Words by Karen Watkins, Pics by Karen Watkins and supplied
Swag, bugs and geocoins are ‘treasures’ in a hunting game where the global positioning system (GPS) is the key to both hiding and finding them. And with about 6 953 such treasures hidden around South Africa alone, there’s sure to be one near you.
The game is known as geocaching and, according to Cape Town doctor Colin ‘CapeDoc’ de la Harpe (all geocachers have code names) it took off in May 2000, “when the ‘great blue switch’ controlling 24 satellites around the globe was pressed, increasing the accuracy of GPS technology tenfold and allowing everyone to pinpoint their location on the earth.”
After a treasure has been hidden, its location is posted online and people can then use a GPS device to find it.
The first ever treasure, a tin of beans (among other things), was cached (hidden) in an American forest by one Mike Teague. Using the Internet, he then challenged friends to find it. Web developer Jeremy Irish stumbled on the challenge and was one of those who found the cache. After experiencing the thrill of doing so, he started a hobby geocaching website. At the time the site was launched there were 75 known caches worldwide; today there are more than 1 648 859, put in place by more than five million geocachers in about 100 countries.
Every cache has a name, such as ‘Mined the Gap’, ‘Devil’s Triangle’, ‘Awaken the Leviathan’, ‘Bubbles’ and ‘Magic on the Beach’. Colin recently placed a cache named ‘WWW’ (Watkins Woody Walk) among the Twelve Apostles peaks on the Cape Peninsula in honour of a hiking book author. It consists of a container holding a lizard-shaped bottle opener, a cloth for cleaning glasses and a highlighter inside a child’s ring. Most caches consist of trinkets and toys, known in geocaching technology as swag (stuff we all get).
Also in the container is a logbook in which the finders of the cache are required to enter the date they found it and their code names. They should also note any item of swag they’ve taken and what they’ve replaced it with – etiquette dictates that you replace a treasure with something of equal value. Caches can be any size but should be waterproofed and may be camouflaged for better concealment.
The search for a particular cache might take the seeker on a proper journey or to a breathtaking location. An example of the latter is the ‘Table Mountain Travel Bug Hotel’, a cache located at the upper cable station. Inside it is the hotel ‘reception’ – a picture of a leather chair in front of a fireplace with a table holding a brandy balloon beside it – a ‘curio shop’ (a box for the swag) and a visitors book that’s been signed by geocachers from Germany, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Canada, Sydney, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Las Vegas. Beneath this are six smaller boxes containing travel bugs and geocoins from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
Travel bugs and geocoins are items engraved with tracking numbers that are logged in and out of caches and their movements recorded online. They are not considered swag but earn mileage and travel the world. Basically they’re hitchhikers, carried from cache to cache (or person to person).
Colin describes geocaching as “a geeky sport, which tends to be male-orientated, although there are women adherents.” One of these is Silvia ‘Panthera03’ Ludwig of Randburg, who’s also a member of the family team ‘Geo936’ with her husband Rolf and children Nadia, 5 and Enzo, 3.
Silvia has created 172 caches of her own, of which the Little Netherlands TB Hotel at the Olivedale Windmill, Randburg’s only national monument, is very popular. The Ludwigs started geocaching in 2008 and Silvia says the children have benefited by being exposed to nature and exercise. They’ve also met some amazing people at geocaching events.
Silvia was recently described as a nutty geocacher by a visiting American after she’d taken him geocaching for two days,“because I kept saying “just one more”. I think you need to be a bit nutty to play this game.”
Silvia is short and sometimes can’t reach a cache. Occasionally she climbs onto her car to help her out. She has also lifted Nadia onto her shoulders to reach a cache. “It’s tricky because I end up drawing attention to myself,” she says, “and that’s not ideal if you want to keep the cache alive.”
This is where ‘muggles’ come in. Inspired by the Harry Potter books, muggles are non-geocachers who tend to steal treasures.
Silvia loves trackables, items such as bugs and geocoins that travel around, and calls them novel and beautiful. She has a coin that has travelled about 30 000km. Another favourite is CITO (cache in, trash out), which is where geocachers get together to collect litter, thereby doing their bit for the environment.
One of her challenges was a 24-hour caching marathon. She was part of a six-person team that had to find more than 400 caches. “It was a test of perseverance, stamina and determination, but I loved it,” she says.
