The Rafflesia, Cat Poo Coffee and Something Special!

A few months ago i was lucky enough to have the chance to travel to Indonesia on a plant hunting expedition to find the worlds biggest flower, the Rafflesia arnoldii. A plant that many people will never get the opportunity to see in bloom in the wild, it was my time to dust of the Indiana Jones hat and whip I’d had since i was kid, like many folks I’m sure i was somewhat obsessed with Steven Spielberg’s creation and i finally had my chance to experience first hand what it must’ve felt like to be heading out on an exhibition into the unknown! A little dramatic you might say, well you might be right but i don’t care i felt just like the crazy archeologist and i was excited to see what the jungles of Indonesia had in store for me. so my adventure begins….

I touched down at Jakarta Airport late in the evening and had to get a taxi across the city to my digs, at 0800hrs i had to be up and ready to get a taxi to the bus station in order to get a bus to take me to the next island of Sumatra. So i got my head down in my rather bizarre surroundings that was a cross between student accommodation and  a bed breakfast, but i was too tired to worry and too excited to care, at least the bed was comfy.

Jakarta by day is a completely different experience to Jakarta at night, at night there was almost a stillness across it, but by day its a heaving, pulsing, living entity, it a crazy manic experience and i was looking forward to getting out of it. Now, being ripped off by taxi drivers is almost a given in Jakarta, so after weaving my way across the city and  being taken to two different bus stations i finally reach my destination. Pulo gadung bus station, which according to locals is the busiest bus station in Jakarta and I’ve no doubt that this statement is true, if i said it felt like I’d step onto the set of Mad Max only with buses and mango sellers I’d be under describing it you. I went and purchased my ticket, and was told that the bus would be leaving in an hour.

With only five minutes to go till our bus was due to leave the woman who sold me and my companion Stephen our tickets came across with instructions to follow her, so, off we went, in another taxi whizzing around the bus terminal till we came to our ‘bus’. One thing I’ll say is that they like to bend the true slightly when it comes to the transport you’re getting in Indonesia and also the time it takes to get anywhere, this journey was suppose to take 18 hours. My later experiences would  confirm this habit of truth bending. When i booked the ticket i was shown a picture of a luxury coach with blacked out windows and leather reclining seats, now in hindsight alarm bells should’ve started ringing as soon as i looked around the bus terminal; there wasn’t a single one of these luxury coaches to be seen anywhere. To say the bus we were taken to was a death trap is no understatement, but little did i know the hellish experience we were about to encounter.

I’ll keep it brief, this is meant to be a blog about my expedition in the jungle not about the journey there. That being said it would be wrong of me not to mention that my supposed 18 hour journey turned into an excruciating, smoked filled, sickly baby twins, cockroach infested, toilet over flowing,  broken seat, euro trance, stop ever hour, stick chillis on the roof, nearly driving off a cliff in the dead of night, Jackie Chan movie marathon horror journey. I actually feared for my life at points, some of the death-defying speeds and turns the driver took where straight out an action movie. Anyway i survived, just, and I’d reach my destination – Buckit Tingii

That being said it would be wrong of me not to mention that my supposed 18 hour journey turned into an excruciating, smoked filled, sickly baby twins, cockroach infested, toilet over flowing,  broken seat, euro trance, stop ever hour, stick chillis on the roof, nearly driving off a cliff in the dead of night, Jackie Chan movie marathon horror journey.

Buckit Tingii was to be my base camp for getting ready for the next stage of the expedition; our hike into the unknown. Our adventure was to begin the next morning. In the morning of our trip we were met by our guide who loaded our stuff onto the roof of a blatant chop-shop car/bus hybrid and off we went on the 40 minute journey to the foothills of the Batang Palupuh national park. Here we swapped guides and went through our safety checks; water, check! first aid kit, check! change of clothes, check! waterproofs, check! rope, check! and so on.

