Why Bali's Green Camp is the most fun you can have on a family adventure

Raft building, mud wrestling, night safaris... oh my! A family-friendly holiday amidst the jungle at Green Camp, Bali, is anything but your typical kids’ club vacation.

A group of people rafting down the Ayung river in Bali.
  • Sue White
  • March 2020

“Ollie! Ollie! Ollie!” As a dozen people aged five to 50 chant my son’s name, I resist the urge to bite my fingernails. Instead, I force myself to gaze skyward as my five-year-old inches further and further up the seemingly endless coconut tree. He is secure, of course (as secure as a climbing harness and rope can be), but still, I am his mother and it is a long way from comforting terra firma.

I try to forget that I could be lying by a pool in nearby Ubud right now instead of testing my boundaries in the jungle. Still, that’s the point of Green Camp: a chance to enjoy a different type of family bonding beyond the usual “flop and drop” holiday most people think of when heading to Bali.

Run by the world-renowned Green School people, and located near it in Badung, Green Camp offers programs for kids, youth and families throughout the year.

Experiences range from one to 14 days; including a three-day, two-night family camp which suits children five to 14 and their parents.

Young children being guided in a fun educational activity at Bali's Green Camp
Green Camp offers experiences suitable for kids of various ages.

We have signed up for a sustainability-focused family holiday camp in the jungles of Bali, the hands-on camps combine education in nature and eco consciousness with Balinese culture, offering nonstop fun and a unique opportunity for parents and kids to connect. Together with nine other families from across the globe, we’ll be mud wrestling, building – and riding – our own bamboo rafts and hanging out sans tech screens in a peaceful natural environment.

Exploring the two-storey lodge my son and I are sharing with another family, I realise this is a bit more luxurious than your average campsite – the striking bamboo building is comfortably appointed with mosquito-netted beds, couches and a tea station. Oh, and a composting toilet – two actually – which require the use of water and sawdust, not just paper. That is a few steps up from the recycled toilet paper usage I was feeling so smug about at home.

A study in sustainable design

Our education begins right here – the lodge’s thoughtful design, with high ceilings providing natural cooling and the outdoors seamlessly integrating with the indoor space, is a lesson in sustainable living. Outside, butterflies hover and frogs croak in the lush gardens. Wandering along its plant-lined paths, I breathe in the fresh air and am enveloped with two emotions I rarely experience simultaneously: there’s a deep sense of peace and a mini adrenaline rush from knowing that an adventure lies ahead.

A group of people walking through rice fields in Bali.
You are surrounded by beautiful nature every step of the way at Green Camp.

While adventures are important features of our weekend, so is getting a sense of Bali’s unique culture. The program starts with a session that sees families from South Korea, China, Chile and Australia delving into a typical Balinese tradition – making canang sari, the small offerings filled with flowers that are found in every home. It is slow, but we are told that the locals – old and young – quickly learn to be fast: each household needs at least 20 canang a day. Ollie and I have better luck with our second task – the large fruit offering known as gebogan. Even with a 30-minute time limit, ours looks good, although my decision to let my son design it leads to a higher than traditional muffin-to-fruit ratio.

Young kids making a gebogan, a Balinese temple offering of fruit.
Making traditional Balinese fruit offerings is one of the immersive cultural experiences at the camp.

The majority of the weekend is focused on working with our children or with other families, but we do take one session apart. While the kids pound and melt chocolate from cacao, we tour the world-famous Green School (just in case we feel enthused to make this sort of lifestyle slightly more permanent), a short stroll away across the Ayung River.

What makes Green School special

Green School is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading environmental campuses, where children from across the globe – including the kids of tech billionaires and celebrities – learn to be “changemakers” of the future. It was recently named as a School of the Future in a World Economic Forum report and currently has more than 800 children between ages three and 18 attending its courses. A new Green School has just opened in New Zealand and other locations are set to launch in South Africa and Mexico.

