As I’ve been volunteering in Sri Lanka for the past few weeks with Child Action Lanka, I’ve been saving my excursions for weekend days. Come Saturday, I decided to make my way to Dalhousie and head off early Sunday morning for the night climb up Adam’s Peak.
Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada, is a conical-shaped mountain that is sacred to adherents of four religions on account of the footprint shape that appears at its summit. Buddhists believe the footprint is that of the Buddha, Hindus believe it belongs to Shiva, while Sri Lankan Christians believe that the footprint is that of St Thomas, who they believe travelled east to convert the first Indian and Sri Lankan Christians.
The name ‘Adam’s Peak,’ however, comes from the Muslim interpretation, which is that the print belongs to Adam. The story is that after being hurled from paradise, Adam stood atop the mountain on one foot to perform a thousand year penance.
The mountain has thousands of years of history, and is unique in that it is sacred to Sri Lankans of four faiths. The vast majority of the pilgrims I saw were Buddhist, but Sri Lankan Hindus, Christians and Muslims also ascend the mountain, as do many travellers eager to see the sun rise over the hill country.
I went from Nuwara Eliya, which took three buses and around an equal number of hours:
- Nuwara Eliya to Hatton
- Hatton to a tiny village called Maskeliya
- Maskeliya to Dalhousie.
If you’re coming from further away, say, from Colombo, Kandy or Ella, it’s worth taking the beautiful – but slow – train through the hill country to Hatton and then getting the bus connections to Dalhousie.
There are, as ever, tuk tuks plying the route between Hatton and Dalhousie, but I found the bus was fine. And much cheaper, of course.
Dalhousie, also known as Nallanthaniya, is a small village that acts as a gateway to Adam’s Peak. There’s not much to do, but there are a variety of simple and cheap guesthouses, as well as cheap eats. I stayed at Singh Brothers, which was super convenient but a little noisy, and wandered into a small local restaurant to fill up on kotthu. The evening before was cloudy and wet, so I didn’t much rate my chances of getting the sunrise view.
You don’t need a guide to climb Adam’s Peak; the way is very well marked. In pilgrim season (January – May) it is illuminated and there are lots of other walkers, so it is very safe to do solo.
I awoke at two and left about two-thirty, making my way to the temple that marks the start of the climb, where you receive a blessing from a monk and a white string pilgrim bracelet. The climb starts slowly and at first doesn’t appear too intimidating; you meander gently upwards past teahouses and shops.
After around 45 minutes or so of bounding along happily, the terrain changes – into non-stop steps ascending directly up the steep slope. From then on, it’s a slog – there are over 5,000 steps!
For most of the way up, it wasn’t horribly busy, so I didn’t expect the top to be too crowded. What I didn’t know, however, is that most Sri Lankan pilgrims ascend the evening before and sleep in a number of huts on the side of the mountain.
Even though the terrain is very difficult, Sri Lankans of all ages manage to complete the pilgrimage, the old and young making their way up very slowly the day before. You will see people and have no idea how they have made it up the hill!
I’d read on other blogs and heard from fellow travellers who’d already climbed the peak that if you set off at 2 or 2.30 you’d probably reach the summit an hour or so before sunrise (at around 6.25) and so should set off later. Not wanting to put too much stock in my fitness, I thought I’d build in ‘knackered time’ and chose to set off at 2.30 anyway.
Just after 5am, my GPS showed that I was near the ‘Last Shop’ before the summit and I wished I’d heeded others’ advice. Then, however, I turned a corner and found myself at the back of what can only be described as gridlock. It seems that half of Sri Lanka had gone up the day before and slept on the hill.
The last hour and a half of the climb was anything but tiring, as it consisted of simply standing in a near-stationary queue that crept up the steps at a snail’s pace. By 6am, the first colour was appearing in the sky, and I decided to abandon hope of reaching the summit in time, and scope for a good spot to catch the sunrise.
Hopping just off the path when a clear view through the trees appeared, I reckon I actually managed better shots than the crowd at the summit, who were forced to peer through a crowd of heads. The day was a little too cloudy to provide a classic sunrise, but the cloud did clear enough to allow some colour through.
The Summit and the Footprint
After sunrise I rejoined the queue and just waited it out as a stream of people began to descend. Eventually I was able to make it unimpeded to the top, where I was greeted with beautiful views over the hill country, and was able to see the footprint itself.
The footprint is housed in a building and you can’t take photos of it, but it is, er, sort of footprint like. If you squint.
There is also a bell that you ring as many times as you have summited the peak. Some elderly Sri Lankans were ringing it more than a dozen times!
I chilled out at the top for a while, reading my book in the hope that allowing the crowd to descend would give me a quicker descent down the steps.
I’d forgotten, however, that many of the pilgrims were the old and infirm, who understandably took a long time to get down. Awe-inspiring as it is that people make their way up and down the hill, it doesn’t make for a quick route down when you keep getting caught behind the 70 plus, descending five abreast. I reconciled myself to the slow going, and just enjoyed the views over the countryside.
In short: Avoid the weekend!
As fascinating as it was watching the pilgrims, if you’re climbing between January and May I would avoid the weekend. There were just too many humans in a small space to get the most out of the hike. I didn’t really have the option to climb midweek, but other travellers who did so reported that it was much, much calmer.