Blue Flame Java Lava: A Gas Mask Shenanigan

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Strolling around town in a gas mask—like carrying a machete—is a profound and magical experience that everyone should endeavor at least once. It has the power to make the most mundane daily chores feel like a daring and cavalier adventure.

Like buying cookies and cigarettes for breakfast at 3AM.

Or breaking into a Javanese open-pit sulfur mine.

“Ijen crater doesn’t open until 4AM,” growled the Indonesian park ranger, immediately apprehending me in the parking lot.

“But I came to watch the sunrise from the crater rim!” I lied. “I need to start now. I’m a very slow walker.”

“Why are you wearing a gas mask?”

“I’m–” I looked to the ground. “Would you like some of my cookies?”

“No.”

Thinking ahead, I’d bought cigarettes—in the most nicotine-craven country on earth, cigarettes are to Indonesians as carrots are to horses: dangle enough of them and you can make any cart move.

I waved the box.

The man stared.

“How about some cigarettes?”

“You’re trying to see the blue lava! That is not allowed!”

“No.”

“You are not allowed! There is sulfur dioxide gas!”

Actually it was hydrogen sulfide gas, which irritates your throat like sulfur dioxide gas, but also makes your lungs bleed sputum until you drown in your own blood. If by some magic you survive, it has toxicity comparable to hydrogen cyanide (“Zyklon-B” of Holocaust fame)—the cortex of your brain will be reduced to pudding, transforming you into a blithering, pants-pooping human potato and spoiling the rest of your vacation. Of course this only occurs if you stick your nose against a volcanic vent. And although I understood the severity of this risk, I had important sightseeing to accomplish.

I took a deep breath. “My name is Steve McDonald and I work for Esquire magazine. I’m writing an important article about Ijen crater and I need to–”

“Come back at four.”

“But I am a journalist!” I cried.

“And I am a park ranger. Come back at four.”

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Although most Javanese open-pit sulfur mines make terrible holiday destinations, Gunung Ijen was special. Out of the 452 volcanic zones that string the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is the only one that spews neon blue lava, lashing purple flames a meter high.

In truth this isn’t technically “lava” but rivers of molten sulfur, which upon hitting oxygen combust in a dazzling sapphire inferno.

In recent years visitors were allowed to wander into Ijen crater by starlight, to stare mesmerized by the blue lights until the sulfur miners arrived at dawn to snuff out the blaze. Sadly, however, this has changed.

The island of Java has awoken from its volcanic slumber and now appears to be funneling espresso. When Ijen’s crater lake started to boil in March 2014—spraying frowning tour groups with vaporous acid—the mineworkers announced that cleaning up melted foreigners wasn’t worth their wages: all visitors were banned from witnessing the blue lava and access to the crater was restricted to a distant observation platform on the rim.

This proved an inconvenience to me as I’d traveled all the way from Jakarta to explore Ijen crater and wasn’t about to turn back empty handed—at least not without belligerence.

Surely if it were safe for the miners to stroll the crater using little or no safety equipment, it wouldn’t be suicide for me to do likewise. Risk was involved, of course, but to bask in the warm, ethereal glow of a river of sapphire lava seemed so breathtaking an opportunity that I couldn’t let it pass. The richest fruits of life grow on the highest, most treacherous branches, and if climbing the tree meant buying a gas mask, then I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I am careful, but not afraid. Also gas masks seemed like a lot of fun.

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Typical blue flames of sulfuric gaz Kawah Ijen

It turned out that I wasn’t the only miscreant who attempted to break into Ijen Crater that evening. Sitting on the curb next to the ticket office was a middle-aged couple from Los Angeles.

The man chuckled as I slumped down next to them. “The good old Indonesian Cigarette Trick, eh? Classic.”

Mark and Lena had been shivering in the parking lot since their failed 2AM entry. They’d arrived at the same time as a French traveler who had proposed to bypass the main gate via a secret side-trail, however he’d since been apprehended by park rangers and whisked off to the police station.

The three of us reckoned that if the park opened at 4AM, we only had an hour to sprint up the crater rim before the blue flames went out at dawn.

At 3:59AM we shook hands and wished each other luck.

“See you in the crater,” waved Mark, before I quickly overtook them.

Within forty minutes I ascended the crater rim into a rocky amphitheater of volcanic cones, high above the moonlit Javanese plains.

The trailhead into the heart of the crater was conveniently labeled with a signboard. ‘DANGER! DO NOT ENTER!’

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Thick columns of poison gas swirled out of the crater, roiling yellow against a galaxy of stars. The lake was boiling again.

I tightened my gas mask, but stopped, regarding the narrow, treacherous footpath as it plunged from the crater wall into a gassy, yellow abyss. The night was dark. I didn’t know the trail. Far, far below, whirling clouds pulsed and glowed with eerie blue light.

I shifted my weight.

Psst! Mister!” came a hushed voice.Cigarette. Cigarette.”

Perched behind me on a boulder was a scraggly Indonesian miner. “Cigarette! Cigarette.” he repeated.

“Blue flame,” I pointed. “Blue flame. You take me?”

“Cigarette.”

“Blue flame.”

“No, no, no, no. Tidak bisa,” he shook his head. “Cigarette. Cigarette.”

I brandished the pack.

His eyes sparkled.

A moment later we were parading into the crater, stumbling over scree as my new friend happily puffed his tobacco.

The haze thickened. The path grew more precarious. Soon figures emerged through the mustard veil of gas—weathered old men in tattered clothes, groaning under the weight of enormous sulfur stones piled into baskets on shoulder-polls. Some wore gas masks. Others clutched handkerchiefs to their coughing mouths.

“Cigarette,” chimed my friend, flicking his butt into the abyss.

I was about to feed him another when a gust of wind swirled through the crater, dispersing the yellow fog. Crisp blue light spilled over us; two hundred yards away, a glowing, sapphire pool of molten rock lashed into the darkness with curling, indigo flames. For a long moment I stood agape, hypnotized by a hundred glimmering hues of azure, before it faded again in the churning fog. Dawn was approaching.

“Hurry! I need to get closer!” I shouted.

And then it happened. A cry echoed off the rocks:

“Excuse me! Sir!”

I whirled around and then froze. Jogging towards us up the footpath was an officious-looking park ranger.

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“Good morning!” I smiled innocently.

“Good morning sir,” he said politely. “I’m afraid it’s not safe for you here. One of the vents has ruptured and there’s too much smoke. We no longer allow visitors into the crater.”

My face twisted in surprise. “What? But I came all this way to see the blue flame! Oh no!”

“Sorry,” frowned the ranger. “I’m afraid you have to go back that way.”

I needed this polite man to leave, and I saw only two options of achieving this:

The first was to simply push this gentleman into the abyss. The more diplomatic approach, however, would be to act like a numbskull until he lost interest in my welfare and then walked away.

“Can I take a couple pictures?” I began.

He shifted his weight. “Well–“

“Real quick! I’ll stand here,” I said, removing my camera.

He frowned. “I don’t –”

I held out a cigarette.

He frothed with lust.

“Sure, why not!” he said, accepting the cigarette.

I then proceeded to waste ten minutes of his time taking photographs of fog.

“Alright,” he finally declared. “We must go now.”

“I can’t see the flames. Wait one second!” I shouted, before committing another ten whole minutes to the pointless fiddling of buttons.

“Please!” he complained and complained. “That’s enough.” “We must go!” “The smoke is itching my eyes.”

