Travel Features > National Park & The Great Outdoors > Gunung Gading National Park

In Search of the Rafflesia,
A Rainforest Experience And Mountain Highs

By Wayne Tarman

Stream
Gunung Gading National Park is
criss-crossed with clear jungle
streams and dip pools surrounded
by forest.
©Wayne Tarman
Gunung Gading National Park remains one of Sarawak's best kept nature secrets. In addition to having a very special attraction - the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia, - the park has some fantastic rainforest scenery dotted with jungle streams and waterfalls, and thanks to a series of recently opened trails it offers some of the most challenging jungle treks found in Sarawak's network of national parks.

The park is made up of a series of mountain peaks that overlook the small town of Lundu in Southwest Sarawak, just two hours drive form Kuching. Gunung Gading was gazetted as a conservation zone in 1983 and only opened to visitors in 1994. Since then the park has fast gained a reputation as one of the most accessible Rafflesia sites in the region. However, its other attractions remain relatively unknown.


The World's Largest Flower

Rafflesia
Seeing a Rafflesia in full bloom is an unforgettable
nature experience.
©Sarawak Tourism Board
The Rafflesia is a parasitic plant which grows on the lower slopes of mountain ranges in selected areas of Southeast Asia. The first Europeans to discover the Rafflesia were Sir Stamford Raffles and Dr Joseph Arnold. They stumbled across one whilst on a field trip near Bengkulu, Sumatra in 1818. The specimen they found was huge, measuring 97 cm in diameter. This species was later named the Rafflesia Arnoldi.

There are believed to be 17 species of Rafflesia but scientists believe that some of these are already extinct as sightings have not occurred for some time. Three types of Rafflesia are found in Sarawak, Rafflesia Arnoldi, Rafflesia Pricei and Rafflesia Tuan-Mudae. Only the R. Tuan-Mudae is found at Gunung Gading National Park. Some species of Rafflesia can grow up to a metre in diameter but those found at Gunung Gading are usually 50-70cm in diameter.

Despite significant scientific research many aspects of the Rafflesia's biology have yet to be fathomed out. The Rafflesia is a parasitic plant that relies on a host vine called tetrastigma. But why the Rafflesia associates itself with a vine and how its seeds germinate and grow remains a mystery. It is known that tissue spreads out within the vine to absorb nutrients and after a period of approximately 18 months a very small brown bud forms. The bud then takes 9 months to fully mature when it resembles a brown cabbage. Long periods of growth, both within the vine and once the bud has formed, mean that there is a high risk of damage. Many buds do not mature into flowers. Studies have also shown that both drought and heavy rainfall reduce bud survival rates. Buds often occur in clusters on the forest floor or clinging to rocks and trees but it is extremely rare for two buds to flower simultaneously.

A small brown cabbage-like Rafflesia bud.
A small brown cabbage-like Rafflesia bud.
©Wayne Tarman
When a bud reaches maturity it starts to open, a process that takes several hours. The brown 'leaves' fan out to reveal five thick red-coloured petals which are covered in marks, spots and blotches. Although 5 petals is the norm, a number of six petal Rafflesia flowers have been recorded at Gunung Gading (see photo). The Rafflesia flower lasts for between 3-5 days and then it starts to rot, turning a dark reddish brown before going black. When blooming the flower gives off a nasty smell which attracts the carrion flies which pollinate the plants. For pollination to occur a male and a female Rafflesia must be blooming at the same time. Rafflesia seeds are believed to be scattered around the forest floor by rodents and small mammals which eat the flowers. As mentioned before, scientists still do not know how the seeds infest the roots of the host vine.


In Search of the Rafflesia

The Rafflesia is rare and only blooms for a short period so a bit of luck is required if you plan to see one on a trip to Sarawak. However, the park staff monitor the buds at the various Rafflesia sites so usually have a good idea when a flower is about to bloom. Visitors can therefore check with the park HQ (Tel: 082-735714) or the National Parks & Wildlife Office in Kuching (Tel: 082-248088) before heading for the Park. Although the Rafflesia does not have a specific flowering season, blooms are more common in the wetter months from November to February.

