'Borneo wasn't at all what I expected. It's exactly why you need to go.'

Thanks to our brand partner, Intrepid

Going somewhere you’ve never been before is one of life’s great pleasures.

Still, it’s an option you feel less inclined to take as you get older, when you feel like you’ve settled into what you like and where you like. Familiar pleasures, predictable outcomes, established traditions, it’s all an offer of guaranteed return. 

But the next time I am tempted to give into that safe option, I just need to close my eyes and conjure up the first day my family spent in Borneo, exploring a city that not only had I never been to, but I had likely never even heard of, until a few months before. 

Kota Kinabalu is coastal. It has a famous, historic port. Tropical islands to snorkel just a short boat ride away. A stunning floating mosque in the city’s centre. Sunset markets that run along the sand. At night, the inner city streets fill with food stalls selling everything from freshly cut fruit to beef curries to bubble tea, to seafood… You get the picture. Shopping, sights, smells, and tastes that signal from every angle that you are away. 

Kota Kinabalu is in Sabah, the area of northern Borneo that’s officially part of Malaysia. It’s also the area explored on our tour, the Intrepid 9 Day Borneo Family Holiday, that started from here and took in everything from a jungle eco lodge stay to an island inhabited by giant turtles and an emotional visit to an Australian war memorial that takes your breath away with its scale and sadness. 

Here are just some of the other unexpected things that happened when we toured Sabah on a family adventure.


Never again will I think tours are for backpackers.

Image: Supplied. 

A small group adventure takes you to all the places you would probably not be able to go if you travelled to Borneo on your own. But also, it provides an immediate kid-gang for the children, and some lovely down time for burnt-out parents.

Never again will I think tours are for backpackers. 

Intrepid has tours for everyone, Borneo Family Holiday is perfect for families like ours, Sabah Adventure is designed for social travellers, and Classic Borneo is tailored for those of us who are empty nesters.


We hiked through a jungle at night.

I have never stayed anywhere as special as the jungle eco resort at Kopel. Local eco tourism operates out of Kopel where locals have mobilised to save their spectacular environment from the palm-tree plantations that threaten the rainforests of Borneo. 

At Kopel, young people learn to be guides, taking guests like us on adventures through the forest to see orangutans, proboscis monkeys (they’ve got big noses) and, at the right time of year, elephants. Travel is by boat, and two nights sleeping in a stilted hut in the jungle with my daughter, being sung to sleep under my mosquito net by monkeys and birds was extraordinary. 

More extraordinary still was the jungle adventure of going for a walk after dark with flashlights. Nothing but the sound of our feet crunching through the forest as we hunted out spiders and birds and the elusive striped civet cat.

We never get bored of monkeys.

Image: Supplied. 


On our first day in the rainforest, my son says to our guide, Adam (Intrepid uses local guides and transport everywhere they go), “I don’t believe I’m going to see monkeys." And Adam laughed. 

Because about five minutes later, the trees around the boat we were travelling on, heading up river to our camp, started to shake and shriek. It was the beginning of a primate smorgasbord – grey macaques and proboscis, silver leaf monkeys and yes, even orangutans – that all call Borneo home. 

It didn’t matter how many we saw. Their swinging and skipping and coming right up to us, hands outstretched – we never got tired of them. 

And Billy saw more than one monkey. He saw about a million. 

We cried.

Borneo has an inter-locking history with Australia, and some of it is dark. 

In Sandakan, there’s an impressive memorial park to the many, many men, plenty of whom were Australian, who were interned at the Prisoner Of War camp here. It’s where the infamous, grim Death Marches of World War II began, and very few men survived those terrible journeys. 


It’s a deeply moving place. 

If that sounds a bit macabre, let me assure you that those moving moments we spent talking to the kids about those horrors, about the bravery of both the prisoners and the locals who risked their lives trying to save them, are part of an educational canon they won’t forget now, one that gave them context for the atrocities of war, and exercised their imaginations to think about what had happened, once, exactly where they stood. 

It should never be forgotten. 

I visited the beach of my life.

Image: Supplied. 


Turtle Island is the last stop on Intrepid's Borneo Family Holiday, and it’s a boat ride from Sandakan, in Eastern Borneo. 

We were there to watch turtles come onland to lay their eggs, and we did. But also, in the lead up to sunset on this tiny little paradise where no more than 50 people can be on land at any one time, we spent the day snorkelling. And with a fringing reef, water as warm as a bath and crystal clear, it was one of the greatest beach days of my life. 

Sometimes I just travel back there in my head to remember what it was like to be in a protected paradise with a purpose (to save the turtles from almost certain extinction). It was glorious.

My fussy child tries new food.

Image: Supplied. 


But the food, people said, when they heard we were going to Malaysia with children. What will they eat? 

You might have a kid like mine, who, for a variety of reasons, eats about four things on repeat. But a remarkable thing happened in Borneo. Food in KK (that’s what we locals call Kota Kinabalu, lol) is multicultural, plentiful and varied. Which is exactly what Billy doesn’t like. 

But there, away from the safety nets of home, he started his chicken and rice tour of Borneo, and pretty much everywhere we went, from a street-side restaurant to the group dinners every night served anywhere from a hotel restaurant to an eco lodge in the middle of the jungle, he’d find himself a version of that and eat it without fuss. And the rest of us ate beautiful fresh veggies with our curries and stir fries, fresh fruit and local fish. 

Food was not a problem at all. 

We made memories. Cheesy, but true.

Image: Supplied. 


We’ve been back from the jungle for a while now. 

The smells and tastes of Borneo have faded a little in all our minds. But we talk about it all the time. 

Meals we ate and people we met and animals we saw. Stories we heard and history we learned. What I’ve learned about family life after 14 years of parenthood is that you have to savour the brilliant snapshots while they’re here and while they last. And the experience of us all going somewhere new, together at the same time is a core memory now. We’ll still be talking about it when the kids have kids.

I can guarantee it.

Visit Intrepid Travel to plan your next trip to Sabah, Borneo. 

Feature Image: Supplied. 

Intrepid Travel is a world leader in sustainable experience-rich travel that has been taking travellers to discover the world's most amazing places for more than 30 years. Our mission is to create positive change through the joy of travel. We offer more than 1,150 trips on every continent and every one is designed to truly experience local culture. With our own network of destination management companies in 26 countries, Intrepid has unique local expertise and perspectives. Globally renowned as a leader in responsible travel, in 2018 our carbon-neutral business became the world’s largest travel company to be certified B-Corp.