“Wait!” I shouted, removing a tripod from my backpack and adjusting it to optimal height settings. “Almost done,” I promised, turning around—but the park ranger had slipped off.

My miner friend smirked.

I gestured down the path. “We go fast?”

He frowned, examining his feet.

“Cigarette?” I baited.

He shook his head and then pointed me back up the path.

“Cigarette?” I shook the carton again, but it was futile. Dawn burned pink on the horizon. I was already too late.

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I hunkered down on a rock for a few moments before a plume of smoke shot up and the blue light went dead.

The miner muttered something before turning and resuming his descent, leaving me alone on the side of the crater wall, wincing through the rancid smoke, pouting in my gas mask.

Before I could turn back, footsteps caught my ear.

“The old bat quit halfway to the rim!!” Mark laughed as he emerged through the mist, pacing after a young miner. “We’ll beat you to the end of the trail!” he goaded.

“You’re wasting your time,” I frowned. “The flames are dead.”

“Fuck the flames! I wanna see the Kawah!” he bellowed, dashing off through the smoke.

“Wait!” I yelled.

I looked around. Either the ranger had forsaken his post or Mark had pushed him into the abyss. The coast appeared clear. The trail seemed easy to follow. I still needed to justify my gas mask purchase…

I set off after Mark alone, tracing the path deeper and deeper into the crater until my eyes burned and the earth beneath my feet turned cracked and yellow like death.

“Where are you going?” I shouted out after him, but Mark was long gone.

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The volcanic moonscape of the crater floor stretched out before me, menacing with vents of poison gas. The serrated rocks around me took on ashen shades of green and blue—a hellish contrast to the orange and yellow icicles that dripped from them like melted sugar. It was like stepping into the mind of Willy Wonka during one of his angel dust nightmares.

Ceramic pipes snaked out of the earth, spewing blood-red rivers of molten sulfur and columns of toxic smoke. I watched from a distance as the molten sulfur cooled and hardened, turning orange, then yellow, before a skinny miner in a gas mask shattered it into fragments with a pipe. These fragments were then piled into miners’ baskets in loads exceeding 150-200lbs—often greater than the miner’s frail bodyweight—which were then dragged on shoulder polls back up the steep crater wall and then a further 3km to the weighing station. It’s seemed a nightmarish job, and the miners’ necks and shoulders were disfigured with calloused scars. But I knew the job was highly coveted, paying a far better salary than farming; for one day of backbreaking toil, the chemical company rewards its workers a handsome US$13.

I waved cheerily as I barreled through their workplace, calling out for Mark. Whenever someone tried to approach me, I would dole them a cigarette, to which they’d smile with alarming intensity.

Dank yu!” they’d cry.

Then I’d stare in horror as they each pushed aside their gas masks to light up. I almost tried to stop the first one, but remembered that their life expectancy was 31 and that it didn’t make much of a difference.

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Beyond the vents, the air turned clear. The trail terminated before a knoll of boulders, upon which Mark was flailing his way to the top, cackling to himself like a mental patient as his concerned miner-friend watched from below.

“Steve-O!” he waved.

I climbed up after him.

“Yes! Incredible!” he laughed upon summiting the rock pile.

I held out my hand and he hoisted me up.

“Wow!” I gasped.

I could now see that we were standing in the very heart of the crater, on the banks of a vast, steaming crater lake of boiling turquoise acid—the beautiful, surreal, and deadly Kawah Ijen. The ban on visitors had become a blessing in disguise: the crater lake belonged to us. It would have made for a breathtaking picnic spot, if not for the dead birds scattered around its banks (the air above the water was clearly toxic; even with a gas mask, I could taste it on my tongue).

“Brilliant,” beamed Mark. “And you said it was a waste of time.”

Mark turned back shortly thereafter. But I remained sitting on the rocky outcrop, amidst the dead birds, for what felt like hours, watching the dawn crest the crater rim, casting golden tendrils of sun over the turquoise waters and illuminating silver wisps of steam that swirled up Ijen’s craggy walls, trapped on the warm Indonesian breeze.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more death-defying shenanigans, hop over to Vietnam and watch me poke death in the face with a stick in, “Steve McDonald Pokes Death in the Face With a Stick For Your Reading Entertainment: A D.I.Y. Cobra Hunt”

Or for more spectacular geology, journey deep into the earth’s crust in Borneo in “The Biggest Darkness: An Expedition to the Largest Cave Chamber on Earth”

Steve McDonald’s Guide to Playing the Dumb Tourist Card Like a Symphony Harp

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“Welcome to Singapore,” smiled the customs officer, ripping apart my luggage. “Do you have anything to declare?”

“Nope.”

“Are you sure?” he frowned. “Cigarettes, food products, firearms…”

“Nope,” I grinned. I already knew I was in deep shit.

The X-ray supervisor shouted to him in Mandarin, before he unzipped an outer pocket and plunged his hand inside.

“What about this?” he asked, pulling out an AK-47 bullet cartridge.

“Oh that thing,” I chuckled.

Faster than you can say allaho akbar, I was dragged by an armed sergeant into a backroom for intense questioning.

Welcome to Singapore, indeed.

This wasn’t my first police interrogation, nor my second, nor my fifth. And while Singaporean cops are no happy Teletubbies (petty crimes like vandalism and shoplifting are punishable by caning here), I saw little reason to panic.

I had a powerful ally on my side.

In the past two years I have infiltrated a restricted military zone in Pakistan, snuck into the Tomb of the Terracotta Warriors, breached a secret CIA city in Laos, slept under desert stars at an off-limits Silk Road temple, as well as lots of other stupid schemes that would have never been possible without abusing *~*~*~*The Dumb Tourist Card*~*~*~*~. So in this week’s tutorial, I’m going to teach you how to break every rule in the book—and get away with it—by convincing people that you’re a dunderhead.

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STEP ONE: WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY

Before you burn the law books, try to rationalize why your inherently unethical goal is in fact ethical. If you succeed—great work! Whatever you’re scheming is totally okay.

Basically don’t be a dick. I obviously can’t list all the acceptable and unacceptable uses of the Dumb Tourist Card (DTC), because even if I had a reliable moral compass, that would take half an hour. But generally speaking:

It is not okay to use flash photography if it can damage historical artwork. It is not okay go streaking in Yemen. It is not okay to go hunting in a panda reserve.

However it is okay to trespass on commercial property if you’re in need of shelter. It is okay to sneak into restricted areas, military zones, and prohibitively expensive attractions. It is okay to bail yourself out of trouble if, say, the police find an AK-47 bullet cartridge in your luggage. I should remind you that these are not opinions. Doth not question my word, for it is written on the Internet, and is good.

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STEP TWO: FORM OF – DUMB TOURIST!

Now you must don your war paint, Grasshopper. Avail yourself with a fanny pack, a novelty tee-shirt, loud colors, goofy sunglasses, a camera, a guidebook, and (for the hardcore) a plastic visor. Be sure to unzip your fly.

Eighty-percent of communication is non-verbal, so details are important.

Your first challenge is to master ‘The Dumb Tourist Stare.’ This mostly involves vacant, hollow eyes and a shit-eating grin. Shoot for manic yet out to lunch—somewhere between Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Terri Schiavo. If you’re not sure of yourself, get in front of a mirror. Try smiling more psychotically.
When you’ve nailed your look, you need to start developing a tight plan, a provable alibi, and a well-conceived backup strategy.

