“Would you like some tea?” asked the sergeant of the Sri Lankan army.
“Oh, yes please,” I said, grateful beyond words for the offer.
I had just clambered down 12 K’s of one of the toughest stair cases I have ever endured. 6,642 steps over 13 K’s to the top of one the most sacred locations in Buddhism – Adam’s Peak, which is named for the Muslim’s belief that Adam (of Adam and Eve fame) landed here after he was thrown out of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit.
The Buddhist believe it is where Buddha ascended to Nirvana.
The place has been around for over 2,000 years, conveniently located in Peak’s Sanctuary, just outside of Ratnapura, a busy town at the foothills of some majestic fog-covered jungle mountains.
In fact, the great explorer, Marco Polo describes the chains he uses to climb to the top. Those very same chains, albeit slightly rusty, are still there, just under the peak.
It’s hard to imagine how the monks of yester-year got the materials to build the monastery up here, 2,242 meters above sea level. Fitness is not the only thing you need to conquer this mountain of pain. It’s the endurance levels of pain that hurt you, pushing on when your body begs you to quit.
And the good sense to stretch once you return to the base.
I like to think of myself as quite a fit person. I’m very physical in my day-to-day activities. I walk every where, climb what I can, surf when there are waves and usually eat healthy. I have a high endurance for long distance running and my pain tolerance would put any torturer out of their mind.
But this climb? It almost defeated me.
Somehow, I had decided to take the long way up: 13 K’s of stairs that took me 6 hours to climb, through, heat, then cool air as the clouds rolled in, rain and then, at the 6 K mark, I reached the base of the peak. I looked up and almost cried.
Fuck me. My legs screamed for me to go back. My brain said I’d never make it. My heart, thundering in my ears, was ready to jump out of my chest cavity and call it a day. I was drenched from sweat and had already eaten four bananas for energy (I had two more and two mangoes).
With 3 K’s to go I stumbled on, stupidly ignoring everything my body was begging me not to do.
The flow of a stream and small waterfalls could be heard from somewhere behind the wall of jungle canopy that lined the stair case all the way to the top.
The fucking top.
It just seemed unreachable. I looked up and all I could see were stairs at an 87 degree angle. But my stubbornness, inherited from my mother, kept me going. As I climbed higher, the temperature dropped. I have never in my hiking life stopped every five minutes to rest, my head hanging low as I contemplated taking another step, wiping the sweat dripping from every pore in my face, sipping from the 1.5 liter bottle of tap water (Sri Lanka is not only one of the cleanest Asian countries I’ve been too, but has safe, drinkable tap water).
I huffed out a ‘hello’ to the few locals that passed me as they climbed down carrying huge sacks of what I can only assume to be rice. As I broke through the fog and came to a gateway with a large statue of Buddha at it’s base I looked and sighted Adam’s Peak, the monastery sitting atop it, laughing at me, daring me to continue.
It is these moments that I hate the most. When you’re so close yet so far and can’t believe you still have so much to go to reach the top. Then again, it’s never about reaching the top but the journey you take to get there. I was 3 K’s away from the peak, stairs at 90 degree angles.
I tried not to think about the rice and curry that I would gorge myself on once I returned to the village and the Pirwai Hotel (which was a family home with one room for rent). Instead, I focused on reaching the top as I stopped to breathe every three steps, right beside Marco Polo’s chains (which I forgot to take a photo of. Merde).
As I jump-started myself to reach the top, waving a limp ‘hello’ to the worker renovating the last steps atop the 2,242 meter peak, I came across a group of students from the international school in Colombo. They were on a field day with their teacher, Mr Lockwood who gave usthe history of the place.
I offered my mangoes and in return was counter-offered ginger snap biscuits, crackers and cheese, some mandarins and the mother of all heavenly goodness atop a mountain peak, the honour of polishing off the jar of Nutella.
“Where did you guys come from?” I asked, pretty sure I hadn’t passed any one besides the locals on the way up.
“Through the jungle,” said Mr Lockwood. “It’s about a 4-hour trek but there are leeches,” he pointed to his boots. “Hence the leech shoes.”
Give me leeches any day over 6,000 steps. I’ll take it. Especially when the 13 K climb takes 6-7 hours. I took in the spectacular view of the surrounding jungle and a lake dotted with small islands in the distance.
Then the bell rang out 16 times.
“That’s the amount of times Mr Lockwood has been up here,” explained John, a kid of 15 (I think) from Australia. “Every you time you come up here it’s tradition to ring the bell.”
And so, after feasting and resting, I rang the bell, and cemented my mark in the still-wet cement beneath it.
At 15:00, an hour after I had finally made the peak, I bid ‘farewell’ to the students and, not quite looking forward to the decent, made a slow, yet quicker than the climb, progress to the Pirwai Hotel, some 6,000 steps below.
As it grew darker and I ignored the dogs that barked and growled, I had my first Sri Lankan tea at the hands of the kindhearted sergeant, deployed here to help with the renovations of the stair case.
“How many times have you climbed up?” I asked him.
“Once, daily,” he bobbed his head side-to-side.
My jaw dropped as I sipped the hot, sweet tea. “Stootie,” I thanked him in Sinhalese and made my way down the last K with my flashlight. I reached the hotel, had three serves of rice and curry with two fried eggs and another cup of tea before I showered and crashed into bed by 19:30.
The morrow would have me riding the bike 200 K’s south to the coast for my first surf in four months.