Even more stairs: Things I’ve climbed in 2017

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After hiking Mount Kinabalu at Christmas last year, I wanted to find some more hikes closer to home in Sri Lanka. The central hills of Sri Lanka are prime hiking areas so I thought I’d find lots of hiking to do there and also in some other parts of the country. And I did! Yay! Here are some stories from the hikes I’ve done in 2017 so far:

Utuwankanda (January 2017):

This rock is famous for it’s epic history: the nineteenth century Robin Hood of Sri Lanka, Saradiel, used the top as a lookout. He would see the caravans of British goods coming down Kandy Road and then loot! The hike up this rock is only about a half hour. It is not particularly hard except at the end where you have to do some scrambling to get the best views. Once you’re at the top, you’re pretty high up so it looks like you worked really, really hard to get there (but you didn’t!). 

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On top of Utuwankanda

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Another view from the top of Utuwankanda

Adam’s Peak (February 2017):

I know I said I did not enjoy hiking Adam’s Peak the first time (and it’s still very true that I didn’t) but I had the opportunity to go up a second time, this time during the pilgrimage season, so I took the opportunity to go on this adventure with friends. Adam’s Peak is the second-tallest mountain in the country and it’s an important place for people of all religions in the country. Different religions believe the rock formation at the top is the footprint of an important figure. For Christians and Muslims, it’s the footprint of St. Thomas or Adam. For Buddhists, it’s the footprint of Buddha. For Hindus, it’s the footprint of Shiva. This is to say that during the pilgrimage season almost every person in Sri Lanka wants to climb Adam’s Peak.

So when I went again, it was on a Saturday night… a weekend… and a holiday even (it was Sri Lanka’s national day)… during the busiest season… This meant approximately ten thousand people were climbing it at the same time. The stifling crowds were the most anxiety-inducing experience of my time in Sri Lanka so far. After being pancaked for hours on the stairs in the middle of the night, we didn’t quite make it to the top (because we just couldn’t take another few hours fighting through crowds). If pressed, I would say it was nonetheless a worthwhile experience because we took the long hike back down, which was quite beautiful, though admittedly very long and hot. In all, we walked about twenty-five kilometres from about 1:30AM to 12:30PM that night.

While it was fascinating to be a part of the pilgrimage, I really wouldn’t recommend hiking on a weekend holiday during the season. It was much nicer in November when the “crowd” was approximately three hundred people. And even then, Adam’s Peak isn’t a really a hike, just a really long staircase comprised of thousands and thousands of uneven stairs. That said, you can’t beat the sunrise view at the top.

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The triangular shadow of Adam’s Peak (I didn’t get to see this last time!)

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Didn’t make it to the top because of crowds, but the view for sunrise was still pretty great!

Bible Rock (February 2017):

Bible Rock is so named because of its distinctive shape that makes it look like a giant open book / Bible. I’ve wanted to hike it since I first saw it from the road en route to Kandy. It took me a while to get around to it but I was finally able to climb it last month. And… it was an alright hike. Most of the hike was up a very, very steep concrete road. It was not a fun or comfortable walk, especially since we started mid-day (aka in high heat). Also, it was strange to “hike” up a road when every now and then a tuk-tuk would putt past or a person living in the area strolled by carrying washing that had been done in the water source at the bottom of the hill. (Because of the severe drought here right now, all the nearby water sources like rivers have dried up so the people who live in the houses up that road must go down to the bottom and then carry it back up every time they need water, as they do not have running water at home).

After “hiking” up the road for quite a while, we finally reached a trail. The trail was quite short, though, because we’d climbed up most of the way already on the road. After a brief scramble up some stairs cut into the rock, we emerged on top. The top is remarkably wide, taking about ten minutes to walk from one end to the other. (The view from one end shows the scars on the side of one of the hill, the result of one of last year’s many landslides. Landslides and flooding came about a year ago during the floods from a tropical storm that caused the deaths of many people in affected areas.) There is a small Buddhist temple on one end of the top and, on the other end, there are big rocks that provided us shade while we hung out up there, enjoying the view and resting before our descent.

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From the top of Bible Rock

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Hanging off the edge! (But don’t worry, Mum and Dad! We were safe!)

