Four Days in Pristine Rainforest
04.06.2013 - 08.06.2013 33 °C
Before coming here, when I pictured Borneo in my head it was lush rain forest surrounded by golden beaches and pristine waters. The golden beaches and pristine waters has largely proved accurate. However the Bornean mainland is unfortunately much less untouched than I'd imagined. Vast swathes of rain forest has been cleared over the past couple of decades to be replaced by palm plantations. While it has made a few Malaysians and Indonesians very rich, it has left a pretty vast scar across the country (one that is all too visible from an airplane).
One of the few truly untouched areas of forest can be found about a two hours' drive from Lahad Datu, and over an hour's drive from any kind of permanent human habitation. This region, named Danum Valley, is a protected region of which is home to the ultra-extensive Boneo Rainforest Lodge, and the Danum Valley Field Centre (DVFC) - where there area's scientific work is conducted. Here, in the DVFC, is where we'd spend four days getting involved with nature.
The field centre is very much that, and as such we weren't expecting being looked after. We booked into the hostel they had there and survived off instant noodles and peanut butter - jelly sandwiches for four days. On arrival we were told not to bother going on long sweaty treks into the jungle in search of animals, rather that they would pass through camp from time to time. Sure enough within the first couple of hours we'd seen pigs and samba deer. The animals don't come to the camp for food (excepting the pig) but rather just seem to appreciate the open spaces every now and again (that opinion based on no scientific merit whatsoever). One tree near a pond in the centre was almost overrun with tree frogs. Why a snake didn't make his way there and get stupendously fat, I have no idea.
Despite the advice not to bother with long, sweaty treks and, more importantly, the strict instructions not to head into the jungle without a guide, we made a few attempts at delving deep into the forest. Unfortunately, it didn't go too well. There were trails but they often petered out for a while or were blocked by fallen trees. This made making the leap of faith to carry on deeper into the jungle to try and find the path again slightly nerve-wracking and so on a couple of occasions we were just forced to return to camp with nothing but many a leech bite. On some of the trails the leeches are so numerous that you can see them marching along the forest floor towards you. While I had boots and thick socks which (along with a handy anti-leech stick) kept them at bay, Mike came with only trainers and sports socks and so after the first trek he came back looking like he'd been snared in a bear trap. While the camp was extremely peaceful and relaxing, after the first couple of days, and with a couple of failed jungle treks behind us we were starting to be slightly disappointed with the amount of wildlife we'd actually seen.
On the afternoon of the second day we headed down to the river beach, which was my favourite spot in the whole of the area; soft sand (perfect for making a sandcastle - 21st C colonialism), cool water and plenty of sticks to play with. After a few hours relaxing here I was about to head back to the hostel when Helen comes running down to the river shouting that an Orang Utan had rocked up in a tree over-looking the hostel. So we hared it back and sure enough there was a female Orang Utan chilling out in a large tree about 50 metres from the hostel. We watched her for about an hour before she slunk off back into the dense forest, us expecting that that was that. About an hour later, however, she got back up the tree and started making her nest for the night, settling down at about half six.
The next morning (on advice from other hostel-dwellers who knew a lot more about Orang Utans than us), we were all out, staring at the tree from about six am - some had been out since closer to 5. However this laziest of primates refused to stir until about half seven, and then hid in a huge bromeliad, resting in the tree. The others that were staying in the camp either went off to do their scientific duties or left the camp for good soon after eight, leaving just me, Mike and Helen staring at an inanimate tree. A further two and a half hours of this past (a truly great way to spend a morning) before our ginger friend peeked out of his tree at us. And then, within about 100 seconds, she'd disappeared back into the forest, this time for good.
On the final day there was a huge troop of macaques hanging out on the edge of camp and Mike, on a solo trip to the tree platform, found himself surrounded by red leaf monkeys. All in all the place is pretty magical and, I imagine, as close as you can come to experiencing the best of the Bornean rain forest without tracking animals for days through the dense foliage and stifling heat. Elephant dung was everywhere along the road in and out of Danum valley, and both the extremely rare clouded leopard and ridiculously rare sumatran rhino make their homes here. As is always the case, there is more that you wish you had been able to see when coming to a place like this, but I suppose it just makes the case for a return visit one day.