We all know about Marco Polo and his journeys, but have you heard of Ibn Battuta? A year after the Venetian merchant died in 1324, this Moroccan set off from Tangier and roamed the Islamic world for almost three decades, from Timbuktu to Delhi and from Astrakhan to Mombasa. He also got as far as Hangzhou, possibly even Peking.
At one point he visited Sri Lanka, en route to collect troops to assist in an uprising in the Maldives – but also to climb Adam’s Peak. The sharp conical mountain is sacred to Buddhists and Hindus – as well as being an important site for Muslims and Christians, some of who believe it was where Adam first set foot on earth after being banished from the Garden of Eden.
Ibn Battuta travelled as a qadi, an expert in Islamic law, which was useful to the various rulers he visited. And he also travelled in comfort: around Sri Lanka he was transported in a palanquin, with a dozen courtiers to keep him company. However, as befits our more goal-focused age, I have set myself a demanding cycling and hiking weekend challenge; and I have no idea how I will fare.
It’s a long trip to Colombo, so I have plenty of time to read up on Ibn Battuta’s travels. Irritatingly, I don’t sleep – and I know this is going to be a full-on weekend.
Unlike Ibn Battuta, I am unable to see Adam’s Peak on approach, “rising into the heavens like a column of smoke”. But I will be there soon enough. My bag is among the first on the carousel and in minutes I meet Ashan, my guide. We skirt Colombo and make for Horana, a town just across Sri Lanka’s new highway. In a small hotel courtyard, I am presented with a hybrid bike and we set off along Ibn Battuta’s putative route – a 75km ride to the trailhead, for the climb.
Sri Lankan traffic is notorious, a maelstrom of school buses, lorries and 4x4s around which tuk-tuk three-wheelers and dogs buzz like electrons. You have to mix it, taking your chances, to get around slower vehicles. So I cast out into the traffic. Oddly, my nearest miss turns out to be a bullock, which decides the grass on my verge isn’t greener after all, and veers back across the lane.
Development stretches for 15km east of Horana before letting up into rice paddies, rich green tongues that protrude inland, isolating islands of jungle. And then the hills begin. We are in the rainy season, but so far all I’ve seen is wet patches of tarmac. Stalls at the roadside offer mangoes and avocados in green piles, jack fruit and rambutan – a hairy red relative of the lychee, and delicious. At dusk I am finally caught in a tropical deluge. With the humid air, I will remain soaked for the next 14 hours.
In Ratnapura we turn off the main road into larger hills, climbing on winding sandy roads. The sound of cascading water flashes past, tree frogs peep and night birds call – worrel, worrel, worrel. Then in a flash and an agonising crunch, Ashan goes flying in the darkness beside me. His bicycle is a mess; he won’t be riding any further. I carry on alone up the snaking road, into cramping thighs and accelerated breathing. Eventually, I make it to Sri Palabaddala, our transition.
From here the “Baba” trail, climbed by Ibn Battuta in 1344, leads off into the jungle. The 2,243m peak, still 2,000m above us, is generally climbed to reach the summit at dawn, which leaves no time to sleep now. After a change and a Pot Noodle provided by Ashan’s team, we set off.
Fireflies prick the darkness, creating haloes in the light mist. Steps climb out of the village. I expect them to peter out into a muddy track but, oddly, they continue indefinitely. In deference to the many thousands of pilgrims who climb the mountain, mostly between December and May, Sri Lanka’s ancient kings (and, more recently, religious institutions) have paved the entire Baba route and the Mama descent on the other side. There are around 13,000 steps in the 9km to the summit. Which makes for easy route finding, but thigh-crunching walking.
We enter the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, a rainforest that clicks and burrs even at night. Ashan, back on his feet, advises me to walk in the middle of the path as leeches lurk in the trees, dropping hopefully as we pass. A torchlight check reveals patches of red where they have got me already, through my trousers.
“Eliya, Eliya,” calls Ashan. Our eyes are peeled for snakes, but elephants can also be extremely dangerous. We meet none, though they have been here recently, evident in the smashed vegetation and piles of dung. The ascent continues remorselessly, metronomically, for hours. In places I can see ancient steps cut into the rock – there since Ibn Battuta’s day.
Ibn Battuta held that Adam’s Peak was one of the highest mountains in the world; right now, on this final, steepest section, it feels like it. I am labouring up steps 18in high, pausing every 50 for breath. I heave myself up on handrails – passing chains that Ibn Battuta refers to. In the season pilgrims can queue for 2km to reach the summit, but this morning the path is dauntingly clear. I fight breathlessly to gain the last few hundred metres. Pilgrimage may be part journey, part obeisance and part social occasion, but the Sri Lankans certainly make it tough on themselves.
There’s no visible sunrise on a misty morning like this. Nor does the mysterious shadow of the conical peak hover in the air ahead. And nor can we see inside the shrine; it is locked. I am told that the holy footprint, Adam’s first on earth, has not been seen for centuries (Ibn Battuta reports that it was chiselled out and carried off); the original site is now covered and the footprint recreated in a small gilt pavilion. We descend via the Mama track – just as steep – on the other side. After another 1,700m of deep steps, my quads are in crisis.
At the Wathsala Inn, in the oddly named Dalhousie, we grab a shower and breakfast. Ibn Battuta headed south here, but there’s no time to complete his route. We can see it, though, from an overlook in Horton Plains National Park, so the challenge continues there. Although it’s contiguous with the Peak Sanctuary, it still takes three-and-a-half hours to drive around to the next trailhead. I am snoring in seconds, my first hour’s sleep in nearly 48 of them.
We hike for 40 minutes to reach World’s End, through open, rolling land. Sambar deer graze and wander in gorse, but we see nothing of the few remaining leopard. Then we reach the drop-off – an 870m cliff, from which I can just make out Dondra Head, visited by Ibn Battuta before he turned west towards Galle and back up the coast, presumably still borne on his palanquin.
For me there remains the final cycle leg of my challenge – 33km to the colonial hill town of Nuwara Eliya. After a hand‑crampingly steep descent, we ride, wind in hair, through pasture and forest. Dairy farms and vegetable plantations slide by; at this altitude stalls display distinctly untropical fare – strawberries, leeks, cabbages, carrots.
Even the tiniest climb is a test now, so the final 5km up into Nuwara Eliya are hard, hard work. My legs are utterly spent; I have the shallow, panting breath of the physically beaten. I push on as resolutely as I can, but it is only in the last level kilometre that my breathing comes under control. Exhaustion weighs like lead in my legs.
Finally, I pull into the St Andrew’s hotel, a delightful old colonial survivor set among lawns and rose beds. I shun afternoon tea for a Lion lager.
After a shower and a meal, it’s time to head for the airport. I’m on a high and don’t feel the need for sleep yet, as the van jostles with tuk-tuks and evening buses. But once on the plane I sink into the sleep of the dead. I pass through Dubai airport, eyes crimped in the artificial light. By the time I arrive back in London, fully slept, it’s just past Monday midday.