Borneo Rainforest Lodge
Trip Start Apr 30, 2004
88Trip End Jan 28, 2005
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Borneo is the third largest island in the world, covering nearly 740,000 sq.km. It extends from about 7 degrees north to 4 degrees south and almost 60% is north of the equator. Borneo is divided between 3 countries. The southern part is known as Kalimantan and belongs to Indonesia, the northern part is mostly split between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak but also contains Brunei Darussalom. Oil-rich Brnei is the only country located entirely within Borneo and occupies a small part of the Northwest coast. You'll be able to retake your geography GSCE byt the time we're finished.
At the moment we're in Eastern Sabah. Sabah covers an area of 73,619 sg.km. and has a population of 1.7 million. In the past Sulu Sultans and foreign invaders have fought to control the states abundance of natural resources, but at present real estate barons, oil palm plantation owners and those with the power to grant logging concessions in irraplaceable rainforest hold all the power.
Right at the top of our things we'd love to see list was an orangutan in the wild, and before we left home we did quite a bit of research into the possibility of doing so. Two places were repeatedly mentioned by experts as areas offering the greatest opportunity to see orangutans in their natural habitat. One was Gunung Palung National PArk in Kalimantan and the other was Danum Valley in eastern Sabah. We had hoped to visit both, but time ran out on our Indonesian visa, so we made for Sabah.
The larget logging concession in Sabah is owned by the Sabah Foundation (Yayasan sabah), a semi governemntal body established in 1966, with a mission to improve the livelihoods of Sabahans particularly in the fields of health, education and welfare. The concession covers a vast area of nearly 100 million hectares (that's 2.471 million acres or 10,000 sq km), or one seventh of the land mass of Sabah.
Dr.clive Wallis Marsh, while working as a conservation officer for the Sabah Foundation, was able to encourage and convince the foundation to leave two areas within their logging concession untouched, the Maliau Basin and Danum Valley.
The Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA) covers an area of 438 sq. km. and received full leagal protection in 1995 when converted to a Class 1 area (protected forest reserve) becoming Sabah's largest protected lowland dipterocarp (big trees) rainforest. Danum Vallet encompasses 10% of Sabah's remaining undisturbed forest and is managed for the purposes of conservation, research, education and recreation.
There are only two places to stay in danum, the Field Centre which takes a few visitors but is mainly for research scientists, and the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL), which is a first class resort located on the banks of the Danum Valley river just outside the DVCA.
The BRL is way out of our backpacker budget (it had a helipad!), but before we left home we were given an incredibly generous gift by someone very special to us. We were told to spend it on something we'd love to do but couldn't on our budget affort to. We knew instantly we'd spend it at BRL.
We sensed it might not be your average lodge when instead of the usual caved in, last legs transport we were picked up in a Toyota Landcruiser.
The 97km drive from Lahad Datu to BRL usually takes about 2 1/2 hours. The first 15km is on the main road back toward to Tawau. At a place called silam we turn off and start rtavelling inland on an unsealed stoney road known as Main Line West. This road was constructed and is privately owned by Innoprise Corporation, the commercial arm of the Sabah foundation. The road allows access to BRL, the Field Centre and more importantly to them, logging areas. About 8km in there's a checkpoint, no one's allowed in without the right paperwork.
It's a bumpy old road, and throughout the drive we're passing rainforewst which is in various stages of regeneration having been selectively harvested in different years. There are also trial plots of exotic non native trees such as Teak. These aren't attempts to restore the rainforest to its former glory, these are cash crops.
Sukiman, our driver, is flying along and despite the rocky, bumpy road the landcruiser absorbs most of it. That is until we got a puncture. We must have scraped a sharp piece of rock as the back tyre is ripped to shreds. Now Sukiman is a big lad but unfortunately the jack he had wasn't, and no matter how we tried the jack wouldn't lift the vehicle high enough to get the spare wheel on. We ended up with the jack sat on a flat stone and at full extension while the pair of us dug a hole in the road using big stones until it was deep enough to allow us to force the wheel on. It took half an hour of dust and sweat.
We continued at a more sedate pace and spotted a squirrel and a bird of prey. The last 12km of the drive is within the DVCA and we are surrounded by pristine rainforest.
We pull up in front of the main BRL building, which is a large colonial style, very open, two storey wooden structure. Our bags are taken to our chalet and we are lead upstairs to one of the lounge areas for a complimentary drink and chat about the facilities. We're listening but our eyes have strayed to the buffet lunch being set up in the dining area beyond, silver platter after silver platter emerges from the kitchen and we begin to drool.
