Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Climbing Sri Pada

I climbed Sri Pada on the 10th of January of the year 2023. I was still calling the mountain Adam’s Peak when I went up it, but on the way down I decided that it was more respectful to call it by the name the locals use. I had first glimpsed the mountain during my first visit to Sri Lanka, a year earlier. I saw it through a car window in the distance. “One day I will return and climb it,” I told myself, but I never imagined that I would do so just twelve months later. I often create lists of ‘things to do’ and items on those lists tend to remain on those lists for decades. I can be slow at compiling these lists and I found myself in the position of having to scratch out the words ‘Climb Sri Pada’ before I had even added them. Life is full of such ironies, luckily or unluckily.

Climbing mountains is one of the greatest delights of my existence, but the number of mountains I climb per year is low, on average just one, and I attribute my lack of drive to the typical mountaineer’s ‘peak lassitude’, which isn’t like the ‘peak performance’ of other kinds of athletes. You go up a mountain, stand on the summit and take a good look, then you climb down and look up, to see where you have been, and it is the theory of the climb, which has just been done in practice, that seems to be so exhausting. That’s my theory, anyway, or maybe it’s not quite deserving of the name ‘theory’. Perhaps it’s just a speculation or an excuse. But as I’ve always said, an excuse is as good a reason as any. I climbed Sri Pada and am still enjoying my fatigue.

Having arrived in Colombo by modern jet aeroplane, as one usually does, I caught a bus to the village of Maskeliya in the Central Province of the island, or rather a series of buses, as I couldn’t work out how to catch a direct bus there.

In fact, I first went to Kandy, a city on the way, or almost on the way, and stayed in a pleasant and cheap hotel for one night. I went to the Royal Bar for a meal and a drink, one of my favourite pubs in the world, and a place with strong nostalgic overtones for me. It’s a restored colonial building and I often feel like a restored colonial man, so it matches me perfectly. What I mean by this is that I’m getting old and cranky, but my foundations are solid, and my façade can be regarded as a noble one. There was a power cut while I was sitting at a chair on a balcony that overlooks an inner courtyard and the chef wasn’t able to prepare hummus in the dark, so I made do with chips and ketchup.

Sri Lanka was still reeling from the effects of economic mismanagement. I was expecting food and fuel shortages and disruption of public transport, as well as frequent power cuts, but I experienced little inconvenience, and I wouldn’t complain even if I had. Stiff upper lip and all that. A few days later, my British legs were stiffer than any lip has any right to be. But now I am jumping ahead. I couldn’t jump anywhere when my legs were stiff. I could hardly walk. But now I am drifting off the point, just as I drifted off the route when I was hiking to the base of the mountain. I am jumping ahead again. Let me go back a little and let me explain that all the inconvenience I didn’t experience because of economic mismanagement is still there, adversely affecting the people of the island, even if visitors don’t notice it. It’s important to be aware, even if the only thing we’re aware of is that we aren’t really aware.

From Kandy I caught a bus to Hatton. Every seat of this bus was occupied, and I had to stand. I wasn’t alone in standing, many other passengers were doing the same thing, and it was only the pressure from all these other standing bodies that prevented me from falling over on the winding road to the town of Hatton. I say ‘road’ but in fact it was just a series of bends that climb higher into the hills, an impressive drop on one side, no barriers, and a driver who liked to accelerate on those bends, presumably to teach them a lesson, or to teach us a lesson, about inertia and maybe some other laws of physics. It is cheaper than paying to use a rollercoaster and rather more sociable.

But the landscapes are beautiful. Tea plantations on undulating slopes with mountains in the background, and plenty of lakes. We reached Hatton and I tried to find another bus that would carry me the remaining distance to Maskeliya but I failed in this endeavour and caught a tuk-tuk with a talkative driver who acted as a tour guide on the way. “That’s a mountain over there, don’t know its name, and down there you can see a lake, not sure what it’s called, and reflected in the water is that very mountain. Imagine!”

At the time I had no idea that Hatton was the birthplace of one of my mightiest heroes, the explorer Eric Shipton, a man who climbed for real all the mountains I just gape at in picture books, and who probably found genuine evidence of the yeti, unless he was playing a prank and made the footprints himself. Who knows?

