Alex Robertson makes a moonlight trek up a sacred mountain to experience its magnificent view of the rising sun.

The path to enlightenment has many steps - 5200 to be precise. That's how many you climb to reach the monastery on the remote, conical hilltop that rises to 2244m above sea level, far above Sri Lanka's central tea country.

This holy site is recognised by many religions and has many names: Adam's Peak to Christians and Muslims, Shiva Padam (Shiva's Foot) to Tamil Hindus, and Samanala Kanda to locals, alluding to the deity Saman said to live on the mountain. Samanala kanda also refers to the butterflies (samanalaya) who swarm there during annual migrations.

But it is the Buddhist name that is normally used - Sri Pada, which means "sacred foot" in Sinhalese and relates to the foot-shaped impression at the peak said to be the footprint of Buddha.

Today, the footprint is encased in plaster and protected by a small hut only open to the faithful on the day of the full moon, often resulting in a queue the length of the entire staircase of pilgrims hoping to visit this sacred spot.

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However, there was no queue the day I climbed the holy peak in late November, despite the full moon that illuminated our two-hour ascent.

Maybe the lightning flashing over the peak had scared away other would-be devotees.

Starting the climb at 2am, I'd dressed in long trousers and rain jacket in anticipation of a deluge, but after an hour I had to discard the jacket as the effort was making me perspire.

The steps, mostly uneven stone blocks, were easily negotiated by the light of the moon. Nearer the top, the blocks became more regular but the climb became steeper and the air colder.

As we waited for the monastery to open at 5am, the wind picked up and my jacket was soon back.

Somebody appeared with hot tea to stave off the cold, and help revive my weary legs: a two-hour step class is no walk in the park.

Other climbers arrived in ones and twos until our pioneering group of eight had swelled to 30 or more, mostly young Westerners.

The climb had been in near-silence, but now an excited burble of conversation peppered with laughter hung in the air as we waited for the gate to open, heralding sunrise.

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The iron gate scraped open and we filed through to lean against the parapets, facing east as the horizon glowed, cameras at the ready.

The glow became a blinding flash and shadows from surrounding hills flowed toward us through rivers of mist.

The writer's group - back on ground level following their 2244m ascent of Sri Pada. Photo / Alex Robertson
The writer's group - back on ground level following their 2244m ascent of Sri Pada. Photo / Alex Robertson

On our western side the perfectly conical shadow from Adam's Peak formed a black pyramid across the landscape reaching almost to the distant Laccadive Sea.

I was ushered into a line of people leading up some stairs and into the hut.

The line moved quickly and before I knew it I was kneeling before a giant hollow strewn with flowers, a few golden Buddhas smiling from the corners of the room.

A hand pushed the back of my head and my face nearly thumped the base of the footprint. Three times I bobbed down and up again in a ritualistic symbolism of drowning and rebirth.

I placed a monetary offering in a dish and stepped back into the early morning.

Three bells that hung from the side of the monastery rang as each visitor announced the number of times they'd visited the shrine; our poor guide clanging away for ages.

Our group gathered together, readying for descent, the sun already warming our chilled bodies.

I closed my eyes against the sun and a picture formed in my mind: our group gathered around a table in the middle of the night drinking hot tea and setting off on our journey before taking the first steps to enlightenment.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Singapore Airlines has daily flights from Auckland to Colombo via Singapore.

Further information: World Expeditions has Sri Lankan tours by bike (11 days, $2690). The 11-day wildlife tour takes in nature reserves and national parks ($3190).

Alex Robertson was a guest of World Expeditions and flew with Singapore Airlines.