borneo ecotourism at Danum Valley

A couple of years ago, we bumped into an offer of a gorgeous group trip to Borneo and kept thinking about this destination since then.
When we decided to get married and started organizing our honeymoon, we both wanted something off the beaten path that included a bit of adventure, so I started to look at various Borneo ecotourism projects.

I am usually the one in charge of organizing all of our trips, while Miles enjoys the “surprise effect”.
I knew literally nothing about this Country but we both agreed on travelling independently and not with a group.

Plus, I have been growing more and more into a keen responsible traveller, so it took me few weeks of research to tailormade our trip selecting what for us were the best ecotourism experiences in Borneo. We ended up with a 10 day-itinerary which included 3 different eco-projects that have led us to explore the primary forest spotting orangutans in the wild, to learn about turtle conservation visiting a turtle hatchery, to fully immerse ourselves in the heart of Borneo meeting the local culture and living some amazing adventures.

We usually do not include beach destinations in our itineraries, but this time we wanted to finish with 3 days off on a island to recharge our batteries before coming back to work.
I had heard about the Cameron Highlands tea plantations in the Malaysian peninsula that, being both of us hiking and tea lovers, sounded just perfect, so we decided to stop in Malaysia on our way back Home and add the sea-extension at the end of our trip (check it out in this article).

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and belongs to 3 different nationalities: Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak regions), Indonesia (Kalimatan region) and the Country of Brunei.
Before the ’60s, North Borneo was under the British Empire and only after its independence the Country joined a Federation together with Malia (today Malaysia Peninsula), Brunei and Singapore. The two latter ones soon pulled out leaving the States of Sabah and Sarawak part of what today we know as Malaysia.
Why this is important to know? Because contrary to what we may think (we had this wrong idea as well before our trip there), North Borneo is pretty much a developed Country compared to other Asian destinations we have travelled to and was actually pretty wealthy as well before joining the Federation, being mining and services their primary income source.
Also, with the exception of the bigger cities like Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan, the religious majority is Christian instead of Muslim. (These data refer to the region of Sabah, in Northern Borneo, where we have travelled to).

Our top 3 Borneo ecotourism experiences

We are not fond of wildlife parks, zoos or similar because we prefer to see animals in their natural habitat, so when I started to look up the best spots to see orangutans, it took me a while to understand which place would have allowed us to spot them in the wild.
Of course, this meant not having the certainty of seeing them but we preferred to try our luck.

The Danum Valley Field Centre, primary forest and orangutans

The Danum Valley is a conservation area of 438 sq km that since1986 hosts the Danum Valley Field Centre, the biggest in Southeast Asia dedicated to research and studies on the primary forest flora and fauna. Orangutans, gibbons, pigmy elephants, leopard cats, slow lorries and many other species, live in this amazing canopy forest dating back to 130 million years ago, making it the oldest rainforest on the planet!

The Field Centre carries out research on the life and conservation of these species as well as studies on the climate change. They also host some conservation programs funded by international companies such as Ikea, that contribute to the reforestation program of this part of Borneo.
Indeed, you are probably aware of the drastic effects caused by the heavy logging activity that took place in Borneo, especially during the ’70s and ’80s, to make space to extensive palm oil plantations.
Starting from the ’90s more and more travellers took interest in visiting this sort of conservation areas, so the Field Centre has started to cater for guests to stay and explore the area with their rangers.

Today, they have a hostel that can cater up to 48 people (male and female separate), a camp ground and a rest house offering few basic double rooms (like the one we stayed at) provided with private bathroom, a fan (no A/C) and electricity that is cut off during night time.
Coming here is not like staying at a resort or tourist accommodation, you have to keep in mind this is primarily a research centre so everything is very basic (including food), but the main attraction is what surrounds you and is definitely worth it!

We chose to visit the Danum Valley accompanied by a professional guide so we booked this 3-day package through a Borneo-based responsible travel company called Sticky Rice.
That included return transfer by 4×4 from Lahad Datu to the Field Centre (approximately 2 hour drive), full-board stay and different guided walks to explore the primary forest at sunrise, during the day and even at night time. Our guide Mohammed was superb and really nailed each time we went out to spot wildlife. We were indeed lucky enough to see orangutans each single day, as well as gibbons, wild cats during our night walk in the dark and other various species.

red monkey Danum Valley

The highlight for us was watching an orangutan family (mum with two babies) sit on the canopy about 40 metres of height carrying out their ordinary routine: playing, eating fruit (durian is their favourite!) and cuddling. We could have spent hours watching them through our binocular. A truly touching experience that we will treasure in our memory.

Watching orangutans at Danum Valley

However, besides wildlife watching, the canopy forest itself is amazing! Hiking among these old trees towering on top of your head, completely immersed in the pristine nature is a great experience.