We are told that breakfast is 7-8.30am, lunch is 12-12pm, and dinner is 7-8.30pm. Meals are all inclusive here, so this is vital information.
From the upstairs of the main building wooden walkways lead to the chalet accomodation, there are deluxe, sand alone chalets and standard semi-detached chalets. They are all spacious, with an en-suite and a verandah. We were in a very nicely situated standard chalet. It's a carefully planned and laid out setup, designed to blend in with the stunning rainforest backdrop.
Having checked out our room we sprint back to the dining area for lunch. Barefoot all the way, no footwear allowed on the wooden floors. Again it's very tastefully designed with decks and verandahs at differnet levels, huge ceiling fans way up in the beams and totally open to the rainforest views. The BRL is built on the inside of a big curve in the river. On the outside is a rainforest covered ridge which climbs to about 150 metres above the river. So looking out from the verandah on the chalet or in the restaurant you get this incredible view of layer upon layer of rainforest climbing up and away from the river.
Surrounding all the walkways, verandahs and chalets are beautiful floweing bushes which are alive with beed and butterflies.
To our absolute, under nourished backpacker delight all meals were help yourself as many times as you like 3 cuurse buffet. Take your pick from soup, salad, rolls, vegetables, rice, noodles, 3 differnet meat dishes, a fish dish, vegy options, fruit, creme caramel, bread pudding, cobbler, cake, tea and coffee. Or the lot like we did. Our previous pizza hut salad bowl training came in very handy. The food was delicious and afterwards we retired to our chalet verandah and absorbed the view. We had an hour to wait until our first trek and in that time we saw four majestic hornbills (2 Rhinocerous and 2 white crowned) and a large bearded pig who seems to just wander round the lodge.
At 3.30 we meet our guide for the next 3 days, William, who is about 45, small and softly spoken, well turned out in BRL issue dark green shirt, trousers and Leech socks. Rene is also wearing leech socks she's just purchased and I've got my trousers tucked into my socks like a gimp. The BRL has about 10 differnet trails in the vicinity of the lodge all of varying distances. The Segama trail was our first and we were joined by 3 Brits and 2 French.
William set a brisk pace and with the sun still blazing and seven of us traipsing through the undergrowth after him it was going to be difficult to spot any wildlife, but we did. In our 2 hour hike we saw some long tail macaque, 2 Rhinocerous hornbill, an Oriental Darter (not John Wowe, but a heron like bird) and a Yellow-bellied Bulbil (so William said) and a beautiful Stork billed kingfisher, but best of all we were actually in full on 130 million year old rainforest in deepest darkest Borneo.
Every now and then we seem to lose track of just how far we have come and how far away from home we are. Despite having spent days travelling on boats, buses and trains we just don't imagine we've covered any great distance, when in reality over a period of a week or two we have. Consequently it can come as a bit of a shock when we actually stop and think where we are. Weird. Today was like that for us. Borneo, we're only in bleeding
William guided us back to the lodge for 5pm, Rene and I decided to try the nearby Nature Trail which is about 0.6km of raised wooden walkway ending up at a viewing point overlooking the river.
an hour, sat sliently listening to the noise of the rainforest and watching a stork billed kingfisher on its perch. As the light faded fast we made our way back to the lodge.
Beautiful buffet brilliance is followed by a 90 minute night drive. The open back truck contained garden benches to sit on and a spotter with a powerful spotlight sat on the roof of the cab. The full moon rising above the treeline in the distance was beautiful but bad news for nocturnal wildlife watchers. It was like daylight which forces everything away from the access road, deeper into the forest. It was quite spooky driving along on a garden bench surrounded by towering trees silhouetted against a glowing moon, watching the odd flying fox (big bat) flutter past. A mouse deer (a deer the size of a cat) and a giant flying squirrel (squirrel hte size of a giant) also made brief appearances.
A wee tot of Bushmills marked the end of our first day in Danum Valley, and what a beauty is was. Rene was asleep before I'd even tuned into World Service Saturday Sportswolrd.
Expenses (7 ringgit/pound): Borneo bird book and leech socks 62
CHANGE OF AUTHOR - CATHY'S TURN
Sun 29 Aug - Day 119
Our excitement woke us ahead of our 5.30 alarm in anticipation of our 6.15 dawn trek. Stepping out onto our verandah was like stepping into the opening sequence of a BBC wildlife documentary. The silent mist hung like a cloak around the rainforest, protecting all the wildlife beneath it, whilst the haunting call of the gibbons provided the soundtrack to the day ahead.