Horton Plains (March 2017):

The hikes in Horton Plains National Park are some of the few in the country that provides some flat-land hiking. Most hikes in Sri Lanka seem to be motivated by climbing to the top of some big rock or hill. In general, I haven’t found even one hike motivated by “it’s pretty here so let’s just walk around” because even in Horton Plains, you go for the view at what is called “World’s End”. Don’t get me wrong, climbing up things is fun because of the views (Sri Lanka’s hills are extraordinarily beautiful) and that fulfilling sense of accomplishment when you get to the top… But sometimes you want some variation! (If you know any non-“up then down” hikes in Sri Lanka, please let me know!)

Anyways, I loved Horton Plains. I had waited a long time to complete this particular bucket list item because I wanted to take the train there but trains can be impossible to book, especially on long weekends. These tickets are in such high demand because between Kandy and Ella (which this park falls between) is Sri Lanka’s most famous train journey, filled with incredible views of the hills and tea plantations along the way. Luckily, I actually ended up coming to this area for work. We had a training in Nuwara Eliya (a good place for everyone from all over the country to meet in because it’s pretty central) and then we all went to Horton Plains at the end of the training as a team building activity / thank you for sitting through two solid days of intense training on social sustainability programming.

The hike is gorgeous and the landscape in Horton Plains is so unique to the rest of the country. It was certainly one of my favourite places I’ve been to in Sri Lanka so far. It’s called “plains” because there are areas that look like open plains, which are so unusual in this part of Sri Lanka. Along the way here, you also hike through some dense forest and there are hills all around you when you reach the lookouts (there’s a reason it’s called “World’s End!). It’s a wonderful place to visit and I think I might go back for a longer hike that I’ve heard rumours of from another volunteer who also has the hiking bug.

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World’s End at Horton Plains

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The view from a little higher up at World’s End! (We were lucky to have such clear skies!)

Little Adam’s Peak (March 2017):

While we were planning the training in Nuwara Eliya and the visit to Horton Plains, I was chatting with another volunteer who suggested I take a day off work to go from Nuwara Eliya to Ella afterwards because I’d mentioned I wanted to do the second of two popular hikes in Ella. In November when Aurora visited, I hiked Ella Rock (still one of my favourite hikes in the country) but we didn’t have time to also hike Little Adam’s Peak, a hill across the valley from Ella Rock that boasts some amazing views from the top, too.

I decided to take the advice and visit Ella again after Nuwara Eliya. This time, I booked myself a “fancy” train ticket on the privately run ExpoRail car, which is fancy because you get served water, tea, and food and get air conditioning and an outdoor observation area. I took this train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella (about five hours) on a Sunday and stayed overnight in Ella that night. The next morning, I woke up around sunrise, put on my hiking gear, and walked to the base of Little Adam’s Peak. The walk there was fine, mostly road and then a private path through a tea plantation, which gave me gorgeous views of the sunrise illuminating Ella Rock. The climb up Little Adam’s Peak, though, is exactly like Adam’s Peak: ALL STAIRS. But this time it was all stairs for about ten minutes only and then you’re at the top so it was much less mentally taxing to climb. 

When I got to the top, the clouds had come it and I couldn’t see anything, nothing of the beautiful view I knew was hidden behind the mist. I was a little sad but I figured I had seen the view from the other side in November so I left to go see the nearby famous Nine Arch Bridge instead of waiting around for the clouds to clear (which could take a while). I walked to see this beautiful bridge (built during the British colonial period) and then walked back to Little Adam’s Peak on my way back to Ella town. My train home wasn’t until later that day and it wasn’t even mid-morning yet… So I decided to climb up the stairs again to see if I could get the view. And this time, it was perfectly clear! I was greeted with a spectacular view of the valley below and Ella Rock on the other side. I was tired after climbing twice in about an hour (as well as from the hike to and from the bridge) but I think it was very worth it so I’m happy I spent the energy going up again. Besides, I got to rest my legs for the rest of the day on the ten hour train journey back to Colombo (which was a very beautiful journey that was also very, very long so thank goodness for Audiobooks to keep me distracted and entertained!). 

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The spectacular Nine Arch Bridge

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Little Adam’s Peak stairs… Sri Lankan hiking often involves an extraordinary amount of stairs

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Second time was the charm! Clear skies after a gloomy first run up the stairs. (That’s Ella Rock behind me!)

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