A rare six 'petal' Rafflesia. Rafflesia's usually have five petals. However, at Gunung Gading a few six petal blooms are recorded every year.
A rare six 'petal' Rafflesia. Rafflesia's usually
have five petals. However, at Gunung Gading a
few six petal blooms are recorded every year.
©Wayne Tarman
When you reach the park the staff will tell you if a Rafflesia is blooming and where it is located in the forest. Near the park HQ there is a plankwalk that leads through an area of the forest where Rafflesia's are commonly found. Brown cabbage-like buds of various sizes can normally be seen here. Some of the larger ones have chicken wire cages over them to offer protection from wild animals and falling branches. If a Rafflesia is flowering in this area you do not need a guide and can just follow the plankwalk until you find the flower. If the Rafflesia is situated deeper in the forest the park warden will take you on a guided walk to the site. You will pass through some beautiful rainforest scenery and may have to cross some small jungle streams before you reach the flower. When you finally arrive you can not fail to be impressed by the sheer size, colour and beauty of the Rafflesia.


Treks, Trails & Mountain Highs

Seeing a Rafflesia in full bloom is an unforgettable nature experience and for many visitors the highlight of a visit to Gunung Gading. Indeed, most visitors are day trippers who arrive, maybe walk 10 minutes or so to the site of a flowering Rafflesia, walk back to the Park HQ and then leave, perhaps spending an hour or so at the park. If you have the time it is well worth spending a few days at Gunung Gading. There are a number waterfalls and refreshing dip pools and some challenging treks and mountain hikes which pass through some fantastic jungle scenery. All the trekking trails are colour-coded and guides can be hired at the park HQ.

As the Park encompasses a mountain range consisting of four peaks - Gunung Gading, Gunung Perigi, Gunung Sebuloh and Gunung Lundu - it is not surprising that most of the jungle treks involve hill walking and therefore require a certain level of fitness.

The Waterfall trail offers the shortest (and easiest) trek in the park. The trail follows a crystal clear river which cascades down the mountain creating a series of seven waterfalls. Not all of these are accessible from the main trail but Numbers 3, 5, and 7 can be reached by following short secondary trails. Waterfall No. 3 is less than 10 metres away from the main trail and makes an excellent resting spot. It takes about an hour to reach the seventh waterfall and a great dip pool surrounded by a forest of green. Immerse yourself in the cool jungle stream, peer out of the water at the forest of green and listen to the sounds of the forest. Borneo bliss.

The other treks can be tough if you are not in good shape or used to the heat and humidity. There are two summit trails to the top of Gunung Gading and Gunung Perigi. Both are for serious hikers and can be done as a 7-8 hour 'out and back' treks or alternatively as 2 day/1 night summit treks.

The Gunung Gading Summit Trail begins where the Waterfall Trail ends. From the seventh waterfall it takes about 2 and half hours to reach the summit. During the communist insurgency of the 1960's the British maintained an army camp at the top of this mist-draped jungle peak. Today you'll find an overgrown helicopter pad, a water tank and barbed wire fencing which form an historical reminder of this era. This trek is best enjoyed if you camp out the summit. That way you'll have more time to enjoy the mountain scenery and can sleep under the stars in a truly magnificent mountain setting. You'll also have the chance to opt for an interesting side trek if you legs are up for it. The side trek takes 4 hours and involves crossing a valley to reach Batu Berkubu, a huge rock situated on the slopes of Gunung Sebuloh. Batu Berkubu is often mistakenly called a cave as the rock and nearby vegetation combine to provide a well-hidden shelter. This shelter served as a communist base during the insurgency.

The trek to the summit of Gunung Perigi is the most challenging in the Park and starts at the junction of the Gunung Gading Summit trail. The trek is best enjoyed if you camp out at the summit. That way you can wake up to see the sunrise over Southwest Sarawak. As the explosion of sunrise reds peters out the green forest slopes of the park gradually appear as do some simply stunning all round views the park. A perfect mountain high.

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