Monday, June 22, 2009

geocaching 101: spending hours looking for sh*** for no real reason

So after the comments on the last post, I figured I'd write a little bit about the 'sport' that I love so so much! The title is what a friend of mine calls geocaching - she's really not a fan!

Basically, geocaching is treasure hunting. People hide little containers all over the world and then publish the GPS coordinates online. Then other people (like me) download the coordinates and go looking for them. Simple enough really! Here is a picture of our first ever geocache, complete with our mascot, Elvis the travelling penguin!

There are some slightly more complicated twists to it: there are contests where teams race each other to find a certain number of caches in an area. There are different-sized caches, from tiny magnetised boxes or boxes that can fit half a pencil and a piece of paper (you sign a logbook to prove you were there) to huge - the biggest I've found so far was probably big enough to hold two loaves of bread quite comfortably. They're usually in Tupperware containers or jars, but some are in old ammo boxes, which completely flummoxed me the first time when I was halfway up a mud-bank, under a tree, trying to look inconspicuous while trying to figure out how on earth to open the thing!
Believe it or not, there is a geocache in this picture!

That's another fun thing- a lot of the caches are in places where there are a lot of non-geocachers (referred to as 'muggles') and the whole point is to avoid them seeing what you're doing, so you have to do all kinds of things, from trying to explain to security guards that you aren't a terrorist (in the UK a lot of caches are labelled with "THIS IS NOT A BOMB!!!"), to trying to walk casually past an area while scraping rocks out of the way, to creating strategic disturbances to hunt in an area without being spotted. My particular skill has aways been getting into restricted areas by being polite to security guards. That and organising geocaching trips by sorting through sites and listing them by distance and direction from point A as well as complexity, ideas, hints and any other information I might have.
Some geocaches are called 'multicaches' these can be very rewarding but also pretty nasty. I don't look for them often. They involve solving clues along the way to get the final coordinates, either by finding clues hidden along the way or by getting information from sign-posts or something and then solving riddles. We tried looking for one once, which resulted in Luke and I taking a swim in a lagoon and ultimately finding out that the cache had been hidden UNDERWATER and had been washed away in recent storms. This is where we ended up swimming:

There are also things called 'Travel-Bugs" which are basically bar-coded items that get moved from cache to cache and logged on the website. Some have tasks (like going from Africa to Asia or going from island to island) and some just kin of float around. You can track them online, which is always fun if you get one and then you can see where it's been.

Ok, so now that the admin side is done, let me tell you some of the reasons that make it awesome:
Because we all love a treasure hunt!
It's a lot like being a kid again, solving riddles, planning adventures and hunting around for things. They can be buried, hidden under/on/in things, up trees, under water you name it! A commercial GPS has an accuracy of up to about 3 metres or so, less if it's really cloudy or you're under a lot of trees, so it usually involves searching quite a bit (considering that your GPS leads you to within 3m of where the first person saved the coordinates and then there's still a good 3m to play with. In a forest, that's a LOT!

The feeling of adventure
Trying to look inconspicuous while following an arrow on a huge brightly coloured GPS is always a challenge, I've had several occasions where I've had to pretend it's a phone and had a conversation with it, while holding thumbs that my real phone won't ring! Pretending to take photos while trying to find a casual way to look under a park bench for a magnetic cache container, telling a security guard that you're visiting 'Steve' in number 58...
Or hunting around in this graveyard, feeling a bit guilty...

Having a purpose
Maybe it's just that I finished school a year younger than everyone else and I rushed through University skipping masters along the way but I find it hard to spend time being purposeless. If I go hiking I take pictures or try to walk faster than other people or just plain do something other than walk for the sake of walking. Geocaching means that you're looking for something, so I find it easier to relax, particularly when I go away and the lack of work makes me feel guilty.
Finding new places
People often put geocaches along routes that aren't well known, I guess as a weird publicity type thing. So if you're going somewhere and you don't want to stick to the tourist route, it's a great way of getting to the local 'gems' that aren't necessarily published in the guide books. When I was in Jersey (the island) last year I spent the most amazing afternoon hiking about 10 miles along beautiful cliff paths (I had to run the last bit because there was only one bus scheduled for the rest of the day, and then I got there an hour earlier and spent a lot of time on a bench, appreciating the beauty of Bon Nuit Bay and helping a passing motorist rescue a duckling from the middle of the road). Anyway it was probably my favourite day of the whole trip, I got to see a lot of beautiful scenery, find places and appreciate their history as I'd read about it when I found the coordinates. A bit better than spending a day making pottery or visiting yet another gift shop.
This was the view from a firing range (it had lots of danger signs, very exciting!)
This was at a sand-castle exhibition, which was absolutely incredible! There were dozens of sculptures like this one, this one was about my height and about 3 metres in diameter, with every detail absolutely perfect, even the tiny trees and windows that were literally smaller than my smallest fingernail!
Collecting random stuff

