my sore muscles stop me from embarking on another walk today. After all, it’s not every day that you get to experience the End of the World.

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Into the Park

It’s close to 7am when the tuk-tuk sets out from my home stay in Ohiya, bound for Horton Plains National Park, which is about 11km away. I’m sharing the ride with Mark and Wendy, the Canadian couple who I met at the home stay yesterday, and we’re going to do the 9km hike together.

The air is cold as the tuk-tuk winds its way through the forested hills. After about 20 minutes, we’re at the entrance to the park. For foreigners, there’s an entrance fee of about Rs 3000 per person. Before entering, we also have to submit to a bag check to ensure that no plastic materials are brought inside the park- something to keep in mind when bringing food and drink provisions.

Once inside, we decide to head down the route which leads off to the right. It’s a loop trail, so it doesn’t really matter which direction you start, but the route to the right is meant to be less crowded.It’s still very nippy when we begin our walk, and there’s frost twinkling on blades of grass in the areas which are still shadowed from the sun. The terrain is gentle compared to yesterday’s walk, although my leg muscles still feel like they’re burning at the slightest undulation.

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Baker’s Falls

We take a quick detour to Baker’s Falls to see the cascading waterfalls. Named after Sir Samuel Baker, an explorer and hunter who discovered the area back in the late 1840s, the waterfalls rush from a height of 20m over a large rock mass into a gorge below.

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The Plains

After heading out from the waterfalls, we re-enter the montane grasslands that cover a vast expanse of the plains. The land is a rusty terracotta colour and reminds me of the dry bushland you encounter after a long, hot summer back in Perth. A range of trees that make up the region’s vital cloud forests scatter the landscape, from the highest hilltops down to the edge of the many rivers and streams that cut through the land like a knife. The national park is home to a diverse range of plant species, many of which are endemic, and thus led to the area being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.

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World’s End

Finally, we make it to the cliffs that signify the World’s End. The sky is dappled with bright sunlight and clouds linger on the horizon. In a couple of hours, they will obscure the impressive views of the peaks stretching out before us, as well as the tea estates nestled in the valley almost a kilometre below. The condensation that forms as the clouds roll over the hills and come into contact with trees helps feed the water supply which maintains the rich ecosystems found not only in Horton Plains, but also Uda Walawe National Park.

For now, though, the view is clear and stunning. The World’s End is the perfect location to stop and eat breakfast and soak up some sunshine while enjoying the spectacular surrounds.

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Little World’s End

About 500m away from World’s End is Little World’s End, named because the cliff drop is ‘only’ 270m (which is a third of the drop compared to World’s End). The views are similar and encompass the south-eastern horizon of Sri Lanka.

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Out of the Park

As Ricky Baker would say, Horton Plains is simply majestical!

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Adam’s Peak: Going Down

8th February 2017

***

I’ve done it. I’ve climbed Adam’s Peak, and watched the sunrise. It’s been an experience I’ll never forget, though whether this is because of the cold or the beauty, I’m not quite sure. I’m glad I’ve done it, but I’m not sure that it’s something I would want to do again, as I’m sure there are other places in Sri Lanka where one can view a spectacular sunrise without having to contend with so many people.

The initial descent from the summit of Adam’s Peak is slow going, as the stairs are too narrow for the horde of people now battling to get down. I’m not too fazed, though. For starters, I know the crowds are far worse on weekends, full moon (poya) days, and Sri Lankan New Year (in April). At these times, the walk can easily take 8-10 hours. Plus, the slow pace at which I’m shuffling down allows me to take more photos. I’m enjoying the views far more now that I have feeling returning to my face and fingers. The day is wide awake now but the hanging mists still make the landscape look ethereal.

