Danum Valley is one of the last remaining pockets of primary rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. It is home to a huge diversity of tropical flora and fauna, including pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and the animal we were most hoping to see, the Bornean orangutan. The area attracts scientists and researchers from all over the world who come to study the biodiversity and often end up discovering new species.
Map of Sabah showing the tiny conservation areas in light green.
Danum Valley Field Center (DVFC) is located in the heart of the Danum Valley Conservation Area and provides a base for researchers and dwellings for a small number of visitors (mostly wildlife enthusiasts with very big binoculars).
Visits to Danum can be arranged through tour agencies such as StickyRice for a pretty penny, however, it is not difficult to visit Danum under your own steam for a fraction of the cost.
We spent two great nights in the wilderness of Danum Valley. This gave us one full day to go out searching for orangutans.
Malaysian Borneo's Orangutans
There are a handful of places in Malaysian Borneo where you can still encounter orangutans. The most well known are:
- Sepilok Rehabilitation Center - This is the most popular place to see orangutans, and as the name implies, the center rehabilitates orphaned or injured orangutans that have fallen victim to deforestation. Since the orangutans have been rehabilitated under human care, they are "semi-wild" - i.e. they have been released into the neighbouring forest but come back to feed at the center each day. Orangutan encounters are therefore pretty much guaranteed.
- Kinabatangan River - A thin (and ever shrinking) strip of forest lines the lower stretches of the Kinabatangan River near Sandakan in east Sabah. A small population of orangutans are clinging onto existence along the Kinabatangan, however, sadly, they will most likely be gone within the next decade because the forest is quickly being destroyed to make way for palm oil. Deforestation is forcing the wildlife towards the river, which increases ones chances of seeing the animals but makes sightings somewhat bittersweet.
- Danum Valley - Danum Valley is one of only a few protected forested areas in Sabah. Danum Valley encompasses 438 square kilometers of primary rainforest and supports a healthy population of orangutans as well as a huge variety of other species. Since the area is so big and mostly impenetrable, you need quite a lot of luck to encounter orangutans here.
There is no doubt that Sepilock Rehabilitation Centre do fantastic work saving orangutans and are well worth supporting, however, we were looking for a truly wild encounter, even if it lowered are chances of an encounter at all. Therefore, Danum Valley tickled our taste buds the most.
Arranging a DIY Visit to Danum
The launch pad for Danum is Lahad Datu, a fairly nondescript town on the east coast of Sabah about 3 hours north of Semporna, where we came from. The DVFC office is located at the top end of town and is where DIY visits to Danum are arranged. We contacted Sue, the very friendly lady behind the front desk, beforehand to arrange our visit. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Transport, accommodation and food are all arranged through DVFC.
The simplest and cheapest way to get to Danum is by taking the bus service provided by DVFC from Lahad Datu. The service only runs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and costs RM65 per person one-way.
The journey takes approximately 2 hours with most of that time spent on a dirt track within the Danum Valley Conservation Area, so there's plenty of opportunity to spot wildlife along the way. We saw red-leafed monkeys, monitor lizards and plenty of smelly signs that elephants were nearby. Others reported actually seeing pygmy elephants on the drive in.
DVFC offer a range of accommodation to suit most budgets. The cheapest option, and most in-touch with nature, is a hammock strung up out in the open. You'll need to bring your own bedding and mosquito net. For just a little bit more money you can get a bed in a single sex 48-bed dorm room, which includes the comfort of 4 walls around you whilst you sleep. Since we didn't have bedding or mosquito nets with us, and perhaps we're not quite as 'Bear Grylls' as we'd like to think, we opted for the dorm rooms.
The cost was RM91/bed/night (£16/$20), which is not particularly cheap for a bed in a dorm room, but the setting more than justifies the cost. The rooms were clean, comfortable and quiet; in fact most of the beds were empty.
Attached to the dorms is a kitchen area which has everything you need to self-cater, which is key to keeping your visit to Danum relatively cheap.
