Monthly Archives: December 2013

ADAM’S PEAK

P1060887“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.P1060894

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 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).

P1060896I 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. P1060912

“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.

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Categories: Adventure Travel, Asia, Conservation, Sri Lanka | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

STORMING ACROSS THE OCEAN

“So wake me up if you see another boat, if the wind picks up or if you see a black cloud,” Captain Francois informed me before retiring below deck for the night.

It was 21:00, the start of our 3.5-hour night-watches and I was the first one up.

“No problem,” I said. “Boat, wind, black cloud.” I looked around.

Above me the stars shone, hanging delicately like a crystal chandelier. On the water the kryptonite-green phosphorous plankton blanketed the wake the boat was leaving as we floated by at 2 knots due to the lack of wind.

Black cloud. Black cloud.

I stared out into the black night. The Indian Ocean reflected the blackness turning everything into the kind of darkness that you only ever read about in the bible. In the distant horizon an electrical storm was blitzkreiging the northern tip of Sumatra, bombardments of light resembling an artillery fire in a war zone.

Black cloud. Black cloud.

Manu came up to hang for a bit and survey our surroundings.

“Hey Manu,” I began sheepishly, “how am I supposed to see a black cloud in the black night?”

“Don’t worry,” he grinned. “When you see it, you will know.”

We were anticipating a tropical storm that had been brewing in Thailand two days ago. It was scheduled to reach just north of our position and travel parallel to us towards Sri Lanka. We were to take advantage of its tail-end and use the weaker winds to push us along towards the island nation of tea and cinnamon at our SSW heading of 240°.

After being denied safe anchorage in Sumatra due to lack of papers (but the 4-hour stopover provided some awesome snorkeling) we had continued chugging along with almost no wind. South East Asia had just been hit by the most powerful storm in recorded history, making Hurricane Katrina look like a walk in the park. I was under the assumption that anything after that would be pretty powerful so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to sailing in the middle of the ocean with a storm up my stern.

P1070192So with the ocean turning into a lake with water flatter than a chopping board we motored throughout the night. Before the sun blew itself out in another spectacular array of orange to yellow-pink-red light I registered the positions of the surrounding clouds.

At night their outlines resembled a Roman garrison patiently waiting out a fortified Masada before going in to sac and pillage.

I loved sitting on the beach in Darwin during the wet season and watching the storms roll in, huge black clouds with lightening shooting out of every corner in every direction, like Pink Floyd’s ‘Pulse’ concerts.

I was in the state of Kentucky back in 2005 when Katrina hit. I experienced her tail-end with sheets of rain coming down.

Not drops – sheets.

The storm we were avoiding was bigger in size than the island we were headed towards. The kind of storm that would make the news. And not just local news – international, “This is CNN” news.

I love storms – from a distance, in the safety of a concrete home with a crackling fire and a soft couch; a rhythmic, hypnotic tapping of rain on every surface. The ferocity and power always makes me think of them as nature’s mercenaries, sent for a quick in-‘n’-out operation.

‘Reek as much destruction as you can,’ I can imagine Gaya pep-talking to her clouded army. ‘Leave nothing untouched. Remind the humans who still has control.’

But here I was in the middle of the Indian freakin’ Ocean – no cracklin’ fire, no couch. Just water all around.

And if the anticipation of a mega tropical storm wasn’t enough, my stomach was not handling the salt content of this night’s dinner too well, a storm of its own brewing deep within me. Apparently, the good people of Thailand love a high salt intake. There was more salt on the noodles than in the ocean.

When Manu had dropped the noodles into the boiling water they immediately floated to the top, as though they were in the Dead Sea. I suppose shooting the salt water in chasers with the chef wasn’t the best idea either.

Neither is waiting for a category 3 newsworthy storm.

Two hours into my shift my panic and terror, like the artillery lightening in the distance had subsided.

The shell-bombing that was ripping through my stomach didn’t.

I double-checked for boats – none.

Wind – calmer than air.

Black clouds – all whites and albinos as far as I could tell (the moon had popped up and I used her for assistance).

Now was a good a time as any. I hit the head and hoped, like Gaya’s mercenary storm clouds, for a quick in-‘n’-out operation.

16 DAYS AT SEA

The watches came and went. Breakfast was whenever one would wake up and lunch and dinner served at regular times, a split job between myself and Manu, a French culinary genius who taught me a few tricks in the galley.

P1060485Showers were a dip in the sea, getting dragged behind the boat on a rope. Nothing like swimming in 4,000 meters of the bluest water I had ever seen to make you feel smaller than plankton. When the rains hit, we used the opportunity to shower in fresh water.

During our first night the Genoa got shredded and we had to sail on the main sail and a smaller replacement called the troutement (or something like that). In the morning I helped the captain hoist another Genoa that was already torn but we hoped would last until Sri Lanka.

4 days later it ripped along with the spinnaker. 2 days later Manu and the Captain stitched up the Genoa and with the wind picking up we were finally making some head way.

P1060789I wasn’t sure what day it was when I awoke to the sound of a fishing boat chugging along side us with Manu and the captain bartering for some fish as we hadn’t caught so much as seaweed. Where they came from is beyond me as we were 450 miles from land. We exchanged some smokes, a bottle of Kickapoo soft drink and some canned goods for two large fish that served us well for two lunches and dinners.

“Big storm coming,” said one fisherman.

 

 

The captain wasn’t taking any risks and brought out the life vests. “When you go on watch attach yourself with this rope to the boat,” he said.

That’s when I realised that this shit was about to turn real.

That night the wind whipped up. In the distance I saw the biggest, blackest angriest cloud I had ever seen. There were no stars as it descended down, appearing to swallow up the sky.

“Francois?” I woke the captain during my watch. “Big black cloud on the horizon.” I hoped that the shaking that I felt didn’t come through in my voice.

The rain that hit us was torrential and when the wind changed direction – right when I changed shifts with Manu – we were blown into one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. We were surrounded by at least 16 ships, cargo, tankers and super tankers, boxing us in. It was the equivalent of riding a bike and being boxed in by 18-wheeler trucks.

I went to bed, rolling from side-to-side (not by choice) terrified of what may or may not happen.

When we sailed from November to December I was glad to sight land on the horizon. After the formalities of customs, quarantine and other country entry bureaucracy we were finally allowed entry into Galle, Sri Lanka.

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