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Although the path leading down the stairs becomes less busy, I find myself walking slower than ever. My feet are dragging. My FitBit tells me that I’ve walked 10,000 steps (literally), and all before 8am, too. I’m starting to feel like a zombie. Sleep deprivation has finally caught up with me. The descent seems to be taking way longer than the ascent. Each time I round a bend, I hope to recognise something that will indicate I’m almost at the end, but that never seems to happen. Even though I walked this route only a couple of hours ago, it all looks totally unfamiliar in the light of day. A wide expanse of trees now separates me from Adam’s Peak, its distinctive conical form rising far off in the distance. I must be getting close to the end after all. I can hardly I stood on the top of that peak only a few hours ago.

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In the end, I emerge at the base of the peak without even realising it. I spot the bakery at the place where I’m meant to be picked up, and shortly after, the van which will take me back to Ayos Hill. I am so relieved to see it, and pretty much fall into the front seat. It’s 8.20am. It’s taken me an hour and forty minutes to get down. I’m the first back to the van, and the driver waits around for the five other passengers from the guesthouse, but after ten minutes, there’s still no sign of them. I nod off as he drives around, searching for them. He finds two, then gives up on the other three. All the while, I just want to get back to my room and sleep, and when we do finally make it back to Ayos Hill, I set my alarm to wake me in an hour and have the best.nap.ever.

***

At 12pm, my tuk-tuk driver from the day before arrives to take me back to the train station in Hatton. There’s a quick stop at a local bank to exchange money- it has taken me completely by surprise to discover there are no currency exchanges on the streets, as I’ve been accustomed to in South East Asia. I’m the only foreigner inside the bank, and have no idea what to do within the crowded premises, so I skip the queues and walk straight up to a teller, and thankfully, get seen to straight away.

Then there’s a wait at the train station with a flock of young schoolboys who want a pen, and a poor, flea-ridden dog; a musical train ride, where I drift in and out of sleep while a local man plays a wooden flute beside me, another man drums out a rhythm on the seat opposite me, and half the compartment sings; and finally, after a couple of hours, the slowing down of the train in a tiny station.

I have arrived at the next stop on my solo sojourn of Sri Lanka- a small village called Ohiya. I’ve decided to stay here because it’s only 11km away from Horton Plains National Park, which I intend to explore tomorrow. I’m spending two nights in Ohiya with a local family, and I take a tuk tuk to their home. The ride lasts all of two minutes.

I’m warmly welcomed by Muthu, the matriarch of the family, when I arrive shortly after 5pm. Not long after that, I meet Mark and Wendy, a Canadian couple who are also staying at the property. We spend the rest of the evening drinking tea and talking about travel. I always enjoy meeting people who have lived adventure-filled lives, and Mark and Wendy, who have travelled extensively around South-East Asia, have plenty of memorable stories to share.

We are joined for dinner by Gil and Dorothy, a young couple from Germany. The food is absolutely delicious- a flavoursome spread of rice, curry, vegetables, and tropical fruit for dessert. All the portions are massive. Just when the five of us congratulate each other for finishing the huge plate of rice, Muthu brings out another plate- and the serving of rice upon it is just as huge! By 8.30pm, it’s time to call it a night, as it’s going to be another early wake-up tomorrow for the hike through Horton Plains. One thing’s for certain- I’m going to sleep well tonight!

Adam’s Peak: Going Up

8th February 2017

***

It’s 1.30am and my alarm is ringing. What I should do is wake up and get ready to climb Adam’s Peak. What I want to do is throw the alarm out the window and go back to bed. There is absolutely nothing that appeals less to me at this moment in time than the thought of walking up 5200 steps in the dark to get to the summit of a 2,243m peak. Especially since I have just had the worst sleep ever.

It is recommended that you start climbing Adam’s Peak around 2am in order to get to the top for sunrise, which is around 6am. Therefore, it is also recommended that you go to bed at about 9pm the night before. Being the night owl that I am, it’s hardly surprising that it’s about 10.30pm by the time I settle into bed. Still, I can function very well on minimal zzz’s so I’m not overly concerned at the thought of getting only three hours sleep.

