Fitness is something I have come to late in my life. It’s not because I’m lazy, it’s because up until now I haven’t found anything I particularly enjoyed doing to keep up the momentum of regular practise.
For the last 18-months I have been practising Bikram yoga four times a week. I am dedicated and do this even when travelling.
I got into it while in Thailand and I haven’t stopped since. I thoroughly enjoy the focus and discipline required to complete the 90-minute of postures in a room heated to around 40 degrees. It is by no means easy.
But while Bikram yoga is great for building core strength it does not necessarily prepare you to cope with strenuous hiking. On Wednesday morning I stupidly accepted the challenge of climbing Adam’s Peak in the hill country.
Sri Pada, its local name is one of Sri Lanka’s most striking landmarks and the country’s fifth highest peak according to guide books. In layman’s terms it is one huge frickin’ mountain standing at 2234m.
On top of the summit is a Buddhist place of worship where pilgrims gather on the holiest day – Vesak – they believe this is where Buddha put his footprint following the request of a local god.
A guy I have met (The Twitcher) told me about the hike. There are two routes one in Ratnapura where we were and one from Dalhousie which is the easiest ascent. Along the route there are tea houses where hikers and pilgrims can stop to refresh with the country’s finest brew and a roti.
Dalhousie has around 5,550 steps and takes around 4 hours. Ratnapura is much longer and tougher and is estimated to take 7 hours with close to around 12,000 – 15,000 steps (no one actually knows). No prizes for guessing which one we did – here’s a hint – my companion is built like a whippet and is fit as a fiddle.
During the holy festival which culminates on May 14th pilgrims are said to start the ascent during the middle of the night. After arriving in Ratnapura at 7pm i crashed into bed at my guest house desperate to get as much sleep as possible. My alarm was due to go off at 2am. The tuk tuk pick up was an hours ride and we planned to start hiking at 3am.
Here’s how it went….times are approximate.
0200 – pick up. Christ it’s like doing an early shift. Tuk tuk negotiates windy roads around the hills for an hour. Chased by various growling and barking dogs.
0315 – start time. No rain (thank you God). Good temperature, cool not humid. Feeling nervous wondering whether I can actually do this. The flat stretch has bunting all along the route – very pretty flags and lanterns.
0330 – not so bad, steps are broad and not too steep, route well lit. Night is beautifully clear. What’s all the fuss about? The Twitcher sets the pace. Blimey he’s optimistic, this won’t last.
0400 – oh my God I’m suffering. Right Asha slow it down, do it at your speed. You’re considerably older and considerably less fit. Breathe!
0430 – shirt completely saturated, sweat pouring from my body. Seen lots of pilgrims making their way down. Must have started early. Strong stench of body odour from everyone passing. Some carrying overnight bags.
0445 – a man with a build like Ghandi is bounding down the steps carrying a small child – show off!!
0500 – hurrah just seen a step number, oh my God it’s only 2,000-and-something. I’m sure there are only 5,500 steps, not so bad…….realisation, shit that is the other side.
0510 – quick water break. Catching my breath, wringing out my shirt.
0530 – still climbing, in complete silence, listening to the sounds of the rainforest, concentrating on yogic breathing. Moon is orange, sound of monkeys.
0545 – Mind starts to wander…..Mamma Afrika would be proud (best mate) or killing herself laughing. What am I doing here?!!!!! Some people are crying. It’s a tough climb. I’ll be dammed if I shed a tear!
0600 – I didn’t realise my arse had a pulse.
0630 – ten minute tea break with one roti. Black, strong and loaded with sugar. I’m sure the spoon stood up by itself – perhaps I’m delirious from sleep deprivation and fatigue!
0635 – See a man hobbling down the steps into the tea house. He is holding the shoulders of his wife with two hands.
“What happened?” I ask
“She fainted,” he says.
“Bloody great,” i think.
“How many more steps to the summit, another 2,000 or so?” I say optimistically
“Noooooo at least another 6,000.”
“We are barely half way there,” says The Twitcher grinning.
Me: Panic attack. Do I quit now or should I carry on???
0640 – still climbing. I must be demented!! Twitcher is now bird watching while he waits for me to catch up. Who thought this was a good idea? Can no longer speak. Resort to grunting at The Twitcher who is carrying my backpack. I am now using single word sentences: water; iPad, rest, tea…..f***!!!!
0645 – passing lots of old women mid 70s plus descending the mountain. They must have started their journey yesterday. I’m in awe. One stops to give me a blessing. She pinches my cheek and gently taps the side of my face with her palm. She reminds me of my Nan. I smile broadly and put my hands together in the pray position – it takes a lot of effort.
0700 – I learn the climb can be done in two or even three days. Aggghhhh!! Perhaps I should have split this in two? Nowhere near the summit and we still have to climb down. The Twitcher is definitely bonkers, how does he think we are going to do up and down in one day and catch a bus this afternoon? I am dying!! Buttocks and lower back in agony. I take two ibuprofen.
0715 – another tea break – still haven’t been to the loo. Important fact. Shows how much I am dehydrated despite chugging on almost a litre of water.
0730 – sun is out and temperature is warming up. Pass a man with ‘Sri Lanka Adventure Guide’ written on his t-shirt
“Excuse me do you speak English? I say half panting.
“Yes,” he says waggling his head.
“How much further?” I motion to the sky where the clouds have obscured the summit.
“Probably another hour and a half. What country?
Woo-hoo. I feel a boost of energy and do a small jump while raising my hands in the air. “Oh that’s great, thanks, I’m from England,” I retort with excitement after hearing that I am close to the summit.
“You look Sri Lanka,” he says.
“Yes everyone says that,” i respond, “Does it get easier now? Is the worst over?” I say hopefully.
“Oh yes yes,” he encourages.
0815 – Local guide is a liar!
0830 – another short break. I collapse in a heap. I can hear the temple bells. I’m close. The steps are practically vertical and now have railings to help people pull themselves up. I am using upper body strength to pull myself up. Each step is slow and arduous.
0845 – I can see the end. I’m excited. Overwhelmed. Can’t believe this is it!!!
0855 – just a few more steps, “You can do this girl, get there before 0900 and nail this,” I think.
0900 – we walk through together. Completed in 5 hours 45minutes
The next hour and a half we watched as the pilgrims pray and make offerings of fruit and flowers. The bells is rung. Everyone is dressed in white. I feel exhausted and I collapse against the door of the gate with my legs out-stretched. It’s cool at the summit and I put on my hoodie and close my eyes. I must have fallen asleep because The Twitcher wakes me to tell me about the endemic birds he’s been chasing while I’ve been power napping.
At 1045 we started the descent which was easier in some ways but has now left me with painfully sore knees nearly three days later. The climb down took 4 hours with a bit of a break after a monsoon shower took hold. So relived we didn’t get rained on during our ascent.
I never thought I’d be able to achieve a challenge like this and it was a brilliant experience……now I’m just waiting for my legs to start feeling like my own once more.