Rafflesias 1 - Orangutans 0

Trip Start Jan 31, 1996
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Tuesday, February 22, 2011


 Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. It's an enchanting city with a riverside promenade that runs through its downtown. The walkway is dotted with eating spots, boat launches, park benches and even an ice cream parlour. Kuching first reminded me of what Toronto might have been if high-rise development hadn't trumped lakeshore aesthetics.

I tried to convince Ellen that we could see orangutans at the Toronto zoo, but she insisted on the feral experience. We hopped into a minivan and trucked off to Semenggoh Nature Reserve, an hour or so away. Instruction was given on how quiet we must be. Then the assembled sixty or so of us were paraded silently into the jungle. After ten minutes we took our places on a terraced platform. Twenty metres away, a man with a basket of bananas began making the Tarzan-like call of the orangutan.

We heard rustling in the bushes, saw movement. Then a cell phone rang and the rustling stopped. Ten minutes passed. Six, maybe seven more cellphone calls came to the platform. Then the children started...banging against the railings, crying, laughing. Are we there yet, they may have been saying to their parents in languages that I couldn't understand. After ten more minutes the children's parents joined in as if in competition with the kids. Ellen pointed towards the path and we left. There was no more chance of an orangutan stopping by for a banana than there would be of one popping by a noisy beer parlour at closing time. As we walked away, squirrels, probably more used to humans and the odd ringing devices they so often hold to the sides of their heads came down and started eating the bananas.

The following morning we were told that the world's largest flower, the rafflesia, was in bloom. The bud of the rafflesia takes nine months to mature and flowers for only 4 - 5 days. I glanced at Ellen to see if she was interested, then nodded affirmatively. We hadn't better miss that. Ellen walked along the river. I took a zig-zag route through a maze of winding streets. We met by the ice cream parlour, then snuck out of town, using a series of taxis, buses and collectivos, for fear the cellphone people might be following us.

An hour-and-a-half later we arrived at Gunung Gading National Park. Peace at last. Not a child, parent, or cellphone in sight. We hired a guide and headed into the forest. Twenty minutes later, we veered off the jungle path and within moments it was there, hidden behind what looked like a massive strangler fig. This particular rafflesia measured 68 centimetres in diameter. When I placed my hand beside it so Ellen could take a perspective photo, I was half frightened that it might reach out and chomp down on my digits.

Ellen was ecstatic. Even I was happy. The rafflesia was one of those once-in-lifetime things everyone talks about. If we still need to see orangutans, we can do it at the Toronto zoo.
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