We met William and 3 other guests for a short trek around the lodge searching out fruiting trees and feeding animal. We weren't disappointed. It wasn't long before whooping calls were overhead and a family of 8 Borneo gibbons were gliding effortlessly through the trees above. Curiously gazing groundwards as we wonderously gazed skyward. Prevost squirrels chased each other round and round and up and down the trees, leaping from tree to tree every now and then. A pair of Rhinocerous Hornbills breakfasted together, chatting noisily inbetween fig trees. And then, it happened. As we strolled up the trak William whispered 'orangutan'. My heart stopped. Panic rose as I frantically tried to focus on the creature I've always wanted to see, William pointing towards a large, vine clad tree, which at first glance appeared empty. As the male orangutan came into focus the world moved into slow motion, the rest of the forest and the people disappeared, it was just me and him. As he ambled down the tree and out of sight into a bush he was followed by a mother with baby clinging to her underside. As she released her baby and protectively watched as it began playing and swinging on one of the vines in a tarzan style I couldn't stop the tears that blurred my view. She ate, the baby played, I was thankful to witness this beautiful, endangered creature which scientists warn will soon be extinct unless we learn to protect it and stop destroying its habitat. When she gathered up her baby and disappeared from view I was speechless. Gradually the rest of the world came back into view and I had to pinch myself to check I was awake. As we headed back to the lodge we were strangely quiet, both reliving the moment until the relaity hit, our grins widened and we chatted excitedly over a 3 course breakfast.
Just time to catch our breath and we're off again, this time on the Danum Trail. This takes us along the riverbank with the occassional detour into the darker forest undercanopy. There has been no rain at all for several weeks so everywhere is dry and the river level low. There are small stoney beeches to clamber over and huge pre-historic boulders litter the landscape. The forest climbs and falls over escarpments and valleys, the river a brilliant vurst of light agant the dense rainforest. It's hard to explain how invigorating the surroundings are even when you're fighting the heat and humidity and drenched in sweat.
As we rest by the river a stork billed kingfisher darts past, dives and catches a fish, right in front of us. It was beautiful, perfectly timed and executed. We met a group of red leaf monkeys and some borneo gibbon and delight in the company of the many paper butterflies that dance alongside us on our return route.
Time for a shower and a long, lazy, gorgeously large lunch. We let it settle whilst perched at the river viewpoint while a monitor lizard swims by and a blue eared kinkfisher zooms past.
Our 3.30 trek takes us back into the forest where we manage to disturb the New Zealand film crew who are just putting the finishing touches to their hide. They are hoping to capture the dancing Argus Pheasant, which william had heard nearby but which we'd probably scared away! He also points out other hides and tree viweing platforms which have been used by many filmcrews over the years, including our very own BBC and crews from Australia, Switzerland and Japan. All a testimony to the quality of our environment.
We head to the Canopy Walkway, a bridge situated 25 metres off the ground and suspended between 3 huge trees. It gives a birds eye view of the tree tops and surrounding forest. There are no fruiting trees in the vicinity and it's jungle siesta so it was all very quiet. But the views didn't need any wildlife interruption, to be in the bright and breezy treetops was a treat in itself. Primary rainforest, millions of years old, towering trees and prolific creepers. Magnificent. A pair of Black honrbills made a graceful flypast before we headed back.
We parted from William and the one other gueat who had accompanied us. We had free time before dinner so headed straight for the Nature Trail. We were greeted by monkeys 'r' us, a family of maroon langure (common name red leaf monkey), 7 red and 1 white. They were feeding noisily and fairly low to the grpund. We spent an amazing hour, following them along the trail as thet fed, played and fought. Occassionaly they'd just sit and watch us right back, but I think we found them much more entertaining than they found us.
After our third three course meal of the day and several hours of jungle treking I decide to call it a day and skip the 8.30 night walk. If I'm honest I was also more than a little anxious at the thought of being on foot, with no protection, whilst the numerous species of snake, silently sought their own 3 course supper. I jumped into bed while Lee set off, torch in hand, with William and 3 other guests. He reported sightings of 2 frogs and a rather torch lit bottom belonging to a girl called Emma. Once again the full moon had put paid to any wildlife fest, but he'd enjoyed the walk.
