Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Mystery of the Missing Treasure

Picture me last Saturday night hunched over the kitchen table, armed with the Dangerous Book for Boys, a squeezed lemon, empty fountain pen and a candle.

I'd had over a month to prepare for our son's detective birthday party, mulled ideas around in my head, but I'm beginning to suspect that I'm an adrenaline junkie. Not for me the thrill of a rollercoaster or bungy jumping, I get my fix by playing chicken with deadlines, at least as far as birthday parties are concerned. Once I was a student leaving essays till the day before they were due, now I'm a Mum with fourteen children all expecting the Mystery of the Missing Treasure the next day and only a vague outline in my head. That stress is necessary to spark the creative juices when it comes to thinking up treasure hunts for my children's birthday parties. There are three a year. Each one needs a new theme, a new slant on the clues, a new story and new edge of desperado cutting it fine, thinking up clues only an hour before the guests arrive.

This bunch of newly ten year olds needed a step up from my tried and tested formula of following a trail of clues. Last year the older ones seemed a trifle jaded. Veterans of the 5 previous years' parties, they already knew all the best places for clues on our farm. This year we needed an added element.

So The Dangerous Book for Boys revealed the secret of invisible writing, the principles of the code wheel, things that all good detectives should know ..and all good thieves of course.

By 10 o'clock that evening I had established that lemon juice worked better than milk, and that a candle flame would make the writing appear if you could avoid setting light to the paper. We'd worked out the story and the outline of the hunt but still hadn't encoded the clues and finalised the wording. But our brains had switched off. It was time to hit the sofa.

The next day dawned and I wished I was one of those prepared in advance types, who would have the whole thing worked out the week before. Lying in bed that morning I finalised the wording of the clues, thought out a clever plan to have an e-mail clue that involved searching on Wikipedia.

I'd rashly planned a big roast lunch so that our friends from Cape Town could be tempted out for the birthday, as they don't usually make it to weekday birthdays, it's a bit far to come just for tea, and after all roast chicken and roast potatoes is our son's favourite meal. I still had some baking to do and Middle Daughter wanted to make the cheese biscuits for the party herself.

Stress levels rose as I realised that the number of potatoes to feed sixteen people filled my stockpot, and even my big oven would be stretched to capacity to roast them, the three chickens and baked butternut. It was pouring with rain too, with a playful wind hurling great torrents of water onto our noisy tin roof.

The birthday boy was happy with his new scooter and an MP3 player to try out. He did look at the rain and wonder whether he should have chosen a Lazerquest party. This idea had been vetoed when I found out the cost of entertaining fifteen kids for less than an hour in a dark echoing concrete jungle, just for them to have the pleasure of shooting at each other. He hadn't seriously thought we would agree, but it was worth a try. Anyway in South Africa it hardly ever rains the whole day long and we had a good chance that if it was raining now it would have stopped in time for the party.

Lunch was successfully accomplished, with just enough roast potatoes for all. I left the guests to wash the dishes while I disappeared to encode the clues.

The first party guests arrived early, so I shut myself into the spare room to get busy with the invisible ink. As they hurtled round the house on scooters pretending to be jewel thieves and police, I sneaked out of the side door to position the letter and a candle in an outhouse, other strategic clues along the route, commissioned my husband and a friend to lay a trail of footprints and climb a tree to hide another clue. The treasure was already hidden in the boot of the thieves' getaway car, the car key in the fridge in the garage.

Once the last guest arrived I was ready and the rain had stopped. Instead of the usual story to set the scene I borrowed a bit of drama from Planet Nomad's detective birthday and erupted from our bedroom, shouting that the treasure for the hunt had been stolen and so had all my jewellery. The children poured into the bedroom and looked around. The wide open window and billowing curtain soon had them hot on the trail of the thieves' footprints and we were away.

The coding wheel proved to be a bit of a tricky concept to grasp, (especially as I'd interpreted its use slightly differently than my son and husband had previously, when they constructed it), but one dedicated bunch, with a little adult help, worked it out patiently, while the others cast about for the trail of footprints, which by now was no longer an accurate reflection of the thieves' movements.

My encryption process proved to be rather full of errors too, as I hadn't been wearing my glasses at the time, but I was on hand to interpret the garbled message and they hared off to the hut.

They managed to reveal the secret writing without singeing any eyebrows and it held their attention even though the writing took a while to come through properly.

After a few more clues they eventually tracked down the treasure in the getaway car and were each issued with a cool detective's magnifying glass - a lucky find in the Crazy Store the day before. And even the cool dudes of nearly eleven had a good time. A huge waft of relief hit me as the adrenaline released its grip.

Youngest wants a unicorn birthday for her next one…. she didn't think much of detective birthdays.

Happy Birthday Ten Years Old!


  1. Oh Kit, can I come to the next party?? As a child, I always loved treasure hunts the most and used to love setting them up for my younger brother's parties too. How very lucky your children are to have all these wonderufl memories!

  2. AWESOME! I think yours was much better than mine! Why didn't I think of using the Dangerous Book?

  3. Sounds like a wonderful party! I love the way your treasure hunts keep getting more sophisticated. I also like your seat-of-the-pants planning style - it's much like my own.

  4. What a fun party! You guys are so creative. Hppay tenth birthday to your boy!

    ps I asked my almost 10 year old about how scary Spiderwick is, and she said less than Harry P. But I need to read the books...

  5. What a great mom you are! Don't you just love the Dangerous Book for Boys? It's well-loved in our house :)

  6. Wow--that sounds like quite a gathering you managed to put on there. Congrats on all your hard work--it seems like everyone had a fabulous time.

  7. You rock out parties Kit! What a great birthday party for your 10 year old son! Do you have the Daring Book For Girls? I bought it for my youngest...however I love it more. The Dangerous Book for Boys is just as good I've heard. The food sounds wonderful. Kudos for creative parties and the hard work associated for your family. :)


Thanks for your comments - I appreciate every one!