It seems a little excessive to dedicate an entire blog post to one day, but I think it’s fair to say that this one has been one of the longest days of our lives.
We were sharply awakened at 1.15am by a loud knock on the door signalling it was time to wake up and begin our ascent up Adam’s Peak.
Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada, has been a place of pilgrimage for over one thousand years. People of all religions travel from all over Sri Lanka to climb the 5000 steps to the sacred top of this 2243m peak. For Christians and Muslims, the footprint at the top of the mountain marks the spot where Adam first set foot on land after being expelled from heaven. Buddhists believe the footprint was left by the Buddha as he ascended to paradise, while Hindus say it belongs to Lord Shiva.
After a middle-of-the-night stretching session, we set off with some trepidation at 2am. We’d heard from a lot of different people how difficult the ascent is and it wasn’t particularly reassuring to see how many people were coming back down the mountain in tears.
The first few hours were pretty tough as, still half asleep, we plodded up the seemingly never ending steps. We were buoyed on by the spirit of togetherness that comes from seeing people from all backgrounds, all religions and all ages winding their way slowly up the mountain. We saw children as young as four or five being patiently led up the steps, babies being carried by parents sharing the load and elderly people supported as they hobbled the steepest sections of the ascent. Some of the pilgrims take the long way up to the top and many do it barefoot, which put us to shame in our comfortable, specially designed sports shoes and clothing.
There steps are gently illuminated, but there were frequent power cuts which meant that we were climbing by torch light for most of the way. We didn’t mind – it added to the magic.
By about 5am in the morning, we hit the queues of people making the final push to the top. It took us over an hour to travel 500m but, luckily, we made it to the top just in time to see the sun rise over the misty mountains below us.
Normally these moments are more special when you have to them to yourself, but there was something very moving about sharing this one with what felt like the entire population of Sri Lanka.
The descent was beautiful in the early morning light, but very tough on the knees and we were relieved when, six hours later, we made it back to our hotel at 8am.
So far, so good, but our bad luck was just about to kick in. After six hours of hiking on nothing but a third of a roti each, all we wanted was a decent shower and some food. Annie and I were lucky, but the water went off just as Jamie finally made it into the shower.
After a quick and unsatisfactory breakfast, we headed into town to find a bus back to Hatton. As Annie is only here for two weeks, she’s keen for a few more beach days before she goes back to rainy (and apparently now snowy!) England, so we’re heading back to Hikkaduwa for a last blast of sun and surf. We always knew it was going to be a long day of travel, but were hoping to make it there by the evening.
(Parents: this is where you may want to stop reading)
We bundled ourselves onto the first available bus, feeling very thankful to have a seat for our tired legs. We attempted to doze a little on the relentlessly winding roads and were happily enjoying the scenery when, out of nowhere, a truck came hurtling round the corner and smashed straight into the side of the bus, right next to where Annie and I were sitting. Jamie and I had seen it coming and had just enough time for a few seconds of horror before we felt the massive jolt, but Annie had her head down and, thankfully, hadn’t seen how close the truck had been to her face.
We’re all absolutely fine and completely uninjured, beyond a sore neck from the impact and a few shreds of flaky bus paint on our clothes, but it was a shock nonetheless. Clearly it happens quite often, as while we were still processing what had happened, the locals all started storming off the bus.
A lot of confused shouting ensued as the traffic came to a halt and a crowd gathered to look at the damage. A policeman turned up to make some rudimentary sketches of the scene but, beyond a few waves here and there to tell us to get out of the way, we had no idea what we were supposed to do. Our bags were still on the bus, but we figured it wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
More fool us as, after the traffic started moving, the bus suddenly started speeding off into the distance. The locals all somehow managed to jump into another passing bus or grab a tuk tuk, but we were left sprinting down the road after our rapidly disappearing belongings. Luckily the driver stopped after a while and we were able to rescue our bags, but we were then left standing on the side of the road with no idea what to do next.