I snuggle back down to sleep, Lee headed off in search of football. It's Sunday and the Bolton v Liverpool is the live match. Benitez' boys don't perform and when he return his talk is of the pre-match Miss Teen America program and how gutted he was that Miss Hawaii lost out to the orthodontically perfect, cajun cooking, sumer camp assistant from Louissiana.
Expenses: 2 beers 18.40
Monday 30 August - Day 120
We leapt out of bed at 5.30, excited at the new day ahead. As we strolled around the lodge with William and another guest we were greeted by Rhinocerous and Helmeted hornbills, an eale and some red leaf monkeys. Gibbons could be heard in the forest but they didn't show. It's so lovely to be woken by and surrounded by nature. It's good t obe alive.
After breakfast, the other guests in our group check out so we have William to ourselves for the rest of our stay. He decided to take us on the Coffin Cliff Trail, the steepest of all the walks, culminating in a viewing platform high above the lodge on the opposite side of the river.
We were wet with sweat before we even started to climb and as easy as the army of ants we passed made it look, I, in particular, was as red as the red leaf monkeys we saw once we started our ascend. But whilst physically demanding, your senses are too busy to let your body and brain worry about its state of health. As we get higher the shades of green grow brighter as the filtered sunlight increased. Long tail macaques disturbed the silence as they crashed through the trees, bouncing from branch to branch and throwing the occassional berry at us. An amusing distraction from the steep slope and before we knew it we were at our first viewing point.
The trail was so named after two ancient hardwood coffins were found along with the reamins of bodies in the cliff face. The first of a baby and the second of a tribal chief. It is thought the second coffin belonged to a chief because of tis prominent position, high on the cliff and because it contained a blow pipe. The tribes brought their dead to great places of beauty to pacifiy their spirits and give them somewhere fitting to live out their spirit lives. This chief's spirit was as lucky as you get, the commanding view of the Danum Valley would calm and sooth for many a lifetime.
A short trek and last ascent and we finally reach the top of the cliff. A wooden viewing platform looked proudly out on the rainforest below. blue sky, green forest and the winding river as far as the eye could see. This rare sight, replaced in most of Borneo by oil palm plantation, is one of the few reamining areas of pristine rainforest left in the world. to say it was a privelidge viewing it would be an understatement, we were silent as we drank in the purest air we were ever likely to taste.
Dunk as skunks we made our descent, stopping at a jacuzzi pool below a water fall for a quick swim. As we cooled off and splashed about, fish nibbled at our legs, curious as to the edibility of the gangling limbs around them. It wasn't worth drying off, so we continued our trek back to the lodge only slightly wetter than usual but not quite as hot.
A shower back at the chalet revealed Lee's leg had been leeched and a rather greedy little devil was still gorging on my toe. Unfortunately I was so freaked out and in such a hurry to get it off Lee didn't get chance to take a photo. My toe continued to bleed for a couple of hours.
Our afternoon trek was delayed and then cut short as torrential rain arrived, welcomed by animal and plant alike. We started our trek during a break in the rain but the interval didn't last long. Whilst we revelled in the warm soaking as we walked the Hornbill Trail, water-filled branches could be heard crashing around us and William explained that it really wasn't safe to be in the forest. We settled ourselves on our balcony back at the chalet and enjoyed the storm. when the rain eventually stopped we took a stroll round the Nature trail, accompanied by Hornbils overhead. We me 4 excited guests near to the lodge who had been watching an old male orangutan build his nest and settle down for the night. We all made a mental note of the location and vowed to return in the morning to greet him.
A five star feast was follwed by our final night drive. As the moon was still full and bright our expectations of wildlife spotting were low as we seated ourselves on the garden benches in the back of the truck. But it was a gorgeously still night and we revelled at being out and about in Borneo after dark.
Our bingo numbers came up, it wasn't quite a wildlife bonanza but it's quality not quantity that counts. After a couple of giant flying squirrels (1 actually in mid fight) and a feeding flying lemur, we saw the large round unmistakeable eyes (or so the guide said) of a slow loris. We couldn't really see anything, other than 2 large eyes reflecting in the flashlight, but just knowing he/she was there was enough. If only we'd been able to bring its Jakarta cousin with us and reunite it to the jungle, but life's not usually like that. That's what's so special about Danum Valley, here it is like that, plain and simple, everything is as it's supposed to be, habitat untouched and animals roaming free. It gives you an overwhelming sense of peace and wellbeing, even if it is only for a short tie.
