>I LOOKED at it from the side for just a few seconds, and that was enough. The sight of the rafflesia, the "largest flower in the world", in full bloom was enough to take my breath away.
Now, it may sound crazy to climb a steep, treacherous slope, hoisting myself up with the aid of ropes, just so I can see the rare flower for only a few seconds.
The truth was, I had turned pale and felt giddy after the arduous 10-minute climb. At the final vertical stretch, there was practically nothing for me to grab hold of.
The rafflesia, perched on a vine on the steep slope, was facing skywards. The only way to see it from the top would be to climb higher, but my legs had gone limp. I couldn't lift myself up another step.
As much as I would have loved to see the flower in all its glory, I dared not take the risk in case I fell down the slope.
|The deep green waters of Temengor buried hills and trees when the dam was flooded.
I was one of 30 people who had trekked into the heart of the Royal Belum State Park in Perak in search of the rafflesia and other treasures of the verdant rainforest that's relatively untouched by time for the last 130 million years.
Imagine, it's even older than the Amazon rainforest, due to the fact that the last Ice Age never quite reached our shores.
I basked in the glory of those few seconds. After all, it wasn't easy to find a rafflesia in bloom. And I had seen it on my first ever trek into a rainforest!
I knew of others who had gone on many trips into the forest and all they ever managed to find were just the vines (tetrastigma on which the parasitic rafflesia grows) or buds of varying sizes.
Our guide, Haji Mohamad Silah Yusof or simply Pak Haji, said the rafflesia first grows as tiny threads inside the host vine. It takes about four years before it's visible - as a protruding bud. There are no roots, stems or leaves. A month-old bud is about the size of a lychee. At five to six months, it's the size of a mangosteen and at seven to eight months, it's like a large head of cabbage.
Like a pregnant woman, the rafflesia too blooms in the ninth month - for only three to five days. After that, the flower rots, leaving behind a blackish, smelly mess.
You have to be at the right time and place, have lots of luck and do a little planning too, to see a rafflesia in bloom. I even prayed to be able to see one, and boy, was I glad my prayers were answered!
As I rested, I watched the others rush forward to see the flower. Some, in their haste, trampled on the smaller vines, much to the chagrin of Pak Haji.
This particular species was the rafflesia cantleyi, the most vivid and fiery of all the rafflesia varieties. The five large petals were a velvety, deep brown-red hue with off-white blotches.
"It measures 47cm in diameter!" declared Pak Haji. The biggest ever found in Belum was 1 metre!
There are more than 20 rafflesia species in the world and Belum has three of them - cantleyi, kerrii and azlanii.
Pak Haji said in most places, the growth is seasonal (in Sabah for example, it can mostly be seen in November) but in Belum, the rafflesia grows all year round.
|Pak Haji holding a rafflesia bud estimated to bloom in about three days.
We were on Teluk X-Ray, an island named, interestingly, after a nearby island, Kem X-Ray, where an army camp guarding the area was located. I figured that army camps were usually identified as Camp X and the like, to camouflage their exact locations for security reasons. Well, here, someone must have added the "Ray" for good measure.
When the area was flooded after the Temengor Dam was built 38 years ago, the tops of some 30 hills appear as islands at low tide. These are part of the peninsula's backbone, the Titiwangsa Range.
Some of the islands are nameless while the rest are named after whatever prominent structures found on them. Hence, you find names like Pulau TNB (with the national electricity company's power transmission house) and Pulau JKR (with a structure bearing the Public Works Department logo). Not very imaginative perhaps, but practical for easy identification.
One of the bigger islands is Pulau Banding, the gateway to the Royal Belum State Park, Gerik Forest Reserve and Temengor Forest Reserve that form the huge Belum-Temengor Rainforest Complex which is four times the size of Singapore. It borders Thailand in the north, the East-West Highway in the south and Kelantan in the east. The highway links Gerik in Perak to Jeli in Kelantan. Pulau Banding is almost midway between the two towns and it's linked to the mainland by the Tasik Temengor Bridge.
Standing on Pulau Banding is the Belum Rainforest Resort where we spent the first night of our four-day visit. It's luxury in the wilderness with several posh rooms overlooking the shimmering deep green waters of Tasik Temengor.
Hit The Pedal!
On my first visit to Pulau Banding a month ago, I was looking for excitement of a different kind - wild elephants along the East-West Highway - but luck was not on my side. My luck was no better this time around either.
So imagine my envy when I was told that three photographers who had joined Pak Haji for a night drive along the highway, spotted two elephants just 10 minutes after they left the resort!
They saw a pair of male and female elephants about to mate! On seeing the car, the female scooted off into the jungle and the male was ready for war. With its trunk hoisted up, it let out a deafening bellow to warn the intruders to stay clear.
Undaunted, the photographers insisted on clicking away. Pak Haji was most worried when the beast stopped flapping its large ears, keeping them opened like wings. This was the second sign of an agitated beast.
The men had only seconds to clear off when the beast gave the final warning by stomping its feet. In a panic, the driver asked Pak Haji, "how, now?". When Pak Haji shouted, "cabut!", he slammed down on the accelerator.
One photographer got lucky again when he was with a group which spotted two tigers drinking at the lake. But as their boat moved forward, the sound and movement spooked the big cats which fled into the jungle, leaving behind a frustrated lot in the boat with nothing to capture on camera.
I was unlucky when it came to spotting wild animals (or should I say lucky?). Even when we cruised the lake and its river tributaries for two hours in the night, I saw nothing but the darkness and dead tree trunks jutting out from the surface of the water. It was tricky for the boatman to avoid hitting these. The deeper we went, the scarier I felt.
Apart from moonlight, the only other light was from a torch that our guide, Jai, trained on the forest fringes.
"We won't see 'whole' animals, only their eyes glinting in the light. If we see red eyes, it's a tiger. Blue eyes belong to other animals, like seladang," whispered Jai.
My earlier enthusiasm was dampened when Jai warned that, because of the bright moonlight, chances of spotting animals were slim. So, instead of craning my neck in anticipation, I sat back to look at the moon while enjoying the cool night breeze and the symphony of music from the "forest orchestra" - buzzing cicadas, howling monkeys and a whole cacophony of strange sounds. Indeed, the jungle never sleeps.
As our boat glided along silently in the night, I felt like I was in the Hollywood film, Anaconda!
Later, back at our campsite in Sungai Kejar in the upper Belum area, I learned that the same group of photographers who had "shot" the elephants, had spotted red eyes on the night cruise. Talk about luck!
Sleeping in a tent was a hard time, especially when the tent was erected on a hard floor. My sleeping bag did little to cushion the hardness.
But I had a few tricks up my sleeve. I rolled up clean clothes to make a pillow. Being the elderly "auntie" in the group, I had a tent meant for two all to myself.
I was thankful too that the girls' tents were on a raised platform with a roof and wooden barricades on the side. The boys' tents were on the ground, some perched on a hilly slope at the forest edge.
Fresh paw prints of tigers and other animals could often be seen in the area but Pak Haji assured us that the animals would leave humans alone as they had ample food in the forests.
As I tried to sleep, I prayed that Pak Haji was right. The thought that the jungle beasts would find me a temptingly fleshy meal, was not in the least comforting.
Next week: The writer arms herself against leech attacks, visits salt licks, goes rafting down the river and partakes of a lavish jungle buffet.