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 is the perfect place to explore Borneo’s rainforest discovering the unique wildlife that occurs in the region and trekking through the towering ancient forest which is also home to the tallest trees in the tropics.
The Danum Valley Conservation Area is located about two hours drive from the small town of Lahad Datu, located between the coastal towns of Sandakan and Tawau on Sabah’s East coast. Driving from Sandakan to Lahad Datu takes around 3.5 hours whilst the trip from Tawau takes around 2.5 hours however travel times will depend on traffic and road conditions. If you are departing from either of these destinations we are able to provide overland transfers to get you to Lahad Datu.
If you are coming from further afield you will need to take a domestic flight to reach Lahad Datu. There are multiple flights daily with MAS Wings departing from Kota Kinabalu. In order to maximise your time we suggest taking the first flight from Kota Kinabalu first thing in the morning so that you can reach Danum Valley before lunch time. On a clear morning this flight offers incredible panoramic views of Sabah’s jewel Mount Kinabalu as the flight path passes the mountain to its West.
If you are on a budget and have a little more time to dedicate to travel going overland by bus is certainly a more economical option. For the most part roads in Sabah are in good condition and drivers are a lot safer on the roads compared to other parts of Southeast Asia. We suggest Tung Ma Express as the most reliable bus company for overland travel in Sabah. Buses from Kota Kinabalu depart from the Inanam Bus Station Terminal which is located 25 minutes outside of the city centre.
Unless you have your own transport the only option to get the the Danum Valley Field Centre is to take a private transfer. We provide scheduled departures for all of our guests heading to the Field Centre as a part of our Danum Valley packages for bookings of two people or more. For single travellers there will be a single traveller supplement for vehicle transfers in and out of Danum Valley if we cannot link you up with an existing transfer.
The drive into the Danum Valley Field Centre will take you through secondary forest, much of which has been replanted and makes up the buffer zone of the conservation area. Albeit secondary the forest either side of the road feels like a green impenetrable wall, closing off the world inside with thick undergrowth, creeping vines, and a wreathing collage of green. Glimpses of towering emergent trees gives some perspective through the canopy as the road winds through the landscape. Before long you will be welcomed by the warm humidity of the primitive jungle.
The Danum Valley Field Centre offers basic but comfortable lodging for visitors to the area ranging from camping options through to the rest house and chalets. The Field Centre was primarily established to accommodate the researchers, scientists and research assistants during their field work at Danum Valley. In the early days it was very difficult to visit the Field Centre as tourism was never a priority for activities in this part of Danum Valley. Today there is much more tourist traffic at the Field Centre along with international school and university groups on field courses. The Field Centre has generator power between 7 am and 11 pm so be sure to batteries charged during these times.
As the premium accommodation option at the Danum Valley Field Centre the Chalets provide a comfortable base during your visit. Equipped with air-conditioners the chalets provide a cool escape between the hot and sweaty jungle treks. As stand alone structures the chalets are set back from the main common area and dining hall providing a little extra privacy.
The rest house is the next available tier of accommodations at the Danum Valley Field Centre and is located adjacent to the common area and dining hall. This provides a great deal of convenience at meal times as you don’t need to travel far for your meal. The rest house rooms are attached to one another and given the close proximity to the dining hall and common area there can be a bit of foot traffic, especially during busy times. The rest house rooms are equipped with a fan and are a sufficiently comfortable option when staying at Danum Valley.
The dormitory consists of two dorm halls separated for males and females with each having shared toilets and showers. Each room within the dorm has two bunk beds, sleeping four people with a curtain separating the room from the main hall. Although not as private as chalets or the rest house the dorm is a perfectly comfortable option for the budget conscious traveller. One thing to note is that the dining hall and common area is a 10-15 minute walk from the dorms so be sure to pack your day pack with everything you need when setting out for jungle treks.
Want to take a more adventurous approach with your accommodation options? Consider our Danum Valley camping option if you want to see the forest but you are travelling on a shoestring budget. This is also a great option for the adventurous types looking for full jungle immersion. We are offering Danum Valley camping for the 2019 summer holiday period (15 June – 15 October 2019) at the Field Centre’s permanent campsite. The campsite is nestled amongst a stunning forest setting with stretcher hammocks equipped with mosquito nets and shared toilet and shower facilities. All meals will be provided at the campsite cooked by our in-house chef serving delicious meals to keep your belly full and satisfy your energy needs with all the forest walks.
