Thursday, November 23, 2006

KL - Karak Expressway 181106

Early Saturday morning, and we find ourselves cruising along the majestic Kuala Lumpur - Karak Expressway (E8) in the fresh mountain air, for a rendezvous with a bunch of botanists from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). Yes, we are going Rafflesia hunting today.

The tunnel at Sempah Pass never looks better!

And mountain clouds still envelope Selesa Hillhomes at Bukit Tinggi.

The Stop 181106a

And this is our rendezvous point - the Petronas rest area along the expressway. A spot of modern amenities in the middle of the jungle.

KL-bound view. We just came this way.

View towards Karak, and the way to the East Coast. This road is part of the East Coast Expressway (E8).

And of course, the first thing you do early in the morning is a bit of dusting up around the house.

The Stop 181106b

A bit of photo-taking while waiting for our university friends to arrive.

Droplets of dew clinging to the leaves.

A group of ladies, probably in a convoy for a function somewhere, arrive.

The Rendezvous 181106

Back in the cafetaria, breakfast is being served in earnest.

And a while later, Dr Kamarudin "Pak Din" Mat Salleh, eminent botanist, Rafflesia guru, and his merry band of graduate students arrive. Time for Sabariah to catch up with old mate Pak Din. You see, they went to the same school. :-)

[L-R, clockwise: Pak Din, Donna (hidden), Azhar, Aina, Mat Ros, Choon Pei, Sabariah]

Tummies filled for the day's jungle outing, we are soon eagerly on our way, exiting E8 and getting onto national Route 8, which snakes its way all the way to the northern-most part of peninsular Malaysia.

We are going to a village called Ulu Dong, some 32km from the town of Raub, which we are passing by now. Raub is about 100km north of Kuala Lumpur, across the main Titiwangsa mountain range.

The Point Man 181106

Arriving Ulu Dong, an hour after passing Raub, we touch base with our point man, a tough-looking gent wearing a vicious-looking parang on his waist.

At the edge of the jungle, he meticulously tends to his rubber trees ...

... whose precious milky sap, collected in bowls, earns him a living ...

... in addition to harvesting petai on the side.

Which is remarkable, since this brave man's property is virtually sandwiched between the jungle and Mona Fandey's. Mona is the lady who had made Ulu Dong (in)famous throughout the country, thanks to her exploits, succinctly described HERE.

Lata Jarum 181106

At the end of the motorable road, we come to a car-park at Lata Jarum, a tourist attraction launched in 1999, but has since lost a lot of steam. Maybe people avoid this place because of Mona, who claimed she would never die?

Alighting from the car, I gaze down at an inviting pool formed by the mountain stream ...

... but alas, our mission today is there, somewhere in the foreboding jungle.

Having secured our cars, we melt into the jungle in a single file, with Mat Ros leading the way, parang in hand.

Thanks to Google Earth and GPS, this is Lata Jarum and our destination, relative to Raub. Please click image for better view of our coloured tracks.

The Trail 181106

The first part of the track is an old logging trail ...

... and in 1980 this spot was declared a security area, but since it is also a research site for the botanists, they have access. Click image for better read.

But soon gives way to secondary forest undergrowths, and you can hardly make out what's there just a few metres away ...

... but Pak Din's red shirt is like a beacon in the ubiquitous green, and I'm last in the line, so keep goin', don't look back!

The Little Things 181106

The jungle is a fascinating place ...

... and you need not look far. Just scan your feet as you huff and puff along the uphill trail ...

... while ignoring the countless annoying leeches, doing their best to hitch rides on you from the ground or body level, as they wave their glistening, skinny bodies from leaves and twigs.

But this guy is harmless. He minds his own business.

The Stream 181106

The pods of some plant, at ground level. Oddly coloured.

Thick undergrowth everywhere, but we are going upstream along a brook, as it comes down the hill, finding its way around rocks and trees.

Enormous stones in a clearing. The sun-ray can hardly penetrate the canopies above. It is damp and humid. Leechez rulez!

The Bloom 181106

As I pause at the rocky brook again ...

... I hear Sabariah shrieking in delight in the bushes, and as I rush over, there she is ...

... joyfully posing with her first ever Rafflesia bloom, on the bank of the very same stream we have been following.

And a quick mandatory pose with the gratified guru himself.

We have been walking for almost exactly one hour in the jungle, covering a distance of 2km.

Read Sabariah's eyewitness account HERE.

R. cantleyi 181106

This is the bloom of a 9-month old Rafflesia cantleyi. The flower is the plant, a parasite living off a couple of roots of a tree in this case. There are 8 species in Malaysia, out of the confirmed 15, all found only in Southeast Asia.

After spending 9 months as a bud, looking like a black cabbage, he blooms in full glory for 3 days before wilting into an ugly black clump. This is his second big day. Yes, it's a 'he', a male plant. Male? Please ask Pak Din how to determine sex of Rafflesia - he does a BLOG too.

Not exactly the largest bloom (that honour belongs to R. arnoldii, found in Sumatera), it is nevertheless an impressive sight (compare size with blue credit card).

The lobes (not just 'petals', okay) are hard and sturdy (tastes bitter, don't ask me how I find that out), and the circular window in the middle of the diaphram is abuzz with activities, as all manners of flies, attracted to its pungent rotting-flesh kinda odour, enter and exit. Great pollinators, these.

I gingerly poke my nose into the window, and yes indeed, the smell is overpowering (is that a rotting dead dog on the roadside?), but I was more worried of flies getting into my facial orifices! That'd be nasty.

The Cycle 181106

Looking very lonesome with only the gurgling stream as company, and for the moment, Aina, feverishly writing her note-book, the Rafflesia awaits the end.

While nearby another R. cantleyi bud patiently prepares for its turn to blossom, some 6 months away.

Remnant of a once-majestic bloom, now a lifeless dull blob. If the plant is male, there is nothing left when he expires.

Another site of a former flower. If female, then out of the decayed mass, another bud arises and blooms in 9 months' time, to perpetuate the species.

The pollinators at work - flies attracted to the pungent odour. Two outside and many more inside the window.

Such is the cycle of life.

The Blossoms 181106

The scientists (and the odd non-scientist) pause to savour the moment. These people have probably seen hundreds of Rafflesia blooms, and yet their enthusiasm never wanes.

The documentation process starts in earnest and this spot of the damp, humid jungle suddenly becomes a photo studio.

More grunt work and Azhar, the gent in red, is ably assisted by Mat Ros, while Sabariah thinks of lunch. Well, it's now 1.30pm.

And of course, who could resist a family get-together. Even the R. cantleyi seems to be grinning.

[L-R, anticlockwise: Mat Ros, Choon Pei, failed scientist
, Pak Din, Donna, Sabariah. Top left corner in bush: Azhar]

Last but not least, two blossoms together. :-)