Bukittinggi: big flower town


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Asia » Indonesia » Sumatra » Bukittinggi
October 21st 2009
Published: October 21st 2009
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After I had finished my stint at Mt. Kerinci, I moved on via yet another horrible overnight bus experience to the town of Bukittinggi eight hours north. Bukittinggi is a popular place for tourists to visit and all the cheaper hotels seemed to be full, although it turned out that wasn’t due to tourists but to the recent earthquake having destroyed all the hotels in Padang so all the local travellers had to come here instead. I arrived at 6am and after finding a hotel with a room (the Hotel Asia, because I’m in Asia of course) and getting some sleep (!) I headed off to the local zoo.

Quite frankly, this zoo is a place that I do not hesitate to call a disgraceful anachronism, a throw-back to 19th century menageries. I wasn’t expecting it to be a great zoo but I was hoping for at least something to appreciate about it. The only thing I can come up with that’s even close to praise however is that the tiger pits give the animals about as much room as seen in various Western zoos, and that the wallabies were on grass. Everything else I shall say is damning. The zoo itself is tiny, positioned on top of a hill in the middle of town. You could walk round the entire thing in less than half an hour and see all there is on offer. Apart for the aviaries and a couple of other cages for primates and binturong, every single enclosure is in the pit-style, surrounded by bars or spikes, and generally small and dirty. The aviaries can barely be called aviaries, being more like squared boxes of wire in which various species of pheasants pace a few steps in each direction. Various pits housed things like sambar deer, a camel and tapirs. The elephant yard was tiny but as they were both chained in place I don’t suppose that really matters! The gruesome pits for sun bears looked more like they were from the 18th century than the 19th. The saddest part of the zoo by far though were the primate cages. There were six, three on one side for orangutans and backing onto them two for siamang and one for macaques. Bars and mesh with a few ropes made up the environment. One of the orangutans was a staggeringly massive male, by far the largest I have encountered in my life, but with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen on man or beast. He honestly looked like if he had a rope he would hang himself. It was incredibly heartbreaking.

Another not-so-nice part of the zoo was the zoological museum in the centre, which was basically a long glass-walled room that you viewed from outside and which was jam-packed full of mounted animals. Normally I like museums but I have no doubt at all that every one of the specimens displayed here (except the whale skeleton) were former inmates of the zoo itself. There were LOTS of siamang and various monkeys; several tigers, lions and orangutans; serow, goral, various wild cats, a couple of baby elephants, sun bears; crocodiles and other large reptiles; and many birds including three cassowaries and a greater bird of paradise.

The next day was the day I had set to go to the Batang Palupuh Rafflesia Reserve just outside town. First I had to find the public car that went there, and as I was walking the streets in search of it I heard the whooping of a siamang greeting the morning. I couldn’t imagine where it could be coming from and at first wondered if the school I was passing had a pet one, but then I suddenly (or maybe that should be, slowly!) realized the zoo was on the hill nearby. When I found the car I was told it would be leaving at 10. I returned at 9 just to be on the safe side and the car did in fact leave at 9.15. You just can’t trust the Indonesians to be late anymore, tsk tsk.

Batang Palupuh is a tiny village of 400 people about twenty minutes from Bukittinggi. You can actually take any bus that passes that way and get off at the roadside, but the public car goes right into the village and fortuitously for me one of the passengers was a lovely woman named Umul who runs the local business producing kopi luwak, which for those not in the know in coffee matters is the coffee made from beans excreted by civets. The local product is better than that produced in places like Bali because there they keep the civets in cages while at Batang Palupuh the droppings are collected from wild civets in the forest. Apparently the other fruits that the civets eat in the wild makes for a tastier end-product. I had heard of kopi luwak (kopi means coffee and luwak is the local name for the civet) but I was a bit dubious as to its supposed delicious flavour, believing it to be more hype than anything, but in fact it proved to be far superior to any other coffee I’ve had in Indonesia. I even bought a packet of it to take back home to New Zealand with me to share with others (if they are very nice to me).

The species of Rafflesia found in the reserve at Batang Palupuh is Rafflesia arnoldi, the largest species of the genus and the largest flower in the world. As I wrote in the entry for Poring Hot Springs, where I was lucky enough to have seen R. keithii, these flowers are noted for their irregular blooming and you need to be in the right place at the right time to see one. On my first morning in Bukittinggi when I was at the Turret Café for breakfast before going to the zoo, one of the people there (it doubles as a tour outfit) phoned his friend to ask if there were any Rafflesia flowering at the moment. During the conversation I heard the words “bunga bangkai” and my ears pricked right up. Bunga bangkai is the Indonesian name for another enormous flower, Amorphophallus titanus, which is even more difficult to see in the wild than Rafflesia (although unlike Rafflesia it can be cultivated in gardens and can be seen sometimes in bloom at several Botanic Gardens around the world). It only flowers every three or four years, and after the bud growing for two weeks the fully-open flower only lasts two or three days before collapsing and rotting away. Although it is truly enormous, reaching a height of up to ten feet, it is actually a spathe and not a single flower so technically isn’t the largest flower in the world. It was one of the things I most wanted to see on this trip but also was one of the things that I thought I was most unlikely to see. Once off the phone, I was told that although there were no Rafflesia flowering at the moment there was an Amorphophallus at the reserve. To say I was excited would be an understatement, but I had been burned before so decided to just be cautiously optimistic. When the guide turned up at Umul’s house he told me that there was a Rafflesia bud as well as the Amorphophallus but that the latter was also still a bud. We went to see it anyway of course, and it really was awesome. Even though a “bud” it was still about five feet tall. I was informed that it wouldn’t be fully open for another ten days or so by which time I would have already left Indonesia, which was gutting. The Rafflesia bud was also good, obviously being much bigger than those of R. keithii. Unfortunately the bud I saw was growing at the base of a tree that had recently been uprooted in a storm so the bud was probably dead. What I found really interesting though was that, because it had been pulled up by the tree, I could see the Tetrastigma vine's roots on which the Rafflesia is parasitic. I had been imagining that with the size of the flower, the roots must also be pretty hefty but they're just skinny little things. There was a tiny brown ball on another section of root that was the beginnings of another bud.





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the Rafflesia bud from behind, showing the vine root it grows fromthe Rafflesia bud from behind, showing the vine root it grows from
the Rafflesia bud from behind, showing the vine root it grows from

below the bud you can also see the small brown ball coming off another section of vine root, that is the beginnings of another bud


22nd October 2009

Pukekos in a basket. Who would have thought?! I don't think there are any pukekos in Blenheim. There's a lot of things that aren't in Blenheim, including shops that open in the weekend.
22nd October 2009

By the way, before you get back you should be made aware of a tragedy. Shanti on Shortland Street died. I know. I'm sorry to be the one to break that sad news to you.
22nd October 2009

god your starting to look like mike!
23rd October 2009

who's Shanti?
28th January 2011

Its nice to read your travel story in my village

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