If you ever travel the Hill Country of Sri Lanka during the national holiday, do NOT take the train unless you have booked a seat ahead or you only go for a short ride! If you’re travelling for more than 2 hours, then take the bus! From Haputale to Hatton (Adam’s Peak), we did not expect the train to be so full, and we ended up standing 4 hours, packed like sardines, which kind of defeats the purpose of taking the train to enjoy a relaxing ride through beautiful country…
In Hatton, the bus to Dalhousie, the village at the foot of Adam’s Peak, was also jam-packed, but they organized another bus within 10minutes and we got to destination around 4pm, which gave us enough time to check in and walk around town to check out the path we would be taking at night time.
That’s right, we had decided to follow the trend (or tradition?) and start the climb at 2am in order to reach the top of Adam’s Peak (elevation 2243m) for sunrise around 6am. We had read that there were more than 5000 steps to get to the summit, and that thousands of pilgrims would be lining up the narrow staircase, so the climb might take a long time. My mom decided not to climb with us. She was afraid she would struggle up the stairs, and thought she’d slow us down. In hindsight, she could easily have come with us. The first part of the climb was pretty easy, and when it got steeper towards the top, there were so many people that we weren’t able to actually progress, and we ended up moving extremely slowly (but remember, this was during the New Year holiday, so I think it was a special time when throngs of pilgrims decided to climb the sacred peak).
My dad and I had brought sweaters and headlamps but we did not use any. The weather was cool but not cold, and the pathway is illuminated all the way. After 90 minutes of walking, we realized we would easily reach the top by 5am so we slowed down, and stopped for a cup of hot tea. We didn’t pass so many people on the way up, but people seemed to be coming down the entire time. We wondered whether they had started hiking in the evening, spent some time up there in the dark, and then decided to walk down before dawn. I also thought that many pilgrims did the walk at night in order to avoid having to spend money on accommodation (hotels in Dalhousie are slightly more expensive than any other small town in Sri Lanka).
Around 5am, we were not far at all from the summit but we got stuck in line as the path got narrower. Many people sat down on the steps to rest and people had to go around them which created a long line. In addition, people at the very top were securing a safe spot to watch the sunrise from the platform around the temple or on the flight of stairs. We were back to shoulder to shoulder just like on the morning train… it was so packed, we couldn’t move and many people gave up and turned around. My dad was about to do the same when I had the idea to get off the stairs and try to get around the back of the temple. In Sri Lanka temples are always surrounded by a nice golden fence and I thought that maybe we could climb over it from the back… So we extracted ourselves from the crowd and walked around the mob, away from the sun that was just starting to emerge behind the hills. And what a surprise when we got to the other side of the temple! There were 2 other staircases going up to the central platform we wanted to access, and they were absolutely empty (entrance from the Ratnapura south trail)! Everyone had converged at the same place at the front entrance (Dalhousie north trail) to see the sunrise.
There were lots of people at the foot of the temple – on the central platform, but we made our way through the crowd towards the railing, and got to see the sunrise. It was a magical moment we shared with people from all around Sri Lanka. A young man climbed on his friend’s shoulders to take better photos from above. I gave him my camera and he immortalized this moment for us. A few minutes later, the sun was high enough so we could see the surprising perfectly triangular shadow of Adam’s Peak onto the misty clouds down towards the west side. I think you might be amazed as well looking at the photos, since Adam’s Peak doesn’t really have the shape of a pyramid. I forgot to mention we took off our shoes to get to the platform on top, and we were afraid to get cold, but it was so crowded that we kept each other warm!
Right after sunrise, the priests beat the drums and played music to initiate a morning ceremony where pilgrims place offerings in the temple where the Buddha left a big footprint as he headed towards paradise. Catholics believe that the footprint belongs to Adam, where he first set foot on earth after being expelled from heaven. Buddhists call Adam’s Peak “Sri Pada” which means “sacred footprint.”
We managed to get down fairly fast. We often jumped the railing to go down on the left side of the stairs as fewer people were going up after sunrise. Temperatures got hot very fast and the warmer light was beautiful over the surrounding green mountains. My mom woke up around 6 and started climbing on her own so we met halfway up the hill. We enjoyed this experience very much. Yes, we had to wait a long time up the final flights of stairs, but we got to see and experience the local fervor towards this sacred place. The view over the mountains was clearly spectacular and everyone shared the same feeling of accomplishment once on top. I’m very glad I got to share this special place and experience with my dad, who seriously spent the following days proudly telling every Sri Lankan we talked to that he had made it to the top of Sri Pada!