WALKING into the lion’s mouth. It’s a time-honoured phrase to denote imminent danger – but in Sri Lanka it’s exactly what they used to do centuries ago.
It is thought that entrance to Sigiriya, an ancient rock palace built from around 477 AD near the town of Dambulla, used to be through a giant lion’s mouth.
Today all that remains of the carved king of the jungle is his mighty paws, but getting to see them is only half the picture after a vertiginous climb.
The name is derived from Sīnhāgiri, the Lion Rock, and it is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having been abandoned as a palace then used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
Famous also for its colourful frescoes – photography of which is not allowed – it is the journey that makes this remarkable place one of the wonders of this part of the world.
And today, we’re in the company of local guide Dilip Fernando, who can usher us up around 1,200 steps to the 349m summit from the comfort of our armchairs on a live streamed trek.
After a stroll through the leafy Water Gardens pathway leading up to the site, the initial ascent begins through a naturally formed entrance between giant boulders overhead.
Silence is advised when Lion Rock’s wasps are nesting. There have been attacks in which unwary travellers have been stung, and there’s a first aid post to deal with careless victims.
Although we’re not even halfway up the rock yet, the views looking up its sides on a sunny day are wonderful. Sri Lanka’s tropical climate brings typical temperatures of 28C to 30C so bring water.
Steps clinging to the side of the rock look precarious at this point but don’t worry. Our journey to the top takes us off in another direction that’s more easily accessible.
Anyone for this route? No, thought not. But, yes, people have traversed the rock this way before. If you don’t have a head for heights, be warned the climb will get tougher.
Finally, we reach the halfway point, and the entrance proper between those huge lion paws. So far it’s been stone steps but things are about to get more adventurous.
The metal stairway to the summit has been bolted into the rock. If you’re one of those people who don’t do steps you can see between, it’s probably best you wait for your friends here.
Dilip says it’s around 1,200 steps altogether but he can’t be sure because, although he’s climbed the rock more than two hundred times, he always eventually loses count.
Besides, it’s little wonder when you can see sights like this on the ascent so far. Even if you can’t manage the final climb, you’ll have been rewarded with spectacular Sri Lankan scenery.
The first steps on the final push are set between the paw-some claws. This is one of the island nation’s most iconic photo opportunities, and a must for visitors.
See what I meant about being able to see through the steps? But, hey, the views are worth every step of the way, and they come thick and fast. Every twist and turn can be breathtaking.
Even the native macaque monkeys stop to savour the scenery. They’re fast and incredibly agile, darting up and down with ease. Don’t get too close, though. They bite.
After a few final flights of stone steps, we’re finally at the top where two orphan steps sit on the summit. Cue the obligatory celebration photo – thank you, Dilip.
From the top, you can see for miles around, the jungle stretching toward the mountains on the horizon. We’ve been blessed with wonderful weather for our visit.
Take time at the summit to look round at the remains of palace buildings, terraces of what were once landscaped gardens and a remarkable reservoir and irrigation system.
All too soon, it’s time to start heading back down. It took just shy of an hour to reach the summit, allowing time for a brief rest stop. It’ll be quicker on the return journey. As they say, it’s all downhill from here.
Dilip is one of the guides working with the heygo platform on which guests can enjoy real time HD streaming, subject to signal strength, take and download ‘postcard’ screenshots, chat live with guides and fellow travellers, and follow progress on a map.
All the pictures in this post, apart from the drone shot at the opening, are ‘postcards’ taken using the platform’s screenshot facility. See heygo.com for upcoming virtual trips.
This post has been about the journey to the top. For more on the history of this remarkable Sri Lankan site, see sigiriyatourism.com.