The Sacred Peak
Sri Lanka's most famous mountain, Adam's Peak, rises above the tea hills and rugged terrain of the Central Highlands. Shaped like an almost-perfect cone, its iconic form is unmistakable and can spotted on the horizon for miles around, or seen through the window of a train on the Ella to Kandy railway.
This striking landmark is one of Sri Lanka's most popular places of pilgrimage. At its summit is a footprint-like depression – the Sri Pada, or Sacred Footprint – which Buddhists believe was made by Buddha himself, while Muslims claim it belongs to Adam, and Hindus say it's Shiva's.
Reaching the summit for sunrise is the primary goal, so the ascent is made by night, with steps to assist you and lamps lighting the way during the December to May pilgrimage season. Alongside pilgrims, hundreds of tourists take on the challenge each year – an experience which turned out to be one of the most rewarding elements of my two week Sri Lanka trip last Easter.
Setting out from the small town of Dalhousie, I'd travelled here the previous day, taking a train from the tourist hub of Ella, then hopping on a bus to Dalhousie at Hatton station. The easiest place to start hiking from, Dalhousie is well equipped with simple hotels and restaurants, all catering to Adam's Peak climbers.
It was 2am when my boyfriend Tom and I set out for the climb. Stepping outside into the cool night air, I looked up to a star-speckled sky and, as we walked up a dark street towards the peak, a chorus of stray dogs howled at the moon. Up ahead, I could see the glow of small street stalls selling woolly hats and high-energy snacks to hikers.
Following the "Adam's Peak" signs out of town, we walked along a stony track and crossed a bridge over trickling water. Sporadic lamps gave just enough light while, above us, the perfect pinnacle of Adam's Peak was silhouetted by the moonlight, a trail of twinkling lights zigzagging to the top like fairy lights on a Christmas tree.
After passing a series of stupas and shrines – including an enormous Buddha reclining on a golden bed – we began the climb. Hikers have two main routes to choose from: a rugged, winding path lit by pretty lamps, or a well-maintained route that's illuminated by streetlights. Although the first looked more magical, we were advised by a couple of monks who passed us that, unless we wanted to add two extra hours to our journey, we should choose the second. Already short of breath after the modest ascent out of town, we followed their advice.
Finding a rhythmic pace was hard at first – while some steps are small enough for toddlers to tackle, others demand giant-like strides, and some sections are so steep you have to clamber up like a ladder. I soon broke into a sweat but the crisp night air felt wonderfully refreshing on my skin, as if someone had turned on the air-con.
A steady stream of other climbers ascended the peak alongside us, ranging from Buddhist monks to a group of twenty-something American girls wearing onesies. Every half hour or so, welcoming tea huts would tempt us to stop, selling everything from bottled water and hot drinks to spicy snacks. Keen to keep going, we only stopped twice for tea, fearing that we'd struggle to restart if we lingered too long.
After 5,200 steps and three hours of climbing, we reached the top at 5am. Cold and weary-looking bodies were huddled together at the summit station, where guard buildings and golden railings had been installed to protect the illustrious footprint, and ensure no one goes rolling back to the bottom.
Joining the group to wait for sunrise, I tried to stay as warm as possible by pulling on a jumper and leggings I'd packed in my rucksack. It's customary for every climber to ring the summit's enormous golden bell, so Tom and I gave it satisfactory "dong" to mark our arrival.
When sunrise finally appeared, it was truly magical. Light flooded the valleys and revealed sapphire blue lakes and slumped mountains drenched in emerald green, while the golden railings glowed in the early morning sun.
The decent was even better, with jaw-dropping views of the Central Highlands. As Sri Lanka woke up and the land started to warm, the smell of fresh leafy trees and the sound of birdsong filled the air, while the smoky fires of the teahouses wafted on the breeze.
Climbing Adam's Peak was a fantastic experience, and one I'd advise any Sri Lanka visitor to tackle. If you're super sporty you could reach the top in less than three hours, but there's no shame in taking in slow – elderly Sri Lankans allow more than four or five hours, and make lots of tea stops. But, no matter how fit you are, one thing's for sure – your calves will ache for days after. Mine certainly did.