DANUM VALLEY CONSERVATION AREA
Many of Sabah’s rarest creatures survive here, one of the most important reserves in Southeast Asia, 162 square miles (420 km2) of primary lowland rain forest on the upper reaches of the Segama River, of which the Danum River is a major tributary.
Rare Sumatran rhinos and Asian elephants, orangutans, both greater and lesser mouse deer, bearded pigs (hairier versions of wild boar), clouded leopards and their even rarer small cousins, flat-headed and leopard cats, find homes here, buffered by a surrounding 3,860 square miles (10,000 km2) of forest. This is set aside to be logged selectively by the Sabah Foundation, a group set up for the welfare and education of the Sabah people (also the economy, which environmentalists worry could begin to take priority over habitat preservation).
Among more than 270 bird species are spectacular great argus pheasants, black-and-crimson pittas, Bornean bristleheads, Bornean and black-throated wren-babblers, colorful trogons and kingfishers, and at nightfall, bat hawks and buffy fish owls which visit lights for insects.
Wary creatures can be hard to spot in dense forest, but most—even shy sun bears, orangutans, red leaf monkeys, red giant flying squirrels, and proboscis monkeys—can be glimpsed from time to time from the numerous walking trails around the Danum Valley Field Center. The Center formerly had public accommodations, but these have been supplanted by the Borneo Rain Forest Lodge, which has the same possibilities of seeing wildlife as the Center, with good guides. Night drives along logging roads provide good chances of seeing nocturnal animals, including elephants.
Access is by bus or (costlier) rental car, a rough two-hour drive from the nearest town, Lahad Datu, reachable by air from Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, or Kuching, both jet air destinations.
Also in Sabah is 291-square-mile (754-km2) Kinabalu Park with the greatest concentration and diversity of unique plants and the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu, still rising at 13,455 feet (4,101 m). Many visitors every year make this beautiful ascent—three hours for the very fit, three days for those wishing to stop en route and savor the natural riches and magnificent scenery. Flora range from virgin tropical forest to alpine. Some 1,000 orchid species have been discovered along with unique rhododendrons, giant crimson rafflesia blooms, the world’s largest moss—the Dawsonia, up to a yard (1 m) tall—and miniature-to-giant insectivorous pitcher plants, including the world’s largest, Nepenthes rajah, capable of trapping and consuming small rodents. A (springy) treetop walkway at Poring Hot Springs affords a canopy perspective on squirrels, birds, and many of the spectacular botanicals, with planned orchid, rafflesia, and butterfly gardens (the springs, piped into open-air baths, were developed by Japanese during World War II).
Most numerous among 100 mammals are common tree-shrews, visible along many trails, one of earth’s earliest small mammals which evolved and spread worldwide tens of millions of years ago but are now restricted to Southeast Asia. Others among its ecological treasures are unique ferret-badgers, sun bears, and some 300 bird species including mountain bush warblers, Kinabalu friendly warblers, pale-faced bulbuls, and mountain blackeyes. Gray drongos and noisy longtailed Malaysian tree-pies frequent park headquarters. Hot Springs’ visitors see magpie robins and hear melodious white-rumped shamas.
Besides being home of endemic montane species of birds, Kinabalu has many plants, particularly orchids, found nowhere else on earth. Orchids especially have suffered from poaching (and one rich site was converted to a golf course!) but plans are afoot to grow and sell rare species in nurseries to diminish incentive to plunder wild populations.
Park headquarters has well-marked trails both nearby and directions to those higher on the mountain, also restaurants and good hostel and rest-house accommodations, all within walking distance. Accommodations also are available just outside the park and at nearby Ranau, all reachable by bus or, costlier, taxi, rental car, or chartered minibus, or by chartered air to a helipad at park headquarters from Kota Kinabalu 53 miles (85 km) away, or Ranau, 14 miles (22 km). Sunniest, driest weather March–May, wettest October–January, but changeable any time.
Park maps describe jungle treks of varying lengths, from a few hours to nine days, including one to the summit of Gunung Tahan, at 7,175 feet (2,187 m) Peninsular Malaysia’s highest peak. (Visitors must take guides on long treks.) Another, just 50 yards (50 m) north of headquarters-area lodges, visits a beautiful waterfall and rushing stream, often with gray-headed fish-eagles, bright bulbuls and kingfishers and, camouflaged on the rocks, monitor lizards up to 6.5 feet (2 m) long.
A cave shelters fruit and insect-eating bats as well as huge toads, long white racer snakes, and enormous spiders and cockroaches.
Another way to look around is by water, in a small sampan with paddles or quiet engine. Boat transport can be rented or hired with guide.
There is also a swaying 197-foot-long (60-m) aluminum-and-rope canopy walkway from which the jungle can be viewed from 115 feet (35 m) up.
To get to Taman Negara from Kuala Lumpur by bus, go first to Jerantut—where it can be convenient to stay overnight—thence to Tembeling jetty for a river trip to Kuala Tahan park headquarters, a trip which usually brings sightings of kingfishers and crested tree-swifts, bluebearded bee-eaters, possibly otters and monkeys.
Trains also go to Jerantut but at least until recently, schedules were inconvenient. Or by air, thrice-weekly flights go to Sungei Tiang airstrip, 30 minutes from the park by motorized sampan.
The park offers an array of accommodations at and around headquarters, and there’s a private lodge just over a mile (2 km) northeast on Sungei Tembeling (for all these, book well ahead).
Headquarters itself can be alive with birds—pied and sometimes rhinoceros hornbills, brown throated sunbirds, various bright bulbuls and green pigeons, especially if trees are fruiting.
Creation of Taman Negara was largely the work of one man, Theodore Hubback, chief game warden of the then-Federated Malay States, who pressed the colonial government relentlessly for 15 years until it was set aside in 1938. Threats continue, particularly hunting for large animals such as rhinos, tigers, and elephants. Tourism in wet season can erode trails, and dams proposed for hydroelectric projects would drastically alter habitat.
Most comfortable times are drier March–September. Take sun lotion, insect repellent, hats, long-sleeved clothing.
Malaysia also includes two states on the northern coast of Borneo—Sabah and Sarawak. (The southern portion of Borneo belongs to Indonesia.)