Jungle fever in Borneo
Far away from the grey gloom and urban sprawl of wintery London is an island of soaring old-world rainforest, chattering monkeys and diverse wildlife. MELISSA SHORTAL discovers the hidden secrets of Sabah, Borneo and comes face to face with an Orang-utan.
AS an Australian living in London, there is one benefit in living 10,000 miles away from your family and friends. The benefit being that sometimes they are forced to come meet you for holidays at any one of many amazing destinations situated between London and Melbourne.
This halfway point was for me most recently, Sabah, located in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the largest in maritime Southeast Asia. The island itself is actually divided among 3 different countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei (the geographer in me loves these fun facts).
Up close and personal
After reuniting with my family, we headed off to our first stop – the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley Conservation Area. Having been warned in advance the drive from the airport to the Lodge was going to be about two and a half hours, I still wasn’t quite prepared for just how remote and disconnected we were about to be. After about 45 minutes of driving through thick jungle, on a dirt track, with no other sign of life to be seen, I felt compelled to ask the driver the important question – was there going to be mobile phone reception.
Happily and rather oddly, the answer from the driver was “it’s an eco lodge, no phone reception. But we have wifi and accept credit card!” Although wifi and credit card facilities seem the antithesis of an “eco-lodge” I was nonetheless relived that we weren’t going to be totally cut off from civilization as we drove further and further away from it.
On arriving at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge the view is immediately breathtaking. The communal area looks out over the Danum River and beautiful un-spoilt primary rainforest canopy reaching up to over 30 meters tall. The entire Danum Valley Conservation Area is a primary rainforest, which means it has never been logged before and is completely untouched. The Lodge is staffed with Sabah locals who are incredibly friendly, helpful and keen to share their knowledge with visitors to their beautiful part of the world.
Meeting our guide Fred soon after arrival, we are given the full history of the lodge and, more importantly, what we need to wear for our impending series of jungle treks. Aka – appropriate trekking attire. It quickly becomes clear both my sister and I have come woefully unprepared. What we should have is long trousers, walking boots, neutral coloured clothes and leech socks (yes, you heard me right). The best my suitcase offers is yoga leggings and old trainers. My sister had the trekking trousers covered, but in the end her old pair of plimsoles didn’t fare well in the mud of the jungle.
Jungle treks are an amazing way to get up close and personal with the wildlife, and we were lucky enough to come across an orang-utan on our first one in. A large and intimidating looking male the guides nicknamed Abu, a close-up experience with one in the wild is a unique and an amazing occurrence. However, it seems at Borneo Rainforest Lodge, it is almost a daily event, as Abu had chosen to live right next to the lodge and was clearly very comfortable around people.
In the lap of eco-luxury
At Borneo Rainforest Lodge every long trek is followed by a well-earned meal. Considering the lodge is about a three hour drive from the nearest shop, the quality of the food was an unexpected surprise. Likewise, the rooms are simplistic but beautifully done. There is no TV or air-conditioning (not surprising given the entire lodge runs off a diesel generator), but the stunning view out over the river and rainforest more than makes up for it. Particularly when being viewed from the hot-tub on the balcony.
Borneo Rainforest Lodge also has a canopy walkway laying title to the largest jungle canopy walkway in Borneo. Although not recommended to anyone with a fear of heights – it’s over 30 meters off the ground – it’s another amazing way to immerse yourself in the forest and see the wildlife that live at this height, the birds.
Another day, another trek. This one through a burial ground and up to a waterfall. A trek which involved climbing a small mountain – a fact our guide didn’t acquaint us with until we set out. The view from the top of this mountain was however worth the effort – you can see out over the entire Danum Valley and the Lodge. Stopping on the way back down the mountain in a waterfall pool which appeared like an oasis was another refreshing way to counter the climb. That is, until you get in and encounter the extremely aggressive little fish who live in the pool. Although Fred tried to sell the fish to us as a ‘fish pedicure’, frankly they were just downright uncomfortable so the swim didn’t last too long!
Our epic trek in the morning was followed by a relaxing tubing trip down the river in the late afternoon. The only downside, getting to the starting point involved another 20 minute trek through the very muddy jungle with your tube, life jacket and helmet. All this in flip-flops whilst trying really hard to avoid getting bitten by a leech.
After three beautiful days in the Danum Valley it was on to Sukau Rainforest Lodge. This involved another long, bumpy four hour drive out of the Danum Valley, until we reached a pier to board the little boat which would take us to Sukau. The experience at Sukau differed to the Lodge at Danum Valley, with a focus on activities and wildlife spotting using the adjacent river.
Though Sukau Lodge has recently been frequented by Sir David Attenborough while filming documentaries about Borneo, truthfully I had been spoilt by the stunning beauty of the Danum Valley. Sukau is not a primary rainforest area for a start. The area has been logged in the past for palm plantations, and whilst the jungle has now been replanted, it’s more of a lower level bush type jungle than the tall canopies of the Danum. Similarly, Sukau Lodge was quite basic in terms of accommodation and food in comparison, but it did the job for the few days we were there.
One advantage of Sukau not available in the Danum Valley is the Proboscis monkeys. These monkeys are very distinctive looking, reddish-brown with a nose like an elephant’s trunk. Known as the bekantan in Malay, they are extremely common to this area of Borneo, and unlike any monkey I had seen before.
The river cruises available at Sukau Lodge were another great way to see lots of different types of monkeys, birds, and even a crocodile. Though the Lodge claimed they had seen elephants “just a few weeks ago” (decidedly vague timing in my view) sadly we didn’t spot any during our time there.
It’s not all hard work
After 5 days of activity we headed to the Nexus resort in Kota Kintabalu for some much needed R&R. As well as sunshine, swimming and generally relaxing, we also visited the epic buffet at the Shangri-La Rasa to indulge in all the delicacies of the local area. Although it was great to relax, read some good books and not have to wake up at 5am for a morning trek, after a day or so I was missing the activity and adventure. Who knows, my next holiday might even involve more trekking – but this time, I’ll make sure to pack the leech socks.