PRO TIP: If you want to sneak into an expensive tourist site, check hostel dorm rooms and trashcans for used ticket stubs. Next, brandish the stub as you harass the site’s Exit guard (not entrance!), pointing through the gate and repeating the local phrase for “I’ve lost my American tour group!” After several minutes of pestering, they’ll often let you through. This worked particularly well for me in China.

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STEP THREE: MR. SNEAKY MCBACKPACKERFACE

If you need to sneak past guards or staff—DON’T GODDAMN RUN. Don’t gawk at security or lurk in the shadows like Snidely Whiplash. You’re better off high-kicking and wearing a marching band outfit and playing a tuba. Appear calm, confident, and deliberate. Masters of the DTC are blatant—but not conspicuous. Misdirection is the key. Proper timing is an art form.

Say you plan to slip through a museum entrance by riding a tour group. You’ve just merged into the flock as they swarm the ticket checker. Wait until the ticket checker is distracted or busy. Then, at the most chaotic moment—as the tour guide hands her a massive bundle of tickets—slap on The Dumb Tourist Stare and blankly march through the entrance. For bonus points, pretend to be engrossed in a brochure, map, or guidebook. If someone calls after you, don’t respond. Just keep pottering forward like a benign zombie in Crocs.

In the unlikely event that a guard chases after you, it’s time to throw down the Dumb Tourist Card.

PRO TIP: Sneaking over, under, or around perimeter fences is often effective, but in this instance DO NOT expect the Dumb Tourist Card to bail you out of trouble! The only chance of it working in this scenario is if there’s a debilitating language barrier and you possess a used ticket stub.

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STEP FOUR: ACE IN THE HOLE

If you’ve been caught, your new goal is simple: try to convince everyone that you’re a garden-variety idiot. The beauty of the Dumb Tourist Card is that you don’t always need to succeed in this. Human beings will do backflips over hurdles to avoid conflict (especially in Asia), so just offer a friendly smile, calmly explain what you were doing, and apologize for your naivety. You didn’t know you couldn’t swim in the penguin tank.

This provides an easy resolution so that the underpaid security guard can go back to playing Candy Crush on his iPhone. Nine out of ten times, they’ll give you a verbal threat and send you on your merry way. It’s only in rare instances that things get heated and more advanced stratagems are required…

PRO TIP: If you’re using an expired pass and can’t chalk the date, be prepared when you’re asked to present it. A useful trick I’ve found is to stuff your pockets with handfuls of brochures, receipts, tissues, and other clutter. When the guard asks to see your pass or ticket, proceed to waste several minutes of their time fumbling through the contents of your pockets while apologizing scrupulously. If you waste enough of their time before finding it, they’ll often give it an inpatient, nano-second glance, before waving you out of their sight.

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STEP 5: EXTRA BONUS IDIOCY

Oh no! The power-tripping security guard has something to prove! The sign clearly warned you ‘No Walking on the Grass,’ and now you shall pay with blood.

At this point the most sensible plan of action is to make up an excuse or politely reason with the gentleman like an adult.

These are both rookie mistakes.

Instead you must sink into deeper, impossible depths of stupidity.

Start by turning the language barrier into a suit of armor. Most people get anxious when they can’t communicate with others, so be sure to clobber them over the head with your native tongue as you feign total incomprehension. Be chatty; smile like you’re good friends. As they belligerently point at the grass and yell in Mandarin, nod in agreement and mention how lawns are an excellent place for signs.

They’ll usually get overwhelmed and walk away. If not, abruptly thank them for their time before walking away yourself. While this can seriously backfire, most employees aren’t paid enough to chase you. Trust your judgment.

If the guard is REALLY, REALLY angry, a more reliable tactic is to pretend you actually have a crippling mental handicap. Give yourself a subtle tic. Whenever they speak, start blinking rapidly, or softly mutter to yourself, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” before jamming your fingers into your ears and letting out a sharp whistle. At the very least, this will make them uncomfortable.

True thespians can replicate speech patterns and finger movements by re-watching movies like “I Am Sam,” “Rainman,” or anything with Adam Sandler.

Don’t worry if your performance sucks. Nobody will ever call you out, because in the unlikely event that you actually have a disability, they would look like the most horrible person ever.

But they won’t suspect anything in the first place. Because, I mean, what kind of awful person would pretend to be handicapped in front of strangers?

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For more tips and tricks to the art of budget travel, click the Backpackology 101 tab at the top of this page, or just look elsewhere as clearly I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

To see the Dumb Tourist Card in action, head to the secret city of Long Chen in “Detained in Laos: Lost Tribes of the CIA’s Secret War”

Or laugh at me getting arrested in “Detained in Bahawalpur”

Garden of the Corpse Flower: A Sumatran Jungle Quest for the Rarest Flower on Earth

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An angry, 260 pound Sumatran Orangutan is enough to spoil any vacation. To illustrate this, jungle guides in the Gunung Leuser rainforest enjoy showing visitors the scars they carry.

Jensen lifted his shirt, revealing deep laceration wounds across his back. “Mina did those,” he grinned. “This was her too,” he boasted, exhibiting a chunk missing from his wrist. “She’ll find us at some point in our trek today. She likes me.”

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In the past two years of writing Backpackology, we’ve sought out secret CIA cities, midget theme parks, and Taliban adventures. We’ve met feral jungle children, drunken headhunters, and Viet Cong cobra slayers. I’ve always strived to bring you the most scintillating caliber of adventure, because unless I feel like Indiana Jones at all times then I become incapacitated with despair.

This week, we are looking for flowers.

But flowers are for sissies, you might say.

To which I’d respond: you’re for sissies. Flowers, you see, are simply badass as fuck—simply badass as fuck. Especially, as you’re about to discover, the ones that grow deep in the jungles of West Sumatra…

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For this week’s Photo Travelogue—a botanical expedition for the rarest, most fascinating flower on earth: Amorphophallus titanum, The Corpse Flower—I’m going to show you that the kingdom of flora holds just as much wonder, violence, and mystery as the kingdom of fauna; it merely occurs on a different time scale, like a different plane of existence—an epic drama unfolding silently and invisibly beneath our noses. The premise of this drama is the ruthless struggle for light, water, and nutrients, for which each plants evolves its own unique battle strategy.

Sumatra is special for botanists in that the survival strategies of its plants are all completely horseshit insane.

Take for instance this cheery-looking vegetal:

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To survive in the nutrient-poor soils of Sumatra’s highlands, the lithe and lovely Nepenthes plant has acquired an appetite for flesh. Most often its dinner comes in the form of frogs or insects, although the larger species enjoy a menu of rats, lizards, and small birds. It hunts by emitting a sweet scent from its playfully-colored pitchers, baiting animals to peek inside, promising fun and jokes. When the prey falls into the lip of the pitcher it does not find jokes, but instead a pool of acid. The slick, waxy walls of the trap make escape impossible and thus the prey is liquefied into milkshake for the plants enjoyment.
More macabre and fascinating is the rarest flower in the world: Amorphophallus titanum—the Corpse Flower.

What makes it so fascinating?

For that we must step back to a foggy, April night in 1878, in the same Sumatran jungle in which I stand today.