They say the early bird gets the worm and there is no better time to catch some bird sightings than early morning. Setting off at around 6 am your guide will take you on a stroll along the roads and forest trails to spot the bird life as it stirs to action for the day. The roads sometimes offer better opportunities for sightings as the canopy is open and you can see further into the forest. Birds are no the only critters active at this time of the day, the haunting call of gibbons echo across the forest canopy as the resident group calls to establish their territory warning other groups not to trespass. Many of the other iconic critters can be seen if you are lucky. Once you’ve got your wildlife fix for the morning you will return to the Field Centre for breakfast.
If you are coming to Borneo to maximise your bird sightings or have a specific wildlife focus private guides are available to make the most out of your wildlife sightings. We offer Borneo birding trips as one of our specialty trips with Danum Valley included in the itinerary.
Trekking in Danum Valley offers the unique opportunity to walk amongst giants with the conservation area being home to the tallest trees in the tropics, the largest stands over 92 metres in height. There are a network of trails that cut through the forest ranging from short strolls along the nature trail to longer half day walks to spots such as Rhino Pool and Tembaling Waterfall. As you walk through the forest you never know what could be just around the corner and it’s not uncommon to spot wildlife during these longer walks. The Bornean jungle is a hot humid place and for some can be a little overwhelming, especially if you are coming from cooler climates. It is easy to become dehydrated so be sure to keep your fluids up and carry electrolytes.
The Danum Valley Field Centre offers* nightly 4×4 drives that commence after dinner to go spotlighting for nocturnal wildlife and is conducted by the Field Centre staff. The drives are done in a ‘safari style’ four wheel drive, a pick up with bench seats in the back. These night drives will usually yield sightings of some of the common nocturnal mammals including leopard cats, civets, slow loris, flying squirrels amongst the many other creatures of the night.
*At this point in time Sticky Rice Travel does not conduct night drives, this is an additional activity offered by the Field Centre which will be an additional cost if you choose to join subject to availability.
If you want to understand just how biodiverse the Bornean jungle is you need to scale it down and take a look at the smaller creatures of the forest. Night walks provide the perfect opportunity to witness the vast diversity of weird and wonderful insects, the reptiles and amphibians of the forest along with sleeping birds perched on an overhanging branch. If you are really lucky you might even spot our mascot the Western tarsier and the equally impressive slow loris, both nocturnal primates. Be sure to have a head torch handy as you are going to need to be able to navigate your way along the jungle trails at night.
Not far from the Field Centre is the Global Atmospheric Watch (GAW) tower located on Bukit Atur (Atur Hill). The Field Centre offers trips* for early morning risers to the tall wooden tower, which offers sweeping views of the surrounding 43,800 hectare conservation area and is the perfect place to capture the sun rising over the Bornean jungle. Watch the mist drift across the forest canopy with emergent trees peeking through from time to time. As the sun rises the gorgeous golden hour backdrop creates a magical scene sure to impress.
*This is an additional activity offered by the Field Centre which will be an additional cost if you choose to join subject to availability.
There is no hiding the fact that Danum Valley can be a hot and sweaty place. The humidity hangs dense in the air and within minutes you can be working up a sweat. Luckily there is a chance to get some respite from the heat taking a swim in the Segama River. The main road into the field centre follows the river, near the reception building is a small beach you can walk down to enjoying some shade on the river bank and a refreshing swim. For the most part the river’s current is not too strong, however rain upstream can quickly turn the river into a roaring torrent. Use common sense and only swim if conditions allow for this activity.
Borneo is home to some of the richest biodiversity globally with its dense forests providing vital habitat for a number of species of conservation significance. The core area of Danum Valley is one of the largest remaining continuous patches of primary lowland dipterocarp rainforest in the region making this a highly important place for the preservation of Borneo’s biodiversity. Visitors flock to Borneo in search for the islands iconic wildlife and Danum Valley has become one of the best locations for reliable wildlife sightings. The Danum Valley Field Centre is a particularly special place to see wildlife as the animals have become habituated to human activity and aren’t so shy. Although we can never guarantee sighting our guides are highly trained to make sure you get the best chance possible to see Borneo’s iconic wildlife.
In Malay language the word orangutan translates to person of the forest and when you see one of these red apes effortlessly moving through the forest canopy you will quickly begin to understand why. The Danum Valley Conservation Area provides vital habitat for this critically endangered species and is important for their long-term preservation. Seeing orangutans in Danum Valley is all a matter of luck with your best chances to see them occuring during fruiting season.
