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High jinks in the jungle

ISSUE 5
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You're never too young for an adventure, as Lauren Jarvis discovers on a family trip to Borneo


"Dale a tu cuerpo alegria, Macarena, Hey Macarena! Ay!" The unmistakable chant of Los del Río carries on the air as a troop of grinning, arm-waving kids and sweaty, hip-shaking parents jump around with unabashed enthusiasm. We could be at an end-of-term disco in Bournemouth, but instead, the infectious tune has brought together locals and travellers in a remote village on the banks of the Kinabatangan River, deep in the forests of Malaysian Borneo.


My husband Saeed and I, friends Cath and Richard and their children, Hannah, Katie and Seb, are on a family tour of Sarawak and Sabah. Our random dance-off happens while waiting to catch a boat. Today's cultural lesson: Wherever you are in the world, nobody can resist the Macarena. Even in Borneo.


With its wild, untamed reputation, Borneo may not be an obvious choice for a family holiday, but take a chance on this almost mythical land, with its thick rainforest, untouched beaches and dazzling diversity of people and wildlife, and you'll discover an adventure playground that will capture the imaginations of children and adults alike.


"The good thing about joining an organised tour with the kids," comments Cath as we board the plane at Heathrow, "is that it's adventurous, but there's a safety net." Our safety net comes in the form of Sheila, a smiley local guide who greets us at Kuching airport after our 16-hour flight via Kuala Lumpur, and whose job it will be to steer us safely around the island for the next 12 days. Joining us are two more families from the UK: Clare and Mike with kids Alex, Dan, Jack and Kate, and dad Edward with his son, Bertie. With eight children aged 11 to 18 on board, keeping everyone happy could be tricky. Will Borneo meet the challenge?


After a night to acclimatise in Sarawak's capital, Kuching, we travel an hour from the city by bus and transfer to boats that speed us into the wilderness of Bako National Park.


"It's like James Bond!" says Jack. At 17, when it comes to cool ways to travel, speedboat is right up there – which is lucky, as there's a lot of boat travel in Borneo. The island's interior is sparsely populated with remote communities and tangles of tropical rainforest pushing against the onslaught of the booming palm oil industry. Many places, like Bako, can only be reached by river, which makes for an exciting trip.


We drop our gear at the lodge and have lunch in the restaurant, under the protection of two slingshot-wielding 'monkey-monitors'. The kids giggle as the park's opportunistic macaques dodge flying stones and make a play for their snacks. "Should monkeys drink Coke?" asks Alex, pointing at one casually downing a can up a tree. Who needs a Happy Meal when lunch is this much fun?


Heading into the forest, we spot bearded pigs, silvered langurs and rare proboscis monkeys. Prompting "Awws!" from the girls and sniggers from the boys, a family of the floppy-nosed primates stares at us through the trees, no doubt thinking we're pretty funny looking too.


Later, under a sky full of stars, the forest comes alive. A night safari uncovers flying lemurs, emerald snakes, tiny tree frogs and curious stick insects – confirming the world's third-largest island as one of the planet's biodiversity hotspots.


meeting the headhunters


Next morning, it seems the kids have learned the hard way that the forest never sleeps. Katie's yawning thanks to the lizards hunting bugs above her head all night and Bertie's bleary eyed, after a surprise visit from a friendly rat. "It scoffed my emergency Oreo cookies!" he protests. In Borneo, you're never far from nature.


"Will they chop off our heads?" asks Kate, as our canoe pulls up to the river bank. We're about to meet the Iban tribe – the legendary Headhunters of Borneo. Headhunting was once a common practice by Iban warriors, who believed that by taking the head of an enemy, you gained their soul. We're told that this is no longer the done thing, which is vaguely reassuring until we're ushered into the Chief's house to gather around something suspiciously head-shaped on the floor. "It's a real-life head..." whispers Hannah, "... in a basket!"


"Wicked!" says Dan, as if every home should have one. The skull is respectfully passed round for photos, while the Chief shows us his spears and tattoo-covered back, the marks of a successful warrior. After an hour, we say our thank-yous and emerge into the bright sunlight, heads thankfully intact.


That night, we stay in a traditional Iban longhouse. Climbing wooden steps up to the house which is raised on stilts, we enter the ruai. This covered gallery stretches the full 100-metre length of the house, with rooms leading off one side, each of them home to one of the 37 families that make up this Iban community.


After a welcome drink of local (and lethal) rice wine, we join in a family feast, sitting cross-legged on the floor and sharing deliciously spiced traditional dishes with rice and noodles. After dinner, we join in Iban dances and offer gifts of food to the Chief, before falling asleep on comfortable mattresses on the floor.


swinging from vines


Cockerels wake us at dawn and, after a breakfast of eggs and noodles, we canoe upriver to explore the forest. Lunch is a picnic on the riverbank, with overhanging vines providing the perfect Tarzan-style swinging contest, before everyone floats home along the tea-coloured waterway, much to the bemusement of the locals.


Back in the village, there's limited electricity and no WiFi, but the usually constantly connected kids show no signs of tech withdrawal. Instead, they play Monopoly and football with the Iban and learn how to shoot a blowpipe (for once, no apps needed).


A day later, we're taking the three-hour flight to Sandakan in Sabah for the highlight of our trip – an afternoon with Borneo's most famous residents, orang-utans. With the island's wild population in decline due to poaching and habitat loss, a visit to a rehabilitation centre like Sepilok offers more certainty of a close encounter with the apes.


Lured by fruit on platforms in Sepilok's protected forest reserve, the rescued orang-utans swing down from the trees at feeding time as part of a programme to reintroduce them to the wild. We stay for a couple of magical hours, watching them play and munch on rambutans before heading to our lodge, clutching more than a few cuddly souvenirs.


farewell to the island


Before flying home, there's time to explore the Kinabatangan River, one of Malaysia's richest wildlife regions. On a late afternoon cruise, we're offered one last gift, discovering a small herd of pygmy elephants bathing at the water's edge. A full moon rises to light up the river and guide us back to our camp, as the kids sing their farewells to the island.


We've been together less than two weeks, but nothing bonds people like amazing adventures, and Borneo has served them up daily. The children's initial shyness has disappeared and now they're a tight group, drawn together by the excitement of sharing new experiences and discoveries. It's as if they've been – and will be – friends forever. Parting at the end of our journey, there's already talk of a reunion, cuddly monkeys and a re-run of the Macarena included, and I know our Borneo adventure will be something we'll remember forever.

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