Photo: Stunning Danum Valley scenery.

Danum Valley Conservation Area

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If Borneo conjures up images of pristine jungle filled with haunting sounds and hidden wildlife, Danum Valley Conservation Area might be one of the reasons why.

Here the jungle is seething and primal: orangutangs nest, hornbills fly, elephants trumpet and the elusive clouded leopard goes about the business of being elusive. At 43,800 hectares, this is Sabah’s largest protected lowland rainforest and much of it has had no human interference.

Pretty special. Photo taken in or around Danum Valley Conservation Area, Lahad Datu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Pretty special. Photo: Sally Arnold

Two and a half hours from Lahad Datu, driving though palm oil plantations, you’ll arrive at your chosen accommodation. Borneo Rainforest Lodge is the ultimate jungle destination: luxurious chalets and personal well-trained guides, and a price tag starting at 3,158.80 ringgit per person (based on twin share). We, however, stayed at the more affordable Danum Valley Field Centre. After a hard day of exploring, we thought it may be possible to pop over to Borneo Rainforest Lodge for a sundowner at their jungle bar, but they are 35 kilometres apart by road, and there’s no transport—that G and T will have to wait.

Although the style and service (and bottom line) differ, the activities at both places focus on seeing as much wildlife as possible and spending time in the jungle. Danum Valley Field Centre is primarily a research facility for scientists, not designed with the comfort of tourists in mind, but as well as accommodation, a number of activities are offered to independent travellers. Treks and night drives are escorted by local rangers (not guides) who may or may not be good spotters and who may or may not have fluent English. There is an option to book Danum Valley Field Centre through Sticky Rice Tours, a local tour company, and while you’ll get the same accommodation and food as independent travellers, they supply trained guides to accompany you on activities.

Ditto! Photo taken in or around Danum Valley Conservation Area, Lahad Datu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Ditto! Photo: Sally Arnold

A stay at Danum Valley Field Centre can be arranged through the centre’s office in Lahad Datu; they prefer bookings at least one week in advance. The conservation fee for the park is 53 ringgit, plus a 10.60 ringgit camera fee for a snappy or 106 ringgit for a DSLR. Scheduled transport to the centre departs Lahad Datu on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 15:00, and returns the same days at 08:30 for 68.90 ringgit each way. Accommodation is either in single-sex dorms (99 ringgit), twin share resthouse (304 ringgit) or twin share VIP chalet (414 ringgit). If you plan an overnight trek, camping in the shelters is charged at 82.68 ringgit per person. The 48-bed dorms are arranged with two double bunks in cubicles curtained from a central corridor. Fans run at scheduled times and share facilities are cold water only. Hostels are located a good 15-minute walk from the cafeteria (and start-point for treks), whereas the twin share rooms are nearby. Basic fan-cooled rooms in the longhouse-style resthouse provide private ensuite bathrooms (cold water only), while the VIP chalets offer air-con and hot showers.

Cooking facilities are available in the dorm and gas is charged at 21.20 ringgit, otherwise meals are served buffet style at set times (if you’re late, you’ll miss out). If you plan to be out trekking all day, a packed breakfast or lunch can be provided. Full board (meals only) for one day is 118 ringgit. For arrival and departure days, dinner is 48.76 ringgit and breakfast is 30.74 ringgit. Additional drinks including beer are available for purchase and a small shop at the office sells snacks and sundries.

Keep your eyes peeled! Photo taken in or around Danum Valley Conservation Area, Lahad Datu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Keep your eyes peeled! Photo: Sally Arnold

Although there is plenty of wildlife to see in the immediate vicinity of the accommodation, you’ll want to venture deeper into the rainforest. As this is a protected area, many of the tracks are off limits without a ranger. Rates for the rangers are 21.20 ringgit per hour, and can be split between other travellers. Treks include visits to waterfalls, pools and a burial site, vary between two and eight hours, and all are weather permitting (it can be dangerous in the rainforest in heavy rain).

For a trek to Purut Falls (8 hours), you must employ two guides. We loved the night drive (169.60 ringgit which can be split between a maximum of eight) — a spotlighting four-wheel-drive adventure (with no leeches). We saw, among others, sambar deer (cervus unicolor), Malay civets (viverra tangalunga) and a red giant flying squirrel (petaurista petaurista). However just walking around the centre, we spotted a large male orangutan in the treetops and at the same moment a playful otter by the riverbank; seconds later we were swooped at by a hornbill and we were very lucky to see a herd of Bornean pygmy elephants on our way in. It’s certainly wildlife central (and those scientists are still finding new species).

The less luxurious accommodation was fine for us. Photo taken in or around Danum Valley Conservation Area, Lahad Datu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

The less luxurious accommodation was fine for us. Photo: Sally Arnold

When packing for your jungle adventure, you’ll be pleased you stashed a rain jacket and a light jumper (it can be cool in the evenings). Leeches are abundant and ferocious; leech socks are recommended. Decent hiking boots are better than trainers, but they will do in a pinch. You’ll need more foot protection than trekking sandals, although they can be good for clambering over rocks in the waterfalls.

We would highly recommend at least a three-night stay, as transport is such that you arrive late afternoon and leave early morning (convenient for scientists not tourists), and one full day is not enough to experience this extraordinary place, especially if you are unlucky with the weather.

Plenty of waterfalls in the valley. Photo taken in or around Danum Valley Conservation Area, Lahad Datu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Plenty of waterfalls in the valley. Photo: Sally Arnold

For booking and transfers, the two offices are conveniently located next to each other in Fajar, Lahad Datu.

Danum Valley Field Centre (office): Block 3, Fajar Centre, Lahad Datu (near Shell petrol station); T: (089) 880 441; (089) 841 101;
Borneo Nature Tours (for Borneo Rainforest Lodge): Lot 20, Block 3, Fajar Centre, Lahad Datu (near Shell petrol station); T: (089) 880 207; (088) 267 637;;

Danum Valley Conservation Area
80 km from Lahad Datu

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Location map for Danum Valley Conservation Area

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Lahad Datu.
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