Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo

Danum Valley is a conservation area inside a one million hectare logging concession in Sabah. It is one of Borneo’s most biodiverse and pristine primary rainforests, home to some very charismatic animals: Pygmy elephants, red leaf monkey and all time favourite Bornean icon – the orangutan.

Danum Valley is reached via Lahad Datu, the sleepiest of all the towns we passed through. We travelled there by long distance bus from Sandakan, which takes 3.30 hrs at a cost of 20 RM. The bus stops all over the place and is a comfortable but slow ride. The scenery along the way is disheartening: endless oil palm monocultures stretching out into the haze.

You can also catch a 55 minute flight from Kota Kinabalu. We did this on our way back. The plane is a tiny propellor number and the airport is a two roomed hut in a field. You do not need to be there anymore than an hour before your flight leaves.

There are only two options for accommodation in Danum and they are at opposite ends of the spectrum:

  • The Danum Valley Field Centre hosts international researchers who don’t mind roughing it in the name of science. It is the cheaper of the two but you are left to your own devices (i.e. to guide yourself round the rainforest) and electricity is turned off after 23.00.
  • The much more expensive Borneo Rainforest Lodge is one of ecotourism’s top destinations and operates like an all inclusive resort. David Attenborough, Bear Grylls and even the most seasoned naturalists, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have been to stay.

No prizes for guessing which we chose. For the sum of £250 per person per night (a budget-blowing total of almost a grand for the two of us), we were almost guaranteed not to accidentally kill ourselves in the forest. Money well spent.

A driver collected us from bus station in a four wheel drive pick-up truck, took us for lunch at a near by Chinese restaurant (all included in the price) then drove us for two and a half brain-rattlingly bumpy hours on dirt roads into the forest. The roads are bad: winding, sloping, dusty. Take a travel sickness pill before you start. I didn’t take one in time on the drive back and threw my guts up.

On arrival we were greeted with a cold lemongrass drink and pandan wreath. A life long love affair with natural history meant what followed were three of the best days of my life.

Borneo Rainforest Lodge is set in the middle of the jungle. Our room was a fan-cooled wooden chalet with an outside bathtub (yes!) overlooking the Danum river. Surreal. We fell asleep listening to creaking insects and awoke to gibbon song. Three delicious meals a day were eaten on the terrace while staring into the misty jungle, surrounded by butterflies and birds. Quite a contrast to hostel living, where shared bathroom blocks were reminiscent of prison shower scenes in Orange is the New Black.

From the minute you arrive you are taken out on treks into the forest. There are activities from dawn until well after dark. Our private guide, Mac, descendent from a Sarawak headhunting tribe, helped us play spot the hidden animals. We saw ubiquitous macaques, monitor lizards and bearded pigs, but also red leaf monkeys, and no end of venomous beasts – the Sumatran pit viper, banded water snake, tiger tarantula, whip scorpion and giant golden ants armed with three dorsal stingers. We also saw lots of flying animals: the rhinoceros hornbill, buffy fish owl, serpent eagle, spotted wood nymph butterflies (Idea malabarica), red flying squirrels and sleeping tiny fruit bats.

We were eluded by a few of the biggies (and smallies): pygmy elephants were heard, but not seen, and despite being pretty common I was sad that mouse deer did not come out of hiding. And no orangutans.

Plenty of other wildlife more than made up for it. Even the plants and fungi were stunners: clumps of luminous mushrooms, which glowed in the dark, star shaped white orchids hanging from the top branches of canopy trees and enormous pomelo-sized seed pods (Alsomitra macrocarpa) (sadly devoid of seeds) whose insides were lined with cushioned silk.

Mac made us feel at home in the forest. We chilled, floating down the Danum in inner tubes looking at birds. He showed us wild fruit, favoured by primates (including humans), which fungi were edible (one that grows in elephant dung) and leaves from trees that smelt of cinnamon and of curry (incidentally, the macaques also smelt of curry).

If you are considering Borneo Rainforest Lodge, do it. While the price might make your eyes water, when you experience wildlife up close, feel looked after by incredibly attentive staff and see the careful behind the scenes care of the rainforest, every ringgit is worth it.

The only sad thing about our stay is we didn’t say a final goodbye to Mac. Our transfer to the airport left earlier than expected so we didn’t manage to wish him luck with his upcoming wedding and skydiving trip to Sumatra. So, Mac, if you are reading this: terima kasih for three incredible days. We hope your two weddings go off without a hitch. You will always be our Bear Grylls.

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