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Moonlight dappled the forest floor as Italian explorer-botanist Odoardo Beccari hacked through liana vines. Beccari was a rivetingly odd man who, like many other scientists of his time, enjoyed more enthusiasm than sense. Having spent the previous two years stuffing birds into glass jars in the jungles of Papua and Borneo—contracting malaria, smallpox, and elephantiasis on one ankle along the way—Beccari was inspired to conduct the first biological survey of Sumatra. This endeavor involved tracking down majestic new species and observing how they responded to different bullets fired from his elephant gun.

Beccari was about to make one of the most shocking discoveries in the history of natural science.

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On the bank of a starlit river, Beccari stumbled upon a peculiar crimson flower blooming directly out of the ground. It was the most striking inflorescence the botanist had ever seen—bell-shaped with green ribbed sides and a dazzling scarlet-frilled margin. Rising from its center, a yellow spadix rose up like a spire.

His local porters identified the specimen.

“Bunga bangkai!” they stammered, which forebodingly means, “dead body flower.”

Beccari likely would have sealed it in a jar, but there arose an issue: This cryptic “dead body flower” was quite large indeed. While the stem rose to eight inches, the flower itself soared over ten feet in height—the largest inflorescence on earth.

Per scientific protocol, Beccari whacked it down with his machete.

He then butchered it to smithereens, scribbled some notes, and exhumed the 130lb tuber root—which was so big his journal exclaimed, “Two men could scarcely carry it!”—before dragging it back to Italy.

This is where the story gets weird.

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Nobody believed him, of course. Beccari’s 130lb potato discovery was appraised with vigorous chuckles. Undeterred, Beccari buried the tuber in soil, intent to prove his colleagues wrong.

Years rolled by. As the rest of the scientific community moved on to research things that are relevant, Beccari sadly watered his vegetable. Every spring a single leaf would sprout, growing tall through the summer and inflating his hopes, before wilting and dying by fall.

It wasn’t until 1889, after ten years of waiting, that an enormous pod burst from the soil.

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Thousands of aristocrats flocked to attend the world’s largest blossom, anticipating rare beauty and the exotic scent of Sumatra. The pod had grown so large that scientists reached the improbable conclusion that it was pollinated by elephants.

The truth—as they soon learned—was far more disturbing.

Beccari’s flower was actually pollinated by flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies.

To which a discerning reader might ask, how does a flower attract flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies?

The aristocracy of Europe was in for an unpleasant surprise.

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The bloom began with a fat, yellow phallus erecting out of the pod, racing skyward at an astonishing 12cm per day. Reports describe scandalized governesses protecting young woman from “so indecent a sight.” Once the phallus reached ten feet in height, the flower splayed open, offending bystanders with its rancid perfume. Just trying to describe the stench, the poverty of the English language is revealed. The unambitious compare it to decomposing dog. In reality, it smells more like a dog that’s funneled a gallon of malt liquor, smoked a bong in a frat house, shit on itself, vomited on itself, violently choked on the vomit, died in a corner, and then began the slow and natural process of decomposition. The flower contains some of the foulest compounds on earth—dimethyl trisulfide (limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), dimethyl disulfide (dead body), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (Chloraseptic), and indole (mothballs).

Surprisingly it’s not the odor, nor the record height, nor the ‘giant misshapen phallus’ that makes Amorphophallus titanum so interesting…

Our hunt begins in the vibrant rainforests of Gunung Leuser, Aceh Province.

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Centuries ago the Corpse Flower may have flourished in the jungles of Aceh, but due to habitat loss, only a few blossoms have been reported in the last decade. Aside from Gunung Leuser National Park, which remains the last stronghold of the mighty Sumatran Orangutan, most of Aceh’s rainforests have been destroyed to make room for another plant…

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Harvested for their full-bodied beans, Sumatran Coffee Trees are cultivated for another purpose, to produce a horrifying beverage called Kopi Lawak—more commonly known as “Civet cat coffee” or “Petrified cat shit steeped in kettle water.” Perhaps I made up the latter name, but that’s essentially what it is: The Asian Palm Civet (more accurately a weasel) grazes on ripe coffee beans before sharting them out in malformed turds, which are collected, roasted, and sold at an exorbitant $700 per kilo—making it the most expensive coffee in the world.

I’m not shitting you.

Civet coffee is allegedly superior to normal coffee because the civets only select “the highest quality beans” (which I doubt, as Civets are also known to eat garbage). Marketers also claim the beans undergo fermentation in the animal’s digestive system, where enzymes penetrate the bean and “improve” the flavor profile (hahaha).

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Cutting south from Aceh, we trace the Barisan mountain range to Bukittinggi in West Sumatra—the heartland of the Corpse Flower.  It is region of soaring volcanoes, raging rivers, deep caves, steaming hot springs, and the highest caldera lake in Southeast Asia—though these attractions are an afterthought for most visitors, who come here for one reason:

The bizarre and breathtaking flora.

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The truth is that Amorphophallus titanum isn’t really the largest flower in the world. In fact it isn’t even a flower. It’s actually a spadix of many flowers (like a lilac) wrapped in a spathe that resembles a giant petal, making it the world’s “largest un-branched inflorescence.”

The title of “world’s largest singular flower” belongs to another denizen of West Sumatra…

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Spanning a meter in diameter and weighing twenty pounds, the Rafflesia arnoldii is a stem-less, leaf-less, root-less holoparasite. Like most cool things, it is extremely rare and can only grow on vines of the Tetrastigma plant, marauding it of nutrients. While its vendetta against the Tetrastigma plant remains unexplained, what is known is that the Rafflesia pollinates by mimicking the smell of a rotting corpse to attract flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies—much like the Amorphophallus.  For this reason it is also dubbed “The Corpse Flower,” however the Corpse Flower we’re hunting is far more elusive—and the reason why is spectacular.

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In order for an Amorphophallus to reproduce, there must be another Amorphophallus blooming at the exact same time in close proximity—which is highly, highly unimaginable. The reason why—and the reason why our quest is so daunting—is that the Amorphophallus titanum only blooms for twelve hours once every ten years. Because of this, and the fact that it can only grow in the remote jungles of West Sumatra, the Amorphophallus titanum is purported to be the rarest flower on earth.

West Sumatrans speak of it as if it were a phantom. Putra Dawot—a trekking guide who spends most of his time in the jungle—has only seen three Corpse Flowers in his entire life. Ulrich Rudolph—a local horticultural enthusiast and organizer of botanical tours—has only seen the flower twice.

Though my odds of seeing one appeared slim, I had an Ace up my sleeve:

I had met a random dude in an online chatroom named “Al Dava” who said he knew of a Corpse Flower about to bloom in the woods outside his cousin’s village.

“That’s called a scam,” explained Ulrich.

“He said he didn’t want any money.”

“Usually when a Corpse Flower blooms everyone in Bukittinggi knows about it months in advance. It’s a huge event,” Ulrich scratched his head. “Have fun getting raped, I guess.”

The next afternoon, Al Dava picked me up on his motorbike and we drove into the countryside.

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Al and his cousin belonged to the Minangkabau of West Sumatra—a matrilineal tribe famous for their buffalo worship and exotic, soaring rooftops. Insisting that the flower only blooms at night, Al detained me in his cousin’s hut all day, asking me endless questions while his aunt force-fed me offensively spicy eggs.

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When you’re trekking through starlit jungles with a flaming bamboo torch in one hand and a machete in the other, flower hunting seems a rugged and manly pastime. An hour had passed—an hour of fording muddy rivers, ripping leeches out of blood-soaked socks, and stubbing our toes over roots in the dark—when my nostrils started to burn. Either the Amorphophallus was close or we were nearing Al’s previous victims—the stench of corpses curdled the night breeze.

