Mist hangs in the heavy jungle air as the orange sun rises over the valley. Buzzing insects surge into an almost deafening cacophony. Waking up inside Danum Valley, one of the planet’s few remaining untouched forests, is a privilege. Culture Trip explores the best activities in this mystical rainforest in eastern Sabah.
Eastern Sabah’s sprawling Danum Valley is among the last undisturbed forests on the planet. Only a handful of privileged travellers have the opportunity to visit. Culture Trip looks at the top things to do in Danum Valley for wildlife, jungle treks and pagan burial sites.
Trek through Borneo’s oldest rainforest
Travelling to Danum Valley and not hiking is like going to Kuala Lumpur and skipping Petronas Towers. Two-self guided trails (Orchid and Nature Trail) loop around the Field Centre accessible to all visitors. Red leaf monkeys watch with interest from the tree branches while gibbons howl from the canopy. Longer trails (between two and seven hours) head deeper through the primary rainforest. And out there, it’s not unheard of for the shy slow loris to make an appearance to lucky trekkers.
Pro tip: Leeches are everywhere. Buy leech socks and take preventative action against these blood-sucking brutes.
Located approximately 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles) from the Field Centre lies the remains of a pagan graveyard. Jungle tribes called Orang Sungai, or ‘River People’, thrived in Danum Valley’s dense jungle for centuries. Burial ceremonies shrouded in mystery culminated with wooden coffins carried into the vertical rock face. A handful of these decorated coffins and the remains of ceramic spirit jars still sit on the natural shelves. This graveyard rates among the more fascinating things to do in Danum Valley—few activities provide such a window into the indigenous peoples’ pagan lifestyle before mainstream religion.
Embrace the buzzing nocturnal jungle on night safaris
The majority of Danum Valley’s millions of residents come out to play after dark. Night safaris provide a chance to meet these nocturnal species, including flying foxes, civets and sambar deer. Shortly after sunset, 4×4 jeeps collect travellers and cruise along dirt logging roads. Guides with flashlights point out the occasional owl and sun bear lurking in the treetops. The luckier visitors might even see a herd of tiny pygmy elephants roaming nearby.
Pro tip: Spotting wildlife isn’t guaranteed. Instead, embrace the invaluable first-hand insight into rainforest habitats, ecology and conservation.
More than 120 species of mammals, including friendly orangutans, clouded leopards and sun bears call Danum Valley home. Herds of pygmy elephants roam near the river. A handful of shy Sumatran rhinos live deep inside the dipterocarp forests. Add in over 300 species of birds (and eight types of the cartoon-like hornbills), 40 types of fish and uncountable insects. Danum Valley’s biodiversity is second-to-none.
Birdwatching is among the top things to do in Danum Valley for travellers with a passion for our winged friends. Observation decks near the Field Centre provide vantage points to search for the hundreds of species of birds. Enormous hornbills glide overhead. Tiny blue-headed pitta with auburn breasts chirp elegantly on the branches. Keep your eyes peeled for the rare Bornean ground cuckoo and listen for their distinct ‘heh, heh, heh’ call.
Pro tip: Grab a book from the Field Centre library and identify what types of birds you want to see. Guides can take you to different parts of the forest to see them.
Canopy walks consist of an elevated ropewalk suspended high in the treetops. Wooden observation areas provide ideal vantage points to spy on the wildlife (think monkeys and birds). Danum Valley’s canopy walks stretch approximately 300 metres (984 feet), hovering 30 metres (98 feet) above the forest floor. But they’re not for the faint-hearted—the only way up is by climbing a wooden ladder attached to the tree by rope! Overcome your fears and witness the jungle spectacle from the treetops.
Admire the spectacular sunrise over an ancient rainforest
Because of Danum Valley’s equatorial location, the sun rises at approximately the same time every day (around 6:00am). Relatively clear skies usually bless the refreshing early morning jungle air. This creates opportunities to witness the hypnotic sunrise over the prehistoric forest. Daily tours leave Danum Valley Field Centre at 5:00am to a nearby observation deck. Mesmerised travellers can watch the mist hanging in the valley as the sun slowly illuminates the inky darkness below. Simultaneously, the jungle bursts into life with buzzing insects and whistling birds. You might also share this experience with our long-haired orange cousins living in the trees nearby.
After a sweaty day of trekking, what can be more refreshing than diving into a natural pool? Waterfalls, rock pools and the Segama River surround Danum Valley. Guides can take travellers to this hidden location for a quick swim before returning to the Field Centre. Culture Trip recommends hiking to both Jacuzzi Pool and Serpent Waterfall. Speak to your guides and they’ll include a stop during your hike.
Danum Valley Field Centre uses its world-class facilities to conduct cutting-edge conservation research. Renowned scientists and post-graduate students from around the globe study its special ecology. Travellers can mingle with the experts around the centre (especially at breakfast time). Or take advantage of their dozens of library resources on regional flora, fauna and conversation efforts.
Pro tip: It’s a privilege to learn first-hand about the planet’s few remaining undisturbed rainforests. Make the most of it.
Feel like Indiana Jones in the lost world of Maliau Basin
If you thought Danum Valley was wild, wait until you see Maliau Basin. The region in the heart of Sabah is about the same size as Singapore. But only a tiny fraction to this day has been mapped. This makes the basin a lost world, and scientists still don’t know what’s inside the UNESCO-listed forest. Follow the path to the summit of the basin and stay overnight at the mountaintop hostel. Nothing compares to hiking along trails only a handful of privileged souls have climbed before you.