Destination: Rafflesia

by Andrew Stein

The destination was Rafflesia, and the journey was wet. Rafflesia isn’t a town, it isn’t a historic site, and it isn’t the name of a river or peak. Rafflesia is a parasitic flowering plant found in southeast Asia on the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra, and the Philippines, and the only part of the plant that is visible outside of its host is the five-petaled flower. I came to Malaysia looking for quality jungle time, and the opportunity to witness a rare flower presented a novel destination for a jungle hike.

With the sun still shining, I get picked up from Father’s Guest House in the Cameron Highlands. While most other trekkers leaving from my hostel are getting picked up by 10-seater mini-buses, coming up the hill to the hostel, I see a what looks like a military grade transport vehicle ready to go over any terrain. This presents two options: one is that the truck is for the effect, which it clearly had on me, and two is that we might actually need something so robust. I jump in the back and am greeted by who would end up being my Cameron Highlands family. There is such a strong group camaraderie from the very beginning that we only reluctantly take the front seat and leave the conversation happening in back.

After visiting an Orang Asli village and receiving a blowpipe demonstration, we pile back into our beast truck and soon learn why it is in fact such a beast. We begin to drive up a dirt road with bamboo obstacles, pot holes, and grooves so big that even this truck finds difficulty advancing from time to time. Because the back is set up as two sideways facing benches, there is a lot of sliding, bouncing, and nudging that happens. If the group hadn’t bonded before, this undoubtedly would have brought us both literally and figuratively closer together. We arrive at the trail head, are given headbands made from leaves, apply a little extra bug repellent, and naively start on our way with the driver’s departing words being to remember to smell the Rafflesia flower.

the truck

holding on in the truck

The weather is still comfortable although a little less sunny, and the path is relatively wide with the occasional puddle to hop and tree to duck under. Conversations remain vibrant as I learn worrying tips about my upcoming Himalayan Mountain Trek from a pair who just came from Nepal. Soon, it starts to drizzle, but because of the humidity and the exertion needed for the hike, the water feels great. We heard about a stream crossing that we would encounter, and pass over it relatively easily with a lot of assistance from our two guides. Afterwards, the rain starts to pick up a little, and our leaf headbands are replaced by ponchos and rain jackets. The views from the trail are stunning as they include dense rain forest, occasional waterfalls, and vast Malaysian landscapes. Meanwhile, the rain can no longer be called a drizzle as it continues to gain. The rhythm the rain creates hitting the top canopy of the forest and then eventually my head sets a beat for me as I walk. Just when I’m getting used to the rain, we learn that our first stream crossing was only practice for a later river crossing. The rocks through the river are only slightly visible above the rush of the current, and again with the help of the guides, I make it over with little issue. The group, however, did experience a couple slips and splashes. At this point, the beads of water falling down the side of my face may be sweat or rain.

river crossing

Not long after the river, the guides lead us off the trail and up a steep hill, which only feels steeper because the rain has made the mud challengingly slick. Always reaching for the next tree trunk, branch, or rock to hold on, we slowly transverse our way up while slipping more than occasionally. Finally, with our clothes wet and muddy, our hands soar from gripping on whatever was available, and our expectations about this flower growing, we see for what we traveled all this way. We find the famous Rafflesia flower, which blooms for only about 5 days and can be as large as a meter in diameter. We made it. We create an assembly line of walking up near the flower, taking a photo of it, asking the next person to take another photo of us with the flower, smelling the flower, and then grabbing our cameras back to take a close-up shot. I was glad the guide reminded us to smell, because the fragrance was that of rotting flesh, which I later learned is where the flower gets its local names.

me and rafflesia

rafflesia

For the return journey, the rain is letting up some, but everything including our clothes, the forest, and river crossings are wetter than they were before. We slip back down the hill, get to our big river crossing, and realize that the rain has angered the flow of water. Many of the rocks, although still there, are no longer visible underneath the water. On this crossing, I’m not as lucky and my waterproof shoes get attacked from above and my socks feel the wrath of the river. Then on the rest of the journey, I am not sure if I am listening to frogs or to the croak of my shoes as water sloshes around. The rain comes and goes a couple more times, and we eventually get back to our transport beast to navigate us down the rest of the road.

The ends may not have justified the means on this trek, but I was only using the ends as an excuse for the means. With this philosophy, the day and my Malaysian Jungle adventure were a success. And as a plus, my Cameron Highlands family and I spent the rest of the afternoon together, found dinner, and then grabbed a couple drinks before exhaustion got the best of us.

cameron highlands fam