As the car swung powerfully around the dark bends, we could see almost nothing. The headlights picked out snaking tarmac ahead, while to our left twinkled a few lights. Nothing on our right-side though. Absolutely nothing except for a deep black void. I dared not think about what lay in that direction, for I suspected it was a vertiginous drop.
Four forty-five in the morning, and it felt like we were being kidnapped. What on earth had possessed us to come on this bleary-eyed, hare-brained adventure, when we could have been asleep in our beds?
“You sleep alright?” Sunil glanced over from the driver’s seat as if he could read my mind.
“Not too bad,” I said, finding it an effort to converse. “You?”
“The other drivers got up a lot to use the bathroom.” He sighed. “But I got the lower bunk.”
We understood that Sunil slept in accommodation designated by our hotels for drivers. Usually this was in a bunkroom, with firstcomers grabbing the more popular lower bunks. The washrooms obviously were shared too, with drivers forming an orderly queue in the morning. Although this wouldn’t have been a problem for Sunil this morning – not unless all the other drivers were also rising early.
Outside, it was still dark, the road twisting and climbing. Sunil was taking us back up to Haputale, and it had been one hell of an experience coming down. The town was perched on a precipice, the views in daylight amazing. Now we could only imagine the drop beneath us, the mind far better at creating fear than the eyes.
The road straightened and flattened. Suddenly streetlamps and houses appeared either side. Haputale’s single main street, as empty as my mind felt. Sunil turned right, past a foray of tuk-tuks and into a side-street that narrowed into a dead-end full of shadows and shutters. The sort of street where you expect to be ambushed and robbed, at least if you’re a couple of dudes in the movies.
We weren’t dudes though. Nor were we in the movies. We were in Sunil’s car, and it wasn’t a battered black Mercedes, but a well-kept burgundy Toyota Premio with cream leather seats and pleated curtains on the front windows. Plus we’d come on this ride voluntarily, even if it was five o’clock on a chilly hill country morning.
Expertly reversing, Sunil turned back onto the main street and took the next right instead – the road we were supposed to be taking.
“Wrong turn there,” he said in his pleasant up and down voice.
“How much further?” asked Kate.
“A little way. Not too far.” He tapped the dash with his fingers.
Yet still the road ascended, zigzagging like it was made of uncoiled bedsprings. At this rate, we’d be at the same height as World’s End again, and that had been over two thousand metres up. Once again, I wondered whether he was indeed taking us to our intended destination, and not to some hopelessly inaccessible place in the sky. Could our journey truly be so far, so difficult, so high?
Then as a mass of lights burst out ahead – a factory of some kind by the noise it was making – he slowed and stopped.
“Where are we?” I said nervously.
“This is Dambatenne.” He pointed at the factory. “Lipton’s Tea Factory.”
It didn’t look like any branch of Lipton’s I remembered from childhood. In those days, Lipton’s had been a high street supermarket in Stratford-upon-Avon.
“Are we there yet?” With typical aplomb, Kate asked the obvious.
“A little further.”
Sunil motioned for us to get out of the car, and board a waiting tuk-tuk. And exhaling, all three of us squeezed like blitzed oranges into the back seat. Immediately the tuk-tuk roared forward, the driver revving his fragile vehicle up another staircase that led away from the lights and up into the night. Now we shook and swung even more. The gradient was steep, and the little two-stroke engine strained at its gaskets. Up, up, up, the tuk-tuk careering around hairpin bends so tight it felt that all four of us – Sunil, Kate, the driver and I – might whizz over the side. Left then right, right then left, the tuk-tuk’s single front wheel making impossible turns. On and on our journey went, this mountain without end.
Then just as it seemed we could never stop, red lights appeared ahead – a queue of similar tuk-tuks waiting at a checkpoint. We were going the right way, then. This wasn’t a massive wild goose chase. And as each tuk-tuk moved forward, Sunil whispered that the entrance fee was two hundred rupees, to be handed to the man in the booth.
Up we chugged again, more hairpin bends, this track that wanted to be a stairway to heaven. The sky was lightening, and Sunil tensed beside me, saying something about running out of time. He tapped the driver on his shoulder, and with a new burst of pain from the engine, we went into superdrive and overtook the three tuk-tuks ahead of us.
And now the sky to the east was reddening, as our tuk-tuk stopped.
We jumped out, hoping this was it. That we were at the top of the hill where Sir Thomas Lipton, the famous Glaswegian tea magnate, had used to come to sit and watch the incredible view. Lipton’s Seat, no less, and not a moment too soon for sunrise.