Birthday flowers

I always thought that after the teenage years people shouldn’t really celebrate birthdays, but as middle age sets in, I’m starting to think that birthdays and Christmas actually provide the ideal excuse to treat oneself and do something different.

With my birthday falling on a Tuesday this year, I decided that it would make a perfect long weekend to do something special. A quick internet search revealed that the cheapest destination was Kuching in Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, which would allow access to Gunung Gading National Park, famous for its Rafflesia flowers.

This was perfect, as Jeremy Holden’s beautiful Rafflesia photograph adorns the wall opposite me in the FFI Singapore office. Named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, it is the world’s largest flower and is something that every naturalist would love to see.

Sir Stamford Raffles statue, Singapore. Credit: Stephen Browne/FFI.

Proud Sir Stamford Raffles, presiding over Singapore’s Central Business District. Credit: Stephen Browne.

Sir Stamford Raffles is a truly inspiring man. Not only did he found Singapore, he also served as statesman across the Malay and Indonesia archipelagos, in Penang, Malacca, Bengkulu and fought the Dutch and French in Java. He was a leading amateur historian, writing the still popular History of Java and was the driving force behind rediscovering and restoring Borobudur (a famous Buddhist temple dating from the 8th and 9th centuries). He was also a man of compassion, and under his governorship he stopped the slave trade, partially introduced self-government and put in place limitations against the opium trade.

He was also a leading natural historian and as a result has a fish, two birds, a pitcher plant, an ant, a spider and of course the entire genus of the Rafflesia named (in their scientific nomenclature) in his honour, plus numerous other species that use Raffles as part of their common name.

To this day his contribution to natural history is immortalised by the world-famous Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research and the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology. He was a founder and first president of the Zoological Society of London and the London Zoo.

And all of this was achieved before his early death at only 44 years, just one day shy of his 45th birthday.

Save it for a rainy day

So, with Jeremy’s photo in mind and thoughts of Raffles, I set off to Gunung Gading National Park. The park is around 5,000 hectares of primary and secondary rainforest based around four peaks, the highest of which is Gunung Gading itself at 986 metres.

Gunung Gading National Park Head Quarters. Credit: Stephen Browne.

Gunung Gading National Park Head Quarters, world famous site of the Rafflesia. Credit: Stephen Browne.

The forest has remained intact as it provides essential ecosystem services to the town of Lundu (namely as a catchment for water but also through hydro-electric power generation), and today has formal protection under National Park status as an important site for Rafflesia. It receives around 20,000 visitors per year, almost all coming to see the flowers.

Despite being famous for the Rafflesia, they do only bloom for about 4-5 days, despite taking over three years to mature, and they generally prefer to flower in the wettest months (July being the driest) so they were by no means a guaranteed certainty. On arrival at the park it was pleasing to hear the characteristic “Tok-Tok tok tok…” call of the red-crowned barbet Megalaima rafflesi, one of the birds named after Raffles. This felt like a good omen.

My hopes, however, were soon dashed when I asked the Rafflesia conservation warden about the presence of any flowers, to be told there were only buds. So with three days in hand to see the flowers I decided to climb to the peak of the national park. At 986 metres it is not high – not even a mountain – but the ascent was steep and took me through very hot and humid forest, and rain!

Despite being the driest month, it had apparently been pouring for over a week and the strange weather had even caused the fruit trees to flower months early. “Maybe the Rafflesia might be confused too,” I thought to myself, my hopes rising once more.

After almost 6 hours of ascending and descending the ‘mountain’ and with wobbly legs (that would take 3 days to function properly) I asked again about the flowers. Sadly there were only buds, but I told the warden that as it was my birthday, even just a bud would be good, so we arranged to see it the next day.

When we set off to look at the bud, the warden told me he had a birthday treat, and that actually a flower was showing. He explained that they were not telling people about it as it was slightly smaller than it should be, but as it was my birthday he would show it to me.

Seeing the flower was amazing, a real wonder of the natural world and something I will never forget. The barbet was calling as we admired it and, amazingly, as we walked back to the HQ we saw a group of Raffles’s malkohas (a type of bird), so with a Raffles hat-trick it was a very special day and one that I couldn’t have planned better.

Now, how to better that for my 44th (and unlike poor Raffles, my 45th) birthday?