Armed with a GPS and some steely determination, Edith Leigh takes her family geocaching
An earthy mushroom and compost odour fills my nostrils.
Pine needles and wet leaves stick to my hands and knees.
Small branches poke me in the eye and snag in my hair.
It’s just started to drizzle and I’m beginning to wonder what I’m doing here.
As I crawl, and at times even slither, around in the shelter belt my mother asks, again, “what exactly are you looking for?”
“A plastic snap-lock container that’s painted in camouflage.”
“And what is in this container,” she asks, again, as she hands my one-year-old daughter some more banana.
“I see, and what do you do with that?”
“You write your geocaching handle in it.”
“Geocaching. It’s sort of like a modern day, hi-tech, treasure hunt. Your handle is your online name.”
“Why don’t I have a look,” she offers. “You’ve been in there for half-an-hour now. A fresh pair of eyes might notice something different.”
With some relief, I crawl out of the trees, climb back over the fence and pull a twig out of my hair.
“Really,” I wonder out loud, “how hard can it be to find something when you have the exact co-ordinates of its location and a GPS in your hand?”
I know just what sort of container I’m looking for and how big it is. I even had a clue to where it was hidden – over the fence and behind a tree.
It all sounded pretty easy until the compass on the geocaching app I had downloaded onto my smartphone navigated me to this spot.
The compass reckoned it was only accurate to four metres, and in the eight metre radius over the fence there were at least 20 trees growing very close together.
Now I understood what avid geocacher Peter Walker meant when he told me “you are the search engine”.
“The GPS will get you to within the general location, but it won’t find the cache for you,” he explained.
Some time later, as we walk down the hill, defeated, my mum says: “Oh well, you know I’ve been to this park lots of times and I’ve never walked along that top track. I never realised there was such a nice view of Lake Henry up there.”
And that, it seems to me, is what geocaching is all about.
It’s not just about hunting for plastic containers, it’s about finding new places, new tracks and beautiful spots you might never have otherwise visited.
Geocaching hasn’t been around that long and only began in the new millennium when the United States government allowed civilians access to signals from 24 satellites around the globe on May 2, 2000.
Overnight the accuracy of Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers improved tenfold, pinpointing locations to within five to 10 metres, instead of a couple of hundred metres.
The next day an American computer consultant hid a black bucket in some nearby woods. He posted the coordinates on the internet with the instructions “take some stuff, leave some stuff” and geocaching was born.
It is basically still the same today, except there are now more than 1.6 million geocaches hidden around the world and, according to geocaching.com, more than five million people play this real world, outdoor game of hide and seek.
Walker, who has logged almost nine hundred finds since 2009, says his kids don’t just go walking or tramping with dad, they go treasure hunting.
Geocaches, often referred to as a cache, can be anything from a film canister to a 20 litre bucket and contain a logbook for people to record their find. Many caches also have ‘swag’ – low value items or trinkets that can be traded.
The thrill of exchanging their small toys for something new has seen his one-, four- and five-year-olds join him on almost half of his cache hunts.
Before he chanced across the game, Walker says he worked and watched TV.
Now he has rediscovered his love of the outdoors and geocaching has led him to explore tracks around his home city he never knew existed, visit the site of an aeroplane crash he knew nothing about and help pick up 20 rubbish bags of litter from a popular Dunedin lookout.
He has found himself in the middle of a swamp, 12m up a tree and creeping through a cemetery in the middle of the night – all in the hunt for that elusive container.
“Geocaching really speaks to techies who like the outdoors,” he says. “I have seven GPS’s. Even my dog is a trackable. I’m a bit of a geek.”
Now president of the New Zealand Recreational GPS Society, Walker, better known online as Cumbyrocks, is helping organise a “mega geocaching event”, which will be the first of its kind in New Zealand and is expected to attract at least 500 people from around the globe.
Walker can’t remember the last time he sat down in front of the box.
One of the country’s most prolific geocachers, Gavin Treadgold – or Rediguana in the geocaching world – is a caching pioneer in Aoteoroa and at last count had logged 10,587 finds.