If you need to stay overnight in Lahad Datu before or after your visit (there's not a lot in Lahad Datu to justify staying longer than that), then we highly recommend Tabin Lodge. Their rooms are simple, affordable and perhaps the cleanest we have stayed in on our entire trip.
DVFC put on breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet style in their on-site restaurant. However, it's not the cheapest. Three simple square meals will set you back RM111 (£20/$25), which really should get you silver service by Malaysian standards. The easiest way to save a lot of money when visiting Danum is to go self-catered, which is what we did.
We did a food shop in Lahad Datu beforehand. We weren't sure what cooking equipment was provided in the dorm kitchen so we kept it simple - porridge for breakfast, cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch, and instant noodles supplemented with tinned sweet-corn for dinner. Granted, not the most exciting menu, but more than adequate for a couple of days in the wilderness.
A friendly wild boar looking for left overs
With only one full day to find orangutans, we got up early and headed straight into the forest on a 4-hour trek to Rhino Pool. A guide is required for the longer treks, however, they are not particularly expensive, just RM20 (£3.60/$4.50) per hour. We even split the cost with a nice American couple we met at dinner the night before.
The guide was absolutely necessary because the trail was overgrown and often obstructed by fallen trees. It was tough going; hot, humid and extremely muddy. And leeches, everywhere! On every leaf we brushed past the leeches were poised, ready to latch on to our ankles, crawl up our legs and begin feeding once they'd found a suitably tasty spot.
We were so busy trying not to fall over and removing leeches from our legs that we didn't have time to look for any wildlife. We did hear the flapping wings of a hornbill somewhere in the trees above us, but that was as close as we came to a significant encounter. At Danum, trekking means trekking, and not wildlife spotting.
All tucked in to try and stop the leeches
Just one of the thousands of leeches waiting to latch on
A giant millipede curled up for protection
After a disappointing day out in the forest, we thought we'd give the night safari a go. DVFC organise night safaris on request. The cost is RM25 per person and it involves sitting in the back of a pick-up truck equiped with some pretty powerful spot lights and being driven along Danum's access road whilst trying to spot the reflections of tiny eyes in the darkness.
As soon as we set out the heavens opened and for the next hour we endured a cold, wet and fairly fruitless drive through the forest. We saw a mouse deer and a sleeping bird...
Desperate Dawn Platform
With few wildlife encounters to our name, we decided to have one last go the next morning. At 5:30am we got up and headed to one of the nearby viewing platforms to catch the dawn chorus. Apparently this is a good time to see hornbills flying over the forest canopy. We sat at the top of the platform for nearly an hour whilst the sun came up, and true to form, nothing. This just wasn't our trip.
Looking out over the misty forest canopy
The hornbills were having a lie-in...
A Lesson in Wildlife Spotting
Wildlife spotting, as we discovered, is a game of time, patience, perseverance and a lot of luck. One day at Danum simply wasn't enough time to give us a fighting chance of seeing anything rare; not with our luck anyway. People who reported seeing orangutans had either spent 5 days scouring the treetops or had stumbled upon them right outside the field center.
The final cost
The cost of our 2-night DIY visit to Danum, per person was as follows:
- Transport to and from Danum - RM130
- Conservation fee - RM50
- Dorm room bed for 2 nights - 2 x 91 = RM182
- Food (self-catered) during our stay - RM30
- Stove fee - RM15
- Guide for Rhino Pool trek, split between 4 people - RM20
- Night Safari - RM25
Total - RM452 (£82/$102) - A damn sight cheaper than a package tour!
- Despite not seeing much wildlife, we still really enjoyed our visit to Danum; the thrill is in the chase as they say. This is definitely one for nature lovers.
- To give yourself a fighting chance of spotting some wildlife, go for longer than 2 nights.
- Save yourself a lot of money and go DIY. In particular, go self-catered. The kitchen facilities attached to the dorms are more than adequate for preparing your own meals.