Stories

Cameron Highlands exploration day: seeking the Rafflesia flower

Kuala Lumpur: a city synonymous with hectic streets, manic traffic, constant noise and much general chaos. We arrived there with a week to explore before flying out again to Bali. After a couple of days, the chaos became a little overbearing, so we decided to get away for a while into the Malaysian wilderness.

Just a few hours’ drive from KL is the Cameron Highlands; a scenic and intensely green region entrenched in tropical jungle and famed for its tea plantations. With the bus journey only 10 pounds sterling each for a return trip, it seemed the perfect escape; we booked our tickets and headed there for three nights.

The main settlement in the Cameron Highlands is a small town called Tanah Rata, and this is where we based ourselves. Like many touristy towns, its spine is a single long street lined with shops, restaurants and travel agency outlets; we wandered up and down it on our arrival to find our bearings and investigate things to do. All the agencies seemed to offer the same day and half-day tours, so we grabbed a few leaflets and decamped to our hostel for a peruse.

The main street of Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands
The main street of Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands

On our first full day we decided to explore on our own, taking one of the hiking trails around the town. There are 12 official marked trail routes; we opted for number 10, which ascends to the summit of Gunung Jasar and continues to a neighbouring village. It was fortunate that we didn’t choose trail 9, as I read afterwards there had been several recent dog attacks and a spate of robberies by a man with a machete. Phew.

The hike was pleasant enough. It felt nice to be active again, and Lisa got enraptured in taking photos of the colourful little flowers we saw all along the route.

View from Gunung Jasar on Trail 10 near Tanah Rata
View from Gunung Jasar on Trail 10 near Tanah Rata

Back in Tanah Rata, reinvigorated after a quick rest, we booked ourselves onto a full day tour for the next day: jungle trekking, tea plantations and farm visits awaited for just 75 ringgits each (a little less than 14 pounds sterling at the time).

We arose bright and early in good time to have breakfast at one of the Indian restaurants on the main street before the 8:45am meet. I don’t know why breakfast curry isn’t a thing back home – it’s an amazing way to start the day.

The tour began with a 45-minute drive out to the starting point for our jungle trek. Eight of us were herded into the back of a four-wheel drive, four facing on each side, with no seatbelts, just metal bars to cling onto. The ninth in our group got to sit in the front; lucky for them, as there was much clinging to be done.

After careering headlong around a sequence of terrifying high bends, pale-faced and white-knuckled we turned onto a mud track leading up into the jungle. As the terrain grew swampier and increasingly resistive, our driver pressed further and further on the gas pedal, until suddenly the vehicle churned to a noisy halt.

We were wedged in deep mud on an upward slope, with a row of vehicles waiting behind us. The solution seemed obvious: let the jeep roll back down the hill, get all the people and bags out, get some speed up, and then go at it again. Instead, the driver grounded the pedal with everyone aboard, the wheels spun, the engine roared, and deeper into the rut we went, shaking all about. This was repeated four or five times before finally we resolved to reverse out and park up afoot the hill.

Stuck in a muddy rut in our four-wheel drive
Stuck in a muddy rut in our four-wheel drive

Covered in splatters of mud (the metal bars didn’t protect us from the messy shrapnel emanating from the spinning wheels), we made up the hill on foot, and onwards for about a kilometre until the jeeps caught up to pick us up again. Within a few minutes we were at the mouth of the jungle track.

The end-game for the hike on which we were about to embark was to find one of the world’s rarest flowers: the Rafflesia. The next paragraph is best read in your best David Attenborough voice. *clears throat*

The Rafflesia is the world’s largest flower, and only blooms for three to five days a year in perfect conditions. At full bloom it is a stunning rich red colour, its only drawback being that it gives off an offensive odour not dissimilar to rotting flesh, hence its moniker is the ‘corpse flower’. The Malaysian jungle is one of the few places on Earth it can be found.

It would be impossible to find the Rafflesia without some specialist help; our tour guides paid some local dwellers, who know the terrain inside out, to accompany us and locate a fresh bloom. Off we set into the thick vegetation, following a row of pipes used to carry water to a nearby village.

This was the first proper trekking we had done since Patagonia. The path was sodden, slippery and at times treacherous. We scrambled up and down rocky ravines, waded and hopped across rivers, and clambered over fallen trees. The heat was oppressive, the air thick and humid; to stay on course with the day’s schedule we had to make quick time, and before long we were sticky and dripping, but pressed on nonetheless.

After what seemed like an age we came to a small clearing, where our local experts exchanged a few words and pointed to a track off to the side. We waited while they disappeared into the undergrowth, first in one direction, then back the other way. After a few minutes, one of them reappeared: “flower – this way!” We followed as he led the way up a curving path and down a little bank until, all of a sudden, on a slope to the right, we saw the smiling face of a huge, red flower. We had found the Rafflesia.

Triumphant: we found the Rafflesia flower
Triumphant: we found the Rafflesia flower

One by one we scaled down the bank, and everyone took their turn to get up close with the beautiful flower and take pictures. After 20 minutes or so we were ready to start the long schlep back to the starting point; by the time we re-emerged, we had been in the jungle for over three hours.

The rest of the day took a much more relaxed pace. En route to lunch we made a stop at a village, where a resident treated us to a demonstration of the hunting blowpipe. The long, hollow instrument he displayed was crafted from bamboo and used to fire poisoned darts at the unfortunate prey. After he blew some darts at a target – hitting the centre every time – each of us were invited to take a turn.

We made a speedy lunch stop in a small town on the road back towards Tanah Rata, taking our pick from a selection of restaurants at cheap local prices. We opted for an Indian buffet, where we filled our plates with curry and rice for 11 ringgits each.

Next on the agenda was the afternoon’s highlight; the tea plantations. We were driven to a high-up vantage point to look out on the iconic image of the Cameron Highlands: reams of hills and fields in all directions smeared with ultra-green tea plants. After absorbing this luscious scenery and taking our pictures, we headed down to the Boh factory to learn about the tea-making process and sample some for ourselves.

The iconic tea plantations at Cameron Highlands
The iconic tea plantations at Cameron Highlands

The penultimate stop of the day was at Cameron Highlands Butterfly Farm, an optional extra with a 7 ringgit entry fee. We chose to do it, more from curiosity than anything else, but in hindsight it wouldn’t have taken anything away from the day to sit this one out. Inside the sanctuary area we did find some beautifully coloured butterflies, although most of them seemed to be dead on the floor.

Inside Cameron Highlands Butterfly Farm
Inside Cameron Highlands Butterfly Farm

Before returning, we made a final stop at a strawberry farm, which was also a bit of a non-event being out of season. By the time we rolled back into to Tanah Rata it was 6pm and sunlight was fading. We grabbed some street food, had a beer in the quirky Jungle Bar and made for an early night.

The next day, we were in for one more unexpected adventure: the bus ride back to KL. The driver was absolutely nuts. For the five-hour duration we clung to our seats (there were no seatbelts), bumping all over while our bags slid back and forth. After such a journey, a beer is always in order; luckily for us, we arrived back at our friendly KL hostel just in time for happy hour.

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