“Vg fbhaqf nf vs guvf pnpur vf orarngu lbh!” the clue reads. But, while it may look like an attempt to represent the sound of a stifled sneeze in the written word, for geocachers – proponents of a new high-tech treasure hunt sport – it could mean the difference between discovering the prize or walking away empty-handed.
Unfortunately, for my inaugural geocaching hunt, I forgot to print out the code used to crack the clue. Bletchley Park it wasn’t, but, stood in a damp churchyard in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors, I realised the scale of my school boy error.
Origins of geocaching
Geocaching was devised by gadget geeks in 2000 when the global satellite positioning system was opened up to mere mortals (as opposed to the military). A guy in Oregon hid a ‘cache’ – a small box – in the middle of the woods and gave his friend the coordinates. Using a GPS receiver, he followed the directions, just like on a sat nav, and found the prize. Thus was born geocaching – after thinking twice about calling it ‘stashing’.
As of 16 July 2009, there are 849, 790 caches hidden in more than 100 countries, and on all seven continents. There are thousands of urban caches in London, New York, Paris, Toronto, and many more camouflaged in countryside across the world; I would be fairly certain there is at least one within half an hour from where you’re sitting. You can find one in your lunch break.
What’s the prize?
Geocaches can contain all manner of whimsical items, pieces of information, coins that have moved around the world and you plant somewhere else, or, at its simplest, a log book and pencil. The idea is that you can take any prize and replace it with a like-valued item. But for geocachers, the prize is the least important element. It is an excuse to go places you may never have seen.
In urban areas, you can find a new coffee house, boutique shops, or in the country, a new walking or mountain biking route. But at its core is forcing the geocacher into the unknown. You become a 21st-century flâneur, guided on the whim of 27 GPS satellites. Well that, or maybe it’s just a good fun treasure hunt.
1. All the caches are logged on www.geocaching.com. Register for free and type in your postcode, or the town where you want to start your quest from. This will draw up a list of caches.
2. Click on the name for more information about the cache. It will also give coordinates of either the cache’s location or a starting point. Read the clue carefully, sometimes a maths quiz is thrown in to work out the coordinates, sometimes the information given in the first cache will lead you to the second and so on. And then maybe another coded hint. Print out the page – all of it.
3. Find a starting point, tap in the coordinates to your GPS. A specific outdoor handheld receiver is best, but a sat nav and GPS enabled phone (there is an excellent Geocaching application for the iPhone) will do the job just fine. A good OS map can be useful for footpaths, or finding the cache old school style.
4. When you find the exact location for the cache, this is where the hint comes in handy. The caches are usually in plastic weatherproof boxes, or in cities, they could be a film case. And eureka! Inside each cache must be a log book. Jot down your details and ponder the prizes. Geocaching etiquette says you must replace the prize with some of like value.
5. Sit in a nearby pub and relish in the joy of finding the treasure.
6. Log your find on www.geocaching.com.
7. Go plant your own.
Cathedral of the Dales
After following these steps, I arrive in Maham – a small village under the brooding Yorkshire Moor skies. Hikers and mountain bikers scurry around as I head into one of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Centres. The park authority has been instrumental in promoting geocaching in the UK and was an early adopter. So much so, that today, there is a computer dedicated to geocaching with guidelines. You can even hire an outdoor handheld GPS receiver for £5 a day and £50 deposit.
I choose a cache called Cathedral of the Dales in nearby Kirkby Malham. Up hill and down dale, I plod through the sun-dappled countryside passing abandoned farmhouses, ruined abbeys and stop at country pubs to read the history of the St Michael the Archangel, the Cathedral of the Dales. Briefly: built 1490, Oliver Cromwell was the witness at a wedding here, original stocks still in churchyard. The coordinates gradually count down.
Once I find the exact coordinates, I start to hunt. Behind gravestones, in some poor folk’s garden (cue odd looks from passers by) cursing the fact I didn’t print the second page off with the code. What the devil does “Vg fbhaqf nf vs guvf pnpur vf orarngu lbh!” mean? Arrgghh. Twenty minutes later, and getting considerably frustrated, my wife notices an oddly placed rock underneath a tree (was she once in the SAS?), lifts it and there it is. A little Tupperware box, filled with a doll, a purse, a key ring and a notebook.
I write ‘Daniel Neilson, 11 July 2009, www.worldtravelguide.net’. At least 50 people have found it earlier, including one the day before. Happy we head into the pub next door. When I return I work out the clue: “It sounds as if this cache is beneath yew!”. See what they did.