Visiting Danum Valley’s pristine rainforests in eastern Sabah, Borneo isn’t easy, but my goodness, is it worth it. Here’s what to expect on this jungle adventure.
Sabah, Borneo has some of the world’s most pristine rainforests with one of the widest ranges of plant, bird and animal life of any ecosystem. Danum Valley is Sabah’s largest protected lowland forest, and has stood unchanged and untouched for over 1 million years.
As we fly into Lahad Datu, the local airport nearest the only entrance to Danum Valley, we can see the horrifying reality of the encroaching palm oil plantations. They stretch out as far as the eye can see – even from up in the air.
Thankfully, the Malaysian and state Sabahan governments have stopped the plantations taking over the remaining 43,800 hectares of Danum Valley, preserving one of the last natural habitats for Asia’s largest primate, the orang-utan and the Borneo pygmy elephant, the world’s smallest elephant.
Because this is such a delicate ecosystem, it’s very hard to gain access to Danum Valley. No unauthorised visitors are allowed through the gates into the national park, which means self-driving and day visits are out of the question.
Borneo Nature Tours are permitted to have a maximum of 60 guests at any one time exploring Danum Valley and staying with them at Borneo Rainforest Lodge. This number is strictly monitored, so this has become quite an exclusive destination.
Because of its uniqueness, the staff at Borneo Nature Tours and the Rainforest Lodge see themselves as caretakers or guardians of the forest. Their love of this beautiful, untouched piece of the planet is clear to see.
How to see Danum Valley, the heart stone of Sabah, Borneo
How do you get there?
Getting to Danum Valley is a challenge. From Australia, you need to fly to Kuala Lumpur then transfer to Lahad Datu. This is the quickest way, however, we’d recommend a stop in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital. Then you fly on to Lahad Datu in the east of Borneo from there.
You can also drive there from other parts of the state.
From Lahad Datu Airport, a representative from Borneo Nature Tours meets you and takes you into the Lahad Datu office to sign in. And then the real fun begins! It’s a 2-hour 4×4 drive on unsealed roads through secondary rainforest until you get to the ‘front door’ to Danum Valley Conservation Area and the start of the primary jungle.
It’s then another half an hour of fording rivers, crossing timber-and-earth bridges and bumpy, unsealed roads before you come to Borneo Rainforest Lodge and home for the next few days.
This is the only way in or out… although Prince William and Kate Middleton flew in by helicopter. They still weren’t allowed to fly all the way though, and had to drive the last half an hour.
Where do you sleep?
Borneo Rainforest Lodge is the only accommodation in the 43,800 hectares of the Danum Valley Conservation Area. It’s actually on the site of an old tribal village that was abandoned many years before.
This doesn’t mean you’re sleeping in huts. Not by a long shot.
Everything has been built with minimum impact in mind. All the buildings are elevated on stilts to reduce forest floor contact. The main building, where you eat, relax and meet up with your guide, is a beautiful wooden hall open on all sides to allow airflow.
It also means you can see out into the jungle and over the Danum River. All kinds of animals come very close to the building, so you’ll probably see monkeys from here. You might also see deer, boar, snakes, orang-utans – maybe even elephants – from the balcony.
There are 3 different types of chalet; from the standard ‘jungle view’ rooms to the double story premium villa. All 30 rooms are stand-alone, connected by the decked causeway that goes from the main building like a long elevated wooden street.
The standard room is indeed fairly standard. The beds are simple, the bathroom is adequate, but there’s plenty of room inside and it’s comfortable. Plus you really feel like you’re part of the forest sleeping in these rooms.
At the other end of the scale, the premium villas are something quite special. These are brand new additions to the complex and this really shows. Very popular with honeymooners and visitors looking for romance, these villas are private, luxurious and perfect for a special occasion.
You get a large, comfy bed, living room area, big bathroom with modern fittings and feature wall, and a big balcony with loungers to relax on while you lap up the views over the river.
You also get your own plunge pool on your balcony too! How amazing is this?
There are other little extras you get with the villas, like the $4,000 Swarovski Optik crystal lens binoculars in the room, free leech socks, a Nespresso coffee machine and an impressive Dyson room fan to keep you cool.
If you’re only interested in somewhere to sleep after a long day’s trekking, the standard or deluxe chalets are ideal. But if you’re looking for a place to relax and make your time at the lodge truly special, the villas are definitely the way to go.
What do you eat?
Food is all part of the price here, which means buffet. Apart from the ubiquitous hotel breakfast, we try and avoid buffets as a rule, but thanks to Head Chef Saharan Asmara and his team, the kitchen here produces food that’s absolutely delicious.
