Mark Twain wrote in Tom Sawyer, “There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.” I disagree – I think this raging desire can hit all of us, at any age. Do you want to do something different with the family this weekend, perhaps get outdoors and explore a nearby area? Geocaching is the modern take on a treasure hunt and fantastic fun for children of all ages, including those of us who are over 1,5m; and it takes you to hidden places in your neighbourhood. The best part is that somebody else has hidden the treasure.
So, instead of mom and dad having to lay the clues, the whole family can take part in the search. The only catch is that you need to have a hand-held GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver. Many car hire companies will rent out a GPS at around R70 to R80 a day. The alternative is to use your smartphone with a downloaded geocaching application.
What is geocaching?
Geocaching is finding a “cache”, a treasure or a box, using GPS coordinates and clues. The biggest cache is usually an old plastic two-litre ice cream container, but they can be any size, even a micro cache of the tiniest proportions. The smallest are usually the hardest to find. Inside is a logbook where successful treasure hunters can leave details of their visit (including date, code name and comments). There is often also a small assortment of toys or trinkets. These can be exchanged for others, with a note made in the logbook of what was taken and what was left. Alternatively, you can just sign the logbook and not exchange any items.
How did it start?
Geocaching started in May 2000 when the US removed the selective availability of the 24 satellites revolving around the earth. This meant GPS receivers, belonging to the man on the street, were now accurate. Techno-geeks wondered what we all could get up to with this new gift. Dave Ulmer, known as the “father of caching”, created the game when he hid a bucket in his neighbourhood and posted the GPS coordinates online in a challenge for people to find it. It was found within days. Soon a website had been started to collect the locations of caches. As “geo” means the earth and “cache” a temporary hiding place, geocaching is about bringing together the earth, the hidden cache, computer technology and people with a sense of adventure.
Your first step is to log on to geocaching.com and become a member, using your very own code name. It’s free, but you do have the option of a premium membership if you want additional features or to support the upkeep of the site. There you can search for caches close to your location or along a specific route if you are on a road trip. Choose one or more and download the waypoints (longitude and latitude) to your GPS. Read the history of the cache, the clues and let the children decrypt the “additional hints”.
You will see that caches logged on the website have different icons. These tell you what type of cache it is (e.g. a traditional cache, multi-cache or a virtual cache) as well as the difficulty and terrain. This is the D/T code, with the range being from 1 to 5, with 1 being very easy, and 5 very difficult. Therefore a 1/1 will indicate that the cache is easy to find and also not physically demanding. A 5/5 will need much brainpower and physical fitness to locate. If you are new to geocaching, it is best to start with a cache with a D/T of 1/1 and build up from there. Some geocaches contain a geocoin – these are meant to be removed and put into another cache elsewhere, and their travels can be tracked via the geocaching site. Our family picked up a coin in Hermanus and deposited it in a cache in America, and it has been interesting to track its travels.
Once you have downloaded the waypoints and read the clues and information, get yourself as close to the cache as possible and then walk the rest of the way. Have sturdy shoes if the terrain indicates more than a 1. A hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, water and snacks are usually good to have and take an inexpensive item to exchange. Remember to keep it small so that it fits into the cache and don’t make it something edible that will attract wildlife. Your GPS will take you within one to five metres of the cache and then you can use the clues given, as well as your powers of observation, to find the treasure. It is usually quite well hidden under a few strategically placed rocks. Read the information given with the waypoint. This gives the significance of the site. Once you have logged your visit and exchanged your items, make sure that you seal the cache well to prevent moisture getting in, and hide it in exactly the same spot as you found it so that the next geocacher can have the joy of finding it. Try to avoid being observed, as “muggles” (a non-geocacher, coined from the Harry Potter series) may come and remove the cache afterwards out of curiosity. Once at home, log your visit and comments on the webpage. Your account will keep you updated on the number of your successful finds.
For toddlers, teens and granddad
Renata Bothma, Cape Town-based mom of Donné, 16, and Cobus, 13, says geocaching is a wonderful way to bond with your children. “It is like a treasure hunt that just keeps on going. We’re learning so much in the process, especially with the geocaches that have historical or geological information added to them. I love the idea of being outdoors with my teenagers and getting to know our country. My children can’t wait for the next exciting adventure. I would recommend it to all families in a heartbeat.” Neil and Melanie Brooks, parents of Tristan, 12, Cameron, nine, and Shannon, six, say, “Geocaching takes us out into the greatest parts of any area we visit, whether it’s the mountains, the forest or the coast. Instead of the children moaning about going for a walk, we can bribe them with a hunt for caches. There is no better way to explore a new waterfall, viewpoint or beach than hunting for a cache. Geocaching has also taught our children the history of local spots, such as Lady Anne’s cottage hidden in Newlands Forest, the lion enclosure at Rhodes Memorial, shipwrecks in the Western Cape and the haunted Du Toit’s Kloof tunnel.” The Brooks family started geocaching two years ago and have found 270 caches.
Andrew Myers, from the South African Geocaching Statistics website sageostats.co.za, says that there are currently over 5 400 caches waiting to be found all over the country. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to start exploring.