Yelling pierced the darkness as Al and his cousin dashed ahead. When I caught up they were standing on the edge of a clearing.

In the pale moonlight, a massive inflorescence towered overhead, its magnificent yellow spadix and scarlet frills soaring up from the forest floor. The smell was heinous beyond imagination. Like burying your face in the ass crack of a trucker.

Al squealed with delight, “Incredible!”

For a long moment we all stood there in silent awe.

Then the Sumatrans lost interest, before they started chain-smoking cigarettes and throwing rocks at bats.

“Mister! Mister!” Al shouted. “My cousin says there are many more blossoms like this.”

“Right now?”

“He says he sees them all the time when he comes to collect betel nuts.”

“He’s mistaken,” I chuckled.

The man stammered in Indonesian.

“He says you can see tomorrow.”

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The next morning Al’s aunt appeared with more spicy eggs, before Al’s cousin showed me another Amorphophallus titanum.

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And then another…

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And then another—this particular specimen stood an incredible 10”3’, but wilted and collapsed just before we found it.

While the abundance of blooms could be a matter of lucky timing, I theorize that the Corpse Flower’s blossoms were bio-synchronized…

By the scientific authority vested in me by Wikipedia and the wise Google Search Engine, I now present to you my “Bamboo Alarm Clock Theory:”

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Bamboo poses a number of mysteries for scientists; the most scintillating of which is that every 65-100 years, an entire sub-species of bamboo will flower and then die en masse. What makes this so unbelievable is that regardless of each plant’s geographical location—be it in the forests of Sichuan, an arboretum in Amsterdam, or a hippie’s bathroom in Williamsburg—every single member of that species will flower and die at the exact same time, in perfect synchronicity, as if by hocus-pocus Jesus trickery. Scientists are positively dumbfucked.

One theory suggests a sort of cellular alarm clock. I suspect that Corpse Flowers use this same alarm-clock mechanism to coordinate blooms, ensuring that they can pollinate within such a stunted time frame.

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But that still doesn’t explain the hundreds of non-blossoming Amorphophallus titanums we found in the forests outside Palembah village—an impossibly higher density than any of Sumatra’s national parks or the celebrated Palupuh Botanical Reserve. What’s most astonishing is that nobody seems to know about it—not even the local villagers, who were instead killing off the giant flowers out of fear, believing it caused a horrifyingly titled “skin-fall-off sickness.”

Off course this was nonsense, which Al demonstrated by vigorously rubbing the flower’s spathe with his face (then screaming in pain to his cousin’s alarm) (then laughing for several minutes at his clever joke).

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I’ve since written to the World Wildlife Federation, UNESCO, and Indonesian National Park Services (PHKA), informing them of Palembah village and suggesting that the forest be surveyed and considered for reservation status.

I hope that some day Palembah jungle makes it to magazines and documentaries as the Palembah Amorphophallus Titanum Reserve. I hope that some day this special place doesn’t end up like Aceh, or Riau, or the other three million hectares of Sumatran rainforest that disappear every year—chopped down by loggers or coffee farmers and squandered for a $700 bag of weasel shit.

For now, the jungles surrounding Palembah village remain an unsung natural wonder, a West Sumatran travel secret, the last garden of the Corpse Flower.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For an ill-fated jungle misadventure in search of a rare monkey, check out the travel story “Bungle in the Jungle, Five Days in the Hide: A Search for the Rare and Elusive Nasalis Larvatus

Or check out more fun facts and pretty photos by heading to Borneo in the geological Photo Travelogue, “The Biggest Darkness: A Journey to the World’s Largest Cave Chamber” Or peruse from other titles by clicking the “Photo Travelogues” tab at the top of the page.

Bungle in the Jungle, Five Days in the Hide: An Ill-Fated Search for the Rare and Elusive Nasalis Larvatus

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“Hell is not hot, or cold. Nor is it deep below ground,
or somewhere in the sky. Instead it is a place on Earth
filled with sucking bogs, disfiguring diseases,
and millions of tiny flesh-eating creatures.
Hell is a jungle, and it is monstrously green.”
-Greig Beck

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On the fourth day, a German couple and their guide discovered me in the Kumbang Bum Bum jungle hide. I was sitting by the view hole in my underwear, eating peanut butter covered in broken glass with my hands. My filthy, skinny face was shaded with stubble and a sharp pointed stick rested on my lap. I must have looked just as shocked as they did—you don’t come across many people in the middle of the Malaysian rainforest, a day’s walk from the nearest village.

I smiled and waved.

“Where is your guide?” barked their ranger. “How long have you been in this hide?”

“Four days. Do you have food?”

“Four days?!” shouted the German woman. “What are you doing here?”

I shifted my weight. The truth was that I wanted to see a rare monkey and I figured the best way of doing this was to trek into the middle of the rainforest, climb into a wooden box, and patiently sit there for an entire week. This seemed a brilliant idea to me at the time; I didn’t realize it would end in blood and hunger and demonic giant squirrels.

I’d like to clarify that this quest wasn’t just for any rare monkey, but the highly endangered male Nasalis larvatus or “Proboscis monkey”—the most woefully absurd species to ever evade natural selection.

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Endemic to Malaysia and Indonesia, the male Proboscis monkey  is vexed with awkward webbed feet, a grotesque potbelly, and a pervasive, rancid stench that heralds its every arrival. To make matters worse, it appears to have a giant, horrible penis dangling from its face. This ungainly penis-nose grows so long that it can obstruct the mouth, and it turns red and swollen whenever the monkey is angry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, over 70% of male Proboscis monkeys are virgins. Accordingly they are all ravenously horny and their tiny, frustrated monkey boners only desist when they’re sleeping.

But the true absurdity of the species is only revealed when it is handed a banana.

The monkey’s stomach is lined with powerful bacteria to help it digest leaves (thus the potbelly), but whenever the monkey ingests fruit, the result is thunderous and catastrophic flatulence. And I’m not talking a whimsical case of the toots—these episodes are dramatic enough to rupture organs, so in effect the penis-nosed, potbellied, webbed-toed, horny monkey violently farts itself to death.

Obviously I needed to see one.

“Why do you want to see a proboscis monkey so badly?” asked my Singaporean hotel receptionist.

“Because it looks like it has a penis for a nose. Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

“Oh. Yeah, it does.”

“Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

“Ha Ha.”

“Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

“Go to the Teman Negara rainforest, maybe you can find them there.”

“Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

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I’ve recently come to peace with the fact that I am an eight-year-old hiding in a respectable adult’s body, so I’m going to reference Barney the dinosaur now. I remember watching a Barney episode where he lures the children on a “jungle adventure,” forcing pith helmets over their heads and dragging them into the wilderness to sing songs about lions and elephants and other species that don’t belong in jungles. Somehow all the children survive and everyone has a great time and little eight-year-old Steven in suburban Massachusetts is forever obsessed with the idea of having a jungle adventure—even today. Thus I giddily struck out for my week in Teman Negara, one of the oldest and most bio-diverse rainforests on earth.

Along with a daypack of the barest essentials, I packed a loaf of sliced bread, two glass jars of peanut butter and Nutella, six jugs of water, an industrial bag of chocolate bars big enough to last a nuclear winter, and five cans of hilariously inedible curry—the label of which depicted a mother happily serving her family what looked like dysentery.

