Winner of the Australian Times (UK) Travel Writer Competition August 2013
Yellow and white butterflies fluttered like tissue paper along the sheer staircase overhead, receding into the mountain mist with the steps. “Look, the butterflies are saying to follow them,” Amila said, “just like they told the ancient kings.”
The butterflies come from the four corners of Sri Lanka’s island to worship Buddha’s footprint and die, story has it. As I heaved up the remaining steps, I was thinking I might have to join them. My lungs were wheezing like clapped-out bagpipes. I was sure the air was made of gravel.
“You mustn’t think of giving up,” my Sri Lankan companions encouraged me. “Don’t think about what’s ahead. Take each and every step as it comes. Don’t look up.”
Worshipers believe it’s unlucky not to finish the climb – causing the mountain gods great displeasure.
Like the butterflies, I’d been lured to the sacred mountain of Sri Pada, Adam’s Peak. I’d been seduced by the fairy-tale picture - like a child’s drawing of a pyramid mountain with its winding staircase leading to a temple in the sky.
But on arrival I’d found a muddy path lined with stalls of bald-headed dolls, plastic bats and balls made in Korea and psychedelic-coloured ornaments. It looked more like a scene from Blackpool promenade than the entrance to a sacred mountain.
And sure enough, Sri Lankans were stepping out in flip flops and smart-casual dress as if taking a stroll on the sea-front, not heading up a mountain of 7,359 feet. They pottered along carrying large flasks of tea, plastic bags of snacks, even children.
The path was easy to begin with, the red tilak pressed upon our foreheads to give us Saman’s protection – one of the guardian gods of Sri Pada. As first-timers, white cloth bands were tied to our wrists too, a coin wrapped in them for luck. At Indikatu Pana we’d unravelled spools of thread along the hedgerow. Here Lord Buddha had paused to mend his robe, it’s said. The threads stretched out along the path-side like a great white cobweb.
“Karunavai,” pilgrims greeted us. Compassion.“Theruwan Sanarai.” May the triple gem of Buddha protect you.
Amila encouraged me to greet the pilgrims with these ancient spiritual greetings. I stumbled clumsily on the words but the Sri Lankans smiled and answered, delighted that this European was speaking ‘their language’.
The atmosphere on the path was one of cheerfulness and encouragement. A couple of teenage girls stopped to give me a handful of dried fruit.
As we climbed every upwards, the steps felt relentless. A mother and daughter struggled upwards. “How old is your mother?” I asked. “Eighty-three – and on her 65th ascent.”
I scolded my 50 year old self: Get a grip.
At last we’d ran out of steps. Below the temple, monks were laughing together, huddled over steaming cups of tea. We passed on by, making our way to the shrine of the giant footprint venerated by four major religions: For Buddhists, none other than Lord Buddhas; for Hindus, Shiva’s; for Muslims, Adam’s and for Christians, St Thomas’.
I stood with my own thoughts as Amila bowed down at the shrine of the footprint. We tied our wristbands on a post and made a wish. Dimuthu and I rang the bell, its announcement of our ascent echoing over the Peak Wilderness. I thought of the eighty-three year old ringing the bell sixty-five times – one peel for every ascent.
“You know, if your wish comes true,” Dimuthu said. “You must come back and climb the mountain again.” I nodded and smiled. I’d asked for happiness - and happiness was climbing Sri Pada just the one glorious time.
Turning to face the long downward climb, I felt strangely emotional. It was just a mountain for me, yet at that moment I felt something in my life was going to change.
It’s 8pm at night and the pavements of Bandarawela are packed cheek-to-jowl with shoppers seeking out fire-crackers, clothes and last minute gifts for the Tamil-Sinhalese New Year. Dimuthu is on a different quest, however.
Bandarawela is a vibrant, thrown-together kind of town stuffed into a deep-sided valley. In the darkness beyond, hills of thick rainforest, tea plantations, waterfalls and flat valley floors of watery paddy fields stretch out for mile upon mile.
But here in town, festive lights drape from shop fronts and trees. Colourful tuk-tuks line the roadside like matchbox cars, decorated with home-spun stickers: ‘Life is nice with whife,’ ‘Only one sun shine for all’ and ‘Who flies not high, falls not low.’
Dimuthu weaves through the three-wheelers as I follow behind intrigued.
"Ice caps?" Dimuthu calls out above the high-pitched sound of horns and squealing brakes. "Ice caps?" she inquires over the cries of hawkers selling string-hoppers, oil cakes and sweet sticky dohol from kiosks.
Puzzled by the odd request, I catch up with Dimuthu striding purposefully along the street, sweeping aside flowing saris, loitering teenagers, hawkers with crates on their shoulders and young women in sparkling t-shirts and jeans. We side-step stacks of empty cardboard boxes and pavement displays of fruit and veg.
"Ice-caps?" Dimuthu asks a street vender selling coconut. My curiosity deepens: we may be in a highland town decidedly cooler than hot and sultry Colombo, but hardly cold enough for ice caps, surely?
I try to guess what an ice-cap might be: An iced drink? A cooling lolly? I’d settle for either. I’m guessing Dimuthu isn’t after an ice mass covering a highland area? Not here. Not in Sri Lanka, a mere four hundred miles from the equator.
The hawker points us in the direction of one of the grey concrete blocks stacking the main street, Jenga-style. I follow Dimuthu inside the store. The walls are lined ceiling-to-floor with shelves of fabric displaying every colour, pattern and texture imaginable. There’s enough material to clothe the entire female Sri Lankan population in saris for the New Year - but not an ice cap in sight.
"It’s the wrong season," Dimuthu sighs, but still she continues her search.
"Ice caps? Yes, Madam," a shop assistant says several stores later, and from behind the counter he lifts out a stack of … balaclavas.
Dimuthu tries one on. Her dark brown eyes peer out doubtfully from the slit in the thick woollen hat. The hat looks incongruous in a store crammed with shoppers dressed in summer cotton. We may be in the uplands but it’s still 20 degrees. Dimuthu shakes her head. The balaclava is hardly a fashion statement.
In the next store, a bare-footed shop assistant leaps onto the glass-topped counter and reaches for an assortment of woollen caps from the highest shelf. Dimuthu picks out a navy beanie embroidered with New York and pulls it on her head. She gives a sideways head-wobble: it’ll do. Tomorrow she won’t freeze on the sacred mountain of Sri Pada, Adam’s Peak – Sri Lanka’s second highest mountain at 7362 feet.
If only we could have invested in a crystal ball instead. We’d have discovered that the 3 hour journey to Dalhousie from Bandarawela would take 5 hours over pot-holed roads; that we’d sweat our way up more than 5000 knee-wrecking steps under the heat of the midday sun - and that we’d curse the hats, jumpers and coats weighing down our bags, never once used.
Instead Dimuthu emerges happily from the shop, scanning the higgledy-piggledy buildings in front of her.