Dream trip to Borneo: Part 1
I'm not a huge "bucket list" type of traveler...running around trying to tick something off a list isn't typically my style. However, I think we all have bucket list or dream trips....and Borneo has been one of mine for many years. If you are like some of my friends, you may not even know where Borneo is :) Borneo is an tri-country island in Southeast Asia--part of the island is Malaysia, part Indonesia and part Brunei. I visited the Malaysian part and spent time in the Sabah region.
I have so much to share from this trip that I've decided to break it up into sections. This part will be about my first destination (I flew into Kota Kinabalu the night before...the main city of Sabah, but only slept a few hours before heading out). I flew into Lahad Datu and began the 2.5 to 3 hour drive into the rainforest of the Danum Valley. Let me go back a bit---the reason this was a dream trip of mine is that I love animals and support efforts to keep them safe in their natural habitat. Orangutans are only found in the wild of Borneo and their numbers have been dwindling in the past few decades because of habitat destruction. One of the main economic activities for people living in Borneo is palm oil production. Primary rainforest (the home terrain for Orangutans....and other creatures) is torn down to build palm oil plantations. Those plantations are just as they sound---mass planting of palm trees designed for maximum output of the part of the tree used to make palm oil. The few remaining areas of wild forest--especially primary forest (meaning it has never been torn down)--are now areas for eco-tourism. Me (and my money) came to these areas in the hopes of seeing Orangutans in the wild.
Back to the journey---the drive from Lahad Datu is mostly on unpaved roads. With each minute that passed, I felt like I was going deeper and deeper into another world. Most of the drive is in what is called secondary forest---forests that have been replanted in the hopes that the eco system (and all its critters) will return to what it was years ago. The rainforest grows fairly quickly, but you can tell secondary from primary.
I stayed at Borneo Rainforest Lodge--a leader in the eco-tourism market of Borneo. I knew it was exceptional because of its location, but I had no real idea what the lodge would look like as the website is out of date. I didn't care---I was going for the wildlife and if I was in rustic accommodations, no big deal. Well, was I in for a pleasant surprise! We arrived around 10am and were greeted by a team of staff---fresh drinks and fruit and taken directly to our gorgeous room. The rooms were recently upgraded and looked to be out of a design magazine. One wall is all windows overlooking the Danum river....there is also a balcony with a plunge pool and an indoor/outdoor shower. I was completely immersed in the rain forest and the design was very sensitive to the unique location, but it is 5 stars all the way.
I visited in the shoulder season---a time when the weather is pretty good and the crowds are less. The resort can hold more than 80 people in the 30 chalets, but there were just 6 people when I was there. There were many more staff than guests and my experience was phenomenal! The food was excellent (buffet and food stations to order al la minute) and there was lots of variety. I had my own guide for excursions and they were scheduled at 3 per day-- morning walk after breakfast, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
I knew there were leeches in the rainforest. I have had leeches on me before (in India) and while I wasn't looking forward to having another get attached to me, it was the price to pay to be in the rainforest. The resort sold leech socks and I knew they would know better what I would need than me trying to order in advance from the States (what do leech socks even look like, right??). I got a quick lesson from my guide and proceeded to get prepared for our afternoon walk.
The quick overview is that leech socks look sort of like a Christmas stocking....larger than normal socks. You pull them on over your normal socks and pants and cinch the drawstring above your knee (they come in multiple sizes). You then put your shoes on over the leech socks. Wearing leech socks do nothing to deter the leeches from getting on you...but it does add another level of protection from them getting attached to your skin---as some can attach to you through a layer of fabric.
All dressed and ready to go, we headed out into the forest. There were all sorts of sounds--of birds, frogs, insects and occasionally monkeys. We got about 10 minutes of dry weather before the rain started falling....and it poured. It was still fun to explore, because it is a rainforest and it rains....sort of adds to the atmosphere. We saw lots of little critters and smelled some Orangutan (think monkey house mixed with a man that needs a shower and wet fur...not exactly a scent I would bottle and sell as perfume!). However, Orangutan....and other primates...don't like rain. They retreat to nests in the trees and cover themselves with leaves. Super camouflaged, you could be right under one and not know it. We were lucky enough to see some very playful red leaf monkeys once the rain calmed down a bit. Photo NOT attached because I had on the wrong lens to get a good photo (good lesson to learn early in a trip!). We headed back to the lodge and the real skill isn't getting dressed to go into the forest....it is trying to get undressed without getting one of the leeches on your skin. They are all over your clothes and you have to slowly pluck them off and make sure nothing is attached. I am not exaggerating when I say it takes about 30 minutes. Once naked, the shower feels great as after every adventure, I was soaking wet and dirty.
It was raining for the night drive, so all we saw was a glimpse of an elephant....who made it known that he was NOT happy to see us! So, the driver decided it was wise to get out of there. The next morning it was raining again but I decided to try the hike with the guide up to the lookout spot. I figured it wouldn't be a view for miles like it can sometimes be, but I wanted to explore. I saw several monkeys on the way up---more red leaf monkeys, Gibbons, and long tailed Macaque, as well as all kinds of insects and bugs. The view from the top made me feel like I was on top of the world....and alone in the world (in a good way!). Very peaceful.
In the afternoon, I tried the canopy walk. It is a great way to get above the rainforest and see things in the trees at eye level. It was dry when I started but after getting to the highest platform and hoping to see some primates.....the skies opened up again. This was not the part of the trip where I would see the Orangutan, but wildlife sightings are never guaranteed and I left the Danum Valley the next morning hoping I would see Orangutan at my next stop (spoiler alert: since I have a photo of Orangutans...you probably know how stop 2 went!). More on that later....
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Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent (thanks to the recent visit to Antarctica!