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Unsurprisingly, getting to the heart of a 135-million-year-old rainforest, cut off from all human influence and habitation, isn’t the easiest thing to do. It’s not impossible, however. Borneo’s Danum Valley may only accept a limited number of visitors at a time, but those lucky few find themselves in one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Welcome to one of Earth’s last true wildernesses.
Starting out from the coastal town of Lahad Datu, hop into a 4×4 and head west ten miles. Make a right at the rusting signposts and leave the highway behind; from here on out, the traffic thins as the trees thicken. You’ll know you’ve reached the ‘front door’ of Danum Valley Conservation Area when, after half an hour, the road becomes a dirt track. From here it’s another two hours to reach your bed for the night. If you see monstrous grey shapes shifting beyond the treeline, don’t worry. That’ll just be the elephants.
The Danum Valley Conservation Area is home to a breath-taking variety of nature and is one of the world’s most pristine ecosystems. The 438km² valley has over 15,000 varieties of plant, and is teeming with rare animal life. Visit and you can expect to spend your days enjoying nature from treetop walkways, hiking, swimming beneath waterfalls, and – if you’re lucky – catching a glimpse of some spectacular and elusive creatures.
The jungle is home to Asia’s highest concentration of orangutans and pygmy elephants, and eagle-eyed trekkers may spot monitor lizards and sun bears padding through the undergrowth. Each day, dawn is heralded by the howls of gibbons, and come nightfall – 6pm sharp – the chirping of cicadas indicates the hour just as effectively as any timepiece. Once darkness has fallen, clouded leopards prowl in search of unsuspecting mousedeer, and all sorts of fluttering beasties rise from the forest floor. This one’s for the adventurers only.
Danum Valley isn’t a place you go to tick animal sightings off a list; this is somewhere you go to experience one of the earth’s truly wild places. This is real rainforest, which means every wondrous thing you see here is pure chance. Observing nature in this unobtrusive way ensures the survival of these unique animals and the harmonious ecosystem they live in. The Danum Valley Conservation Area is truly unique. While much of Borneo’s rainforest has been cut down in recent years, Danum Valley has remained untouched: no hunting, no logging, and negligible human impact on the ecosystem. Environments like this are incredibly precious, and the opportunity to visit and support the local conservation effort is a great honour. If you’re keen to answer the call of the wild, here’s everything you need to know.
The place to stay in Danum Valley is the luxurious Borneo Rainforest Lodge; a wooden stilted lodge with genuine ‘wow’ factor. It’s not cheap; every stay is a two-night minimum all-inclusive package, including transfers, guided jungle trekking and activities. But rest assured, from the moment you step down from the vehicle, you’re in for a treat. The lodge prides itself on customer service. It’s all the little touches: the cold drink and warm welcome from your jungle guide upon your arrival, and the binoculars waiting in your room. Meals are buffet style; an assortment of Asian and Western dishes, with certain dishes made to order.
Top tip: Premium Deluxe rooms are nice. We’re talking 97m², floor-to-ceiling windows offering uninterrupted views of the rainforest, and, the pièce de résistance, a semi-alfresco shower opening out to a private plunge pool. The perfect setting for a tipple from the fully stocked bar, set to the cacophony of cicadas.
Naturally, much of your time will be spent trekking in the jungle. A typical three day/two night stay will include a guided morning hike through the forest surrounding the lodge up to a viewpoint, where – after taking a moment to brush away the unavoidable beads of perspiration – you’ll get a real perspective of the sheer scale of the landscape you’re immersed in. There’s a 26m high rainforest canopy walkway to traverse during the day, and after dark you’ll take part in either a night drive or a night walk.
Optional activities include tubing down the Danum river, wild swimming in the Elephant pools or easing those tired muscles at the on-site spa.
Top tip: Leech socks are highly recommended, they’re much cheaper to buy in Borneo than back home!
If you’re looking to extend your Borneo adventure, there are some great spots nearby. Due to the scale of Danum Valley, wildlife sightings aren’t always guaranteed. Double your chances by combining a Danum Valley stay with a few days on the Kinabatangan River; another wildlife hot spot a couple of hours north. Or to guarantee at least one picture of Borneo’s star attraction, include a night in Sepilok and a visit to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Top off your Borneo escape with a few nights of pure indulgence at Gaya Island Resort, a five-star eco-luxe resort off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, home to tangled mangroves, a beach, and villas with views of Mount Kinabalu.
Meet the locals
- Clouded leopards
- Sun bears
- Pygmy Elephants
- Monitor lizards
- And over 270 species of bird!
Fly to: Lahad Datu Airport
Transfer time: 2hrs 30 mins drive; mostly on unsealed roads.
Weather: Hot and humid, average temp: 25-30 °C
Best time to travel: During the dry season from the end of March until early October the weather is milder, with less rain and a higher chance of seeing wildlife.
Feeling adventurous? Itching to delve deep into the jungles of Borneo? Get in touch!
This article originally appeared in EAST magazine, our bi-annual travel magazine packed with unique, inspirational travel insight. Sign up for your free copy here.