Venturing into the rainforest of Sabah’s Danum Valley

Rays of light pierce the canopy of dipterocarp trees towering 70 metres above the forest floor, while over the cacophony of competing bird calls the distant, reverberating howl of a Bornean gibbon hits fever pitch. Further up the trail, a heap of dung left by a herd of pygmy elephants slowly composts into the forest floor and, in the trees above, an old orangutan nest sits abandoned. While signs of modernity are ubiquitous across Malaysia’s rapidly developing landscape, within the rainforests of Sabah’s Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA), time stands still.

Stretching over 43,800 ha, DVCA has one of the most biodiverse rainforests on the planet, boasting over 340 bird species and 120 species of mammals, from orangutans to Malayan sun bears and clouded leopards. Malaysia is also home to more than 75 reptile species, over 60 species of amphibians and approximately 40 species of fish.


Prior to receiving conservation status, the Danum Valley was unsettled by humans. But even now, within the borders of DVCA, there are only two accommodation options available: Danum Valley Field Centre (DVFC), located at the edge of the primary forest, and Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL). The former has been operating since 1986 and attracts both domestic and international scientists and students. Supported by the UK’s Royal Society and Danum Valley Management Committee, the South-east Asia Rainforest Research Programme is the longest-running collaborative research programme between the UK and Malaysia, and works in partnership with leading universities worldwide. Given its primary function as a research centre, DVFC’s lodging for travellers is basic but functional.

For a more upscale ecotourism experience, BRL, operated by Borneo Nature Tours, has 30 chalets, a five-star chef, massage services and a number of other amenities for guests. Surrounded by old-growth forest, the lodge sits beside the Danum River.


The forest can be as treacherous as it is beautiful, and with that in mind, guests are accompanied by a guide for most activities. Well-trained and full of stories, the guides are an endless source of knowledge on the local flora and fauna, as well as experts in spotting and tracking wildlife.

In the early morning, a thick mist hangs over the forest. At this hour the valley is at its most peaceful and picturesque. It is the perfect time to begin exploring, and one of the more compelling activities to start with is the canopy walkway. Clocking in at 300 metres in length and, at its highest point, running 26 metres above the forest floor, the walkway offers numerous vantage points for observing primates and birds.

By nine in the morning the mist has receded and the weather has warmed up, making it an ideal time to begin trekking. With at least a dozen trails of varying lengths and gradients, there is a trek for all ages and fitness levels. The eerily named Coffin Cliff trail is a compelling option to begin with, taking hikers by waterfalls and a Kadazan-Dusun burial site on the way to a stunning viewpoint overlooking the valley. The wooden coffins found at the site lie in stark contrast to the bright sunshine and breathtaking views that travellers can take in along the trails.

Nevertheless, after a day of walking there is nothing better than taking a dip in the river – or for the more adventurous, going tubing – before checking in for a massage to soothe aching calves.

As the sun goes down, travellers have the opportunity to head out on a night safari, or venture into the forest on foot, torch in hand. With a bit of luck, visitors may catch the glint of a clouded leopard’s eyes in their torchlight, western tarsier in the trees or flying squirrels gliding by moonlight.

Getting Three 

The Danum Valley can be reached by taking a flight from Kota Kinabalu to the nearest town, Lahad Datu. Transfers from there are arranged by Borneo Nature Tours at the time of booking.

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