From the Danum Valley Field Centre near Lahad Datu in Sabah, Rizauddin Ibrahim ventures into the rainforest to experience its flora and fauna
IT’S still very early in the morning, just after dawn, as the darkness of the night begins to change into dim light with the rising sun. The sound of chirping birds and noises made by myriad of insects wake me up from my sleep.
This is how the day begins in the tropical rainforest of Danum Valley, about 70km west of Lahad Datu in Sabah. But it’s an unusual experience for my wife and me. It’s very different from our normal morning that begins with the sound of cars and motorcycles.
We’re staying at Danum Valley Field Centre, one of the world’s renowned scientific facilities for lowland tropical rainforest. The centre was set up in 1986 for the purposes of research, education, training and wilderness recreation.
Run by Yayasan Sabah on behalf of the Danum Valley Management Committee, it provides lodgings and extensive facilities for students, scientists and researchers.
The lodging and hospitality provided in the centre are not star-rated like in a holiday resort.
Even electricity is only available from 7am to 11pm. It’s not a luxurious vacation destination but a place to learn more about the rainforest. This is not a place to hang out in the room as all the action and sighting are out there.
MORNING IN THE WILDS
Our first lesson: Morning is the best time to go outdoors. The life of the rainforest denizens starts early. So we make it a point to take a walk in the compound every morning throughout our stay to see wildlife. And it’s been fruitful. We manage to see long tail macaque, giant squirrel, red leaf monkey and birds like black-and-red broadbill and leaf bird.
Even without wildlife sighting, we love our morning walk because at that early hour of the day, the valley is at its most peaceful and picturesque. With the centre’s wonderful setting along Segama River, the early morning view is always soothingly beautiful. This includes a suspension bridge that spans Segama River.
The best spot to view this picturesque sight is at the beach of Segama River. The cascading river flows between jagged boulders, the suspension walking bridge in the background, and thin mist that is still clinging on vegetation at the river bank.
This bridge has a certain aura. Maybe it’s the archaic appearance that looms in the morning mist or the fact that it connects the untouched world of jungle wilderness.
The aura is more compelling with the presence of whiskered tree swift birds on this bridge. Like a guardian spirit, they perch unperturbedly on the bridge metal cable, only to fly away when we get too close to them.
Not wanting to be contented with the morning ambience at the centre, we want to see how the sun rises over the rainforest of Danum Valley. We make an arrangement for a sunrise trip to the viewing point 8km from the centre.
So this morning, we wake up extra early as our 4x4 ride is waiting to take us to the viewing point, a five-storey observation tower perched on a small hill called Bukit Atur. The purpose of this tower is for forest management to monitor the condition of the forest canopy and see signs of forest fires.
Here, in the cold and darkness of the pre-dawn hour, we clamber up to its highest deck and wait for first sun ray of the day. Once the light slowly descends, we get a magnificent 360-degree view of Danum Valley’s forest canopy covered by thick fog that spread like a sea of cotton.
ON THE FOREST FLOOR
To really explore the jungle, we have to get down to the forest floor. There are 50km of marked trails that start from the centre, which includes a self-guided nature trail — the first trail we take after arriving at the centre.
Basically, the 500m loop trail is an introduction to the Danum Valley’s forest. Part of this trail has a boardwalk which eases the walk. Without it, it will be a trudge through the layer of damp, dead leaves and creeping roots.
The boardwalk also helps to prevent degradation of the soil due to constant tramping over by visitors and to prevent them from stepping on plants and creepers on the forest floor.
There are also an observation tower and a tree platform along this trail. The former is a 10m high wooden structure while the other is a platform built 40m on the tree trunk.
Climbing it is via a metal ladder attached into the tree trunk and ascending vertically to the two platforms on the tree. We choose to climb the less challenging observation tower and get among the middle strata of forest.
Another trail that we try is the Coffin Trail. For this, we are accompanied by a forest ranger. This trail takes us to an ancient burial site of indigenous Orang Sungai. The trail starts from the suspension walking bridge at the other side of Segama River.
We reach the burial site after about an hour’s hike. The site is inside a shallow cave comprising a huge boulder at a hillside terrain that overlooks Segama River below. Orang Sungai people believed the spirits of hill and water usher the dead away to other world. In the cave are coffins made from Bornean iron wood and ceramic jars that contain bones of the dead.
There are also trails to two waterfalls — Tembaling Falls and Purut Falls. The latter takes four hours to reach. It is highly recommended to stay overnight at a nearby campsite. We choose the former which only takes two hours to reach. The Tembaling waterfall is a small fall with a pool, ideal for swimming.
The hike to get there is wonderful as the forest ranger points out many interesting flora and fauna that our untrained eyes will not notice.
Our hiking trips in the forest of Danum Valley is an out-of-this world experience. First, we find ourselves dwarfed by huge tree trunks that rise straight up to more than 70 metres. These trees are among the world’s highest.
High above, the trees branch out into broad leafy canopy. It’s like an enormous umbrella that blocks sunlight from reaching the forest floor which makes the forest floor perpetually gloomy. We can feel the humidity while the air is warm and still.
Once our eyes have adjusted to the dim light, there is plenty to look for. This due to the fact that the biome in the rainforest depend on each other to live. So among the big trees, we find orchids and myriad kinds of fungi, including the tiny fairy cup fungi.
Off course our top wish is to see the wildlife. We find butterflies, insects and other invertebrate. But the four-legged animals are hard to spot in the rainforest. Their presence are only marked by various calls or the sound of rustling leaves. They are not exactly shy but they avoid any contact with humans which they consider as their top predator. They either flee, hide or camouflage themselves when our presence is detected.
We are lucky to find a Bornean Horned Frog for this amphibian is good in disguising itself in the surroundings. Its colour, marks and shape which include its pointed nose and two pointed projections above its eyes make it look like leaf litter on the forest floor.
So, finding it is consider lucky. I almost step on it. Luckily it jumped between my feet.
The best way to see wildlife is to go on night safari drive which can be arranged by the centre. We just need to hop on the back of pickup truck. While the driver focuses on the path, the ranger, who is armed with a powerful spotlight, acts as the spotter, looking out for wildlife in the dark jungle.
Lucky for us, we haven’t even driven out of the centre compound when the ranger spots a sambar deer. Wait, not one but a herd of them!
According to our ranger, the sambar deer always appears at dusk to graze the area.
Still within the compound, we then see an owl. It is a big buffy fish owl perched on a building roof. Further down the forest road, we see a flying squirrel and sleeping birds. They are a female great argus pheasant, crested-serpent eagle and black-crowned pitta.
And the best part about “holidaying” at Danum Valley?
The undergraduate researchers, scientists or research assistants who provide engaging conversation about wildlife in Danum Valley rainforest.