Nestled in the far north-east of the third largest island in the world, within the Malaysian state of Sabah lies an equatorial haven for tropical biodiversity known as the Danum Valley Conservation Area. The 140-million-year-old ecosystem is comprised of pristine primary lowland forest teeming with endemic fauna and flora that will have you awe-inspired upon every sense.

Danum Valley Conservation Area
A misty blanket lifting from Danum Valley as the sun rises.

As the sounds of the bustling and chaotic urban environment were merely left behind among the plumes of dust as we continued our drive along the dirt road to Danum Valley, a fresh sense of excitement became predominant. Venturing into the unknown and well off the beaten track was all too appealing. I had long read about the significance of this protected area and could only imagine what wildlife I was going to encounter. A gate at the entrance to the Danum Valley Conservation Area signalled that we were getting close. As the bumpy ride slowly rocked the van into a light sleep we were swiftly woken after coming to a halt. A road-block of Bornean pygmy elephants slowly passing across the road up ahead temporarily held up the journey. We were only afforded a fleeting glimpse of the herd as they receded back into the dense forest, an incredible start to the adventure that laid ahead.

Dirt roads within the Danum Valley Conservation Area.

The forest either side of the road looked like a green impenetrable wall, closing off the world inside with thick undergrowth, creeping vines, and a wreathing collage of green. Occasionally we caught a glimpse of towering emergent trees to give some perspective through the canopy as the road wound around the landscape. Before long we were there, jumping out into the humidity and welcomed by the primitive jungle. 

I soon dropped my bags, grabbed my camera, a water bottle and set off to meet my guide for a late afternoon walk along the nearby network of exploration trails. Danum Valley is one of the few places where nature can be experienced in all its undisturbed glory. Evolution has driven an array of strange adaptations to the environment with flying snakes, lizards, and small mammals, including creatures that display bright colours as a warning to predators, others who camouflage themselves to be completely invisible to the untrained eye, and not to mention the perplexing shapes and sizes that the forest critters boast. The forest is a cacophony of life; every inch is alive from the leaves of the forest floor, along the broad-buttress roots, up to the giant epiphytic ferns, and all the way to the upper-canopy branches of the world’s tallest tropical trees. 

We soon trailed back along the dirt road for a few minutes until we came to the tree-top canopy walkway, which is a network of suspension bridges hung between emergent dipterocarp and mengaris trees where you stand just over 25m above the forest floor. As I continued to climb up the wooden ladder I became more nervous, albeit excited with each step until reaching the upper platform. I was met with a truly spectacular perspective of the forest as I continued along the bridge, engulfed by the sheer enormity of this opaque setting where the incessant call of cicadas and giant dipterocarp trees swallow you whole.

Danum Valley treetop
The tree-top canopy walk in Danum Valley Conservation Area.

Virgin forest gracefully dulls your senses to the outside world and skews your perception of time and direction. Making our way back down to ground level we progressed to try our luck with wildlife sightings and if it weren’t for the cut paths and knowledge of the guide it would be easy to lose your way in what felt like a forested maze.

Hanging vines in lowland tropical rainforest.

Completely tuned in to his senses our guide would scan the forest for the slightest sign of life, a sound coming from the canopy, a call from a bird, like a hound on the trail of a scent the guide was focused and determined. He stopped, peering carefully into the sea of green around us and pointed ahead. There a short distance away, cloaked in copper with his orange fur sat a male orangutan in a tree. His face extended by his flanged cheek flaps, a sign of a mature male, he looked down at us with an almost recognising eye. Without fear he continued to feed on the tree he was perched in slowly moving from one branch to another while he foraged for food. Words cannot describe the connection one can have with another living creature when it looks into your eyes knowingly, recognising you, acknowledging you.

A male Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus).

The canopy is prime habitat for primates, birds and small mammals who’ve become highly adapted to their treetop lifestyle. Gibbons, sleek in their build with long limbs swing almost effortlessly from one branch to the next. Their ghostly calls echo across the forest, signalling to other groups that this is their home territory. With a keen eye and some patience, you start to articulate a foreign world right before you.

A Müller's Bornean gibbon (Hylobates muelleri) swinging through the canopy.

In the distance we heard what sounded like a helicopter whooshing closer towards us, that was soon followed by a honking squawk as this impressive bird landed in a tree nearby. According to our guide, the large, bony, light-weight casque amplifies the sounds that Rhinoceros hornbills use to communicate across vast distances in the forest. Evolution has kindly accommodated for these creatures living in the seemingly boundless environment of the Bornean rainforest.

A Rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros).

As the sun began to fall towards the horizon and the sounds of the day laid to rest, I couldn’t help but to reflect on my first day that was like a real-life version of a David Attenborough nature documentary. The untainted forest of Danum Valley highlighted just how special places like this are, not just for the hundreds of species of fauna and flora, but also for conservation awareness and education for anyone visiting this sacred forest. Rainforests cover less than two percent of the earth’s surface but contain more than 50 percent of all terrestrial life on the planet and there is no denying the importance they hold in our ever-changing world.

Danum Valley Conservation Area glazed in golden hour.

Throughout every step of the journey, Sticky Rice Travel provided a memorable experience while notably remaining true to their values in delivering meaningful adventures through responsible tourism practices. I not only acquired a wealth of knowledge of the intrinsic beauty of tropical biodiversity, but also learned about the threats that areas like this face and the importance of operating tourism in a sustainable manner. All with the hope that many future generations will have the opportunity to be bewildered by the ancient rainforests of Borneo. 

Photography by Charles Ryan. 

Rucksack Magazine: http://anotherescape.com/volumes/volume-seven

Are you looking to explore Danum Valley? We have a range of itineraries and travel options that will put you in the heart 130 million year old rainforest and some of Borneo’s most iconic wildlife.