Adam’s Peak Aftermath: Awake and Dreaming on the Road to Nuwara Eliya

By Dave Fox
Central Sri Lanka

This is the final installment in my series on climbing Sri Lanka’s holiest mountain, Sri Pada, or “Adam’s Peak,” as it’s known in English. If you missed the earlier segments, you’ll find them here:

Exhausted pilgrims collapse after the overnight climb and descent.

I’ve survived the grueling overnight climb up Adam’s Peak. I’ve survived the equally grueling hobble back down. Now, all I need to do is sit in a car for a couple of hours, back to our hotel in Nuwara Eliya. That, in theory, should be easy.

Our driver, Anu, is well-rested after a night in a local guesthouse. We gobble a breakfast of spicy potato samosas and Coke. Then we hit the road.

It’s a winding journey through the mountains. Kattina ‘s in the front seat, snoring. We’ve both been awake more than 24 hours. We’ve depleted our final scraps of energy. I should be snoring too, but I’m not. I’m kept awake by jostling roads and riveting scenery.

Miles and miles of tea leaves blanket Sri Lanka's higher elevations.

Miles of green leaves flank our route. In my dazed state of mind, the tea plantations seem brighter and lusher than on previous days. The world is shimmering. The air is pulsing. It’s like a dream, only hyper-vivid and tangible.

At sporadic intervals, we pass through towns. The roads in these towns clog with vrooming tuktuks, and meandering pedestrians who shuffle across traffic. Twangy Sri Lankan pop music blares from storefronts. The air is dense with exhaust and curry.

A mother and daughter gather firewood.

My mind begs me to snooze but I can’t stop watching. It doesn’t matter I’ve seen dozens of these little towns over the past week. These flashes of strangers, glimpses into realities incongruous to mine, are my number one reason for traveling. I don’t want to miss a single moment – a glance, a smile, a squint, a stare – so I let the bumps in the road keep me quasi-conscious and overstimulated. I fidget and twitch, commanding my eyes to remain open.

And I’m glad I do. Otherwise, right now, I would not be seeing the pygmy elephant.

I didn’t know such miniature pachyderms existed! It is just over a foot tall, a couple of feet long, wrinkled and gray with a proud trunk that curls earthward, then skyward. Twenty feet ahead on a crowded sidewalk, it’s surrounded by people who pay no attention.

Traffic is creeping. We are inching closer.

“This is not making sense,” a voice wafts from an obscure patch of mind. “Elephants so tiny do not exist. And if they did, they would not be hanging out outside  a hardware store.”

I am struggling to focus.

“It is not an elephant.”

But it is an elephant. I can see it!

“No Dave. That is not logical.”

I don’t care what Rational Voice is telling me. IT IS A FREAKING, 15-INCH-TALL, BREATHING, MOVING, PYGMY ELEPHANT! I CAN SEE IT!

A typical street scene on the road to Nuwara Eliya.

Horns are honking.

“No Dave. This is not reality.”

Our car lurches a few more feet.

A battered sense of reason attempts to override what I am perceiving. Okay, no, it is not a pygmy elephant. It cannot be a pygmy elephant. Yes, there is such a thing as a pygmy elephant, but even they are much bigger than this.

I squint hard.

Ha! What was I thinking? Of course it is not a pygmy elephant.

It’s a rhinoceros.

“It is not a rhinoceros, Dave. Seriously.”

I squeeze my eyes closed. I shake my head. I don’t know if there are rhinos in Sri Lanka but….

What the hell is going on?

I open my eyes and struggle to focus. And in the moment we roll past it, my perceptions finally jibe with reality. This pygmy elephant I am seeing, or rhinoceros, is really the backside of a gray, aging, wrinkly dog, with a trunk-like tail and mottled fur. I am so fatigued, I have just hallucinated.

People talk about “natural highs” that happen when we push our bodies to their limits. This is an overdose.

*     *     *

Many months later, back home in Singapore, my Adam’s Peak memories come now in short, surreal bursts. The entire journey – our late-night drive there, our first steps on the long trail up, the flip-flop lady, the glassy-eyed children, the tea shacks, the sunrise, the ceremony, the shadow, the descent – all seems like a tweaked-out hallucination. When I remember the elephant by the side of the road, that perception-skewed moment sits as true in my mind as every other moment of the night and its aftermath. Although it comes now with a logical explanation attached, on some level, the elephant remains real.

In climbing Sri Pada, I was attempting to get to a remote, hard-to-reach speck on our planet. Where I came to as well was a remote, hard-to-reach cranny in my mind – a place where reality shifts, and dodges the brain’s attempts to perceive correctly. Neither the mountaintop nor my mental sanctum of pygmy elephants is a place I should linger long or visit often. But I‘ve said many times before, travel to foreign places takes us to foreign places in our mind. For one bleary minute of my life, Sri Pada led me to the most foreign mental place a physical journey has ever taken me.

Published on Wednesday, May 30, 2012

One Response to “Adam’s Peak Aftermath: Awake and Dreaming on the Road to Nuwara Eliya”

  1. May 31, 2012 at 3:02 AM

    I’m impressed that you had enough energy left to float the idea that you were hallucinating or at least misinterpreting what your eyes were seeing. What a climb!

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