The jungle hide I booked was festively named Kumbang Bum Bum, located over a salt lick in the most remote and inaccessible region of the park. To reach it would require a full day of happy, sunny hiking—or so I pictured as I wandered into the jungle, naively humming Barney classics to myself and devouring chocolate bars.

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A rainforest is much wetter than you might expect. Also, hotter. Within several minutes, my clothes were drenched with sweat and I was in no mood for humming. Instead I focused my energies on mopping sweat, swatting at malarial mosquitoes, ripping leeches out of my blood-soaked socks, moaning at trees, and trying to decipher my shitty, free park map that was clearly drawn by a baboon.

Within an hour, I had eaten all the chocolate bars.

I collapsed against the buttress of a strangler fig, cursing Barney the corporate vampire for whispering lies and false hopes into the ears of gullible youngsters. The children never sang songs about malaria, leeches, heatstroke, tiger maulings, killer ants, venomous snakes, civet cats, amoebic meningitis, or getting lost and starving to death. The jungle is a miserable, shitty experience and anyone that tells you otherwise is trying to destroy you.

Fun Fact: You can see further underwater than in a rainforest. The foliage was so dense and suffocating that I could only glimpse a few yards in any direction. There were no elephants and lions present. There weren’t even bright colors. Only occasionally was the green punctuated by an orchid or flitting butterfly.

Instead the jungle is an auditory experience, rich with a million buzzing, whirring, chirping, and howling signs of life—life hidden behind the barrier of green.

The bag of chocolates gave me a tummy ache, so I plopped down next to a river, where I met many friendly leeches. When I stood to retreat, my plastic food bag split open and I was forced to continue the journey cradling groceries in my arms like a newborn.

Around this time the late-afternoon downpour began. I’d fortunately packed an umbrella, which kept my hair dry as I watched my useless map soak with rain and disintegrate.

It was nearly 9PM when I stumbled into Kumbang Bum Bum, an oversized wooden box on stilts with bunk beds, a bench, and a narrow viewing window—and by bunk beds, I mean wooden boards covered in animal shit. Obviously the hide was home to some jungle critter—though I wouldn’t make its horrible acquaintance till morning.

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I awoke to find two large eyes staring at me.

The creature was crouched several feet away, covered in black fur with blonde patches on its belly and a massive bushy tail. It was a monstrous squirrel the size of a beagle and it was sitting amidst my groceries, casually demolishing a loaf of bread.

“FUCKER!” I roared, as the hell beast leapt out the window. It poked its head back in to watch as I cursed over my groceries, before securing them on a rope from the ceiling.

The squirrel had eaten half of my bread and even though I still had peanut butter, Nutella, and processed curry, it was nary enough rations to last the week. I had to protect what little food I had left.

The squirrel eyed the dangling groceries, flicking its tail, plotting. It turned to me with its big, doughy eyes. It was very adorable, like a giant, cuddly stuffed animal. I stepped outside to find a stick with which to hit it.

No monkeys were seen.

When I returned, the squirrel was latched to the swinging bag, rooting through a hole in the side.

“Shoo!” I stammered.

The squirrel emerged with the bag of bread.

“SHOO!” I screeched, charging at it with my stick.

The squirrel sprang to safety as I swung.

SMASH!

The bag split open like a piñata, sending curry cans bouncing across the hide. I then watched in slow motion as the glass jars of peanut butter and Nutella floated to floor, where they shattered into pieces with a sickening crack.

My face crumpled with despair.

When I eventually recovered from my rage-blackout, the giant squirrel was gone and I was salvaging glass-speckled condiments into plastic parcels for later.

My stomach growled.

If I wanted to stay the week, I would need to find new food. Surely there were fruit trees nearby. I could make a jungle feast: diced mangoes and bananas over roasted, grain-fed squirrel. I imagined that a sentient stuffed animal would make a taste sensation—tenderized to perfection with a stick and cooked over a lighter. Squirrel sashimi could be nice too. Why not both? The possibilities seemed infinite.

That afternoon I gazed out across the steamy, monkey-less jungle, fantasizing a thousand culinary prospects.

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Three days passed and the rainforest appeared lifeless. I had always been led to believe that rainforests were constipated with wildlife, and though they do contain half of the world’s species, we seem to forget the difference between biodiversity and abundance. The scientific truth is that you’ll find more living organisms in a conifer forest than any jungle.

As my boredom intensified into hunger, I left the hide in search of fruit trees. This activity entailed pottering through the woods in my boxers and sneakers, tripping over roots, and sweating from my eyeballs. My two-hour exertion yielded no fruit, although I did succeed in making myself even hungrier.

Upon returning to the hide, I froze in the doorway. Scattered across the floor were dented curry cans, crumbs crawling with ants, and the empty, shredded remains of my bread bag. The bloated squirrel was perched on the windowsill, gloating at me with his stupid, adorable eyes.

I hated the squirrel and I wanted it dead.

Something snapped in my head and a guttural noise erupted from chest. I charged at the window. The creature leapt into the foliage. I sprinted out of the hide in pursuit, hurling sticks and rocks in blind rage. It was like Looney Tunes, but sad and depressing. The squirrel was simply too nimble to chase down. So eventually I decided to outwit it:

After choking down half a can of bowel-flavored curry, I fished out the chicken bits and laid them outside the window of the hide. I then hid behind the windowsill with an arsenal of rocks, listening for noise. I knew normal squirrels didn’t prey on chickens, but I figured this Godzilla beast was liable to drag off even babies.

And so I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Twilight fell and the forest changed its face. The nocturnal jungle is not a happy place when you’re alone. The gnarled, ancient trees turn sinister in the darkness. An unshakable feeling sets in that something is watching you—and almost certainly something is. Your anxiety melts into paranoia. You scan the tree line for tigers.

The hide didn’t have a lock and so I cradled my stick, listening to the jungle’s night shift roar to life with a thousand shrieks and whistles.

BANG! Something bumped the hide.

I grabbed a rock and leapt to my feet, beaming my flashlight out the window.

Two golden eyes shone back at me.

Something big. It had a snout like a dog, but with muted spots like a leopard.

As my eyes adjusted, a chill ran down my spine.

I was staring into the face of a giant civet cat, snapping chicken bones in its powerful jaws. It paused to stare back at me, sizing me up.

The flashlight trembled in my hands. I didn’t know if it was dangerous, but I wasn’t a fan of its sharp teeth. I slowly diminished behind the windowsill before extinguishing all the lights and barricading the door shut. I then sat up in bed, cursing Mother Nature and swatting at mosquitoes until I passed out. Unbeknownst to me, everything was about to change.

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As the morning mist rolled over the empty salt lick, I stared out from the hide with the starving eyes of a refugee. There’s something wonderful to be said about hunger and rationing—at least at a privileged level. Deprived of your most elemental need, your day-to-day problems and insecurities are stripped naked and pointless, and your every thought is consecrated to your next meal. Suddenly a slice of bread seems as glorious as a Christmas blowjob. A dirty handful of Nutella covered in glass shards makes you burst into musical number. You start to view the food you eat every day differently. There’s something about it that feels strangely spiritual and enlightening.

I had just de-glassed a wad of peanut butter when the Germans arrived. Tillman and Hannah were a retired couple from Munich, whose hobbies included yelling in German, Mars Bars, and complaining about nature. We bonded over the latter, so they kindly offered me their food.

