Have you heard of the Rafflesia? I’ll forgive you if you haven’t. It only occurs in a small part of South East Asia, and it is threatened in most areas as well. And when you also consider that each bud only flowers once, and for only five days, and the fact that only 8 – 10% of all buds last long enough to flower…. well you get the picture.
One of the best places to see the Rafflesia in the world is in Sarawak, in Gunung Gading National Park. This National Park, which is also a two hour drive from Kuching, is sadly often overlooked. It’s not really the best place to get instant gratification animal encounters. It’s often overshadowed by it’s neighbour Bako National Park. But for those who make the journey, this park will reward you.
We decided to visit the National Park on a day trip from Kuching with Borneo Adventure. Our guides picked us up from our hotel and we started on the two hour journey to the park. It was raining hard but we were in good spirits, even though we knew our chances of seeing a Rafflesia were slim.
The Rafflesia is the world’s largest flower. It can grow to be 100 cm in diameter. It flowers unpredictably, and that is if it even makes it to the flowering stage at all. You see, it takes 9 months for the bus to mature enough to open up into a flower. And all it takes is a squirrel to decide it will make a good snack, or a falling branch to crush it and that’s it. No flower. And then, when it finally does flower, it only lasts for about 5 days before the decomposition process renders it unrecognizable.
“Our local contact, Antionette, sent me this photo yesterday”, Rives, our guide says to us. Turning around in his seat to show us his phone. It’s a Rafflesia. We are going to be in luck.
The Rafflesia has totally protected status in Malaysia. Several of conditions need to be just right for this flower to reproduce. Firstly, each flower is only a male or a female. Which means in order for pollination to occur there needs to be flower of each sex in the near vicinity of each other. And considering that they only flower for five days, and can flower at absolutely any time of year, you can see how rarely that would occur. The Rafflesia relies on pollinators to do this work for them. Their top pollinators are the squirrel and the carrion fly. Wait … what? Carrion fly? Don’t those only feed on dead bodies? Why would the carrion fly be attracted to a flower. Well the answer is simple. The flower smells like a rotting corpse.
When we arrived at the park we met our guide Antionetta. “I was born here,” she tells us. “This park was my playground.” Antionetta was been guiding people through this park since she was seven years old, she is our best bet at finding a Rafflesia. We set off on the path. Soon after departing two Japanese tourists pass us. You are not allowed to leave the path in the park. The biggest threat to the Rafflesia is human trampling, and killing a totally protected species (even accidentally) carried a hefty fine and five years imprisonment in Malaysia. So, you are not allowed to leave the path… unless you are with a guide of course.
Antionetta takes us on a journey through the forest. At every turn she points out Rafflesia buds in different stages of development. She even recognizes the marks of where a Rafflesia used to be. “There was a Rafflesia here three years ago, here you can see the mark it left when it decomposed.” Her keen eyes spot more than just Rafflesia. “Look, half way up that big tree. It’s a horned cicada.” It takes us longer to find the insect she is pointing at, than it took her to find it in the first place.
We go up and down hills, through babbling streams, and scramble up rocks. I am so thankful I decided at the last minute to pack my hiking shoes. Finally we are nearing the pinnacle of our destination. “Can you smell that?” I can smell something, but it’s not the strong pungent odour I was expecting. Maybe it is the rain, or the cool monsoon temperatures, but the Rafflesia was not as corpse like as I expected. Or maybe corpses don’t smell as bad as I thought, it’s not like I have been around many to know!
Our Rafflesia is in it’s third day in bloom. You can already see around the edges of the petals that decomposition has begun. “If you stayed here and took a photo every hour, you could actually see the decomposition happen,” Antionette explains. I can see in Dan’s eyes that he is battling the urge to set up his tripod right now and settle in for the long haul.
When we arrive back to the visitor centre, we show Rives our photos from the day. The Japanese guys who had passed us earlier look over our shoulder and suddenly there is a flurry of excitement. It looks like Antionette might have some more customers today.
If you would like to have an experience similar to ours, you can book your Rafflesia tour through Borneo Adventure.