Treasure hunt goes digital

Illustration: Jade Klara

Illustration: Jade Klara

It is almost midday and we’re running through the contents of my backpack before we set out. Suntan lotion. Hat.
Bottled water. Cellphone with geocaching app. Tender for exchange: one little red satin polka-dot purse, a yellow plastic sharpener in the shape of a dog, a Las Vegas gambling chip key ring, a white golf tee and a mini ceramic Buddha.

I pull on my takkies and my husband Shaun and I head out to the first of our three chosen “cache” destinations for the day. We’re going geocaching, which means we’re going on a GPS-guided treasure hunt. We’re using technology to guide us to small containers that have been hidden around the city by other geocachers. To join the hunt you need only to join an online geocaching community, own a GPS device and possess the inexplicable desire to spend your hours and petrol tracking down tiny secreted items.

We have signed up at geocaching.com, the largest geocaching website worldwide, and searched for caches in our area to decide on our goals. Our first cache, named by the original hider Kaygee1, is called “Jet Set Et Al”. It is rated on the website as one-and-a-half stars out of five for both difficulty and terrain. It was found the previous day by another geocacher — a good ­indicator that it is still intact and findable.

We’ve downloaded the cache information to our cellphone app, which means we have the GPS co-ordinates and an encrypted clue to the hiding spot of the treasure. In this cache Kaygee1 has conveyed a warning as well: “High muggle zone!! Please be aware of the muggles working/relaxing across the way.”

Ten minutes later I know exactly what the hider meant. The cache is at a carwash teeming with people. Shaun and I try to appear nonchalant as we park next to a dustbin and rather conspicuously traipse into some ivy and start feeling up and down a palisade fence. Two or three car washers stop their work and eye us suspiciously. I try to throw them my reassuring “I-am-not-a-drug-dealer” smile, but the men seem unconvinced.

“Bah… muggles!” I find myself muttering. (Until yesterday, I didn’t know that “muggles” are non-geocachers who are considered a risk to the wellbeing of the secret caches. Admittedly, until yesterday I was a muggle.) My spirits begin to flag after a comparatively short time. I half-heartedly poke through the brush, wondering how we will find such a tiny item in this wilderness of suburban steel and underbrush.

Serendipitously, Shaun appears at this moment with a triumphant grin and a duct tape-covered film canister. It had been attached to the fence with a magnet. Eureka! We write our names on the log sheet of the list of the previous finders of this cache, which is folded inside the canister, and take our leave, grinning at the muggles as we pull out of the parking lot.

There are almost two million active geocachers registered on geocaching.com. These virtually linked sidewalk skulkers have logged almost seven million caches around the world just in the past month.

Postcards from the edge
Caches range in size from micro caches (the size of a film canister or smaller) to ammo containers or large buckets. Every cache will, at the least, comprise a container of some sort and a log sheet on which finders record their names. Larger caches also contain items for trade. This means if you take an item you must replace it with one of equal or greater value. And you are never allowed to take the cache itself. Your goal, in fact, is to ensure it stays hidden for the next geocacher to find.  

Some say the roots of geocaching hail from the grasslands of Dartmoor in the 1850s. Hikers on the English moors dropped postcards in boxes along the hiking trail, leaving subsequent trekkers to find the postcards and post them. More than 150 years later, “letterboxing” still has a small following in Britain and the United States. But even a pastime uninterrupted since the Victorian era cannot escape the reaches of technology.

According to geocaching.com, the first modern cache was placed in 2000 by a man called Dave Ulmer, from Oregon in the United States. It was a black plastic bucket containing software, videos, books, food, money and a slingshot. Today, geocaching rules prevent you from leaving food or cash and if my second geocache of the day is anything to go by, you are more likely to find a broken cigarette lighter, a koala-shaped Australian key-ring and a suspiciously mottled bone-like object that we guessed at one point comprised part of a bovine spinal cord. I swap my Vegas key ring for the Australia key ring, which seems like the only thing in the cache worth having. There is definitely something other than money motivating this ­movement.

“One of the best aspects of geocaching,” says Norman Bowman, South Africa’s number one-ranked geocacher, “is that it takes you off the beaten track.” Bowman and his wife Deanna have logged a whopping 7 000 geocaches since 2006, 99% of those in South Africa. They have found caches in all 52 of the country’s municipalities. “We’ve been to every single nook and cranny of the country,” says Bowman.

The couple has travelled a mind-blowing 113 000km to cache sites. They travel to most caches together and often have to hike and climb to their caching destinations. Deanna logs all their finds on an extensive Excel spreadsheet, plans the routes and downloads the caches to their GPS — a Garmin 276c.

The Bowmans reflect on memorable caches such as “The Darkness Beckons”, for which Norman felt his way through a bat-ridden 180m-long stormwater tunnel that was carved through a mountain at Olifants-krans. Another cache had them hiking for 14 hours in gale-force winds up Rhino’s Peak in the Drakensberg. “Deanna was afraid the wind would blow the earrings out of her ears,” says Norman.

“When we got back down, we saw people’s roofs had been blown off.”

But afterwards they could log their experience on geocaching.com. And that, it seems, is enough.

The retired East London pair, who are  in their sixties, plan most of their trips around geocaching. “There are still about 1 600 caches in South Africa to find,” says Norman.

There are bragging rights for the first person to find a newly placed cache. Some people look for geocaches of a high level of difficulty. Durban-based IT consultant John Hovelmeier is trying to find at least one geocache on every day of the year. Considering he has already found everything within an 80km radius of his house, this is no mean feat.

Hovelmeier caches in the early mornings and after work and plans weekend road trips to achieve his goal. “I do tend to get lost in it.”  

In about 18 months Hovelmeier has logged more than 1 000 caches. He tries to cache with his wife and two daughters, aged four and eight, whenever possible. “We’re always outside doing something, never sitting at home,” he says.

Geocaching has introduced him to a whole new community. “We meet out [geocaching]. Next minute, there are 13 people at a bar swapping stories, joking around and planning our next event,” he says.  

Losing direction
We have met no fellow cachers at our third site of the day. It is a multicache, which means you need to find a first cache, which will provide the co-ordinates to a second and final one. This “Trade Centre” cache then allows us to swap an imaginary tender with those who have gone before us. You could get an Italian villa or a BMW 5 Series.

But after an hour of scrambling around the Sandton Field and Study park, the unthinkable happens. Shaun’s cellphone battery dies. The geocaching app is gone. We are directionless. Springtime thunder clouds gather overhead. There is darkness and an urgent feeling in the air: a storm is on its way.

The first drops of rain land on my arms mockingly, but still, we forge ahead. Perhaps this is how the Bowmans felt in their 12th hour of gale-force wind in the Drakensberg. We, like them, will persist. And, finally, hurried celebrations as we pull out the cache, covered in camouflage paper, from the trunk of a tree.

But even now it is not over. Our only pen seems to have slipped out of my pocket while I was picking my way across a river earlier. Without a pen to log our name there is no proof that we have been there.

The storm has picked up strength, but we’ve found another pen in our car. We sign our names with a flourish and choose our prize from a number of options scrawled on slips of paper. We’ve picked an around-the-world trip in a hot air balloon. And we’re leaving VIP backstage passes for a world-tour of The Killers for the next lucky geocacher.

As we drive away from the park we are cold, wet, missing a pen and have a dead cellphone battery. I’m not quite sure if the Australia key ring I garnered is nicer than the Vegas one I left. And I won’t be taking more than a pretend hot air balloon trip around the world any time soon. But at least I can blog about my day on geocaching.com. And there’s something pretty good about being able to say we were there.

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

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