The tuk-tuk arrived in Maskeliya, which turned out to be a small place in which all the restaurants were closed, and it was impossible to secure a cup of tea or coffee. The fact we were surrounded by tea plantations and innumerable coffee bushes meant little, for all the tea and coffee was exported to Britain. I should have had a cup before I left my own country, I was informed. I replied that I had come from India where tea and coffee are daily occurrences, or even hourly occurrences, if necessary. There are numerous similarities between India and Sri Lanka, but also some differences. No snow-covered mountains on the island, for instance, therefore no yetis.

My tuk-tuk driver dropped me off on a dusty street full of holes over which his vehicle had been bouncing like a distorted rubber ball, and I found the place where I was staying. I was warmly greeted by my hosts and their two dogs. My room was above a garage and this building was the very last one in the village. I was given a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits to celebrate my arrival in such an obscure location. So, there was tea to be had in Maskeliya after all! I found it to have a pleasant but unorthodox flavour.

After I had drunk half a pot of the stuff, I was told it was coffee. So, there was coffee to be had in Maskeliya after all! Coffee that tastes like tea. Or rather, coffee that tastes like tea that doesn’t taste quite like tea. I learn something new every day, or nearly every day, even if it’s only that I don’t learn something new every day but only once a week. Does that make sense? I won’t say the altitude had affected my mind, because although we were quite high, we weren’t really very high. Maskeliya has an elevation of approximately 1205 metres. Nothing to write home about. But I only have an elevation of 1.74 metres, so who am I to pass judgement? I drank more of the tea.

For a few days, I prepared myself mentally and physically for the coming climb. I played with the dogs and read some books. One of the dogs had a habit of sunning himself on the roof of the house and I couldn’t work out how he got up there, onto the corrugated iron. Maybe he turned into a monkey by the light of the moon and turned back to a dog once he reached the roof. Magic is always a useful explanation for such mysteries.

At least it is useful until we know better. And often that ‘better’ turns out to be worse. Whatever the solution to the mystery, he was a nice dog and that’s what ultimately counts. An abacus also counts, but rarely ultimately, because it is limited by the number of beads on its wires. I went for a walk at a waterfall on the far side of the enormous lake that dominates the region horizontally, in the same way that Sri Pada dominates the region vertically. That was also part of my preparation. I drank more coffee.

During my walk to the waterfall, it began raining and I ran for shelter. It’s a terrible thing to get wet on the way to a plummeting column of water that fills the air with spray and wets the onlookers. Almost as if the sky is trying to spoil the surprise. I found shelter too, in a lookout point with a roof. Two young men were sheltering there and they had a drum with them and they invited me to play it, which I did, while they did a peculiar dance. Perhaps it was the opposite of a rain dance? I didn’t think to ask, but I should have. The rain stopped. We left the shelter and went our separate ways. I ambled along a narrow path to the top of the waterfall and looked down.

Lots of gushing water making a roar. The world is God’s bathroom and he had left the tap on. That’s what it was like, a little anyway. I ambled back the way I had come and caught a bus to Maskeliya. An old man waiting at the stop thanked me for being British. It was the British, he told me, who brought tea to Sri Lanka. Before we came along, they only had mango juice and coconut water to drink. Appalling! I am uncomfortable when I am thanked for being British, and it does happen, more often than one might suppose. When the bus arrived, he was too emotional to board it and decided to wait for the next one. Personally, I like mango and coconut.

The day of the big climb arrived, or rather the night, for I had to depart my comfortable room at 2:30 in the morning and sit in a less comfortable tuk-tuk for an even less comfortable ride to a mountain that I could very uncomfortably climb to the top. I later wrote a poem about my climb which asked the question, why do I climb mountains at night in order to see the sunrise? The punchline of my poem was that I didn’t know the answer until I reached the top and then it dawned on me. Many or most poems don’t have punchlines, mine do. But this doesn’t mean mine are in the right. Sometimes I imagine they are punch drunk and that’s surely wrong. Punch can be made with mango and coconut as added ingredients, but probably not with tea.

The tuk-tuk stopped and I dismounted and began my hike to the base of the mountain. There are several routes to the base of Sri Pada. Some are easier than others, and some of the easier ones are much longer than the harder ones, making them harder in some ways. That’s mountains for you. I walked up a stony path and into a forest. I began to suspect that this was the dry bed of a stream rather than a proper path and I thought of my own dry bed in my room in Maskeliya. Too late, I was committed to the climb. It was a forest where leopards and elephants roam, but I didn’t know that until later, for there was no sign of them as I trudged up the inclines.

