I simply don't know how to tell you about Danum Valley without sounding like a blithering moron. So apologies to you all if you think I'm over romanticising, but seriously, where else in the world can you sit on a veranda eating breakfast, whilst watching wild gibbons and red leaf monkeys caper about in the trees right in front of you?! I simply cannot tell you how beautiful this place is. There's very limited access to this area of forest so you hardly ever bump into anyone else, unless you come across an earnest researcher or assistant, all kitted out in their bright green leech-proof socks. The only way that you can get there is by booking well in advance and arranging a van to come and pick you up from Lahad Datu. The drive is two and a half hours of extremely bumpy track, through a security check point and down into the valley.
These little vans are hilarious, as well as being pretty hot and uncomfortable. They are essentially small, rickety minibuses and the public ones will only leave for their destination once they have found enough passengers to completely fill it. This can mean waiting for hours at bus stations waiting for one more body to be squeezed in. The drivers all seem to be pretty lax about getting to their destinations too, quite often taking long detours to pick up their shopping or drop something off at a friend's house. Even this private van from Danum, containing three tiny women and two men, all with small children, as well as Jonas and myself with our giant bags, stopped a couple of times to pick up fried bananas from a roadside shack.
We arrived in complete darkness and so only had time to sign in and drop our bags off at our dorms before heading off to supper with only our torches to guide us and giving us only a very vague idea of our surroundings. That first evening we sat with a very charming Phd student from Kuala Lumpur. The lovely Benny is currently looking at the sizes of the pockets of forest that have been left by the palm oil plantations in Sabah. I didn't quite grasp exactly how it all tallies up, but basically he is planting clusters of saplings in designated areas. These areas are in the plantations themselves as well as in both primary and secondary sections of forest. He is painstakingly measuring each sapling and checking its progress as well as replanting those that get trampled by elephants (he seemed rather put out about the elephants!). The idea is to find out how large each pocket of forest has to be in order to sustain a working ecosystem. He has a friend who is also looking at how far apart they can be in order to allow species to migrate between them, allowing for a richer gene pool. Sorry, all that sounds a bit heavy, but the upshot is that Benny's research is going to be a part of a larger project which will be taken to the Malaysian government, providing real statistics for maintaining the rainforest and hopefully allowing some of the land to be reclaimed from the plantations. It was amazing to speak to someone who isn't simply bemoaning the future of the Bornean rainforest, but is actually doing something positive to improve its prospects.
Benny wasn't the only interesting companion that we met at dinner. We spent the next evening at the same table as Martin (I think that was his name, he never really introduced himself, and then it got to that awkward point when I could no longer ask him what it was), a fellow Brit and wildlife cameraman who now specialises in erecting platforms so that other photographers can take pictures in the canopy. He was in Danum trying to locate a fruiting fig tree for a photographer who was arriving on Thursday wanting to film- imagine having that as your job! I met the illusive photographer, Tim Flach on Friday morning at breakfast, just before I had to leave. Poor Martin was looking a little harassed. His job was not only to set up the platform for the uber arty Mr Flach, but to teach him how to climb. I've never met anyone who looked so out of place in the wilderness as this photographer- a tall, pale, spindly man with a drawling Etonian accent. Apparently all of his previous work has been studio based and then heavily edited with photoshop, I don't think that he has any idea what he's let himself in for. I wish I'd been able to speak to Martin on Friday evening to find out how the climbing lesson had gone and I would have paid good money to have been there to watch his attempts to scale the fig.
Martin also confirmed a story that Sudi had told me on the Kinabatangan. There is a plant in the rainforest, called the Strangler Fig. A bird or mammal deposits the seed of the fig into the canopy of another tree. The seed germinates right up in the branches and very slowly, it's roots creep down the host tree to the ground, becoming thicker and stronger all the time. Eventually the host tree dies, unable to get enough light and nutrients and crumbles to dust, leaving the hollow lattice column of the fig which provides shelter and sustenance for a huge range of mammals, birds and insects. Sudi told us that the Orang Sungai believe that these hollow trees also house forest spirits. People do their best not to cut these trees down, since they are absolutely no use as timber. If they do have to fell them, to make way for a road or plantation, they first have to kill a chicken and create a ring of blood around the base. I was dubious about this story, never quite knowing if these guys are making things up to fool the gullible tourists, but Martin told me that he once asked a local village if he could climb a strangler fig and they insisted on killing a chicken first and spraying the trunk with blood.
There is a fruiting fig tree at Danum Valley, which stands at the far end of a wooden-slatted suspension bridge. This bridge, spanning the river, acts as a gateway between the calm scattering of buildings that make up the research facility and the wild, untamed rainforest beyond, with the fig tree forming an archway into the forest beyond. Crossing the bridge, you are very aware that you are entering another world, one filled with clouded leopard, tarzirs, elephants and countless others, with their tiny, vampyric guardians to keep out unwary trespassers. One evening, at dusk, I walked across the bridge and sat on the walkway just beneath where the fig tree overhangs the bridge, watching the silhouettes of flying foxes and other, smaller bats whirl about catching insects. The afternoon's thunderstorm had moved to the north, with intermittend strobes of lightning still filling the sky with light. Night falls extremely quickly here, but though the sun was down, I could see the silhouettes of the owls flying about by the light of the full moon and when the lightning wasn't flashing, the fireflies showed off shamelessly. As I sat there beneath the branches, figs fell around me, hitting the planks with dull thumps that were just audible amid the sound of the cicadas, crickets and all the other weird, melodic noises of the jungle at night.
See, I told you you'd think I was over romanticising, but honestly, I fell in love with Danum Valley. I may not have seen as many animals as at the Kinabatangan (which was amazing too!), but here I was left to my own devices and able to spend all the time I wanted just walking around the forest, watching and listening . We did a couple of treks with the guides, where I fell foul of the leeches (one got on my belly, I have no idea how it got there, but I managed to catch it before it drew blood. They are rank), and these were well worth the money we spent, but it was good to be allowed to do my own thing too. On our last night, Jonas and I hooked up with a brilliant Australian couple, Breeze and Daniel (hi guys if you're reading this!) and went for a night drive. This meant hopping into the flat bed of an open backed landrover, with the spotters sitting on the driver's cab manning the floodlights. We saw a couple of palm civets, which I've wanted to see since I got here. They look a bit like pointy faced polecats. We also saw a sleeping eagle on a branch just above us and a beautiful, tiny brown wood owl who pierced us with his steely glare. Sadly no elephants though, despite all the evidence that they had been about. I need to steel Jonas' pics as my pesky camera can't cope with the zooming requirements, but will be uploading them as soon as I can.
So yes, Danum Valley more than lived up to expectations and I was very reluctant to leave. I think I'll leave reports of the next leg of my journey until next time, I'm writing this in an internet cafe in Kota Kinabalu and my time is nearly up. Hopefully I should get some time over the next couple of days to catch up, so stay tuned for the next thrilling installment. It features snorkling, snappers and sunburn!
Much love to you all and thanks for the messages, keep em coming! xxx