In search of the Endangered Rafflesia
Two years ago when I was traveling with my daughter Cara in Sabah we were looking to see if we could find the elusive and rare Rafflesia only to be told that we missed the blooming in the national park by three days. It is the world’s largest flower.
Rafflesia is a genus of parasitic plants with no stem, leaves or roots. It exists on a vine tetrastigma and absorbs nutrients as a holoparasite. It has 28 species the largest of which is Rafflesia arnoldi measuring up to 100 cm in diameter. This was found by a guide working under Dr. Joseph Arnold in 1818 in an expedition headed by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles,the founder of Singapore. Years later it was noted that the first person to find this species was actually Louis Dechamps in 1790’s. Many of the species are now endangered as it takes about eight to nine months for the flower to mature and it blooms only for three to seven days. In the meantime people collect Rafflesia for medicinal purpose, and the loss of habitats and the fact that the male and female flowers must be blooming at the same time and in close proximity for pollination to occur all contribute to its tenuous status.
Since I have only a day and half at Kuching, to see the Rafflesia was my first and foremost desire trumping that of the longhouse. Georgette the lady at the reception called the Gunong Gading National Park for me and indeed there was a Rafflesia to be seen but it was at its end of its one week bloom. She kindly explained to me how I could take a few buses to get there as to hire a private car would be exorbitant. I was game for an adventure striking out on my own to the outskirt of Kuching.
Near the Arch of China Town I took a private van which was used by the owner as a transport to the bus terminus. There I boarded a bus to Kuching Sentral which is a big bus depot for long-distance buses. I waited for the eleven o’clock bus having missed the earlier one. The countryside was lush and unlike Africa was clean and the road was not potholed. A Russian lady who had been traveling for a couple of months in Asia at first with her boyfriend now alone sat next to me. She was heading to the Gunong Gading National Park as well to stay the night and also with the idea of seeing the Rafflesia.
At Lundu there was a round-about with a huge statue of Rafflesia. We were quickly approached by a man who would take us to the national park in his private car for five Ringitt each and we were joined by two other travelers. When he learned that I am originally from Penang or Pulau Pinang, he began to converse with me in rapid-firing Malay. At the park he told the ranger that I am a Malaysian and I was charged the local entry fee. The park ranger told us that the Rafflesia was nearing its end of blooming and that it was only 150 meters from the park headquarters on the left hand side of the trek. On our way we saw a dead Rafflesia with its shriveled unrecognizable petals. Then lo and behold a lone Rafflesia up on a rock surrounded by a well-trodden path. There was no one around except us.
This Rafflesia had only a faint meaty smell. An insect was hovering and then zooming into its interior. Two of its petals were already curling at the edges. It measured roughly 60 cm in diameter.
After we had our fill we trekked further uphill to the first waterfall where I sat down on the rocks and had my lunch. Later I took a cool dip in the water. There are many treks and one to the summit. But I was really coming to see the Rafflesia. I trekked further uphill but being mindful of the time to catch the four o’clock bus back to Kuching.
In the evening I wandered around the city and then boarded a water taxi to the north side of the Sungai Sarawak to view the Astana close up. The sun was setting with its mellow lazy hazy colors. There were many kampongs or villages and mosques. I had dinner on the north bank, a Kelantan dish with Ikan Bakar (fried fish) and Chendol. Stray cats milled around but most of them looked well-fed and content. I walked back through Chinatown to where I stayed as red lanterns were lit and glowed warmly in the cool evening. This was the sixth day of Chinese New Year.