The only downside are the leeches! Be aware of these nasty animals as they crawl on you easily. We were wearing long trousers and leeches socks all the time and still I got one under my armpit.

Why you should choose the Danum Valley as your Borneo ecotourism destination?

– Danum Valley is not spoilt by mass tourism and attracts only a limited number of visitors (mainly individuals keen on nature/wildlife)
– Animals are in the wild and not in restricted encounters or disturbed by human presence
– The Field Centre is on a zero-waste program, which means no plastic on site, safe drinkable water available to refill your water bottle and recycling bins

Orangutan conservation programs

Orangutans are such cute animals but they are threatened by humans due to the destruction of their natural habitat (deforestation due to logging) and to poaching activity (yes, there are still people wanting to have them as pets!). For this reason there are many orangutans, especially young ones, that need the help of rehabilitation centres to be re-introduced into the wild.
These programs take a very long time before they can learn how to survive in the wild on their own (up to 7 years and sometimes even never!) especially if they have been tamed since they were little.
The conservation and rehab program goes through three different stages.

1- Rehabilitation Centres for orphans like Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre where babies are looked after by nurses and trained to live in the wild.

2- Conservation Reserves are the next stage where orangutans are released but still under human control. An example you can visit is the Tabin Wildlife Reserve

3- When they are ready and able to take care of themselves they are finally released into the wild.

We haven’t been to rehab or conservation centres because we preferred to spot them in their natural habitat and were very happy with our choice of visiting the Danum Valley. You may not be able to see them close-by or take the perfect picture to show your friends, but knowing that they are undisturbed and in their natural attitude, for us was the most important requirement!

Libaran Island turtle hatchery

Another must-do Borneo ecotourism experience is watching baby turtles hatching or mother turtles laying their eggs on the beach. The most popular destination for this is Turtle Island, where apparently you have high chances to see them but, for this same reason, the island is crammed with tourists.
We always tend to avoid crowded places when we can, that’s why we have opted for Libaran Island instead. A small island located at the fringe of the Turtle Island Marine Park, only 45 min by fast boat from the city of Sandakan (north Sabah).

Libaran Island beach

I must say it was not that simple to find information and book a stay on this island. I first tried through a local agent called Sabah Booking but after I checked availability with them and booked all the itinerary they told me it was fully booked! I couldn’t change all our programs just for this stop but I so much wanted to go there that I kept searching the web and I ended up finding availability on Expedia. Being afraid of an overbooking I wrote a message to the Facebook page of the Turtle Hatchery, just to double check. Luckily everything was fine.

If you want to book direct use their official website Walai Penyu.
This said, the island only caters for up to 20 people into twin tents. It is advertised as glamping which, I may say, it is a bit of an exaggeration, still you will have a permanent tent with proper beds and mattresses, right on the beach. You will be treated with welcome drinks, lunch, afternoon tea (best doughnuts ever!), dinner and breakfast at a beach-front open-air dining area. Toilets and hot showers are to be shared with other guests. When we visited the cost for a 2 day/1 nt full-board stay on twin-shared basis including return ferry was approximately 100 euro per person.

The turtle conservation eco-project was launched in 2012 and since then more than 30K baby turtles have been released. The program also involves local villagers in cleaning-up the island beaches that unfortunately receive tons of plastic every day due to the tide, so some local people have been assigned a 100m-long lot of beach to keep clean.

What surprised us the most when we visited the village, that is located on the northern side of the island and counts approximately 400 villagers living on fishing and boat construction, was to find it spot clean! Indeed, to get there we had to walk on a beach completely covered with plastic and all sort of rubbish, which although we are aware of the plastic problem, it was quite shocking to see in person. What we found was a neat colourful village where locals re-use all the plastic they pick up to ornate their houses and gardens. Quite smart I must say, though unfortunately doesn’t solve the problem.

How does the turtle hatchery work?

Turtle population is endangered both for natural causes (predators) and human (poaching and sea pollution).
That’s why it is important that more and more turtles are born. Problem is that turtles have a pretty low natality rate. In fact, only 50% of the turtle naturally hatch, mainly due to predators like birds and monitors. With the support of the hatchery this rate is raised up to 80-90%. And this only refers to the turtle hatch, then only 1 out of 1000 actually survive!

This gives you an idea of how crucial the support of this sort of conservation projects is.

Rangers patrol each night the beaches to spot any mother turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs. Once she has finished, they only have a short time to transfer them to the hatchery which simply consists in digging another hole in the sand 50-70 cm deep and surround it with a net preventing the predators to dig the eggs out. The eggs take 50-60 days to hatch. When this happens (like when we were there) the ranger transfers them in a bucket at the shore so that they can shortly get into the water.

