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Danum Valley

Have you ever been to tropical rainforest? While exploring this part of the world, one is sure to eventually encounter a resemblance to the primeval forest of their imagination. Tumultuous vines, ethereally green, fundamentally impenetrable.  Here, this run-a-muck growth is often the result of plants desperately trying to win the race to refill empty space once held by behemoths. Until Danum Valley, I’d not seen examples of what Sabah would have looked like around 60 years ago, before deforestation.

Before I begin, I need to vent a second: Sam, a gentleman named Rob (who we met in the dingy town of Lahad Datu and also happened to be a graduate student at the University of Washington!), and I had a wonderful, though abbreviated exploration at Danum. Yet the field center played no hand in this, at times actively working against enjoyment. I don’t want to completely lambast this place, but it was the most expensive and frustrating place I’ve seen in my two months (more frustrating than a bus in Sumatra). If there hadn’t been Bornean Gibbons and Black Magpies, giant Dipterocarps and canopy platforms, it would have been unbearable. My vote goes to stripping the “hospitality ranger” of her ridiculous title. I don’t want to appear petty or abuse the freedom of the internet forum, but I would strongly dissuade people from visiting, simply because of the nature of how the center handled people. Poorly.

And now that I’ve got it out of my system……

Because of the cost limitations (doubled and tripled from advertised prices), we were only going to stay one full day. Immediately on arrival, we slogged down a trail, shrugging off the heavy rain and muck, stubborn to see something with our evening. We returned with nothing but leeches, engorged with our fluids. My logic failing me, I’d worn sandals and shorts, equating to a whopping 20 tiger leeches from my scalp to my soles.

By 5:30 AM the rain had subsided and we groggily rolled out the door. A little less cavalier about hiking trails, we slipped into the forest, en route to a fabled canopy platform. Fog coiled through mature trunks, with a much more open feel than I’d expected. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a thick jungle, just with less of the indomitable looking undergrowth. Half expecting a dilapidated platform, we reached a solid looking, two tier platformed built around a towering Dipterocarp. I felt like I was staring at a ladder into the heavens.

I can scarcely imagine a better platform. Within minutes we’d seen a troop of Red Leaf Monkeys, Black Magpies, Bushy-crested Hornbills, and the crown jewel of many birders visiting here, the Bornean Bristlehead (both Bornean endemic and monotypic, the only representative of its family). The view of massive, lichen dappled bark, branches alive with epiphytes, all swirling in endemic diversity, made an hour pass swiftly.

During breakfast I started to hear Bornean Gibbons calling and surprisingly close, (if you hadn’t guessed it, they are also endemic, the only gibbon in Sabah). Just behind the compound, a male squatting high in a snag, hollering away as a good gibbon should. Below a second gave us a spectacular show, with a careless fling across the gap above the road. They seemed loath to our presence and quick to veil themselves. Sometimes I wish I could brachiate.

The day continued with a walk to to find an Orangutan. Sam was getting more desperate to see a wild one before his time was up but I was more concerned about birds (but yes I’d have been excited by one). When I find myself in a new place, surrounded by a myriad of new species, I tend to develop tunnel vision. After all the Spectacled Flowerpecker, a bird that’s only been seen a handful of times, was described not too far off. A distant pair of Wallace’s Hawk Eagles and a flock of Dusky Munia were the only birds of real note and no apes.

The clouds had cleared by lunch which meant two things. Temperature up, activity down. Because of the foreshortened stay, I was eager to spend my time up in the trees, while Sam and Rob decided to go for a hike. So I spent the next five hours concerning myself with the temporal clouds, my crow’s nest, and a spread of undisturbed forest below and on all four sides.

A favorite teacher and friend of mine often mentions that walking further doesn’t guarantee you’ll see more. The entirety of Sabah’s fauna didn’t fall into my lap, but as I climbed the teetering ladder, 150 feet up, 3 honking Rhinoceros Hornbills winged by. I was so transfixed by their surreal beauty and the magical setting, it was all I could do but hang onto the ladder for giddy excitement. This finally felt like Borneo.

Confining oneself, as naturalist and photographer, to a small area, even one with such vantage, is a good exercise. It forces you to examine things in a variety of manners. I’d climbed all the way up, so naturally I didn’t want to descend quickly, and for the absence of birds, began to note the many insects sharing my perch. The insects in Danum already had made me wish dually that I had a macro lens and that I knew more about them. I had my first stick bug, diminutive and skittish, and a mantis, perfectly camouflaged for lichen speckled trunks and too quick to photograph. Six distinct (to me) ants segregated across the planks of the platform to the tree it circled.

Rain came and went, but I enjoyed just gazing about me in wonder. I sat and walked in circles, engaged in a near meditative state for nearly four hours. Sifting through my mind, I watched the few birds and coming clouds. Soon I was joined by Sam and we sat through a squall and took in the sun creeping down into the building fog. While it was a shame we’d go the next morning I was glad I made it at all.

I’ll see you next in the Gomantong Caves for some Bird’s Nest Soup.


  1. Pingback: All About Sabah, Borneo | Danum Valley « Wingtrip

  2. Carl Clifford

    Sounds like the DVFC accommodation has not changed much in the past few years. I spent a week there and found the birding rather slow, due to, I think, the amount of disturbance by the number of researchers and students continuously using the trails. I found Tabin Wildlife Reserve much better as far as disturbance, birding and price & quality of accommodation.

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