A camping stove was produced, and after they unpacked their bags on the empty bunks, we huddled around to feast on hot noodles.

I broke the silence. “Last night I saw a civet cat!”

Tillman shrugged, unimpressed. “Anything else?”

“No,” I sighed. “Just some birds. Oh, and a big squirrel.”

Their guide shot up straight. “A big squirrel? What did it look like?”

“Like a big fucking squirrel.”

“How big?”

“Two, three feet? Black fur.”

“With a brown stomach?!?”

“I tried to kill it with a stick. It ate my bread.”

The guide’s face washed with horror. “What?”

“I hit it with a few rocks though.”

The guide dove into his bag. “A Malayan Giant Squirrel! Very rare,” he said, before handing me a plastic information card. “Is that the squirrel?”

The card displayed a few dozen portraits of animals, beneath a giant header reading, “WWF TOTALLY PROTECTED SPECIES: Fine for hunting or killing, 300,000 MYR ($90,000US) and/or 10 years jail.” At the bottom of the card, sandwiched between an orangutan and a blue whale, was the stupid, adorable giant squirrel.

“No, I don’t think that’s it.”

“Yes!” he cried. “It must be!”

“Nope.”

“Wow, so rare!” the Germans exclaimed. “Very lucky!”

“Nope,” I frowned. “I didn’t see anything.”

“Why aren’t you happy?” shouted Tillman.

“Because I sat in the jungle for four days and all I wanted to see was a proboscis monkey.”

Tillman cocked his head. “What? Why?”

“Because it looks like it has a penis for a nose. Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

“Those live in Borneo, you idiot.”

“What?”

It turned out he was right.

*************

Three days later I flew to Malaysian Borneo, and within ten minutes of wandering into Bako National Park, I came across a crowd jostling beneath a tree. They were pointing into the dense foliage, murmuring with excitement.

A horrible stench singed my nostrils. I pinched my nose. For a second I thought I could hear a gassy Pfft! Pfft! Pfft!

My heart pounded. After two weeks of searching, all my dreams seemed about to come true.

The leaves rustled and cameras shot up. As the branches began to part, I held my breath.

“It’s magnificent!” screamed a woman, as fat, demented, penis-nosed face appeared, tea-bagging its own mouth.

I gasped with delight.

Then another face appeared. Then another.

“Much better than orangutans!” commented one man.

Then time seemed to slow as I stood there frozen in rapture, watching as the monkeys descended from the branches around us—their phallic noses majestically smacking their chins, their revolting guts wobbling in the heat, their tiny, pink monkey boners standing at full salute.

I slowly removed the banana from my pocket.

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(Kidding).

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

One time I set out to find wild cobras. This also ended terribly.  Check out “Steve McDonald Pokes Death in the Face with a Stick for Your Reading Entertainment: A DIY Cobra Hunt”

For an even more disastrous jungle adventure, watch me send Intern Lydia into the Laotian jungle to fight for her own survival with an AK-47 assault rifle and a bayonet duct-taped to a stick in “Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons

Or for another survival story, try to hitchhike across the Gobi desert in “The Long Road to Nowhere: A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia

Photo Travelogue: The Biggest Darkness (An Expedition to the Largest Cave Chamber on Earth)

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When I was a little fat kid and my favorite computer game was Microsoft Encarta, I promised myself that one day I would visit the Sarawak Chamber in Borneo. I wanted to see the biggest darkness. I wanted to stand before the largest cave chamber on earth—large enough to fit ten Boeing jets nose to tail. But mostly I just wanted to play with ropes and helmets. My mother had recently shown me a documentary film in which Brendan Frasier went caving and found a lost jungle of dinosaurs and mole people, and though I figured he was lucky, I was hoping for that.

So for this week’s Photo Travelogue I’m taking you there, on a twelve-hour advanced expedition deep into the earth’s crust, to an alien and unknown world where only the most intrepid dare wander.

But first I’m going to tell you about my bizarre and unwholesome fetish…

Ready kids??

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Behold! The most wonderful, sexy inanimate object in the natural world…

~*~*~*~Limestone*~*~*~*~

3=======D——

If you don’t know why I’m so excited about mineralized seashells crushed underwater millions and millions of years ago, please, allow me to explain my nerd boner.

Unlike other boring, stupid rocks, limestone is porous and soluble in water, meaning that not only does rain flow through it like a sponge, but it dissolves the limestone like salt!!

So the fuck what?

That means that the rain acts like a carving knife, making limestone responsible for some of the most breath-taking geological formations on earth…

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Like the phallic towers of Cappadocia in Turkey…

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…Or the karsts of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

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…Or the peaks of Yangshuo in China

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Here at Gunung Mulu in Borneo, rain has whittled the limestone into sharp pinnacles, making it the worst place in the world to parachute.

But to glimpse the most spectacular limestone formations, one must journey underground…

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Before we start our caving expedition proper, I should probably explain how the caves of Gunung Mulu were formed… But this isn’t a science blog and I know that if I write anything more academic than Dora The Explorer, it will send half of you dipshits scurrying back to Facebook. So worry not! I’ve chewed and digested all the big science stuff and will now vomit it into your mouths like a mother bird to her chicks, so you don’t have to do any abstract thinking.

Pretend you have a giant sugar cube the size of a football field. Now climb on top of it with a cup of water and dump it in the exact middle. Repeat this process 20 million times. Like the sugar cube, limestone dissolves in water (albeit at a much slower rate). As cracks and fissures fill with rain, they bore holes into the thick limestone shelf. Once the water reaches a more resistant layer of limestone, it alters its course and a river is formed, creating the cave.

But what makes the caves of Borneo so special is that there’s something else powerfully and invisibly at play…

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Let’s do the sugar cube thing again, but with one exciting twist! Instead of filling your cup with water, find a bucket of Mafia-strength, hooker-dissolving Hydrochloric acid.

Borneo is swathed in thick tropical rainforests, and when rain is exposed to high levels of CO2 (like in jungle soil), it turns into corrosive carbonic acid. Carbonic acid is much weaker than Hydrochloric acid, but as you’re about to see, it eats through limestone like cupcakes.

In just a few million years, rain has carved central Borneo into an epic network of underground tunnels, boasting soaring cathedral chambers and forests of stalactites and stalagmites. But the cherry on top are the geomorphic giants like Deer Cave—one of the most spectacular natural wonders in Asia…

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Deer Cave is so massive that you could fly a Boeing jet through it. It was believed to be the largest cave passage on the planet until 2009, when a slightly larger passage was discovered in Vietnam.

Deer Cave still clings to the spotlight, however, as the stage for one of the most dramatic animal gatherings on earth…

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There are an estimated 3 million bats living in Deer Cave, inhaling on average 30 tons of mosquitoes per night—though I can’t imagine why or how any normal person would measure that. Each sunset, millions of bats emerge from the cave en masse, swooping and swarming in spectacular aerial displays. The phenomenon attracts tourists from around the world, who seem eager to greet the shrieking rain cloud of guano.

But for those who wander into the caves, there are more bizarre and terrifying creatures waiting in the dark…

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“Don’t touch the Hairy Murry! It will kill you!” Park Ranger Syriah flailed her arms.

We had barely passed through the mouth of Deer Cave when I bent over to touch the giant insect.

“Poison! Poison!” she cried.

It seemed miraculous to me that life can flourish in a place without sunlight, where the only available foods were wet rocks and clay.

The key to life, it turned out, was just above my head, being showered out of a bat’s rectum.