When we arrived on the island there was low tide so it was not possible to snorkel, actually not even swim, so we just walked in the middle of the sea 🙂

Libaran Island beach

We were also informed that the eggs currently at the hatchery were not supposed to hatch for another 4-5 days. Quite disappointed we spent the afternoon walking around the beach and then took a guided walk to the village. When we returned at dusk, the ranger called us to join him at the hatchery where 4 baby turtles came were born! It was incredibly moving to see the sand pulsing and these cute little animals popping their heads out. Few minutes later we wished them luck while they ventured into the open sea. Another incredible experience of our trip to Borneo.

baby turtle at Libaran Island hatchery

Community-based ecotourism project Orou Sapulot

Sapulot is an undiscovered region of Sabah where we spent 3 unforgettable days organized by Orou Sapulot , a true Borneo ecotourism project.

It took us 2 hr 30 minute drive by public bus from Kota Kinabalu to Keningau town, another 2 hr drive by 4×4 private transfer and a 15 minute boat ride to reach our first base camp by the river.

Everything was carefully planned into detail and perfectly organised.

We were accompanied by two local tour leaders, Darrel and Jariah, and spoilt by the cuisine of local families who took turn in catering for us during our stay.
The main purpose of this project is to promote this gorgeous area and the Murut culture, enhancing the local economy, raising awareness among local people about environment conservation and education, creating job opportunities for young people preventing them to move to the cities.

The project was founded by Richard, a descendant of the local tribe Murut (the second largest community out of the 32 living in Sabah, proudly known as the “head hunters” ), helped by his son Virgil, who welcomed us and hosted at their family longhouse for a cultural dance show and showed us around their experimental sustainable biodiversity farming project. The passion and kindness of all the people we have met during this short journey really made it special.

We have completely disconnected from everything, immersing ourselves in pristine nature, sleeping at en-plein-air camps by the river or a tent by a gorgeous waterfall, pushing ourselves into adventurous activities such as caving, climbing and rapid shooting, indulging ourselves in delicious local food.

Off-limits activities at Sapulot

I often say that off-limits doesn’t necessarily imply undertaking crazy activities. Indeed, anything that pushes you out of your comfort zone can be considered as an off-limit experience. During our stay at Sapulot we experienced incredible adventures that helped us to explore and enjoy this region under different angles.

Caving: the “Pungiton Cave” (literally means “bat cave”), is a huge cave known only by locals, where you walk into an underground stream, explore big dark chambers where hundred of bats live and admire the beautiful rock formations, including some stalactites and stalagmites. Miles is not very keen on wandering underground for too long so that was probably his off-limit experience.

caving at Pungiton Cave

Climbing: the Batu Punggul limestone pinnacle rises vertically from the jungle for 200 metres. It is a sacred place for locals, in fact it is said that Murut widows climb to the top when their beloved die and throw down one of their belongings to free themselves from this bond. It takes about 15-20 minute hike through the jungle to reach the bottom of the pinnacle where you start the climb. The way up is not equipped as you would expect in Europe with iron ladders, pits to secure you with a rope or anything similar. You simply climb using your bare hands holding onto the rocks, tree roots and a gum tube. It is not extreme and you are exposed only in a couple of passages, still you have to be fit, not afraid of height and properly equipped (long trousers and sturdy hiking shoes recommended). Probably the biggest challenge was the heat as we climbed late morning, reaching the top under the hot midday sun. It took us about one hour return and the view at the top over the jungle and the river was simply amazing. I am not a climbing enthusiast, only tried once before, but I must say I really enjoyed it and I was surprised of how easily I went through this, thanks to the help of our one-to-one local guides.

Rapid shooting: Sapulot River stretches across the region as far as the border with Kalimatan, the Indonesian region of Borneo. We boarded a traditional wooden boat used by locals to travel from and to their villages that are connected to the main one only by the river. When we visited it was super dry because it hadn’t been raining for a long time so the water level was unusually low. We didn’t know until the previous night if we would have been able to do this activity but, last night, it rained, so everything was ok. Still, due to the water level, the travelling time was much longer than usual. It took us about 1 hour 40 minute to ride down the river as far as the border, where we stopped on the riverbank for our picnic lunch, and another 2 hour to return. It was quite tiring, especially being sit on a small wooden bank, but we absolutely loved it. Travelling by boat gives you the opportunity to admire the jungle and all these colourful villages by the river with their typical longhouses (houses where different nucleus of the same family live all together. The biggest here hosts 200 people!), from a different perspective.

Orou Sapulot project is what I consider a best practice of adventure and transformational travel. We were the only visitors at sight and felt so privileged to explore this beautiful yet untrodden region meeting the locals, learning their culture, reconnecting with nature. A truly authentic experience of Borneo we will never forget.

boat ride on Sapulot River


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