Dream Design
The Reading Room

A leaf from the jungle book

Words by Lauren Romano
5 min read

If nature is the greatest teacher, then jungles are the most immersive classrooms. Teeming with a bewildering diversity of life – and home to half of all species on land – it’s worth taking the time to look to the lessons these abundant ecosystems offer us.

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Dawn breaks at Borneo Rainforest Lodge, deep in the untouched Danum Valley and the jungle stirs. Gibbons whoop in morning greeting as angle-headed lizards dart stealthily between leaves as big as lily pads. Above, orangutans swing in hypnotic synchronicity through the trees – a vivid shock of tangerine against lush green – before dangling slowly down to drink from the river.

Set in Sabah, Borneo’s northernmost state, a two-hour drive from the nearest town of Lahad Datu, waking up here is a transformative experience. As far as the eye can see, a thick quilt unravels into a 430 square kilometre swathe of untouched jungle, 130 million years in the making. A canopy walkway loops its way from the lodge through the forest, offering an elevated viewpoint to observe the unending display of wildlife.

The numbers are hard to wrap your head around. On average three new species are discovered each month in Borneo, a running tally to add to the existing 340 bird breeds, 100 types of mammals and 200 plant varieties per hectare. All have made their home in a place where nature is at its most unstoppable – and it’s there to remind you who’s in charge. For once, our smartphones are not the font of all knowledge; it’s humbling to discover how much of the world still slips under the radar unknown.

Combing the jungle with a local guide is the only way to make sense of the overwhelm. All thoughts of the 9 to 5 flutter away as fast as the fist-sized atlas moths – a goliath of the insect world here. At ground level, an army of whip scorpions, millipedes and termites scuttle across the forest floor. Observing every creature’s size, shape, sound and colour involves such concentration, that not a second thought is given to anything else. In fact, it’s proven to leave us feeling happier, calmer, and more energised.

Much like mindfulness, the jungle encourages stillness, patience and silence in order to tune into the present. It’s a deeply spiritual place too. The indigenous Sugpan tribe believed that the higher you’re buried the closer you are to heaven and ritually laid their dead to rest in the sheer-sided contours of nearby Coffin Cliff. One of the few visible human traces in the Danum Valley, Jenga-stacked iron wood caskets have been embedded into the rock face in an act of reverence, perseverance and sheer strength. It’s a reminder of the solace and significance civilisations have found in nature since time immemorial.

For other indigenous groups – like Jamaica’s Windward Maroons – the jungle symbolises freedom. Descendants of enslaved Africans escaped plantations and fled to the Blue Mountains, and their fight for survival has shaped stories and customs that create a teleport to the island’s chequered history. To this day, they’re fiercely proud of their heritage and welcome any visitors to listen.

Continue retracing this past at Strawberry Hill Hotel. Nestled in the craggy contours of the mountains, at an altitude where you can almost touch its perpetual wreath of mist, the undulating landscape offers a throwback to the Jurassic era. A unique microclimate means an awe-inspiring 350 endemic and exotic plant species have been catalogued in the tropical gardens of the hotel – many of which have sustained communities like the Maroons.

But to truly retrace the footsteps of those before us, nothing beats trekking the Blue Mountain Peak Trail with a local guide. Winding to an apex 7,402 feet above sea level, its surface is a patchwork of dense forest, moss and lichen that’s impenetrable in parts. Starting the ascent along the ancient mule trail at around 1am is the most magical time to climb. With floodlighting courtesy of the moon, and a muffled soundtrack delivered by a nocturnal chorus of unfamiliar creatures, all senses are sharpened.

The reward that awaits when the new day breaks is worth every aching muscle. A steady stream of wispy pink and bruised purple dilutes the inky black skies as dawn erupts, the rising sun slowly uncloaking the surrounding ranges from darkness. Nature’s most epic blockbuster, watching from the edge leaves you feeling exhilarated and – quite literally – on top of the world.

As Albert Einstein once mused: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”. He was right. Immersed in the jungle, these forgotten but thriving pockets of the planet serve to remind us to sit still, be silent and take note.

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