Too bad someone in the village thinks that 10.30pm is an appropriate time for doing construction works. I don’t know about you, but I find it a tad difficult to fall asleep when the soothing sound of an electric saw is grating in my ears. I decide to listen to music to try and drown out the noise. This works well- until my playlist finishes just when I’m on the verge of entering the land of nod, and the bloody saw cuts straight through my dreamy reverie.

By now, it’s about 11.30pm and I desperately want to sleep because climbing a peak on two hours of shuteye is pushing it, even for me. I’m hyperaware by this stage, and not only do I have the grinding saw to contend with, the whole village is buzzing with noise. There are locals conversing loudly, dogs barking even louder, and loudest of all are the vehicles that tear up and down the road every couple of minutes.

Around midnight, the village quietens down and the saw is switched off. How considerate, I grumble into my pillow. I know it’s too late to get anything resembling a good night’s sleep now. I doze off, but my sleep is fitful, and I manage a couple of half hour naps, at best.

So, this is why I don’t want to go for a midnight stroll up a mountain and wish to spend the wee hours of the morning sleeping, like a sane person. But in the end, I get up instead of ignoring the alarm. Because, let’s face it, I am far from being sane.

***

All I’m taking with me is my camera, water bottle and 500 rupee, so I’m ready to go within twenty minutes of my alarm going off. A van is waiting outside the guest house, and I hop inside, as it’s been arranged to provide guests with a free lift to the base of Adam’s Peak. There’s five other people in the van, Russians, I think, and we all sit silently in the dark for ten minutes. At 2am on the dot, our driver starts the engine and we head off. It feels odd to drive through such a small village that is so alive at this hour, but as there are people climbing the peak at all hours, the area surrounding it is essentially open 24/7. The drive to the starting point only takes five minutes. We’re dropped off outside a bakery and told to meet in the same spot around 8am. I get out of the car, eager to get started, and feeling a lot more energised than I’d expected.

Setting out to climb Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada, as it is also known, instantly brings back memories of trekking up Gokyo Ri and Kala Pattar in Nepal, as I started each of them in the middle of the night. That’s where the similarities end, though. Early morning climbing in Nepal was a quiet battle of will against formidable Mother Earth. Here, I feel like I’m climbing up Party Mountain. It’s a very strange feeling, especially considering the religious significance of the peak. It is a famous pilgrimage site for Buddhists, in particular, who believe that the ‘sacred footprint’ (a rock formation near the summit which resembles a footprint) belongs to the left foot of Buddha himself. However, the site is also considered holy by other religions. Hindus believe that the footprint belongs to Lord Shiva, while Christians and Muslims believe it to be the area where Adam first set foot after being exiled from the Garden of Eden.

I’m glad I’m not hiking Adam’s Peak for any religious purpose because it would have been hard to appreciate the supposed sacredness of the site with so much blatant commercialism. On either side of the steps, there are countless shops selling snacks and soft drinks. There’s no short supply of vendors selling street food, or tea, either. Advertisements seem to line every available space. Music blares from speakers, and although there are occasional religious hymns or chants, often the tunes are pure pop. I even notice a few spots where you can stop for a foot massage. I understand that Adam’s Peak is visited¬† by masses of people, but I would’ve thought that half the challenge of doing this sort of walk is to go without some creature comforts. In any case, I don’t stop at any of the stalls. After giving my 500 rupees away as a donation, I don’t have any money to spend, anyway.

I find myself walking at a pretty fast pace, determined to get past all these little shops. By the time I realise the lights that I can see winding up the peak are not torches, like I was used to in Nepal, but the glow of more shops, I’ve actually made it a good way up the mountain. (To be fair, not all of the emanating lights are from shops. Many are also from the lamp posts installed along the way, so you certainly don’t need a torch to climb Adam’s Peak.)

