Some things are worth battling any vertiginous
tendencies for — and the view from the top of Sri
Lanka's Sigiriya rock fortress is one of them. I will myself up the last 50 steps, watched by a row of curious monkeys, as schoolgirls dressed in white skip ahead, their long dark plaits bobbing behind. The 360° panorama of flat, wooded countryside and glistening lakes below takes my mind off my trembling legs.
Soaring, sheer-sided out of the plains, Sigiriya — the 370m hardened magma centre of a volcano that eroded away centuries ago — is an awesome sight from the ground too. The popular story goes that King Kassapa built a fortress here in the fifth century, fearing retribution from his brother after he'd killed their father.
Once accessed through the mouth of a massive crouched lion carved into the rock face, all that's left today are the giant clawed paws, but it's not hard to imagine the grandeur. Landscaped water gardens and beautiful frescoes halfway up are further clues, but after Kassapa's death it became a Buddhist monastery, with monks headed here to retreat from the world.
Think of Sri Lanka and it is probably palm-fringed beaches that first spring to mind. But as I discover, this charming tear-shaped Indian Ocean isle pulls out all the stops when it comes to ancient sites and vibrant wildlife too. The 25-year civil war, which ended in 2009, kept visitors away, and you still feel you're venturing a little off the beaten tourist track.
The best way to get around, particularly if you don't have the luxury of limitless time, is by hiring a car and driver — not as extravagant as it sounds. My tour starts in Colombo, a buzzing city, where tuk-tuks whiz through busy streets, joggers pound the seafront and families picnic and fly kites on Galle Face Green (once a racecourse under the British). Temples and churches are scattered amongst traditional markets and glitzy shopping malls, and tourists and the Sri Lankan elite rub shoulders in the best nightclubs and restaurants in the country.