Geocaching is not an obsession he claims, it just fits well with his other interests, such as tramping, mountain biking and landscape photography.
“It takes you to a lot of interesting places you wouldn’t see otherwise. It’s great fun and it certainly beats being stuck at home not having much to do.”
In fact Treadgold once found himself running around naked on a West Coast riverbank looking for a cache.
He had been “too tight to hire a kayak”, so when he walked up the river only to realise he was on the wrong side, he stripped off and jumped in.
“I will do anything for a cache.”
Treadgold has geocached in Australia, the United States, Canada, Singapore, Denmark and even Sri Lanka.
But his favourite caches are the ones that require a lot of physical effort to get to.
As a sedentary, IT office worker, getting out for the day and hiking up a hill to find a cache is personally satisfying, he says.
Geocaching may have taken a while to catch on, but in the past three years there had been “phenomenal growth” in the number of caches both nationally and globally, Treadgold says. By 2007, half a million caches had been hidden around the world. By 2010, the coordinates for one million caches were posted online and there are now 1.636 million.
In New Zealand there are more than 14,000 caches and last year 266,000 finds were logged in this country on geocaching.com.au.
Treadgold credits the rise of smartphones as one possible reason for geocaching’s recent explosion of popularity.
Newcomers to the game don’t need to buy a GPS straight out and some geocaching apps can even be downloaded free to get started.
Potentially almost a billion caches could be hidden around the globe, but there is a saturation limit to the numbers. One of the rules of the game is that a cache should not be placed within a 161m radius of another cache.
Keen tramper and retired medical scientist Kathy Warburton has hidden 47 caches for others to find, since she quite literally stumbled across the game while out walking.
She picked up a piece of paper lying on the track, intending to throw it in the rubbish, before she noticed it was a cache page.
Intrigued, she had a bit of a go at finding it, “which was a bit hopeless”, but before long she got herself a GPS and has now found more than 600 caches.
“For a start I just did ones I could do for a walk from home, then it just took off,” she says. “The more I did, the more I wanted to do.
“I do a lot of tramping. I like ones out in the hills or up a hill.”
For Warburton, hiding a cache is all about taking a person to somewhere special. “I don’t just put one out beside a fence post on a farm road, because it’s a place to drive to. I like there to be a reason for putting one there, such as to take people on nice tracks or to discover a track that is not well known.”
The 67-year-old has a passion for native plants and one cache she placed near a creek is a fantastic spot for orchids during spring, she says.
Another she has had a lot of comments about follows a path down a hebe-covered cliff.
“People think that’s the edge of the cliff and they’re not going there, but there is a track over the cliff and in December when the hebes are all flowering it’s just a fantastic little place.”
Not all caches, however, are in the wilderness and urban geocaching is a whole different game.
Walker explains that in the urban environment stealth is the name of the game.
Muggles – people who know nothing about geocaching – should not realise what the geocacher is doing, he says.
“It’s part of the fun. You don’t want someone to watch you or spot you and once you’re gone go and take it away.”
One way to search for caches in a busy area is to look the part, Walker says. He keeps a high-vis vest in his car and is amazed at how it enables him to blend in.
People don’t question someone wandering round in a high vis vest with a machine in their hand because they think they are investigating the area, he says.
For me, however, urban caches don’t really sound like my kind of thing.
After two failed attempts, it started to bug me that I had not found a cache.
Once again, I enlisted the help of my mum, and we set off on a scenic walk to Lake Manapouri.
As my GPS navigates me closer, the best hiding place seems obvious this time and there is a pile of sticks that just doesn’t look natural.
“Thank God,” my mum says when I call out: “Yay, I’ve found it”.
We peer into the container, a little non-plussed at first, until my daughter reaches in and picks out a gold coin with a huge smile on her face.
“Treasure,” I tell her.
“Treasure,” she repeats, putting the gold coin in her pocket, then moments later pulling it out again to examine.
A week later I get a phone call from my mum.
“I found it.”
“That cache up above Lake Henry you went looking for.”
“Wow, where was it?”
“Come on now,” my mum says. “That would be giving the game away.”
More geocaching photos…