I’m two-thirds of the way up the mountain now, having rushed to try and reach a quiet and still part of the trail, only to realise that no such magical path exists. There’s no need to rush anymore, but I don’t see much point of taking lingering rest stops, either. The stairs aren’t giving me much grief, and although it’s not as crowded as I expected, I figure it won’t do any harm to get to the top early and find a good spot from which to view the sunrise.

Famous last words.

***

I continue on my way, and before long, I reach Tea Stop Central. There’s heaps of people sitting around plastic tables, sipping steaming hot tea. As I walk past, a man informs me this is the last chance to buy food or drinks, as I’m only ten minutes away from the summit. With the knowledge that I have officially just passed the last shop on Sri Pada, I find myself positively bounding up the remaining steps, with JT’s ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’ trailing out behind me. The last few minutes of my ascent are the quietest I’ve experienced during my hike, and I reach the summit of Adam’s Peak at 4.30am- an hour and a half before sunrise.

It quickly becomes very apparent to me why getting to the top much earlier than expected is not actually a good thing. It’s cold- very cold- and the warmest item of clothing I have brought with me to Sri Lanka is a cardigan. A thin, grey cardigan which is providing absolutely zero warmth, especially now that I’m not moving and my body is rapidly cooling down from the exertion of climbing over 5000 stairs. I huddle up against a wall, trying to shield myself from the biting air. I pull my knees up under my chin and wrap my arms around them, stretching the sleeves of my cardigan to try and cover my numb fingers. All attempts to insulate myself fail spectacularly. I sit and I shiver, knowing I’m in for a miserable ninety minutes.

I have no idea if I’m facing east, and frankly, I don’t give a damn. I close my eyes and try to mentally block out the cold, but of course, that works about as well as a trap door on a lifeboat. I open my eyes again, hoping that a few minutes have ticked by at least, only to find there’s still eighty-nine minutes until dawn. I stare at all the people wearing down jackets and gloves with absolute envy. Everyone on the summit looks warm and toasty, except me. While I progressively begin to resemble Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining, an old French couple sit down in front of me and rug up in a blanket. A goddamn blanket. I feel like crying. The irony is not lost on me that I feel colder on the tropical island of Sri Lanka than I ever did while trekking in the middle of the Himalaya in Nepal.

After about forty-five minutes of frozen frustration, the summit is starting to fill up and I hear a newly arrived group debating which way is east. After using their phones to figure it out, they move off to my right. I’m hardly surprised to discover I’ve been sitting facing the wrong bloody direction this whole time. The only reason I’m enduring being chilled to the bone is in order to see the sunrise, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my view be obstructed by five hundred heads after all this mind-numbing effort. I stand up and follow the group to their easterly viewpoint, scanning for shelter. I find a little crevice to crawl into, though a couple of young guys are in the way. They let me claim the spot, though there’s no escaping the cold. The guys are Australian- the first Aussies I’ve encountered so far in Sri Lanka, and coincidentally, they’re also complaining about being under-dressed. Maybe it’s an Aussie thing. We commiserate over a handful of peanuts, and then I close my eyes and wish for the sun.

By some miracle, I think I actually drift off, because the next thing I know, the air is full of murmur and movement. It’s 5.45am, and I open my eyes to see the first signs of the oncoming dawn. A streak of golden light is breaking through the deep, inky curtain of darkness and rising high above the misty-headed hills, curling through the fading night sky like a dancing flame. I get up and edge my way into the gathered crowd.¬† It is still bitterly cold. There’s a Polish family on my left, and a Sri Lankan woman trying to push me out of the way on my right. Below me, a group of people have climbed the roof of the toilet building to gain an unobstructed viewpoint. A couple of them turn their backs on a security officer, who is telling them, repeatedly, to ‘please, get off’. They smirk and laugh while ignoring him. The officer struggles to scramble up onto the roof but eventually succeeds in kicking the group off. I can’t believe how brazenly disrespectful they’ve been. Instances like these make it hard to fully enjoy the new dawn unravelling around me, and I can’t help but feel that yesterday’s sunset, where I didn’t have to contend with any crowds, was far more special.

