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February 27, 2008

Adam's Peak

Mick and I decided to trek up Adams Peak the other day to photograph the pilgrims watching sunrise, a tradition which has gone on for a thousand years. Unfortunately, this meant having to get up at 2am and spend three or four hours hauling ourselves and camera gear up thousands of steps to the summit. Stranger still, we thought it would be easy.

It felt rather odd to be heading out for a walk in the middle of the night as we left the hotel under a full moon. Poya Day, the traditional time for pilgrims to make the journey had been the day before so at least we wouldn't have to endure the long queues behind thousands of people staggering up the steps. We walked through the town of Dalhousie which lies at the beginning of the climb - a strange place that seems to exist solely of shops selling tat. Plastic Buddhas sat next to Bob Marley posters, knock-off Reebok sweaters and plastic dog ornaments on either side of the town's only road - not exactly what you'd expect to see on a pilgrimage route.

Gradually the tourist shops thinned out and the path began to climb - 'path' not really being an accurate term for the six foot wide concrete track with streetlights that winds it's way up the mountain. As the irregular, concrete steps became steeper we rounded a bend to see a wall of stairs in front of us and the realisation of what we'd let ourselves in for hit home. The peak loomed eerily above our heads, it's lights surrounded by stars and looking very distant from where we stood. It was going to be a hard night.

As we climbed ever higher, our early enthusiasm waned as the endless steps became harder to tackle in the thin air. We slowed to a crawl as we took each step slower and slower, trying to keep plodding on in the still night. Frogs sang from close to the path and somewhere in the dark a stream rushed down the hill. Every so often we'd come to a tea room made from scraps of wood and blue plastic sheets where a huge teapot would sit on a gas ring steaming away and chickpeas boiled in a pot. We knew that if we stopped to eat we'd never make it to the top so we sat on a bench looking wistfully at the food, wondering why we'd let ourselves in for this torture.

We began to pass other people, which was reassuring as it meant we weren't the slowest climbers on the path. Everyone seemed to be surprised by how tough it was. The view by now was quite stunning as the moon lit the landscape below us and clouds lay in pockets between the hills. Somehow the view from that height was inspiring, making us feel as if we were getting somewhere, and we began to get a bit more into the climb.

Finally, after three hours of climbing step after step, we looked up to see the temple above us. We'd expected a stunning, golden palace but it was just a concrete box. We covered those last steps in a daze and found ourselves in the lower part of the temple with pilgrims sleeping around us. We were just about to congratulate ourselves on making it to the summit when we looked up and read the sign.

'No Photography'