Climbing up the trail amidst towering rainforest trees with fig twines and epiphytes snaking on branches forming beautiful stringy sculptures, the dense canopy providing shade from the blazing heat and the gentle chirping of birds make an ideal jungle hike. My guide, Muhammad Salehuddin Jais, better known as Dean stopped dead in his tracks. He motioned us look up as we caught the sight of rustling leafs as the sun illuminated the red-orangey coat of a male orang utan. He was busy snacking on some young shoots and unperturbed with our presence. Next to us, we saw bushy giant squirrels hopping from one tree to another.
This is the Danum Valley – 43,800 hectares of endless rainforest dating back 130 million years ago. Ironically, not many, not even Malaysians know about. One of only three virgin forest lands in Sabah, Malaysia, Danum Valley is home to over 300 bird species, 110 mammals, 72 reptiles, 56 amphibians and 57 fish. My second visit here has rendered me speechless (again!) as I marvelled at the serenity and beauty of how the rainforest ecosystem works – untouched of course, nature as is.
I was on an upward trail to Coffin Cliff, where remains of an ancient burial ground is found and the highlight of this gradual climb. I arrived at an enormous limestone boulder ridden with holes on one of its surfaces and a trail leading around it overlooking the forest. This ancient burial site was discovered some 20 years ago before the only commercial accommodation was built in 1994. Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL) was set up as part of a commitment from the Sabah state government to protect and conserve this forest while promoting it as a nature-based haven for education and research. Although the masses know little about Danum Valley or BRL, the lodge continues to attracts the likes of National Geographic scientists and professors, well-known wildlife researchers, Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge and even Martha Stewart.
Staring at the hole-ridden limestone wall, I saw planks of broken wood covered with moss on a flat stone surface. I thought nothing of it until Dean pointed out that these were the remains of an ancient coffin. Several meters away from the coffin were some bones and a skeletal jaw with several teeth intact. Indeed, the Sugpan tribe that once traversed this forest considered this elevated ground a sacred place.
The Sugpan group is a sub-ethnic Dusunic group that are nomadic in nature. They depended on the forest for food and cover and would later trade with Chinese from mainland China along the Segama and Kinabatangan River. Today, the tribe has evolved from their way of life and is intermarrying, but many still hold on to their animistic roots. Today, descendants of the tribe are living along the Kinabatangan River and are known as Orang Sungai.
“It is thought that the higher you bury your loved ones, the closer you are to heaven. The Sugpan people would carry the deceased in coffins made of Belian (ironwood) and they would find holes in limestone caves to lodge the coffins,” Dean explains. This was a baffling story of strength, tenacity and grit.
“Berlian wood is so dense that it doesn’t float in water – it sinks. It is termite free too and is known to be indestructible. I can’t imagine how they brought it up here and even lowered it into the limestone crevices,” Dean adds.
I examined the skeletal remains and Dean tells me that according to carbon samples, the remains were at least 250 years old. “So do you know if this is a male or a female?,” I asked. “This is definitely a male. It is told that within the Sugpan tribe, male hunters would pull out their two front teeth to gain more force and precision when using the blowpipe to hunt. ” Dean explains. “Apparently, the Sugpan ladies find it very masculine when men lose their front teeth,” Dean supressed a laugh as I chuckled at the thought of a tooth-less hunter.
More was promised on this trail. We walked around the boulder and on a narrow trail along the ridge. There lying on the sandy ground were huge blocks of wood, one as a base and the other a cover. The wood was in better condition than the first plank we saw on the limestone platform. Its grains were so defined and its patterns so intricate. Perhaps this chunk of wood was strategically positioned to receive sunlight thereby preventing rotting moss. It also commanded unobstructed views of Danum Valley.
I was told that the coffin was that of the chieftain’s. His family carried his coffin up to the ridge and placed it there together with his blowpipe which is still seen inside the coffin. They later removed his body and sat him on top of the coffin so he can oversee his village below the cliff, where the lodge is.
Suspended coffins are not unusual as people continue to discover and visit hanging coffins in Philippines, China and Indonesia. The coffins in Danum Valley was only discovered some 20 years ago and it proves to show that this natural haven is not just for environmental and wildlife protection, but to preserve a culture and heritage that otherwise would not have been told.