After a few hours I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. The mountain should have loomed above me, but it wasn’t to be seen. That was weird, but I am used to getting lost on hikes and climbs. I even get lost in cities when I have maps. I’m not saying that I am a terrible navigator, but I would be very unlikely to employ myself as a guide to anywhere. I decided to push on in order to see how lost I actually was. The only way of doing this efficiently is to become even more lost and then compare the degrees of lostness, if lostness is a real word, which probably it isn’t. Ah well! I noticed a light far ahead that was a beacon of hope, and I increased my speed.

The light belonged to the isolated hut of a tea picker. At least I assumed the hut was a worker’s shelter, but it might have been something else, of course. I had hiked out of the forest and into a tea plantation. Yes, I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, and now I needed to go back and find that somewhere. But if I looked for it, I probably wouldn’t find it. Best not to look for it and stumble on it by pure chance. That was my strategy.

And it worked. I wandered off the path again, the wrong path, and luckily managed to end up by accident on the right path. The Buddha told us to follow the middle path, but there were only two paths here. I would worry about this at the top of Sri Pada, where there is a shrine to him. Incidentally I am extremely interested in Buddhism, it’s a religion I find most compelling, the one with the most reasonable ideas, but what do I know?

I can’t honestly say that my attempt to climb Sri Pada was a pilgrimage as well as a minor adventure. It would be nice to make that claim, but it would be dishonest. Maybe one day I will return in a more spiritual frame of mind and try again. I finally reached the 5500 steps that led up the side of the mountain and I climbed them and was rather astonished to find tea shops on the way, tea shops open all night. So, this is where the tea really went! Then I asked myself, how are these shops supplied? The tea must be carried up on foot, step by step, as there’s no other way of doing it, unless it is dropped by parachute, which is so improbable an option we can disregard it.

Five thousand five hundred steps up and five thousand five hundred steps down makes eleven thousand in total, and that’s a lot of steps. At first it seemed easy, because it was easy, then it began to seem more difficult, because it was more difficult. When things are exactly the way they seem, I find that it focuses my mind acutely. My legs were tired halfway to the top, but I told them to take heart and not let down the other parts of my body, which still wanted to get to the summit and were relying on them. I also told my heart to take heart. It didn’t really require that advice, as it happens.

Finally, I reached the top. The sun came up. It came up effortlessly, without the need for steps. The sun is five billion years old but acts like a youth, setting a good example to us all. Funny how it sets this example when it is rising. But I am wandering off the point, and the point is not a path. I took off my boots and approached the shrine, which stands on a small area at the very apex of Sri Pada and overlooks the other mountains and hills in every direction. Inside this shrine is the footprint, but it has been covered over with a golden seal in the shape of a foot and I can’t report on what it actually looks like. I also rang the bell that has been provided for the use of summiteers.

I don’t know if ‘summiteers’ is a real word. I could check but I worry that it might not exist in the lexicons and then I would feel obliged to change it, and I don’t want to do that. Musketeers is a real word, so I don’t see why lexicons should feel a need to pick on summiteers. If they picked on musketeers, they’d soon be sorry! The bell at the summit of Sri Pada should be rung the number of times the ringer has climbed the mountain. I rang it once. Then I began the long descent. I found this harder than the climb because my knees were sore, and my legs were shaky. They wibbled and wobbled like jellies in the shape of limbs, a very cunning pair of jellies no doubt, but a feeble set of legs. Nonetheless, down I managed to go, slowly, surely, puffingly.

On the descent, two boars crossed my path. They were very casual, a more nonchalant couple of wild pigs can hardly be imagined. They trotted out of the undergrowth on one side, stopped to admire the view, then carried on into dense undergrowth on the other side. I noticed that their legs didn’t wibble or wobble. It’s true that I might not be able to tell a wibble from a wobble when it comes to a pig because I’m not a trained vet. I’m not even a wild vet. I am no kind of vet. That goes without saying. I went without saying too, downwards again, until at long last I reached the bottom, exhausted.

All the photographs have been provided by Rhys Hughes

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



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