I return my focus to the changing sky. The veil of night has well and truly lifted and the pale blue light of the heavens looks fragile, as though it might shatter over the steely grey tops of the encircling peaks. To my right, the horizon is glowing, but to my left, it’s a blurry haze of colours, almost as if the sky is melting into the mountains. The layers of dusty orange, rosy pink and baby blue feel like an illusion, as though this part of the world is awakening and dreaming at the same time. Outlines of hilltops come in and out of view, as if playing hide and seek. It’s a mystical atmosphere, and the best magic trick of all is the emergence of a mysterious triangular shadow. Looking at it gives one the impression that at any moment, Adam’s Peak might just tumble into the misty valleys below.

The horizon captivates me for a long time, but by 6.30am, the crowds are beginning to disperse and I’m ready to start descending myself. I decide to check out one final viewpoint. I pass through a corridor and am almost blinded when I come out the other side. Here is the sun, fully risen and blazing in all its glory. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, and the rays of the sun reach out across all the land. It is a sight to behold, but the most sublime thing of all is the sudden heat I feel emanating around me. A huge smile spreads across my face. Standing in this golden shroud of sunlight and basking in its warmth is the ultimate reward for all my efforts.

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A Stroll into Secrets

7th February 2017

***

It’s 6pm and I’ve just finished dinner at Ayos Hill. I’m counting on my delicious potato roti and mango shake to sustain me for my hike up Adam’s Peak in eight hours time. Twilight is falling and I head out for an evening stroll in the little village where my guest house is located.¬† The setting sun is casting a golden glow over the summit of Adam’s Peak and I walk up the street to try and capture a photo, but doing so actually ends up blocking the peak from view, so I don’t end up venturing very far.

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I smile and nod at an elderly lady who is observing me from her front garden as I walk back down the street. She returns the gestures and asks me where I’m from. Australia, I tell her, and she disappears inside her house. I don’t understand the chatter coming from inside, but it would seem the old woman has informed the other inhabitants of the house of our encounter, as I do catch the word ‘Australia’. A minute later, I pass a couple of school girls who smile brightly and say hello. What a friendly village.

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I walk past my guest house but it’s getting dark and I don’t really expect to go much further down the street. I’m just about to turn around when I catch sight of a trail, which is brought to my attention by a group of young cricketers who have just emerged from it, obviously having called it a day given the deteriorating light. I can’t resist checking out the trail for myself, though, and I head down the path to see where it leads. It winds downhill through rows of green bushes, but it is impossible to see where it ends. Tendrils of smoke from an orange flame below me curl up to meet the twinkling moon above. My feet lead me onwards.

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As the final colour of day fades quickly from the world, I stumble out of the bushes and into a secret paradise. It feels like I have walked into a pastel dream the world itself is having; a memory of a forgotten land lost in the mists of time. There’s a grove of trees to my right that look like they’ve come out of an enchanted wood, soft and sparkling in the shadowy hues of twilight. In front of me, a calm and clear lake stretches, its surface as smooth as glass, a mirror in which the very soul of paradise is reflected. Birds sing their lullabies, insects chirp to the moon, and far away the tiny lights of villages twinkle while a hum of distant voices carries on the gentle breeze like a lullaby.

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Not only have I come across this magical scene by happy chance, amazingly, I have it all to myself to enjoy. There is no-one else around, and I’m grateful for this unexpected solitude. Quiet experiences like this are my absolutely favourite, and I sit on the bank of the lake, silent and still, to soak up my serene surrounds. I am loathe to leave, even though the curtains of night have almost closed in around me.

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Sri Lanka has been so busy and brimming with life that it almost seems unreal to have come across such a tranquil place. I feel like I’ve been let in on one of the island’s most secret treasures, and I’m thankful for my sense of curiosity which allowed me to discover it. What a special way to end off a magical day- definitely my favourite day so far.