On the tour of the school in Bali, we inspect the bamboo classroom buildings that inspire architects from around the world and hear about the after-school program for local kids (the programs, covered partially through Green Camp fees, are not paid in Indonesian rupiah but by the student bringing in five kilos of rubbish at the start of each semester).

Inspiring bamboo architecture at Green School
The camps usually include a tour of Green School for the parents.

We also discuss how Green School, founded by the visionary jewellery designer turned eco-warrior John Hardy, manages to not only generate all of its own power but also sell excess back to the grid. “Locals thought the founder was crazy when he started building here,” says our smiling facilitator, Ryan, a former primary school teacher who says Green Camp is his dream job because he gets to camp 24/7.

Adventure activities galore

Back at our camp, Day Two dawns like most in Bali – hot and sunny – although today us adults will be working hard to keep up with our kids. First comes rafting, a task that is harder than it sounds given we have less than an hour to design and construct the vessel that will later carry us down the Ayung River, our only tools being tyres, rubber, bamboo and a pair of scissors. Again, Ollie dictates the terms and as the only child in our building team of four, he lands a position on his own “tiered” tyre in the centre of our raft: a design that not only keeps him secure but makes him feel like a king as we float down the Ayung. The water is low but although that means we have no fear of being soaked by raging rapids, the buckets of water thrown on us by Green Camp staff running alongside on the riverbanks do the job superbly.

A smiling activities guide standing amidst rice fields and holding up a flag.
The friendly guides make every experience as fun as they are educational.

While rafting followed by climbing those incredibly high coconut trees would be plenty of adrenaline for one day, today’s program also includes something my son has been looking forward to all week: an exhilarating but exhausting session of Mepantigan, a Balinese martial art conducted in a large pit of mud. Much to Ollie’s pleasure, adults and children alike emerge covered, although the mandatory hugs at the end of each wrestling round mean there are no hard feelings among our wrestling pairs.

We quickly fall into a rhythm, embracing Green Camp’s three-part approach to adventure (every activity should be fun, safe and help you learn something). I enjoy each activity – from building bamboo egg slides and painting with natural dyes to, surprise, surprise, mud wrestling – as much as Ollie, with the possible exception of the night safari where I am sure the poor snakes that were pulled out of trees for a show-and-tell would have preferred being left to snooze in peace.

A group of people having fun while practising Balinese martial art Mepantigan
Kids will love trying out mud-wrestling, just one of the adventure activities at Green Camp.

All this shared activity leads to some fairly quick bonding. By the second day, parents talk and talk, swapping stories of child rearing across the globe; kids take off together to play; and my son goes from shy to downright talkative, breaking only to play with Lemon the cat or wait his turn to bang the gong that calls everyone to each activity. The only complaint from a Byron Bay couple is that their daughters are so busy with other kids they barely see them, while another parent confesses that after the previous week lolling around poolside in Bali, the idea of a schedule – even a fun one – has required a mental shift.

Conversations flow easily, especially during the communal meals enjoyed in the dining room looking out onto the trees, or on cushions and low tables in an upstairs nook. We enjoy mostly plant-based local delicacies such as leafy moringa curry, gado gado and spicy eggplant, with many of the ingredients grown on-site and served on banana leaf-covered natural fibre plates.

Our final evening, as we sit side by side on the floor eating with our hands, as is custom in the megibung (traditional Balinese banquet) we are tucking into, Ollie offers a concise commentary rarely heard from a young child in the context of tofu: “They really have good cooks here,” he says.

Young children at an art workshop at Green Camp Bali.
No one minds have a packed schedule of activities when they are so much fun.

Nodding, I mentally add this to my list of the dozens of moments we will treasure as a family, alongside all the new skills we’ve both learned.

Because, back at that coconut tree, it wasn’t only the kids who scaled great heights this weekend. When he rappelled back down to earth, Ollie had just four words for me: “Your turn now, Mum.”

Explore more of Bali with the family. Here is an insider guide to the best family-friendly activities on the island.