Danum Valley – The Heart of Borneo

Danum Valley Conservation Area is a vast protected area in Borneo’s interior. At 130 million years old, the rainforest in Danum Valley is one of the oldest in the world. It is a lowland Dipterocarp forest that contains a diverse range of flora and fauna. This includes endangered species such as orangutans, Pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and slow loris. Trees in the Dipterocarp family can reach 60 meters in height or more, with the tallest reaching 89.5 meters!

Looking up at one of the massive ’emergents’ breaking through the canopy

The observable wildlife here seems less than places such as the Kinabatangan River, as the wildlife actually has the space to be wild. Nevertheless, on our bumpy journey in, we were greeted by three Pygmy elephants, two adults and one baby. They tooted as we drove past, and they vanished once again into the dense forest.


After a 2 hour+ journey along bumpy dirt roads from Lahad Datu, a small town on Sabah’s east coast, we reached the Danum Valley FIeld Centre (DVFC), one of the two places you can stay in the Danum Valley Conservation Area. The DVFC is a research centre that also provides basic facilities and accommodation for tourists. It is an idyllic community of rangers, researchers, scientists, field centre staff and their families.

The road into the Danum Valley Field Centre

From DVFC, there are a few trails you can do self-guided, but for longer trails you are required to hire a ranger for 30 ringgit per hour, which you can split with a group (of between 4 and 8 people, depending on the activity).


On our first morning, we joined the sunrise drive, which involved waking up at 4.30am to watch the sunrise from a tall watchtower in the jungle. Although it wasn’t a spectacular sunrise, it was amazing to watch and hear the jungle come to life. The jungle at dawn is its loudest, a cacophony of birds, crickets and insects. Hornbills streak across the sky at first light, squawking to wake the rest of the jungle. The morning mist, which blankets the forest in a thin veil, seems to take several hours to lift.

Mist hanging over the valley at sunrise

After a quick rest, we joined a group that was hiking to Rhino Pools, a 4 hour return journey. As there was a shortage of rangers at the DVFC that day, there were 10 in our group. Unfortunately, a few people in our group were disgruntled about the large number in the group. However, tourism is not the sole focus of DVFC, and we felt fortunate that a ranger was able to take us out hiking.

Making our way through the dense undergrowth
A suspension bridge we crossed on our way to the Rhino Pools

It was a beautiful hike through the rainforest, and although very hot and humid, not too physically demanding. After two hours of bush bashing, we reached the pristine Rhino Pools, plunge pools perched above the rushing river. They were the perfect place to cool off after our hike and soak in the jungle.

Looking down at the river right next to the Rhino Pools

Every blog and website on Danum Valley warns of armies of leeches. After previous tropical hiking experience, I was prepared with my long pants tucked into my socks, protected by knee-high leech socks and a bag of salt in my pockets as ammunition. However I did not see a single leech (although our ranger saw one), as we went during the dry season and it had not rained for a few weeks. Nevertheless, it was good for the peace of mind that if there were leaches, they weren’t getting me.

Some of the beautiful plant life spotted on our walk

We saw plenty of wildlife while wandering around the field centre. We saw a large, wild male orangutan having afternoon tea near the camping area. He sat in a tree just above the toilet building stuffing his face with tree fruits, seemingly unaware of the small crowd gathered below him. We also saw a wild orangutan having a meal in a tree above our dorms in the late afternoon.

A wild male orangutan enjoying his meal of berries

Danum Valley is home to an incredible range of bird life. We were lucky enough to spot Hornbills, the Asian paradise flycatcher – a bird-of-paradise, and a whiskered treeswift, which kept me company while I sketched the view from a hanging bridge.

A whiskered treeswift

In the evening, you can join a night walk. On ours, we spotted a slow loris, moving at a glacial pace along a branch in an attempt to evade the rangers torch lights. We also managed to find a civet up in a tree and of course, a tarantula (again we will spare you of the photos).

A slow loris trying to evade our torchlights
The little loris squinting from the harsh light, sorry little guy

Danum Valley logistics … on a budget
The easiest way to make a trip to Danum Valley more affordable is self-catering. We heard that the food at Danum Valley was good, however it is about 111 ringgit per day for three meals. The dorms are very well set up to cook your own food, with gas, pots and pans, cutlery and a fridge available for use. We opted to make pasta with fresh vegetables and tomato sauce for dinner both nights, using the olive oil from a can of tuna for cooking. As much as I love Malaysian food, it was a welcome break to have tuna pasta for a few meals, as basic as it was.


For our accommodation, we chose to stay in the dorms at the DVFC. Despite having our tent and a full camping set up with us, you only save a few dollars by camping. Having four walls to keep the giant insects out is also a plus, and they were comfortable enough. A wild boar and her five piglets seemed to live beside the hostel.


It took us many attempts to get in touch with the DVFC to reserve transport and accommodation. Our plan was just to turn up at the DVFC office in Lahad Datu and try to join a trip going the following day. Just before doing this we received an email that transportation to the Valley was full the following day. As the only transport to and from Danum Valley is from Lahad Datu on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we decided to first head south to Semporna, and backtrack to Lahad Datu when there was transportation for us a few days later. We arranged our trip through Borneo Refugia Adventure, who process bookings on behalf of the Field Centre (they did not seem to charge extra fees for this).


Despite the effort of arranging and getting to Danum Valley, it was definitely one of the highlights of our time in Borneo. Our only regret is not staying longer. We would recommend at least 5, rather than 3, days.

4 Replies to “Danum Valley – The Heart of Borneo”

  1. This is a fascinating read – it takes me vicariously into the ancient forests of the Danum Valley Conservation Area, a place I regret I’ll never get to myself. Zali’s writing is informative – backgrounding all the environmental science one needs – but in a lively and compelling way. Her account of the DVFC, with its massive trees and protected wildlife, makes it seem a must for anyone fit enough to get there. I love her perceptive and humorous encounters with the creatures of the forest – pygmy elephants, slow loris, orang-utans, wonderful birds and less wonderful spiders and leeches (though she was equipped to avoid the latter). Martin’s photos – of mist over the valley, its forest giants and its wildlife, are superb!

  2. This is a fascinating read – it takes me vicariously into the ancient forests of the Danum Valley Conservation Area, a place I regret I’ll never get to myself. Zali’s writing is informative – backgrounding all the environmental science one needs – but in a lively and compelling way. Her account of the DVFC, with its massive trees and protected wildlife, makes it seem a must for anyone fit enough to get there. I love her perceptive and humorous encounters with the creatures of the forest – pygmy elephants, slow loris, orang-utans, wonderful birds and less wonderful spiders and leeches (though she was equipped to avoid the latter). Martin’s photos – of mist over the valley, its forest giants, swing bridges and its wildlife, are superb!

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