Last month I was lucky enough to take a 2 week trip to Sabah, Borneo with my family. One of the (only) positive aspects of living over 10,000 miles from my family is that I get to meet them for holidays in some pretty awesome destinations which are situated anywhere between London and Melbourne.
Our trip was to Sabah, which is the Malaysian part of Borneo. Borneo is the third largest island in the world and within it there are actually 3 different countries- Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei (the geographer in me loves these fun facts…).
Our first stop was Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley conservation area.
I knew the drive from the airport to the Lodge was going to take 2.5 hours, but I hadn’t quite prepared myself from just how remote and disconnected we were going to be. After about 45 minutes of driving through thick jungle on a dirt track with no other sign of life to be seen I felt compelled to ask our driver if there was going to be mobile phone reception at the lodge. Happily and rather oddly, the answer from the driver was ‘it’s an eco lodge, no phone reception. But we have wifi and accept credit card!’. Although his answer definitely seemed like the antithesis of an ‘eco-lodge’ I was pretty relieved that I wasn’t going to be totally cut off from civilisation as we drove further and further away from it.
When we arrived at Borneo Rainforest Lodge the view was breathtaking. The main lodge area looks out over the Danum river and the other side of the bank has the most beautiful unspoilt primary rainforest canopy which is over 30m tall. The entire Danum valley conservation area is a primary rainforest which means it has never been logged before and is completely unspoilt. The staff at the lodge, who were all Sabah locals were so friendly, helpful and just generally wonderful people. We met our guide Fred soon after we arrived and he gave us the intro into the history of the lodge and most importantly what we needed to wear for our impending series of jungle treks- aka trekking attire. It became clear really quickly that this was going to be a problem for both me and my sister. Trekking attire in Borneo requires long trousers, walking boots, all neutral coloured clothes and leech socks (yes you heard me right). The best my suitcase offered was my yoga leggings and my old trainers… my sister had one up on me as she had proper trekking trousers (from Kathmandu and everything!) BUT she only had an old pair of plimsoles for all this upcoming trekking and with the amount of mud present in the jungle I’m pretty sure I trumped her in the end!
On our first trek of the trip we were lucky enough to see an orang-utan really close up. He was quite a large and intimidating looking male orang-utan who the guides had nicknamed Abu. It wasn’t until we moved to our next stop on our trip that we realised how lucky we were to have seen orang-utan so close up. At Borneo Rainforest Lodge I got the impression that up close encounters with Abu were pretty much a daily occurrence as he chose to live right next to the lodge and was clearly very comfortable around people.
Happily every trek at Borneo Rainforest lodge is followed by a meal of some form and surprisingly, considering the lodge is about 3 hours drive from the nearest shop, the food was actually really good. Our room was simplistic but gorgeous at the same time. There was no tv or air-conditioning (its the eco-lodge thing plus the fact that the entire lodge runs off a diesel generator) but our room had the same stunning view over the river and rainforest, and there was a sizeable balcony complete with hot tub.
Borneo Rainforest Lodge has a canopy walkway which boasts to be the largest in Borneo. I definitely would not recommend it to anyone with a fear of heights- its over 30m off the ground and the bridges are really just planks of wood connected to some steel cables. We saw lots of beautiful birds on this walk and although I would never have considered myself the slightest bit interested in birds before this trip you do get into it scarily quickly (watch out for my next post on birdwatching…just kidding!).
On our second day at the lodge we did the burial ground and waterfall trek, which involved climbing a small mountain- a fact our guide didn’t socialise with us until we set out. The view from the top of the trek was spectacular, you can see over the entire Danum valley and the lodge. On the way back down the mountain we stopped to swim in a waterfall pool which was like an oasis, until you got in and encountered the extremely aggressive little fish who live in the pool! Our guide Fred tried to sell the fish to us as like a fish pedicure, frankly they were just downright uncomfortable so the swim didn’t last too long!
After our epic trek we went tubing in the late afternoon which was really relaxing going down the river which is quite placid. The only downside was getting to the starting point involved trekking for 20 minutes through the very muddy jungle with your tube, life jacket and helmet in flip-flops whilst trying really hard to avoid getting bitten by a leech. A dutch woman in our group had the right idea by wearing her leech socks under her flip-flops (for something which really shouldn’t have been a hot look she pulled it off well!).
After 3 beautiful days in the Danum valley it was time to move to our next destination which was Sukau Rainforest Lodge. This involved way too much driving for my liking- if you have any propensity for travel sickness at all you should pretty much prepare yourself for an awful few hours driving out of the Danum valley. I’m not sure why it was worse on the way out than going there, but it wasn’t a fun experience. After about 4 hours drive we reached the pier to board the little boat which would take us to Sukau. Sukau was very different to the lodge at Danum valley, mainly due to the fact that it was on a river. All the activities and wildlife spotting involved river cruises rather than anything on foot.
I had really high hopes for the Sukau lodge, admittedly solely because Sir David Attenborough had stayed there while he filmed his documentaries about Borneo. Truthfully I think if we hadn’t arrived directly from Danum valley we would have been more impressed, but compared to the stunning beauty of our first destination it would have been pretty hard to top it. Sukau is not a primary rainforest area for a start. The area has been logged in the past for palm plantations, and whilst the jungle has now been replanted, its more of a lower level bush type jungle than the tall canopies we saw in Danum valley. The lodge was quite basic in terms of accommodation and food but it did the job for the few days we were there.
One thing Sukau had which Danum valley did not was Proboscis monkeys- and lots of them. These monkeys are really odd looking- they have a nose which is like an elephant’s trunk, or whatever other connotation you might make from this Proboscis monkey toy I found in the hotel gift shop.
We went on multiple river cruises for the 2 days we were at Sukau and saw lots of different types of monkeys, birds and even a crocodile. Both places we stayed claimed they had seen elephants ‘just a few weeks ago’, which is decidedly vague timing in my view. Sadly we didn’t see any elephants, and I think however much the locals go on about them they must be a pretty rare spotting.
After 5 days of activity we headed to the Nexus resort in Kota Kintabalu for the relaxing part of our trip. I would definitely recommend the villas at the resort for accommodation. Check out the Shangri-La Rasa Ria for some good food and an epic buffet! I loved the chance to be able to relax, read some good books and not have to wake up at 5am for a morning trek. But after a day or so I was missing the activity and adventure…. who knows, my next holiday might even involve more trekking xxx