I could barely see the road through the foggy windshield as we went careening through the darkness towards Horton Plains National Park. The driver didn’t seem to mind the jarring clang of the long expired shocks bottoming out as we bumped along up the mountain pass road, occasionally wiping the glass with his hand and squinting to make sure we didn’t miss one of the hairpin turns. We wound along the serpentine cutbacks higher up into the mountains overlooking the peaks below, silhouetted by a thin reddish-orange glow fading into powder blue and then into the still starry night sky above. I tougued the finely ground Sri Lankan coffee that had lodged itself between my teeth as the caffein started to take effect. Maybe it’s stockholm syndrome but I had begun not to mind the stuff. Beats Nescafe instant coffee.
The hike was a two and a half hour loop through lush rainforests, past waterfalls, and along the cloud forest cliffs of “Worlds End”. The overgrown trail a few feet from the edge occasionally cleared exposing the picturesque valley below. Without any guardrails to protect hikers, a German tourist had met her demise a few months ago taking a selfie. I made a mental note to resist the urge to tempt fate and ask someone else to take a picture with a safe distance between me and the sheer drop to the forest canopy far below.
Along the trail we encountered an Elk that had clearly become accustomed to people and had almost certainly been fed. Pavlovian response in full swing, it came over to us slobbering and licking its lips in anticipation of a snickers bar or some other human food delicacy. Although we heeded the signs and resisted the urge to slip him a snack we did get some great pictures without the fancy cameras since he was anything but shy.
It had been three days since I made the eight hour bus journey from the southern Sri Lankan surf town of Mirissa up to the mountain town of Nuwara Eliya. The buses fill up at the station but I was able to get a seat with my backpack lodged in next to my legs before it was too late. The bus stops along the road for women and children but only slows down for young men who are expected to run and hop into the open backdoor where the bus money collector squares up with riders. Behind the wheel there is invariably a Sri Lankan bus driver with a cheek full of betel nut, the local stimulant, chewing intensely and liberally laying on the horn as he plays chicken with oncoming traffic.
Despite the Mad Max driving style on the roads, there is a certain organization to the mayhem. For one, horns are actually used to alert fellow drivers to each other's presence during passing and blind turns as opposed to their sole purpose in western culture as an after-the-fact, “fuck you” device. There is also a pecking order with buses at the top of the food chain, followed by trucks, then vans, tuk-tuks, and finally mopeds. So if a bus is coming directly at you in your lane you slow down and steer as far onto the shoulder as possible. Slower vehicles will move further onto the shoulder to allow you to pass after a “I’m here” honk that is not considered rude. It’s all a bit nerve racking but everyone seems to know how the other will react. Predictability makes it a bit safer I suppose.
It was just past dusk as I boarded the third and last bus of my trip up to the mountains. Even in the dark, I could tell that we had gained altitude as I shivered in the board shorts and tank top I had donned that morning. A quick sweep of the bus revealed that I was the only one not wearing long pants and some people were wearing knit caps. Even though I was cold, it was refreshing to be in cool, dry air after the humid, mosquito ridden evenings on the coast.
The bus seats filled up quickly and I saw a man give his spot to a woman that boarded the bus during one of the many roadside stops. The next woman that boarded was young and able bodied but I figured I’d give it a whirl. In Washington, D.C. if I were to offer my seat to a woman that wasn’t pregnant, on crutches, or 179 years old my attempted chivalry might be viewed as perpetuation of dated patriarchal practices or even downright rude. On this Sri Lankan bus however, my gesture was gratefully accepted with a warm smile.
My tuk-tuk from the bus station dropped me on the outskirts of town at the Laughing Leopard Hostel around 8pm. When I rounded the back of the building I walked directly into the consolidated outdoor chill area where I was greeted by about 15 cheery hostel goers sipping Lion beer and puffing away on hand-rolled cigarettes. In the grassy yard to my right a staff member was coaxing a bonfire to life. Nothing like a communal area with good vibes especially considering it was Christmas Eve.
In addition to exploring Horton’s Plains an Australian guy from the hostel and I took a “Dumb and Dumber” style moped trip around the tea plantations, a British colonial hand me down which still thrives today. The following day a group of us hiked up Adam’s Peak for sunrise which entailed a grueling 6,000+ stair climb to a temple at the summit. The temple is known for Sri Pada (the sacred footprint), a 6ft rock formation resembling a footprint that is thought to belong to Budda, Shiva, or Adam depending on if you ask a Buddist, a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Christian. I am none of the above and I think it resembles a rock formation.
We started the hike at around 2:45am and I arrived at the top, drenched with sweat, a bit before 4:15am. I had passed all sorts of people on the way up including sweet little old ladies who were making the religious journey slowly but with steely determination. At the top there were hoards of people who huddled together under blankets trying to get some sleep before sunrise. I found a little ledge of the temple compound that overlooked some of the rituals taking place to climb up onto and lay down. Thankfully I had picked up a light rain jacket and beanie at the markets that day which kept me warm after I shed my wet t-shirt.
As sunrise became imminent the crowds began amassing along the eastern terraces of the temple. People began jockeying for position so I decided to start my decent and enjoy dawn from the empty stairs. I stopped along the way at a tea shack for some of the colonial beverage and a hearty Sri Lankan biscut. The stairs that had been crawling with tourists and pilgrims a few hours before were utterly empty. I hummed happily to myself as I took in the sunrise while bounding down towards the valley. A quick dip in a mountain stream near the path only raised my spirits higher. They were so high I skipped right past the trail that lead back to our chartered van and an additional five kilometers down the mountain to the other side of the park.
Not realizing that there were no direct roads back to Nuwara Eliya I used a tuk-tuk driver’s phone to tell the others not to wait for me. Once I finally picked up reception and took a gander at googlemaps I realized the gravity of the situation. I spent the next 4 hours running like a local to hop into the back of buses and circumnavigate a massive national park to get back to the hostel. That night, to ensure that everyone could share in my suffering, I picked up enough betel nut to share with my new hostel friends. We all chewed, spat, and agreed it is a very unpleasant pasttime. More for the bus drivers I guess. I’ve included a link below to purchase betel nut if curiosity gets the better of you!