Probably one of the most elusive creatures of the forest there is certainly no getting your hopes up to see one in the wild. However there are a few individuals that are known to utilise the forest nearby the field centre with the occasional sighting of a clouded leopard passing through the Field Centre. With healthy populations of primates and deer there is no shortage of food for this species so whilst difficult to spot they are not impossible to see.
Don’t be fooled by the name, there is nothing pygmy about these elephants. Whilst they are considered the smallest elephant species they are certainly sizeable creatures. Elephants prefer secondary forest as it is easier to move through and is much more productive for the food they eat. Elephants can often be seen feeding on the side of the road heading into the Field Centre, this section of the conservation area is secondary forest. At times they will come into the forest near the Field Centre where you can potentially see them on foot.
The Western tarsier is the cute critter you see on our logo and is a real delight to see in the wild. This pint-sized primate comes in as one of the smallest in the world and is the only entirely carnivorous primate. Being nocturnal the best chance to see them is during night walks in the forest where you will need a really keen eye to spot them. Sitting no more than a metre from the forest floor, perched on a small tree they scan the forest while they hunt. They are reported to feed on anything from insects to reptiles, small birds and even bats.
These fury little creatures are sure to steal your heart but don’t be fooled because that cuteness packs a punch. Slow lorises are the only known venomous primate producing a toxic secretion from glands on their elbows which they lick or rub on their face. Being nocturnal you will usually only see lorises at night during night drives or night walks. As if these critters couldn’t get any more cute or wierd slow lorises also have a specialised grooming claw.
Probably the most common primate in Danum Valley next to macaques these adorable little red-furred monkeys are an absolute delight to watch as they feed and play around the trees. The troop at the Field Centre is very habituated so they are not opposed to going about their business whilst people are observing them. As colobine monkeys they have specially adapted stomach that aid in deriving nutrients from a heavy diet of leave, a food source that does not provide much energy.
Also known as flying lemurs these strange looking creatures are probably one of the most highly adapted mammals for gliding. A skin membrane that extends between the neck, hands, feet and tail allows colugos to glide from one tree to another helping them to avoid predators and move quickly through the forest. Whilst it is difficult to see them at night your keen eyed guide might be able to spot you one perched on a tree trunk as they rest in this position through the day.
Danum valley is home to an impressive community of birds with one of the larger families being the hornbills. The most iconic species of the hornbills would have to be the rhinoceros hornbill, a tall standing bird with brightly colour casque and unforgettable call. The call will usually give them away first if not the loud sound of their wings flapping during flight. Rhinoceros hornbills will pair-bond for life and during mating the male will entomb the female in her tree hollow nest. She will then rely on him entirely to provide her food right up until the young fledge the nest.
If it’s one sound that is iconic of the Bornean jungle it would have to be that of gibbons. Waking up to the haunting echoes of gibbons calling as the forest stirs to life is a sound that will long stay with you even after you say goodbye to Danum Valley. Although a little difficult to spot due to their shyness sightings are still almost certainly possible around the Field Centre. North Bornean gibbons would have to be one of the most highly adapted primates for a life in the forest canopy. Their ability to leap from one branch to another with seemingly little effort is completely mesmerising.
Danum Valley is home to a huge variety of reptiles from snakes, lizards, skinks and freshwater turtles. One of the more common snakes to see is the Bornean keeled pit viper, an impressively large snake that will often sit in one location for long periods waiting for the right moment to strike at unsuspecting prey. Be sure to keep your distance as a bite from one of these snakes is sure to pack a punch. There will usually be one hanging out in a tree nearby the Field Centre otherwise night walks are a great activity to go in search of other reptiles such as small lizards sleeping on branches.
Borneo is home to an incredible diversity of amphibians with around 138 species total for the island. Whilst that is far too many to mention here there is one frog in particular that is worth a mention – the Wallace’s flying frog. Whilst this frog doesn’t actually fly, like the colugo it has extra skin to help it glide through the forest. Extended webbing between their toes allows their feet to act like little parachutes, the perfect adaptation to manoeuvre a quick escape.
No matter what your travel style or wildlife focus the Danum Valley Field Centre offers some truly memorable experiences that cannot be awarded elsewhere. With a range of accommodation options there is surely something to suit your budget from more affordable camping packages through to the more comfortable rest house and chalet options. Be sure to get in touch to start arranging your Danum Valley Field Centre adventure as you discover Borneo with Sticky Rice Travel.
The team from Rucksack Magazine took a trip to the Danum valley Field Centre to find out what this place is all about. Check out their online magazine to see the full story.
Photography by Charles Ryan, Jack Knoll, Razis Rasri & Nicholas Heard.