Nestled in the dense forests of Ulu Muda forest, The Earth Lodge is one of the most unique and remote lodges in all of Southeast Asia. It provides an adventure guests will likely remember for the rest of their lives. Here, co-founder of Experience Travel Group, Tom, reviews his experience of this stunning rainforest lodge.
Arriving at the poorly-signed Muda Jetty we found a simple floating pontoon jutting out onto the vast lake, with a handful of local fisherman talking amongst themselves. After locating our guide, we boarded a small longtail boat and made the beginning of the hour and a half journey to the lodge.
It doesn’t take long on the boat before you realise you are going somewhere special. The view gets increasingly more spectacular the further away from the dam and the jetty you travel, with numerous bends revealing the huge and often hidden scale of the lake. After about 40 minutes, the lake narrows and you enter the Muda River – a shallow, narrow and winding body of water flanked by the enormous and hugely diverse flora of the Ulu Muda Forest. Navigating through rocks, passing small tributaries and floating tree trunks you continue your journey deeper up the river into the heart of the jungle until a small sign lets you know you have arrived at the Earth Lodge.
Meeting us at the central dining area is Hymeir, the man behind the project, albeit somewhat by mistake. Hymeir worked in the field of conservation for years with the WWF across Malaysia and never really imagine running a lodge. However, when local authorities started to construct what is now the Earth Lodge, Hymeir protested that the project was a risk to the delicate natural environment and campaigned to have construction stopped. When he failed in this approach, it became clear to him that the only way forward was to run the venture himself. He successfully applied for the lease and, over half a decade later, has now found himself as an experienced adventure lodge host running a small team of local people he also recruited from the conservation field.
Accommodation at Earth Lodge is in a selection of simple wooden bungalows with private verandas. Basic mattresses adorn the bedrooms, while the small bathrooms have sit down toilets and cold showers (given the location and the pristine nature of the environment, water is pumped directly from the river and no drilling has been done into the ground). There is no phone signal (Hymer has a satellite phone in case of an emergency) or electricity, although they do run a small generator for a few hours a night. Simple yet hearty meals are taken together, cooked by the small yet dedicated crew who do everything from driving the boats to guiding on jungle walks.
However, the accommodation at the Earth Lodge is not the reason to visit – it’s the activities and excursions where the real magic takes place. With his passion for the local environment and in depth knowledge of the wildlife that abounds, Hymeir really is a guide par excellence. During our two night, three day stay we tried many of the lodge’s main activities and could easily have stayed longer.
We loved the trekking and caving expedition, which lasted most of our first full day. Hiking through the dense rain forest, criss-crossing streams and ducking under fallen tree trunks, the walk lasted about five hours in total, including breaks and a relaxed packed lunch by a stream. Being an area of extreme biodiversity, the provided leach prevention socks are essential and did an admirable job. The hike is interspersed with exploring a large limestone cave with fascinating rock formations. Hymeir is also a keen caver and a fountain of knowledge on all things geological and really brought to life the wonder and mystery of the cave.
Another great activity is river tubing; a relaxing activity where you lay back on inflatable tyre tubes to float leisurely along a nearby river. This is a very special and peaceful way to take in the epic surroundings. Towards the end of this trip, roughly a kilometre before the Earth Lodge we encountered a very unique spot. Joining the cool river is a stream a couple of metres wide which emanates from a nearby hot spring. In this serene place we lazed for hours in the warm waters, soaking up the views and our general sense of fortune just to be there.
The Earth Lodge’s signature trip is the late afternoon boat ‘drift’ downstream, which you can partake in every day you are there. With the boat engines off, your guides use bamboo poles to control the speed that you float down the river, taking in the sights and sounds at leisure and in great tranquillity. Using walkie talkies to keep communicate between the boats, Hymer explains the flora and fauna that you encounter as you go. On occasions the boats will also stop to explore nearby mineral lakes or spots of interest in the jungle. We saw a plethora of bird species, including four different types of Hornbill (there are a staggering ten different Hornbill species in the Ula Muda forest alone) and frolicking otters on the river banks. The real treat and highlight of the trip was saved for the last moment though, when we witnessed a herd of wild elephants crossing the river immediately in front on our boats.
Surprisingly, this expanse of forest is still technically unprotected and doesn’t enjoy national park status, not yet anyway. Remarkably though, it remains pristine and in desperate need of careful management to ensure its riches are not threatened. The forest covers over 160,000 hectares and is known to be home to herds of elephants, barking deer, samabr, wild boar, as well as guars, tigers and leopards. An incredible 306 bird species have so far been documented within Ulu Muda, along with a wide range of reptiles, insects and amphibians. Hymeir also runs all sorts of scientific field research projects and community conservation initiatives through the Earth Lodge, including a new project to educate people to identify elephants individually, so that more accurate data can be harvested from the people who see the animals most often.
The Earth Lodge is one of the most wild and remote lodges I have visited in Southeast Asia, and great credit must go to Hymeir and his small team for the vision they have had to get the project off the ground and the passion that it takes to keep the place going – this is not an easy place to run a lodge when you consider the logistics of getting everything in and out alongside the sustainable and environmentally-friendly ethos that pervades throughout everything they do. The lodge operates on a deliberately low occupancy level to keep the impact on the environment to a minimum and to allow the team to really put their hearts into looking after each guest with such attention to detail.
Whilst the wild nature of the place (leeches, spiders as big as my hand, elephant dung on the lodge path) might be a bit too extreme for some people, if you are really looking to experience the spectacular scenery and wildlife of this region up close (and with incredibly detailed information) I could find very few places to recommend as highly as the Earth Lodge and will personally treasure the experiences and memories of the time I was so fortunate to spend there.
If you’re interested in including a stay at Earth Lodge as part of a longer holiday to Malaysia, do get in touch on 020 3603 0953 or email us here. For more travel inspiration, why not download our exclusive travel guide? It’s brimful of suggested experiences, inspiring places to stay and lots of practical info.