Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sarawak: Gunung Gading and Sematan

I'm writing this on my last night in Malaysia. Tomorrow we're off to Singapore, then to Hong Kong on the first leg of our trip back to Canada, so this entry represents my last posting from Sarawak for 2009. Not my last post about Sarawak, though; I have a lot of back postings to catch up on!

Yesterday was supposed to be an afternoon trip to the coastal towns of Lundu and Sematan west of Kuching, with our main target a seafood dinner. On the way, though, we got into a discussion of Sarawak's strangest plants, the parasitic rafflesias, and it turned out that my friends - all Sarawak residents - had never seen one. This called for action. Specifically, it called for a detour to Gunung Gading National Park, famous as one of the best places to see rafflesias in bloom. I had visited Gunung Gading at the end of January, and had seen there a growing bud, looking for all the world like an out-of-place, chestnut-coloured head of cabbage on the forest floor.

Rafflesia buds take 8-9 months to open, so we took a chance that by now the plant was in flower. It turned out that it was, but we were a few days too late to catch it at its prime. Still, a wilting rafflesia is better than no rafflesia at all, so we headed off up the main trail (with the exception of George, who elected to stay by the car) to have a look...
...and, after a false start and a bit of memory-jogging on my part, we found it. Here are Annie, her sister Shirley and their friend Molly demonstrating their enthusiasm.

This is Rafflesia tuanmudae, Borneo's largest species, but this specimen is hardly a record-breaker I have seen one nearly a metre across). In case you don't know your rafflesias, that strange brownish-purple object at the ladies' feet is the flower, and it's the only part of the plant you can see. The rest of it exists only as strands of material within the living tissue of the woody Tetrastigmia vines you can see crawling over the rocks - there are no leaves, no stems and no roots.
The flower, though past its prime, was still a remarkable object, with an internal structure like no other, a shape that resembles some sort of enormous fungus, and a leathery texture - but, contrary to popular belief, no evil smell. In fact, we could detect no odour at all.

Our botanical yearnings satisfied, we left Gunung Gading and pressed on to Sematan. At my request my friends dropped me off for a late afternoon hour at a spot I had found near here in January. If you follow the coast road westward out of Sematan for a few kilometers, you will eventually come to a long wooden bridge that crosses over a smallish river and on continues through a patch of black mangrove forest. Black mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorhiza) is not the one one on stilts - that's red mangrove. It's the one that sends up little twiglike structures called pneumatophores that project above the mud to provide the tree some extra surface area for gas exchange. This is quite a birdy little spot, and a lot of fun can be had walking quietly back and forth over the bridge (stepping aside now and then to make room for a stream of motorbikes and automobiles that seem to bother the birds not a whit). Red-and-Black Broadbills are here, but I missed getting a photo of these beautiful creatures.
One of the most obvious birds, at least by voice, is the Common Iora.

And here's a real mangrove specialist, the Copper-throated Sunbird. The female (no photo, alas) is one of the few sunbirds that is easy to identify: it has a grey head and striking large white tail-corners.
Like many sunbirds, the Copper-throated has tufts of colourful feathers that it usually keeps out of sight under its wings. In this photo, though, the male is displaying his - whether for my benefit, to signal his mate or to challenge another male, I cannot say.

For me, though, the highlight came at the end of the day, as a set of bobbing heads swam into view from up the river. The four whitish blobs you can see in this photo - all I could get - are otters, presumably Asian Small-clawed Otters (Aonyx cinereus). They swam down unconcernedly towards the bank by the side of the road, and I tried, as quietly as I could, to edge closer to them - but though I got excellent looks as they huffed at me from the waterside (and excellent smells, too - they are very musty animals) photography was out of the question - they seem able to see a flash and dive before it arrives. So you'll have to make do with this shot (which at least shows that I did, in fact, see them!)

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