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Image credit: Sabah Tourism & Lim Sheng Haw

Swing into Sabah

David Thorndike discovers Sabah is a natural paradise, perfect for families looking for adventure and some special animal encounters.

Since childhood days, the island of Borneo has always conjured up images of ancient rainforests inhabited by mysterious tribes of headhunters, a place where civilisation was left behind the moment you stepped ashore. In 2015, it is more likely to be known as the best place to visit amazing wildlife such, as the orangutan, up close in their natural environment. The truth is, Borneo is both, and as a family holiday destination, children will experience the primitive world of man, visit our closest living relative, and enjoy all the comfort and convenience of the 21st century staying at some of the best resorts in Asia.

Royal Brunei Airlines has flights departing Melbourne twice a week, flying aboard its new RBA Dreamliner to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, from where you board a connecting flight to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

We arrived in the evening and headed straight to our accommodation at the beautiful Shangri La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa, situated on the edge of the town and looking out over the South China Sea. We were treated on arrival to a relaxing massage at CHI, The Spa, before heading to dinner at the resort’s premier restaurant, Peppino, where we had a balcony table looking out over the ocean and outlying islands. By the end of the meal, we were thoroughly relaxed and looking forward to the next day.

Exploring the resort the following morning, we found there is plenty to keep a family occupied including several swimming pools, (featuring a special shaded, shallow pool for toddlers), waterslides, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafés, and a special milkshake bar setup just for the kids.

Image credit: Sabah Tourism & Mewot

Our first stop following breakfast was the Mari Mari Cultural Village. Located in a rural area, the village operates as a museum that both preserves Borneo’s culture and aims to share the local knowledge, history and traditions by introducing guests to five different ethnic tribes. The village itself is adjacent to a crystal-clear creek that flows down from the mountain, cascading over small waterfalls and rocky outcrops as it winds its way through the village and into the rainforest beyond.

The staff on site are fully immersed in recreating life as it was hundreds of years prior to modern influences with everybody in native dress and performing daily tasks such as preparing food, weaving or taking part in traditional ceremonies. We were fortunate to be invited to try our skill with a blowpipe as well as sample some of the locally produced native beverages. Particularly impressive is one of the pre-marriage ceremonies for the tribal men, which consisted of jumping from a trampoline-like structure three metres or more into the air and snatching a piece of coloured cloth from the roof of the hut. The tour concludes with an incredible tribal dance spectacular on the main stage that is not to be missed.

A cultural encounter with the tribes of Sabah

The afternoon had us on a boat trip to Gaya Island, visiting the resort (which has beautiful overwater luxury bungalows) for lunch, as well as the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC) to see the work being carried out to conserve the Giant Clam. We began with a video presentation which gave a wonderful overview of the local marine life and the conversation work being carried out, as well as a Q&A session with a marine biologist. We then had a tour of the aquarium (be sure to let the kids find Nemo as soon as you walk in), before contributing to the future conservation of one of the local reefs by planting a piece of coral.

A True Giant Clam

Reboarding the boat we headed back to the resort for some time around the pool. If you are of a more adventurous nature, have a look at taking the boat straight to Sapi to try the Coral Flyer, a new state-of-the-art Flying Fox touted as the longest island-to-island zipline in the world! For us, though, our absolute must-do was to spend some time enjoying drinks from the resort’s aptly named Sunset Bar overlooking the water.

The next morning had us on the road to Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa. As well as being joined to the Dalit Bay Golf & Country Club (golf fanatics will definitely want to enjoy a round on this stunning course), the resort is home to Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Nature Reserve and its population of orangutans.

This was the part of the trip to which I was most looking forward. Only a few minutes’ walk from the edge of the resort, visitors spend the first 20 minutes at the Orangutan Education Centre learning about these magnificent animals (as well as the other species that call the reserve home) before the short walk up the mountain to a timber viewing platform, where there is a purpose-built orangutan playground consisting of rope bridges and tree platforms to entice the orangutans down for their feed.

Image credit: Sabah Tourism & Melissa Ewot

Image credit: Sabah Tourism & Melissa Ewot

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