If the geocache is bigger than the tiny micro-containers they're filled with random knick-knacks. The usual protocol is to take something out and out something in when you find it. Some people get VERY enthusiastic and have personalised items or stickers or whatever, I take a pocketful of stuff with me in case I want to keep something, otherwise I just swap stuff between caches. When I was in Jersey I actually took took things home (I had taken a TON of stuff to leave in caches) and gave them as gifts to my family, complete with photos of the area I found them and a description of the area and any adventures I had while finding them. I figured that was a much better gift than yet another postcard or keyring. Some of the cooler stuff I've found in geocaches: Yugoslavian money, a complete incense set, a 40 koki-pen and crayon kit (it was in the mega huge cache), key rings of all shapes and colours and sizes - most of which have been moved to other caches, several compasses, photo-frames, Brazilian money...

Finding caches in the places you pass every day
I love the idea of a secret parallel world. Kind of Harry-Potterish I guess, but the idea that these things are all over and nobody knows it and I've been 'let in' on the secret thrills me! Maybe it all goes back to my childhood when we all wanted to know the secrets while stopping anyone else from finding out? About a year go I had a really bad day, plugged my home coordinates into the website and found about four geocaches in an afternoon, all within about a 10km radius of where I work! Two of them are within walking distance, and I've driven past them at least one a week for the past few years without knowing! And now I get to drive past them and grin to myself because I know the secret! Of course the flip-side is that you have to poke around a lot to find things - which is quite often a bad idea in the city, and so the first order of business is usually to find a decent stick before you discover that you've been searching in the 'toilet area' of the local vagrants, or (and Candice discovered) at the site of a rendezvous that ended in her holding up a used condom, looking puzzled, dropping it and shrieking!
This is a dog-walking route around a reservoir! I wouldn't have found it without the hunt for a geocache, and it was one of best walks I've ever had, it was really beautiful and peaceful!
Wow, this has become a HUGE post, my apologies! I'll see if I can find some other photos to illustrate my points. My apologies for the limited range, I'm usually the one up a tree looking for things, not sitting sedately with a camera!

I guess this could be a new section: fun for the family! I took this photo while hunting on the cliff for a geocache with my Dad. Having geocaches to look for made my trip to visit him awesome, and it gave us something to do together other than the usual sight-seeing! He was amazingly patient with me hunting around, although he also liked to wait until I was in a particularly ungraceful position to take photos... (so is that where I get it from?)

I climbed this tree in the hunt for a cache. It turned out it was in a different tree, across the road... and at about shoulder height!

I took this after climbing the mud bank to find the very tricky ammo box!


Athena said...

What an AWESOME post!! I totally agree with you about geocaching, it's such a great way to spend an afternoon. And the pictures were lovely!

SuvvyGirl said...

I had jumped online and did some searching on geocaching but I like your explination much better!! It actually sounds like a lot of fun and the pictures you have up are gorgeous!!

sarah said...

omg omg

promise me PROMISE ME RIGHT NOW that when i come home for the christmas holidays, you will take me on one???!?!?!

Kath Lockett said...

Wow - thanks for explaining that - it sounds brilliant.

...and yet your 'about me' descriptions says you'd be happy if you could find your keys each day...?? :)

Helen said...

Athena: Thanks! I had fun when we all went geocaching that day, particularly when it started pouring with rain and we had to get down a very steep grassy slope at the theatre...

Suvvygirl: Thanks! It's a great way to keep entertained, although it can get disheartening if you don't find things...

Sarah: You're coming home for Christmas??? YAY!!!!! And of course we'll go geocaching if you want to!

Kath: I'm actually pretty good with keys, ever since Luke forced me to wear them on a lanyard around my neck... Oh and they've actually got a policy called 'cache in, trash out' which encouragers geocachers to crry bags and collect rubbish while hunting. Thought you'd appreciate that!

Henno said...

Yeah, that's pretty damn wicked. I wonder if I could something like that set up here in Vietnam? Hmm..

Helen said...

It's an international ting, so I'm sure you'd find some in vietnam! Maybe check the website www.geocachingcom and see if there is anything?