Fully briefed and feeling excitably anxious about the next 24 hours off we set. Our guide, Andre, was very pleased that he was escorting two Englishman in the jungle, he was pleased because he had the chance to practice his English on us. As we set off Andre explained that the village we were walking through to find the trail was his village and they make their money from two things, jungle treks to see the Rafflesia and Luwak Coffee that was collected from the surrounding jungle by the villagers.

Luwak Coffee I ask? Now, I’d heard of this but I’d always assumed it was a gimmick you gave to someone at Christmas, for those of you that have never heard of this, its coffee that has been passed through the stomach and bowels of a Cevit Cat (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). Yep you read that right its basically cat poo coffee. Andre informed me he had some with him and when we stopped he make us some. I couldn’t wait.

The walk out of the village had us passing rice fields, coffee plants, pepper trees, and hundreds of other plants, we also saw villagers returning with civet scat ready for it to be processed. As we reach the trail that was to take us into the jungle the walk began to steadily move upwards and a seemingly gentle climb began to turn into a wet, muddy, climb up steep banks, and down into shallow dips and back up again. This continued for for what felt like hours, it was in fact only two.

We stopped, and Andre true to his word brewed us a tin mug of Luwak Coffee. Andre went on to tell us about the trade and to explain that in recent years it had been marred by reports of civet farming and he was quick to assure us that his village was one of only a few that still collected the beans from the poo of civets that live in the wild. He said that his village has been collecting this way for hundred of years and that this made it one of the most expensive coffees in the world.

I was intrigued, I’m not sure why as i don’t drink coffee, honestly this was only the second cup I’d ever had in my life and i couldn’t tell you whether it was good or not but Stephen rest assures me it was very good indeed. So, cups away, all food waste bag and took with us and off we went we were hoping to reach our camp in the next few hours, we’d sleep see the flower in the morning and then head back out of the jungle.

Every so often Andre would stop us and point out an exotic plant specimen, but unfortunately he English wasn’t good enough to be able to give us anything but the Indonesian names which was a shame but still it didn’t detract from beauty of the plants. On we pushed to camp, after scaling waterfalls, dodging monitor lizards in the streams, spotting peacocks and spiders .

Within an couple of hours we had reached our destination; Camp. Camp is not the right word, mattress under a plastic sheet with a fire, but after the trek we’d been on, it looked like a 5* four post bed. We sat down for tea; a simple meal of rice, beans, spices and egg wrapped in banana leaf that had been prepared for us by Andres wife, that was warmed up on the camp fire. It was delicious, fantastic in fact, better than most, if not all of the restaurant food we’d tried and on a par with the street food we preferred. We chatted for a while over dinner, whilst the sun sank, it was at this point that we were treated to one of the most amazing natural phenomenon anyone can wish to see. At first i thought i was seeing a meteor shower but Andre kindly pointed out it was something better, it was Fireflies dancing around the sky. Fireflies, Bintang, great food and great company, what a way to top off a very exiting day.

The next day we woke up with the sunrise, packed, ate breakfast, tidied camp for the next lot and set off. Andre said that we weren’t far away from seeing the Rafflesia, but before that he had something special to show us. After a short walk i could Andre was excited about what was a round the corner, but i was not prepared to see an Arum Titan (Amorphophallus titanum) it was not in bloom but it was there in front of me in the wild! It was massive, and a real joy. I couldn’t thank Andre enough because I’d not been expecting to to see this. A few photos later and we were off to try to find our main goal the Rafflesia arnoldii.

It didn’t take long at all to reach the rafflesia but we could smell them before we could see them and what a stench it was like. Its no exaggeration when they say it smells like rotten meat, it really does. There was a one in bloom, a couple in bud and one that had passed it best. They’re massive too at least 800mm across  in bloom. They were truly a magnificent sight one that made all the horrors of the journey here pale into insignificance and made the trek all the more worth while.

Now that i reach them, photographed them, and smelled them, we had to get back out the jungle! Stay tuned to my website to read about my visit to La Alhambra and the Generalife Gardens of Granada, Spain.

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