... Adam's Peak - the holy mountain ... (Thomas Wehrdorfer and Heiko Otto)
Dawn has set for a while now. Countless tea plants light up in the headlights of our car. The whole day we have been in a huge tea producing area in the highlands of Sri Lanka - or Ceylon, as the island is also called. Now and then the light beam captures a few slim Eucalyptus trees. Besides that, it is just tea, tea, and even more tea. Still, the landscape with its mountains, steep cliffs and many waterfalls is anything but boring. That is why instead of relaxing and collecting our strength for the upcoming adventure, we hiked the entire day through the 2000 m high and seemingly endless tea plantations near the "Nuwara Eliya".
Of course, not much of it can be seen in the darkness of the night. The driver's cassette recorder is running in the background and we - my travel companion Thomas Wehrsdorfer (nickname Willi) and me - are trying to make up for some of the missed sleep. However, we soon have to realize that this is absolutely impossible considering all the potholes in the narrow winding road.
Suddenly the otherwise rather silent driver starts to talk. He points out a dark cone-shaped silhouette on the horizon. This is "Adam's Peak" - the holy mountain, our destination. A glowing line is attracting our attention - a chain of lights brighter than the stars, that is in a zigzag line from the bottom to the top of the mountain. The driver says, these are the lights of the pilgrims, who use today's full moon night to hike to the holy temple of "Sri Pada". We are speechless. So many ? Hard to believe !
We still have to drive another 25 kilometers to "Maskeliya" - the small settlement at the foot of the mountain. Even though the driver's speed seems very bold for the road conditions, we nearly need another hour to reach the village. Shortly before midnight we reach our destination. Our driver starts explaining the way to the mountain; however, this is totally redundant. A close packed and brightly lit double series of wooden huts fringes the path which is packed with pilgrims. It can definitely not be overlooked. We are shocked. Naturally, all travel guides have talked about countless people who pilgrim to the holy mountain between January and March. However, we did not expect such a crush of people. The crush, which does not seem to have a beginning nor an end, rushes by huts with incense sticks, colorful Buddha statues and other relics, food, drinks, and candy. Tradespeople loudly advertise their products. The owners of tiny food stands try to catch people by reassuring them that everything further up will be more expensive. We buy an additional bottle of water and join all the pilgrims walking towards the mountain. Willi tries to handle the situation with sarcasm. I am starting to doubt if this was worth all the trouble we went through in order to get here. Actually, I wanted to be out and about in the Bolivian Andes. But even though the trip was planned for such a long time, it was cancelled due to lack of participation. Willi declared on short notice, that he would be willing to do an alternative tour. However, the tour could not have anything to do with mountaineering. And this is how we flew to Sri Lanka on the off chance. Undoubtedly, this tour has already been worth it, as there is more than enough to see on Ceylon. But somehow I was happy to read about the possibility to climb the 2243 m high "Adam's Peak". That this was definitely not an alpine mountaineering tour was clear from the beginning on. I did not have equipment for such a tour anyway, and also I could have never convinced Willi to participate in such a tour. However, I just did not expect to get stuck in human traffic jam. But whatever. Let's enjoy the opposite extreme to the secluded peak ! For now, the partially rough paved way, which is framed by wooden huts and neon tube lights, leads out of the village. The destination, the dark cone of "Adam's Peak" which is hiding the stars, is right in front of us. The zig zag line of neon tube lights points like a giant signpost towards the top. Willi, who is inexperienced when it comes to mountaineering, says that the way can be walked in one, maybe two hours. I am sceptical and am guessing three, maybe even four hours - and that does not include possible stops due to the human traffic jam.
