There are no lions on Lion Rock, nor are there elephants, though there are prides of tourists and several very scary flights of steps. This is not the place for vertigo sufferers or people who could be physically fitter. Nevertheless at eight o’clock this morning we found ourselves attempting the hot, humid, two hundred metre climb to the summit.
I was especially worried about sheer drops. Even from a distance, it was quite clear that the sides of Lion Rock rise vertically from the forest canopy. And then all those stories – not to mention storeys – of torturous iron staircases bolted to bare rock.
So why were we doing this? For one, everyone else in the group, bar two people, were itching to get up there. Then, of course, Kate’s mum, the intrepid Sue, had laid down the gauntlet, ascending the Rock three weeks earlier. And lastly, I truly wanted to visit the top. I’d done so ever since 1982 when Duran Duran had released Save A Prayer and a music video featuring – yes, you’ve guessed it – none other than the fortress at the summit of Sigiriya, or Lion Rock.
Lion Rock was the must-do reason for travelling to Sri Lanka, the number one attraction.
We dithered in the splendid water gardens at base camp for a while, listening to the history behind this place – the treacherous King Kasyapa who murdered his father and then built the fortress at the top as protection from his vengeful exiled half-brother. Somehow Kasyapa lasted seventeen years before his half-brother returned with an army to put him out of his misguided, vertiginous misery.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear history though. Definitely not repeat it. Nor was I interested in Cobra Hood Cave (named because of its shape). Or the dried up water fountain, the L-shaped bathing pool, the pink and red rock that looked like a hippo.
No, I just wanted to get on with it. To make my slow steady way up, to grip the handrail tightly and not look down, to survive this whole mad exercise, hopefully reaching the summit, then turning around to make the almost as frightening journey down.
Yet it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Hundreds of people climbed up everyday, many of them older, less able, more rightly terrified than me.
The first few flights of steps were stone – steep and slippery. It had rained during the night and it drizzled still. The atmosphere was thick with moisture. Warm too. After the fourth set of steps, I had to stop, overheating. Maybe this wasn’t meant to be. Maybe I should quit while I could. Once on those iron staircases there was no turning around.
The stone steps grew steeper and the air denser. Nowhere for the sweat to evaporate, other than on itself. Several more stops, several deep gulps of water as the refuge of the forest sank into a deep green sea below.
Then we came to the spiral staircases, two perilous corkscrews. The first wound up to a hidden ledge (frescoes of nymphs, the mirrored wall, and ancient graffiti). The second led down, profitless in height. At least a thick rock balustrade shielded us from the precipitous drop. Until the wall finished, replaced by a sparce metal barrier that exposed how high up we really were.
I gritted my teeth, clenched my hands, and nearly shut my eyes. The rock floor ended as well, morphing into a series of revealing metal slats. Don’t look down. Don’t look up. Don’t look anywhere. Just walk on.
Then with relief, I glimpsed grass and solid ground ahead. Sooner than expected, I thought, we had reached the top. Except it wasn’t the top, but a natural platform two thirds of the way up. Lots of people standing between two giant lion’s paws. And beyond them, like a nightmare fire escape, a crazy crisscross iron staircase that ascended rock to the top.
Again, I thought again about turning around. This was an option at this point. There was a different set of steps down. Plus it was cloudy above us. There’d be no panoramic views up there today.
But really? To come this far to quit now?
Ahead of me, people snaked up the iron staircase, laughing, shouting, taking photos. One or two of them trod more quietly, in particular one Chinese gentleman who appeared petrified. Yet up they went, one step at a time, ascending their stairway to heaven.
And shifting again, adjusting, coping, I took another step towards the iron hell. No longer was I here, but in 1982. In my head played a familiar riff, the opening bars of Save A Prayer.