FINDING INDONESIA’S TOILET-SIZED RUFFLESIA FLOWER
“On the twenty-third day of the month of September,
in an early year of a decade not too long before our own,
the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence.
And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places…”
-prologue to Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
September always has a hint of change and danger. On September 30, 2009, my first full year of travel in Asia had just finished. I was tired. I was also in northern Sumatra- the largest, and most wild island that makes up the dramatic archipelago of Indonesia.
Specifically, I was on a bumpy bus from the amazing Lake Toba to Bukittinggi exactly one year after I had first flown into Tokyo and found my apartment there. I was reflecting on the year, when news spread around the bus that a 7.9 earthquake struck near the city of Padang, on Sumatra’s southern coast. Apparently, from what I could hear, it is disastrous.
Turns out, the earthquake made headlines around the world. An international team of assistance was flying into Padang to help. Travel to Padang was nearly impossible. Before my friend and I could pass through Padang and make our way to Jakarta, we’d be waiting in Bukittinggi for a few days while Padang was picking itself back up from the earthquake. Bukittinggi being a cool town under a majestic volcano and featuring a handsome square, it certainly wasn’t all bad. Aside from some great coffee, we were struggling to find something to do.
On our second day in town, we learned that the Rafflesia flower was currently in bloom. Growing up to 39 inches (100cm) in diameter and weighing up to 22 pounds (10kg), we now had our chance to see the world’s largest flower. Having seen Little Shop of Horrors, as a child, I have always assumed all ridiculously large flowers to be ridiculously unfriendly.
“You must see the flower. Only blooms one week a year for five days,” is all I heard from everyone at the Orchid Hotel. I was talked out of my apprehension and the next day we were off on a motorbike to hunt down this toilet-sized flower and try to snap a picture without our camera being eaten and spat out at us.
We rented a motorbike. The particular flower that we found was located about 25 minutes north of the town. Once you arrive at the trailhead, it is another 25 minute walk through the jungle. We hired a tour guide for 50,000 riel ($5 usd).
And, finally- on a little hillside just off the trail- the Rafflesia itself. Looking rather eager to be seen.
If you’re not particularly interested in botany, seeing the world’s largest flower may be something you do just to say you’ve done it. The Rafflesia didn’t burp. The Rafflesia didn’t try to eat Rick Moranis. It just kind of sat there, as it does for less than a week a year. But considering the dark events and deaths in Padang, the Rufflesia’s timing was perfect. Well worth the trek.