Rich with nutrients from the outside world, guano provides food for cave insects, which provides food for insectivores, which provides food for bigger, stranger things—albino scorpions, eyeless crabs, echo-locating swiftlets, giant venomous centipedes, snakes with infrared vision. Through this process, the great Circle of Life emerges from a foul heap of bat crap.

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While Deer Cave is open to the public, the more difficult caves require a permit—which is only granted to experienced cavers.

“Sarawak Chamber is very dangerous and many people get hurt,” explained Syriah, handing me my helmet and rope. “You’ve been caving before?”

“Of course!” I scoffed. “A few times in America. But it was very different from this,” I explained, because those times were make-believe and I’d never been caving.

“Excellent,” she nodded. “But we still require all cavers to demonstrate their skills first.”

“Sure! How do I do that?”

By signing up for more expensive caving tours. That’s how. If I wanted to glimpse the biggest darkness, I needed to pass a test-expedition…

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My friend Leon and I scanned the menu of expeditions. “What’s the coolest cave?” I asked Syriah.

“Clearwater!” she fired. “It’s the biggest cave system in the world by air volume!”

“What’s it like?”

“Well, it’s eight hours underground. First you climb up big boulders in the dark for two hours. They are very sharp and they cut your hands. Then you rappel down a rope and crawl over slippery mud that smells like guano.”

“We’re crawling in guano.”

“Exactly! But then you reach the first squeeze and you have to get down a ten-meter crack in the rock using only your hands. It’s extremely tight. You can’t even turn your head! And at the bottom, there’s a beautiful chamber of cave formations. So, so beautiful! Stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones… And many insects. They attack your face.”

“Wow, this all sounds great.”

“Then there’s another tight squeeze. It’s very hot. Then the passage spits you in an underground river and you have to wade for 2km with all your clothes on. It’s the best.”

“Sounds it!”

“Much more fun than Sarawak Chamber.”

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Clearwater Cave was just as thrilling as Syriah promised—though she neglected a few highlights.

Like the part where we had to traverse a cliff face covered with venomous spiders.

Or the part where we were never provided harnesses.

Or the part where Leon and I laughed at a dick-shaped stalagmite and our guide went ballistic, shouting that we’d insulted the cave spirits.

Or the part where we had to climb over painful speleothems for eight hours.

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Speleothems are cave formations made from calcite, derived from dissolving limestone. By observing speleothems—along with the sediments, minerals, textures, wall markings, and even dust—geologists can read a cave like a history book; each clue tells tales of water movement and climate change, coloring in the tectonic backstory of our planet.

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The deeper we descended underground, the more extraterrestrial the speleothems appeared—from stalactites and columns to alien-looking egg shapes and spiny coral formations—until Clearwater felt less like a cave and more like a high budget laser tag arena.

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To reach Sarawak Chamber, the largest cave chamber on earth, the twelve-hour journey is broken into three legs.

First you must trek for three hours in the jungle, frequently getting lost, fording rivers, and slashing along hog paths with a machete. Eventually you reach the mouth of the cave—a large crevasse in the mountainside, from which a river flows.

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The second leg involves wading upriver through a narrow underground canyon. And by “wading,” I mean splashing and pouting through freezing, waist-deep torrents, tripping over boulders in the dark, and swatting at the buzzing miasma of insects around your headlamp. Occasionally you must scramble over waterfalls, and at one point you get to accidentally fall off a rope traverse and crash into an icy pool, before apologizing and splashing up current to the opposite bank.

This portion lasts several hours and concludes with your guide casually instructing you to scale a vertical rock wall out of the rapids.

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The final stretch to the Sarawak Chamber requires a long, tedious trek over guano-plastered scree. As you climb, Sarawak’s massive antechamber opens up before you, hemmed by soaring, megalithic walls of limestone.

After what feels like hours, you arrive at a non-descript pile of boulders, where the guides announce that you’ve reached the lip of the Sarawak Chamber…

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Park Ranger Harvey’s flashlight danced across the arch of the entrance as we peered into the chamber—an impenetrable ocean of black. This would be the end of our journey—to venture any further was suicide; our high-powered LEDs were no match for the vastness of Sarawak Chamber, and without any point of reference in the dark emptiness, we were certain to get lost.

“We can’t see anything,” muttered my friend Grant. “What a piece of shit!”

Clearly Grant had unrealistic expectations of the biggest darkness. He simply didn’t realize the impossible scope of Sarawak—but he wasn’t to blame for that.

I can’t understand why Boeing jets is the standard unit of cave measurement. Who the fuck is lining up ten jets in a cave? Who is lining up ten jets anywhere? Unless you happen to collect airplanes, this analogy is as abstract as me saying the cave is 656 Honey Boo Boos wide.

So, for the purposes of edification and entertainment, allow me to convey its enormity in more inventive terms.

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To expect a headlamp to work in the Sarawak Chamber would be like pointing a flashlight across seven football fields and expecting to find cheerleaders on the other end. The chamber measures an astonishing 2,296 feet long, 1,312 feet wide, and 229 feet high—flaunting the same cubic volume as 7,840 Olympic-sized swimming pools. That’s enough space to warehouse 757 Statue of Libertys, if she’d just lower her goddamn arm. Although the height of the chamber isn’t as monumental as its breadth, you could still stack 3 White Houses, 35 Michael Jordans, or 63 Rachel McAdams’ foreheads.

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We decided to switch off our headlamps and experience the darkness for a few minutes. I didn’t expect what happened next.

Absolute darkness is as fascinating as it is rare; even if you can’t see, typically there are still a few lumen present. But in the complete absence of light, the brain falls into somersaults. Confusion sets in. It becomes difficult to tell if your eyes are open or closed. You can sense an alarm bell in the back of your mind as your body starts firing adrenaline. And then, as if someone is cranking up a volume knob, your hearing kicks in.

The cave that seemed silent was now roaring with noise—the clicking of bats, the flutter of swiftlets, the distant groan of the river, the tapping of insects feeling through the dark, scuttling over rocks that haven’t seen sunlight since the dawn of our planet.

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I have seen the biggest darkness. I have stood before the largest cave chamber on earth.

I wanted to conclude this Photo Travelogue with a shot of the Sarawak Chamber, but as I stood before it with my headlamp, that seemed laughable.

But perhaps there was another way to conquer its darkness…

Balancing my camera on a rock, I cranked the Xenon flash lamp to a blinding +2.0f/30,000 lumen and switched the Long-Exposure setting to thirty seconds. I then asked everyone to train their high-power LEDs into the chamber—an insane total of 96,000 lumen—enough light to pop a bat’s head off—before pressing the shutter.

It took the camera a minute of rendering before an image flashed across the screen. I stared at it for a moment as a smile crept across my face.

It was the perfect representation of the largest cave chamber on earth, a fine finale for our photographic expedition:

It was a snapshot of 96,000 lumen being swallowed in the invincible blackness of Sarawak Chamber, the biggest darkness.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more fun facts and pretty pictures, journey the Silk Road across China in the Photo Travelogue “Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, and the Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo

Or delve into the world of nomadic eagle hunters in the Mongolian Photo Travelogue “A Steppe Too Far: Eagle Hunters, Cultural Darwinism, and Getting Banned in Kazakhstan

This photo travelogue would not have been possible without the contributions of my travel buddy Anders Lundell. Thank you for lending this post your excellent lens and even more excellent eye.