Race to the Flower: the quest to find the world’s largest flower

Completely drenched in sweat, I adjusted my back pack and wiped my forehead taking a quick break.  The sun beat down through the trees and it’s increasing heat let me know that afternoon was approaching.  Slowly I climbed up the last small hill, navigating over the protruding tree roots as I approached the rest of the group, huddled around something off to the right of the trail, everyone snapping photos and bending down to the ground.

I immediately smiled, probably one of the few to grace my face over the past two hours of hiking.  We were finally here, we get to see the flowers!  I pulled my camera from by back pack eager to see these massive blooms.

There it was, the Rafflesia.

“That’s it?  We came all this way for one flower?”

If I come across something interesting, I will usually go out of my way to see it.  It’s an affliction of curiosity that I think all travelers have, the urge to find something unique and different, and it’s often insatiable.

Some of my better experiences on the road have been going out of my way to find some obscure museum in the quieter part of town, walking up that extra hill for the better panoramic view, or taking a long bumpy bus ride out of town to see a little chapel rumored to have relics buried beneath it.  Going out of your way while traveling USALLY brings a feeling of accomplishment, a pride that comes along with deviating from your schedule to follow your gut and the reward in the end is the best part.

The downside to having said adventures is that you begin to romanticize the outcome which can occasionally lead to disappointment instead of satisfaction, which was the case when I was on the hunt for the world’s largest flower.

I arrived in the Cameron Highlands from Kuala Lumpur by bus.  The buses here are some of the nicer ones I’ve been on (sorry Megabus!) they have comfy spacious seats that recline, little lazy boys on wheels that carry you towards your next destination as you slumber peacefully.  Be advised you are peacefully slumbering in an artic tundra because every bus I have been on so far in Malaysia has super powered AC units that pump through the vehicle on full blast so you can practically see your breath.   With the weather outside being so hot and humid, it’s a shock to the system but this time I came prepared and bundled up head to toe so I could enjoy the ride without getting hypothermia.

The highlands are a majestic countryside, with beautiful, lush, green landscape, the hills and mountains surrounding farmland and the temperature is perfection.  There is a major transition from the bustling city, the air is fresh, traffic is minimal and the tallest buildings are large resorts so you have an unobstructed view.

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There are frequent tours through the mountain forest to find the Rafflesia, the largest flower which is found growing in Southeast Asia.  The flower is rare and fickle.  It has an unpredictable blooming cycle and when it does open, it slowly starts to die after a few days.  The larger version of the species can grow to be 3 feet across weighing over 10 pounds.  Much like the corpse flower I saw in DC in the summer, it emits a distinctive odor that attracts bugs that will pollinate the plant.  The tours are booked with a guide that will send a local into the forest scouting out places where the flower is in bloom then the tourists are lead on a hike to seek out the flower.

Initially described as a “leisurely hike through the woods”, this turned out to be just short of a jungle sprint.  The location of this specific bud was about 2 hours into the woods so it was going to be a 4 hour journey round trip and since we had other things planned after the trek we couldn’t waste any time.

Stewart was our tour guide, he was a quiet man in his mid forties, round wire frames graced his gentle, soft spoken face.  Our group hopped into two beat up Land Rover Defenders (a common mode of transport here because of the terrain).  We arrived at the trail head and started up, immediately beginning uphill.  Stewart informed us there is 30 minutes of the trek that is uphill and in the sun so he walks quickly in the beginning and then will slow down once we are in shaded by the thicker wooded area.  This I found was one of Stewart’s first of many “half truths”.  The quick part was spot on.  He effortlessly and gracefully floated up the hill, his hands resting behind his back as if on an afternoon stroll on a city sidewalk.  I, however, made the initial climb much less gracefully, awkwardly hopping over holes on the trail and wobbling over puddles in the path, I imagine I looked like a drunk heading home after last call, swaggering to and fro as my pack bounced up and down on my back.

Stewart, I decided as I huffed and puffed through the first part of our journey, was like an adult version of Mowgli from the Jungle Book.  Stewart must have grown up in the jungle and lived with the animals learning all the ins and outs of jungle life and this is my only explanation of his insane agility.

We finally got to take a quick break and I swigged some water, excited to have something to drink while simultaneously lightening my load on my back.  Stewart, of course, sits on a log and lights up a cigarette as I stand red faced, already beginning to sweat.

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Our break was short lived and we ventured further into the woods, the trail leading through bamboo canopies and archways providing a safe haven from the humidity and rays of sun.  Every so often there was a welcoming fresh breeze that blew through, the bamboo acting as a tunnel, funneling the wind onto the trail.

It’s about an hour in when I realized that Stewart is a liar.  We seem to have quickened our pace and the hill that he said would be our last one was three or four hills ago.  My visions of gazing at a field of larger than life flowers have now been overshadowed with visions of strangling Stewart as I traverse over streams, balancing on slippery, mossy rocks and cross over on huge fallen tree stumps like an uncoordinated Cirque du Soleil tightrope walker.

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We had one more rest stop and then we finally ascending onto the Rafflesia.  I guess I was expecting something more along the lines of this:

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But came upon this:

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It is the craziest looking flower I’ve ever seen.  I came to find out that they don’t bloom in groups, like I initially thought, but one at a time.  It was huge, as we inspected it, smelled it and photographed it as Stewart was off to the side smoking another cigarette.

“It’s really a fungus, not a flower,” he remarked as smoke billowed from his mouth.

Really Stewart, really!?

I decided on the way back I was going to hike how I usually do, at a normal leisurely pace so I can take in all the wonderful sights and sounds of the mountains.  The more intriguing part of the trek were all the varieties of butterflies flitting around flower to flower, like a delicate choreographed dance.

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My resentment for Stewart started to dissipate and he soon fell back into my good graces, mainly because he had the keys to the Land Rover and he was our ride to lunch.

The highlight of the day for me was going to Mount Batu Brinchang, the highest mountain in the Cameron Highlands, which we summited thankfully by car not on foot.  The air is misty and cool on your face from the thin fog that skims along the tops of the hills in the distance.  There is a look-out tower you can climb to get a panoramic view and in the silence at the top it feels as if there is no one else in world.  Stewart my friend, you have redeemed yourself.

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Here is my first attempt at time lapse, on the viewing platform overlooking the fog rolling through.

My life lesson learned from Stewart and of my hike from hell that ended in the heavens? Everything isn’t always as you imagine it to be and it can always turn into something better than expected.  Would I do it again?  In a heartbeat.