Behind a huge gate made out of rocks the actual ascent begins. Wide worn-out stone steps lead to the foot of the mountain, which is not that steeply rising yet. Even here there are many food huts. Buddhist priests preach and burn incense sticks. Countless beggars hope for the generosity of the pilgrims. A brightly light up Dagoba - a hemispherical shaped Buddhist shrine - invites for a short break. The ascent starts to be steeper, the distance of the stone steps is getting closer. However, the stream of pilgrims does not become any less. Old and young, parents and children, men and women, everyone seems to be magically drawn towards the peak of the mountain. Many of them are barefoot, carry sacrificial offerings or support disabled people. We have been on our way for an hour by now. The initially leisurely hike has turned into a sweaty ascent. Nevertheless, the peak did not come any closer it seems. It is unbelievable that part of the ancient pilgrims have made it to this point, and they did it while singing and praying !
Two hours have passed. Now the steps are very narrow and really steep, some are more than knee-high. Exhausted and sleeping pilgrims are blocking the way. Everything is barely moving. During the lower part of our journey we could determine the pace ourselves, however, now we are almost completely stuck. With great effort we succeed to win a few yards again and again. There are no more food stalls here, and even the previously omnipresent neon tube lights are missing on large sections. Now and then small groups of people are coming towards us and enlarge the chaos on the much too narrow pathway. Three cripples sit in a sharp turn of the way - two of them only have one leg - and try to get a donation by singing. The song sounds horrible, but the fact that the three spindly men made it up to this point, demands the highest respect !
Three hours after the beginning of our ascent the top of the mountain is close above us. We have reached a ridge - and the ice cold wind is whistling over the pathway, which is barely protected by a few small bushes. We unpack our jackets while shivering. We need to take a small break. Underneath us is the band of lights of the neon tube lights all the way down to the valley. A view that is fantastic and unreal at the same time. It is 4 am. Almost exactly four hours after the start of our ascent we reach the little plateau at the peak. Many people are already on the platform surrounding the central sacred place. Countless colorful pennants - signs of the Buddhist faith - flutter in the wind. Everyone who has just arrived, including us, are going to the west side of the platform first. Here, over a narrow passageway, there is a large bell, which everyone who reaches the summit can ring. Every blow symbolizes a pilgrim's tour to the "Sri Pada". Often, the bell sounds five, ten or even more times. We are only entitled to ring once. Afterwards we have to take off our shoes, because now we are climbing a few steps to the adytum: a giant food print in the rocks. Surprisingly, the big world religions have the same opinion about the sacredness of this place ! The Buddhists think that this is Buddha's foot print from when he went to Nirvana. The Hindus think that Vishnu danced there and the Christians and Moslems both think (and the unity of this thought is hard to believe) that Adam has set foot on earth at this place. Awestruck and constantly watched by strict priests, the pilgrims bow down in front of the recess, which is protected by a shrine. The pilgrims say prayers and give sacrifices. No one is allowed to stay long and taking photos is strictly prohibited. A trip around the shrine follows, which reveals other Buddhist, Hindu, or other cult places.
Two monks dressed in orange clothes invite me to come with them to the shrine. This is a great honor, as this area is usually only for priests. Why they chose me I do not know and do not feel comfortable in this situation. I do not know in the least how to behave in the small space in front of the golden foot print. But the majority of the priests is preoccupied with their prayers and do not seem to notice me. The pilgrims are passing outside. Sacrifices - especially money and flowers - are starting to fill up the recess in the rock. I am watching for a while and then escape back outside, where Willi is waiting for me. Now we need to kill time until sunrise. As the majority of the people here we are seeking protection at a wall, where we wait and try to avoid the ice cold wind and coldness and try to stay awake.
At 6.55 am our patience is rewarded. After a grand dawn the sun is coming up as a fire red glowing ball above the eastern mountain range. The triangular and bewilderingly even shadow of "Adam's Peak" is becoming visible on the mountains in the west, which are enwrapped in morning fog. Most of the pilgrims that have endured until now are starting the long descent. They are happy and visibly satisfied. We wait another half hour and let the majority of people go by. Then we also start our way down to the valley with 4619 steps to go. Another great week in paradise is in front of us ...
Report: Heiko Otto Translation: Michelle Kurt
January 1999 August 2017