THE WILD WORLD OF DANUM VALLEY
Linda is eating wild figs. She’s doing it with the studious air of a connoisseur, an effect that is heightened by her bouffant auburn hairstyle. Even more impressively, she is 50 meters above the jungle floor, clutching a vine-entangled hardwood with one hand while her baby clings to her back. There’s a certain frisson that comes with witnessing orangutans in the wild—it feels as if a little blessing has been bestowed. And they just beg to be anthropomorphized. With her big hair and ruminative manner, Linda reminds me a bit of Julia Child.
I’m distracted from these musings by a leech that’s snuck onto my leg. I flick it away, only for it to land on my friend’s neck, to which it quickly attaches itself. I stifle a guffaw. Conrad may have found his heart of darkness in the jungle, but I’m having a blast.
It helps that I’m staying at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, an upmarket, low-impact base from which to experience one of the last pristine tracts of lowland rain forest in Asia. Think cozy timber chalets beside a purling river and a central pavilion where enormous buffets are served three times a day between jungle hikes. There are dramatic wooden walkways and viewing platforms suspended 25 meters up in the forest canopy, immersing you in a cacophony of birdcalls. Prince William and Kate Middleton even paid a visit during their Jubilee tour last year.
This is the Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah, the northernmost state of Malaysian Borneo. At 438 square kilometers, it’s the largest area of protected rain forest in the country and is home to everything from orangutans to clouded leopards, pygmy elephants to pythons—plus some of the world’s last remaining Sumatran rhinos. Then you’ve got your tarsiers, mouse deer, gibbons, proboscis monkeys, various snakes, frogs, and lizards (some of which can fly—well, glide at least) and a myriad of large and often malevolent insects, such as the violin beetle, which will spray you with paralyzing butyric acid if you get too close. All in all, the Danum Valley is home to some 550 mammal and bird species and more than 200 types of tree.
Borneo Rainforest Lodge actually belongs to the government-funded Sabah Foundation; tours and ground arrangements are organized by its subsidiary, Borneo Nature Tours. All profits go back into the foundation and to
WE CLAMBER UP A STEEP TRAIL LED BY DENNYSIUS ALOYSIUS, THE LODGE’S LONGEST-SERVING GUIDE AND SURELY ITS MOST EXUBERANT. HE CAN SMELL IF A CLOUDED LEOPARD IS NEARBY, AND HAS AN ENCYCLOPEDIC KNOWLEDGE OF LOCAL BIRDCALLS
social-welfare and conservation programs. It’s a tightly managed operation that weds slick hospitality services with a genuinely immersive nature experience. The lodge’s rangers are all local and licensed, meaning they’ve undergone extensive training.
Linda is one of an estimated 500 wild orangutans living in the Danum Valley, a population that’s a special area of focus for researchers thanks to the pristine state of the ecosystem and the ease of access (from Kota Kinabalu, you fly to Lahad Datu and then take a four-by-four 70 kilometers into the jungle along a well-maintained logging road). On our second day, we meet Portuguese PhD student Renata Mendonça sitting rather forlornly at the foot of a towering hardwood. She’s been tracking a female ape for a week, a process that involves… well, sitting under trees and occasionally squinting through a pair of binoculars. What she tells me is fascinating, though: only dominant males develop the distinctive flanged features—fat cheek pads, pendulous throat sac—on their faces. They’re bigger than the unflanged males, too. “It’s called bimaturism, where there are two different types of male,” Mendonça tells us. “You’ll only find one flanged male in each home range. He will tolerate unflanged males being around, but not another dominant male. We think maybe he gives off a hormone which inhibits the growth of the other males in his range.”
Because females never willingly mate
with unflanged males, the latter resort to what is rather delicately described as forceful copulation. But Mendonça’s area of research is the close bond between a mother and her offspring: juvenile orangutans live with their mothers until they’re about 10 and will continue to visit for another six years or so. Such prolonged connections are rare among mammals—only humans take longer to cut the figurative umbilical—and scientists still don’t have a detailed understanding of the nature of the relationship.
All of this casts Linda and her baby in a new light, at least to my anthropomorphizing mind. Finally we leave them to their fruit feast and continue clambering up a steep trail to our destination, the Viewpoint, led by our improbably named guide Dennysius Aloysius (Denny for short). It was Denny, of course, who spotted Linda for us. He is Borneo Rainforest Lodge’s longest-serving guide and surely its most exuberant. Denny can smell if a clouded leopard is nearby, has an encyclopedic knowledge of local birdcalls, and on one occasion cheerfully points out a type of psychoactive tree bark that “gives energy and courage but makes you reckless.”
The elevated Viewpoint offers panoramic vistas of the surrounding forest. At least it would if it weren’t pouring with rain. We stash our gear under a tree root and my flip-flops
As the downpour slows, I wander over to the edge of an escarpment and gaze at the mist rising from a jungle canopy that is thought to have been here for 130 million years, making it one of the oldest rain forests on earth
(which had earlier drawn disparaging looks from a Russian guest decked out in jungle boots, leech socks, and full-body mosquito net) at last come into their own. As the downpour slows, I wander over to the edge of an escarpment and gaze at the mist rising from a jungle canopy that is thought to have been here for 130 million years, making it one of the oldest rain forests on earth. Then I hear a rustling below me. I crouch down to see a troop of red leaf monkeys (a.k.a. maroon langurs) just a few meters away. I watch them for a few precious moments, and then they are gone.
There’s nothing like taking a dip after you’ve been trekking, especially when it’s in the pool of a little waterfall in a sun-dappled jungle glade. Afterward, I bask on a rock, my feet dangling in the water … until something nibbles my toe. I yelp involuntary. Then I remember what Denny told us: these aren’t piranhas, they’re carp. I settle back and let them exfoliate my dead skin.
I’d love to report that our trip culminates in a sighting of pygmy elephants; these are, after all, the biggest residents of the Danum Valley. One of our guides tells us they’re descended from a group of Sumatran elephants gifted to the Sultan of Sulu in 1750 by the British East India Company. It’s a quaint tale, but apocryphal: recent DNA analysis traces the animals’ presence on Borneo back 300,000 years, during which time they evolved independently from their cousins in Sumatra and mainland Asia, becoming smaller, chubbier, and—from what I can tell from photos at the lodge—cuter. But all we see of them en route to the Danum River is a prodigious pile of fresh dung. Denny says it was left by a big male out scouting for the herd. “Maybe half an hour ago, no more.”
Such iswildlife tourism. By wayof compensation, I spend the rest of the morning floating downriver on a giant inner tube, content to watch the primordial jungle drift by.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE Clockwise from left: Overlooking the Danum River; changing rooms at the Jacuzzi Pool waterfall; an encounter with a wild orangutan; a park ranger on the lookout. Opposite, from top: On a section of the valley’s 300-meterlong...
ON THE RIGHT TRACK Borneo Rainforest Lodge guide Dennysius leading guests on an earlymorning hike through the Danum Valley.
CREATURE COMFORTS Morning mists cloak the treetops beyond the breakfast terrace at Borneo Rainforest Lodge, left, which also comes with plenty of a cozy sitting areas from which to take in the jungle’s nighttime hum.