Another challenge is Daily Caching where the idea is to find at least one cache a day for as many days as possible. “We managed to do it for 183 continuous days, mostly as a family,” says Silvia. The disadvantage was that after they’d found all the caches close to home, they had to travel further afield.
Some caches are as tiny as fingernails while others are as big as dustbins. Examples of the latter have been placed by Jay ‘Besem’ van Zyl of Grahamstown, who started geocaching in 2008 in Spain.
“I had my klunky old GPS with me and just started looking for caches. The descriptions were in Spanish, which I couldn’t understand, but eventually I found one – and was hooked,” says Jay. It’s the thrill of finding a cleverly hidden cache and the sense of discovery that he loves.
Jay says most of the caches in South Africa are small but he has placed six in 20-litre buckets around Grahamstown. Jay’s special delight is puzzle caches, where you have to solve a puzzle in order to get the GPS coordinates for the cache. He also enjoys multi-caches, where you have to find small intermediate caches, or collect clues, in order to discover the position of the real cache. Jay owns a multi-cache that takes the geocacher on a tour of the Rhodes University campus.
Another cache in a beautiful location is ‘Of Diamonds and Pearls,’ placed on top of Paarl Rock by local farmer Laurence ‘The Pooks’ Lombard. “It’s in a hole drilled in a 75kg rock we carried up there. The rock lies in plain view on a granite outcrop, but nobody would know its secret unless they had its geocaching coordinates,” says Laurence, who started geocaching in 2007 after his wife bought him a GPS. Having come across the term ‘geocaching’, he discovered there were caches around Saldanha, where they were going for the weekend.
Grant Little of Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal, has hidden more than 100 caches around the world, though mostly locally and in the Middle East, where he used to live. His code name is ‘Carbon Hunter’ because he’s an environmental project manager who searches for carbon reduction projects around Africa. When he’s at home he goes geocaching with his wife Elmarie and sons Lloyd, 10, and Alex, 13.
Like Laurence, Grant also started geocaching in 2007 on a weekend break in the Netherlands. He borrowed a bicycle and searched out caches, visiting places that other tourists wouldn’t get to see. Geocaching is a great outdoor activity for the family, and also gives him an extra interest on business trips, he says.
Grant adds that his family loves finding and moving travel bugs and geocoins. “Learning where our coins have been is amazing; they go right around the globe,” says Grant. They also love reading the logs that people place in caches, and setting themselves tasks such as finding or hiding a cache in every province or, in Grant’s case, finding at least one cache in every new country he visits.
The Littles have met some wonderful people through geocaching and have also been contacted by and gone caching with foreigners visiting their area. One of Grant’s most memorable experiences was when ‘Ernies’, a cacher in Zurich, took him around the city and its forests for the day while he was waiting for a flight.
As for that first ever cache, the tin of beans – a grader went through the forest where it was buried, but it survived to be immortalised in Perspex and now travels the world to geocaching events.
For more information on geocaching visit www.geocaching.com
How to get started
Sign up. Make an account with one of the free versions of geocaching and get the app on a smart phone – if you have one.
Choose your locale. Once you’ve signed up, type in a postal code, coordinates or the name of a place that you want to explore. The website will pull up all of the geocaches located in that area. The minimum permitted distance between caches is 161 metres and they must not be on private property or in a dangerous place.
Learn the lingo. ‘FTF’ (first to find) means you’re the first person to find a cache, an experience described as similar to winning a race. ‘Muggle’: a person who is not geocaching and could interrupt your hunt. If a geocache says there could be a lot of muggles, it means it is in a highly public area, which could make the search more difficult.
Another term that is good to know is ‘skirt-lifter’. This means the cache is hidden somewhere on the ground and if you’re wearing a skirt (not a good idea in my opinion) you’ll need to lift it in order to search the area thoroughly.
Interpret the symbols. Symbols are provided to help you narrow down when, where and under what conditions caches are hidden.
Once you are ready to go out on your adventure, you will either want to enter the given coordinates for a cache into a GPS or smart phone, or study the directions for driving there, if provided. This will get you to within 10 to 20 metres of the cache.
When hunting for caches, it is best to recall the adage, “It’s not where you end up, but how you got there.”
Source: Country Life