“We have a lead, they also stole our tampons.” There is a calm, controlled authority about Chelsee’s voice that reignites a tiny flicker of hope in me, where none ought to exist. Without a moment’s hesitation, she disappears into the undergrowth and I follow her lead. Lotte, meanwhile, is holding our beach camp in the event of an unlikely counter-attack by our cunning opponent.

With a two decade track record in losing electronic equipment creatively whilst travelling, it was only a matter of time before something happened in Africa. On this occasion, however, I have outdone even myself. Having returned to our beach headquarters to see our bags unzipped, my phone missing, Chelsee’s passport out in the open and most of our possessions scattered haphazardly all over the blanket, I automatically assumed that an opportunist local had taken advantage of our short walk to the sea to misappropriate some of our belongings. But a closer inspection of the crime scene reveals a half-eaten chocolate bar, a shredded bag of sweet chili Fritos and the disappearance of a dozen of Tampax’s finest. The perpetrators of this misdemeanour become apparent: we have been robbed by a troop of monkeys.

Once I recover from both the absurdity of the situation and the by now familiar sinking feeling, I cannot help but get carried away by the enthusiasm of my Dutch travel companion. As a veterinary nurse with first-hand behavioural knowledge of the vervet monkey, she is the ideal supersleuth to pursue this investigation; within minutes of tracking their movements, we are entering the monkeys’ natural habitat deep inside the tree canopy and find their lair almost immediately. It is a veritable treasure trove of discarded stolen goods not to their taste: shoes, bangles and other assorted shiny objects, even a leather satchel; but no mobile phone, sadly.

Thanks for the warning, South Africa. Thanks a lot…

Whilst I would typically use such a situation to curse either my own stupidity or the evil of mankind, on this occasion I am not even upset; in fact I am more than a little amused by our fruitless search and rescue operation. And I am simply happy to be here, in such fine company, because I shouldn’t be here. Two nights ago I was in Swaziland, with the intention to move on to Mozambique the following day. But a chance hostel discussion between the two Dutch girls I had already met and Tom, a gigantic Norwegian viking who had just sat down to eat his dinner at our table, led to an offer of a lift to Sodwana Bay, a South African diving mecca in almost completely the opposite direction to that which I had intended to take.

The most precious commodity of any extended backpacking trip is not money or time, however beneficial to its overall enjoyment and duration they both may be, but the sheer unadulterated freedom that comes of having no fixed itinerary, logistical deadline or pre-booked accommodation to respect. As distant and semi-faded memories of  The Real World, The Office and The Daily Commute briefly remind me of the shackles of normality, I choose to seize the first real opportunity for unplanned adventure on this voyage: a spontaneous road trip to an unknown destination with three total strangers.

In a tiny Ford Figo splitting at the seams with backpacks and bags, the Norwegian man-mountain and I slot Tetris-like into the available space: the Backseat Boys are founded, to be driven by the Spicy Girls. The six hour journey passes by in a non-stop medley of group sing-along and the unexpected bonus of a free safari as the state road to the coast allows us passage through a private game reserve. But it is after the giraffes, rhino and buffalo, at our destination that the prize for my itinerary improvisation truly reveals itself: the last available accommodation at our chosen lodgings is a four bed beach villa, complete with kitchen and outdoor barbecue area: available and ours for the princely sum of £6.50 per person.

And so, when I lose the thirty-ninth mobile phone of my adult life to a bloody vervet monkey the following day, I still manage to smile and enjoy our afternoon at the beach. Because I have the evening to look forward to; between mixing drinks, setting up the braai and bonfire, marinating vegetables and preparing side dishes, Tom, Lotte, Chelsee and I are each allocated our dinner soirée duties. This is our time, our place, and the interaction is natural and effortless, like flatmates on the shortest of tenancies.

With our two hammocks swaying in the gentle evening breeze and the wonderful aroma of porterhouse steaks sizzling on the braai, this is one of those moments and decisions that define my very philosophy of travel: not the world heritage sites or wonders of the world; not the beautiful gothic cathedrals or towering medieval fortresses; not even the secluded unspoiled beaches; no, it is just the simple, spontaneous and genuine pleasure derived from sharing a seaside cabana and a short escapade with three complete but like-minded strangers, playing cards and drinking cocktails late into the night in front of the glowing embers of a sandpit fire.

Braai + sandpit + hammocks = home sweet home

The braai masters at work

Nothing like a book burning to round off an evening…

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