My sense of peace and wellbeing was particularly short lived when the truck stopped for our next 'spot', a Borneo Pit Viper. Whilst only a 3 foot fledgling, it was still a snake and this one was poinonous. My anxiety levels went through the roof when the guide signalled that it was OK to get out of the truck for some close up photos and Lee leapt as if he'd been invited to shake hands with Kenny Dalgleash. The guide poked the snake so it reared up and then somehow (I wasn't watching) managed to get hold of ti by the back of the head so it couldn't bite. I stood in the middle of the back of the truck, taking deep breaths and willing myself to just take a look. My glance showed a fanged head not far from my husband and his camera. Lee ignored my shouts to get back in truck, I convinced myself the guide knew what he was doing and not to worry. sure enough, everyone escaped unscathed and I'd managed not to lapse into a state of hyperventilation, so alls well that ends well.
We retired straight to bed, and I tried to concentrate my thoughts on the old orangutan in his nest and not the fangs of the Borneo Pit Viper. Sweet Dreams.
Expenses: Laundry 25
Tues Aug 31 - Day 121
It was still dark at 5.10am when we took our place beneath the fig tree in anticipation of the orange mans wakening. As dawn broke the helmeted hornbills sang a noisy grace before commencing morning feeding. They were joined by 2 Rhinocerous hornbills and we were joined by 4 other lodge guests but still no sign of the guest of honour. Red leaf monkeys clattered below the nest putting on a most entertaining warm-up act as they leapt from tree to tree, but still no movement from the main man. At 7.10 we left him to his lie in (William told us that although scientist claim orangutans rise at about 6am he had known older ones to seelp as late as 11am!).
We grabbed a quick breakfast and met William in the lobby at 7.30 for our last jungle trek - The East Trail.
As we leeched-dodged our way beneath the canopy the intensity of the forest colour paletted was magnified following yesterdays rainfall. We trecked high and low through dark muddy colours to luminescent pools of light where storm felled trees let the bright sunshine filter through in blinding shafts. We wound our way to and from and across the river, now flowing fuller, faster and louder. There is a nature flavoured adrenolin rush knowing you are surrounded by so many creatures. It's a question of who's watching who as your senses hint at what may be above , below or behind you and when you're really lucky you get a glimpse to find out.
William the warbler provided backing track to the jungle theme tune as he called and answered the many birds en-route. He also took us pff the trail to a private path where he led us to a gibbon family, a wild bore and the dancing ground of the Argus Pheasant, although the John Travolter of the jungle was nowhere to be seen.
It was our longest and toughest trek and we'd all three fallen foul of the leech. William's arm, Lee's ankle and my belly, not to mention the many we intercepted on clothing on shoes.
William left us back at the lodge where we had 3 hours until our departure. Needless to say we headed straight for the orangutan nest to see if the old man had managed to get out of bed yet. It took a good 20 minutes for us to realise he had and was lazily breakfasting sat amongst the branches of the fig tree. A couple of hlemeted hornbill were seated at the same table enjoying a mid morning a snack. It was a fitting feast of wildlife to end on and we were like grinning maniacs as we packed, showered and headed for our last lunch at the lodge.
CHANGE OF AUTHOR - BACK TO LEE
Neither of us wanted to leave this wildlife filled rainforest, 3 buffets a day parradise but we had to, it was time to move on. Even on the 2 1/2 hour drive back to Lahad Datu we saw wildlife, a large monitor lizard and 2 wrinkled hornbill crosed our path.
Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA) is a magnificent place, but the abundance of wildlife found here is in no small part due to the intensive logging in the surrounding area. DVCA is only 43,800 hectares within a 1,000,000 hectare logging concession. Let there be no mistake, logging is the big money earner here and although the commercial arm of Sabah Foundation / Innoprise Corporation own and run the BRL they also own and run a company called Rakyat Berjaya, who are the largest harvester and marketer of hardwoods in the world and a company called Pacific Hardwoods who have the largest timber processing complex in Malaysia at Siliam (I've been busy on the internet). On our trip into Danum Valley, between leaving the main road at Siliam and reaching BRL we met 8, 70 tonne logging trucks piled high with massive logs. One every fifteen minutes.
Our guide Williamtravelled back with us and at Lahad Datu we said goodbye and booked a nights accomodation back at the Umimas Hotel. It was National day, flags everywhere, like Belfast in July.
Our hopes of spending a couple of hours on the internet looking up our next destination were dashed. The iternet lines were down (no idea what that means but they were all out of order) so we headed back to the hotel for a lie down
Exhaustion kicked in and we slept like a couple of elderly orangutans.
Expenses: Tip 50, chocolate2, accom 65.