In awe of the Rafflesia

Tioman is famed for its translucent waters, colourful corals and powdery-white beaches. Beyond these natural attractions, its rainforest holds many priceless secrets, writes Zulkifly Ab. Latif

The bright red petals of a Rafflesia on Tioman in full bloom.
The bright red petals of a Rafflesia on Tioman in full bloom.

IT is almost 10am when I finally set foot on the main ferry terminal of Kampung Tekek, the main administration village of Pulau Tioman.

Even though the waters of South China Sea are calm throughout the journey from Mersing jetty, located on the Johor mainland, it takes us almost three hours to reach Kampung Tekek instead of the usual 75 minutes.

The delay comes about because of the multiple stops the ferry makes at the island’s four other villages — Genting, Paya, Air Batang and Salang. The beautiful island has seven villages, the other being Mukut and Nipah.

The waters of Tioman draw visitors each year, many of whom remain oblivious to the rainforest behind it.
The waters of Tioman draw visitors each year, many of whom remain oblivious to the rainforest behind it.

The disembarkation process at each jetty also takes quite a while as the ferry is packed with tourists lugging loads of luggage.

Business is booming despite the current Covid-19 crisis, at least from what I can see at the jetties. Visitors ranging from solo travellers to couples, families and groups walk gingerly towards the resorts.

Tourists come here for the translucent waters, colourful corals and powdery-white sands.

Their main activities are probably limited to the coastlines and villages. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But with a land area of 136 sq km that includes 72 sq km of protected rainforest, Tioman has so much more to offer.

Which is why this time around, I am wearing hiking boots instead of my usual beach sandals. In fact, I do not even pack my wetsuits and fins!

RAFFLESIA CALLING

I make this trip after getting a tip-off on the presence of blooming Rafflesias somewhere in the jungle near Kampung Tekek.

The information comes from Alvin Chelliah, a marine biologist from Kajang who now resides at the village to man a long-term programme called Cintai Tioman (Love Tioman) together with his wife, Su Yee.

The programme, spearheaded by the NGO Reef Check, aims to help reduce the impact of human activities on coral reefs around the island while also empowering the local communities in managing and conserving the island’s resources.

Intrigued, I set out a plan to track down this unique parasitic flower with Alvin and his team. Wasting no time, the expedition starts right from the jetty.

Together with Shahir, an islander who is the assistant programme manager for Reef Check, we head towards Kampung Juara, located on the other side of the island.

Rafflesia buds or cabbages growing on an overhanging tetrastigma vine, a unique sight rarely seen elsewhere.
Rafflesia buds or cabbages growing on an overhanging tetrastigma vine, a unique sight rarely seen elsewhere.

Much of Tioman remains devoid of roads, with only footpaths connecting the various villages. There is, however, one that connects the main village of Tekek with Kampung Juara.

Stopping by the road next to a concrete footpath that leads into the rainforest, we meet Pak Lan, a Juara local.

The first thing he does after the compulsory pleasantries is asking me politely not to take any photographs of the trailhead that we are about to take.

“I’m worried about poachers who may come after the Rafflesias, among other things,” he says. I nod, indicating that I totally understand his concern.

The 50-something retired navy man is passionate about the pristine jungles of Tioman and is quite adept at spotting the many interesting flora and fauna that thrive here.

A SECRET TRAIL

The trail takes us past small streams, little gulleys and between large boulders intertwined with roots. The route is not difficult. In fact, two-year-old Ray Samudra, the son of Alvin and Su, tramps along the path confidently.

About 15 minutes into the hike, Pak Lan stops and shows us what we have been eagerly awaiting to see. The parasitic flower looks very much like cabbage, except for the dull reddish black and leathery surface compared to the greenish white and smooth surface of the vegetable.

Interestingly, some are growing on overhanging tetrastigma vines, about a metre above the forest floor. This is the first time I’m seeing Rafflesia plants growing above the ground.

Curious, I ask Pak Lan for the name of the Rafflesia species.

“Researchers are still figuring it out,” he replies, chuckling.

Pak Lan points to the many granite boulders around us and theorises that the Rafflesias here may have adapted and grown this way as a means to overcome the lack of soft soil and space.

Walking along the trail for another few metres, we finally stop at a Rafflesia flower that has been blooming for about four days.

Shahir photographing the elusive chameleon forest dragon.

One of its five petals is already decayed and has affected parts of the flanking petals too. As expected, the smell is quite unbearable.

“The Rafflesia will usually bloom for about a week before it fully rots to complete its brief but beautiful life cycle,” says Pak Lan.

I find it a privilege to be here viewing this unique and endangered flower, which speaks volumes of the many wonderful things in nature that are found in the Tioman interior.

Having taken in the sight of the Rafflesia, Pak Lan looks for small critters for us to see as we make our return hike.

The trail is a haven for chameleon forest dragons, exceptionally beautiful lizards that rely on camouflage for defence.

We spot six of them which is quite astounding since these lizards are known to be shy and elusive.

I begin to understand why Pak Lan is so protective of the area. Poachers, especially those in the pet lizard trade, will be highly interested in such locations.

AN ORCHID GARDEN

After the hike, we make our way to Pak Lan’s house in Kampung Juara where we meet his wife, Kak Sal.

Like her husband, Kak Sal is passionate about the island’s rich flora, in particular its many wild orchids.

Over the years of following her husband on hikes around the island, she has collected almost 60 species of orchids of unique shapes and shades that now grow abundantly in her small garden.

A delicate and beautiful bamboo orchid at Kak Sal’s orchid garden.
A delicate and beautiful bamboo orchid at Kak Sal’s orchid garden.

Visitors who go with Pak Lan for the Rafflesia hikes normally end their experience with a visit to Kak Sal’s orchid garden, which serves as another reminder of the natural beauty of Tioman.

“There are many species of orchids here on the island, some of which are exceptionally rare and can fetch thousands of ringgit,” she says.

However, the friendly and sweet-natured Kak Sal refuses to sell any of her collection.

Indeed, Tioman’s flora is without a doubt a priceless heritage that needs to be protected and conserved.

TREASURED ISLAND

Sitting down with Alvin, Su and Shahir, I find out more about the plans of their community programme.

“We’ve been mostly concentrating on marine environment and community issues but starting to realise the importance of the rainforest here in Tioman,” says Alvin, naming the Rafflesia as an example.

The flowering plant is unique for its lack of true roots and parasitic nature, he explains.

“However, not many visitors know that the species we saw today is endemic to Tioman,” he adds.

The team at Cintai Tioman hopes that along with more awareness about the island’s unique and beautiful flora and fauna, there will be more progress in effective management and conservation.

It is one of the reasons why the programme is called Cintai Tioman, originating from the Malay proverb Tak Kenal Maka Tak Cinta (literally ‘To not know is to not love’).

By : Zulkifly Ab. Latif – NST

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