We even talked to an older couple from San Francisco staying here, obviously well travelled, who commented on how good the food was.
It’s a clever blend of approachable yet authentic Malay food, western style elements and international staples. The cloches are well tended so everything’s very fresh, and the small quantities available means pots are refilled regularly with minimal wastage.
There’s also a made-to-order food station. What you can get here changes from meal to meal, but they also roast things like satay, fish and chicken on charcoal here to serve too.
There are also private meals you can organise here too for an added bit of romance. We enjoyed an amazing lunch on the riverbank served by our own chef and waiter. It’s an experience we’ll never ever forget. We took a dip before we ate, then sat down to four courses of exquisitely cooked Sabahan-Malay cuisine.
In fact, one dish was so local it was made from fresh baby ferns picked from the jungle and stir fried with ample garlic while we watched. It was amazing.
You can also arrange a private breakfast here if you’re staying in the villas. In front of your villa is a deck with full barbecuing facilities. The team sets up a dining spot for you, then your chef comes to cook you a tasty breakfast with the most amazing backdrop you’ll ever see.
What do you do?
The order of the day here at Danum Valley is exploring the jungle. How you do this is entirely up to you. You could even just spend all day in the main building staring out over the balcony – the jungle is so close to you.
However, hiking is the best way to experience this gift of natural beauty. Guides take out groups of up to 8 people multiple times a day. However, for a surprisingly small amount you can hire your own private guide, which we’d highly recommend.
Our guide Paul is an absolute legend and a real asset to Danum Valley. His father’s side of the family are from the forests of Sabah, so from a tribal perspective, he’s truly one of the locals and proudly introduced himself as Orang Utan, which literally translates as ‘man of the forest’.
There are lots of significant spots throughout the 23km of forest hiking trails worth checking out. The lookout point at the top of the escarpment is amazing.
On your way up to the lookout is the Kadazan-Dusan ancient tribal burial site where the coffins of chiefs and warriors are still, tucked into caves and crevasses in the cliff.
High above the forest floor hangs the award-winning Canopy Walkway. This 300m path stretches between native seraya majau, menggaris and giant urat mata trees to a height of 26m above the ground. You get an amazing perspective of the forest canopy from up here.
Along the length of the Danum River down below, which you can also hike along in places, are beautiful waterfalls to find.
Many forest animals are most active at night, so the tours after dark are often the most interesting for spotting wildlife. The night drive takes you along the road with a naturalist armed with a spotlight.
You can also go for a night hike, which we highly recommend. We saw giant tarantulas (safely in their burrows), snakes hunting frogs, timid civets and flying squirrels on our night outing with Paul.
For the most relaxing way to see the jungle, an afternoon of tubing down the Danum River is the way to go. You hike upstream to the entry point, then gently bob down the river in the big innertube you’ve brought with you. It’s a lot of fun and a completely unique perspective of the valley.
You can also make extended tours into the jungle, especially if you’re a keen birder and are after one of the particular species that are endemic to the area. You just need to organise this with your guide.
Who comes here?
We were fascinated by the types of people coming to Danum Valley. Retirees, backpackers, solo travellers, honeymooners… there’s something here for so many.
However, I’ll be honest: this is a place for adventurers and nature lovers. Danum Valley is home to 240 species of birds, 124 species of mammals, 128 species of reptiles and amphibians, and incredibly 200 species of plants per hectare!
So if you want high-speed internet, lying by the pool with free-flowing cocktails, shopping, TV and all-day buffets, this probably isn’t the place for your holiday.
Having said that, we’re not exactly the hiking types either. In fact we bought our hiking boots the day before we left and ‘broke them in’ walking home from the shop! But Paul our guide tailored our experience for our pace and interests perfectly, which is what the staff at Borneo Nature Tours do so well.
How much does it cost?
This depends on how long you want to stay, what level of accommodation you want and what extras you’re interested in.
Whatever your plan, you’ll get accommodation, all meals, an orientation lecture with one of the naturalists, all hiking tours with your guide, road transfers in and out of the jungle from the airport, and permit fees into the national park.
For the most basic package based on twin-share accommodation and no extras, you’re looking at around MYR3,160 (that’s about AU$1,000) for 3 days, 2 nights per person.
Is it worth it? You’d better believe it.
Would you ever want to explore a rainforest? Where’s your favourite hiking spot? Tell us in the comments!
Images by Mr & Mrs Romance using an OM-D E-M5 mark II Olympus camera and GoPro Hero4.
We visited Danum Valley and stayed with Borneo Nature Tours as guests of Sabah Tourism.