Eventually, we managed to flag down another passing bus and squeeze ourselves in. One poor girl was virtually hanging out the door and being held in by another backpacker. We found ourselves stuck next to a middle aged British man who, despite the fact we had just been in a crash, insisted on telling us how ‘it’s no worse than the London underground really, that’s a rough ride too’. Cheers, mate.
We’d been awake for nearly ten hours at this point, but we were unharmed and just 5km from Hatton so, despite feeling totally bewildered and confused, things were OK. Once we got to Hatton, we thought we’d lucked out at finding an air-conditioned minibus heading down to Colombo and settled ourselves in with a batch of samosas, ready for a good nap. Before long, however, the driver had managed to squeeze an impossible number of people into the bus and so things weren’t quite as comfortable as we’d hoped. Annie ended up with a man who smelt very strongly of whisky sitting basically on her lap.
A very long five hours followed, during which we all tried our best not to look at the speed of the careering minibus.
Then, just as we were getting into Colombo an hour later than planned, the rain started. Slowly at first, but before long we were stuck in a full blown tropical storm. We managed to drag our bags off the bus and huddle into the shelter, but we were instantly drenched and repeatedly soaked again by the waves of water created by passing buses.
At 6.30pm, after having been awake for fifteen hours and travelling for seven hours, the last thing we wanted to do was get on another bus to Hikkaduwa. But Colombo is a big and busy city, we had no reservation and it was impossible to get anywhere in the rain. (Jamie and I had encountered some nasty bed bugs in the Colombo hostel we stayed at last time so there was no chance we were heading there again).
Eventually we managed to track down a tuk tuk driver who it seemed would take us somewhere, but after we started moving it was clear he had no idea where we were going and had in fact been booked for someone else. We tried in vain to explain that we weren’t the people he thought we were and that, no, we couldn’t afford the luxury lakeside hotel he was insisting we go to. We finally managed to get him to take us to a hostel that appeared to have rooms available on booking.com and, as our weary legs climbed the three floors with our heavy bags, we discussed how relieved we felt to finally be safe, dry and not on the move.
The relief was short lived as the lady on reception informed us that we’d actually just missed the last beds and they were fully booked. I think the expression on our face and the unearthly groans we emitted must have said it all.
Luckily, this lady turned out to be an angel in disguise and, after we explained that we’d been up all night hiking, delayed in a bus crash and caught out in a tropical storm, she took one look at us and said: ‘It’s OK, the hell is over. There’s sofas, cold beers and food upstairs – go and chill and I’ll sort something out.’
Our guardian angel managed to source us beds for the night from some guests who had an evening flight and she even let us stay for free as they’d already paid. Jamie summed it up when he told her, ‘I’m so tired and emotional, I might actually cry at how nice you’re being.’
Utterly relieved, we collapsed into the chairs upstairs with a very well-deserved beer. All we’d had to eat since the hike was our small breakfast and some fried bus snacks, so we were starving and craving something decent to eat. We couldn’t find anywhere near the hostel and jumped in a tuk tuk to Colombo Fort which, of course, was pulled over by the police moments later who asked to see our passports or ID. Annie and I had handed ours over to the hostel literally moments before and were despairing at the thought of yet another delay to food, but luckily Jamie had his and the policeman let us go without a fuss.
Finally, 19 hours after we woke up, we made it to a pub and indulged in club sandwiches, chips and cold beer. Heaven.
All in all, not the best day of our travelling experience so far, and of course it had to happen after we’d had no sleep and hiked 7km up a bloody massive mountain.
But I suppose travelling can’t all be sunsets and pina coladas, and things could have been a lot worse. We’re taking a little hiatus from buses this week and I’m writing this from a comfortable seat on the train to Hikkaduwa now. All of us are aching from the hike yesterday, but we’ve had a good nights sleep and we’re feeling refreshed and ready to collapse on the beach!