"You'd probably like this, Mum - it's your kind of thing." That’s how it started - my obsession with the hobby of geocaching. Actually ‘hobby’ is a bit of a mundane word for the all-consuming entertaining activity. At the time I had vaguely heard the term but had no real idea of what geocaching was all about. So, what is it?
In its simplest form, it's a treasure hunt but instead of following paper clues to the hidden treasure, participants use GPS technology to help them navigate to it. Real aficionados use specialist GPS devices whilst many of us rely on our smart phones to provide the necessary co-ordinates and information.
To take part you register for a basic membership with www.geocaching.com.
This is free - although, if you do get hooked by the hobby, you can pay to become a premium member, which opens up even more geocaches to find and provides extra resources. Once a member - either basic or premium - you can start searching by entering a place name or post code to see how many caches are available in that area.
Back at the turn of the millennium, the accuracy of GPS technology improved dramatically and a computer consultant by the name of Dave Ulmer decided to test just how accurate it was. He did this by hiding an item in the woods and inviting people to find it! This first 'cache', a black bucket, was placed in the woods of Beavercreek, Oregon in the United States on 3rd May 2000. The hobby was born. Fast forward seventeen years and there are now nearly 3 million geocaches spread across the globe. In the Languedoc alone, there are more than 15,000.
So, how does it work? First we need a geocache to be hidden - this is done by a fellow cacher who then lists it on the website. Usually, they provide background information and interesting facts about the chosen location and sometimes a cryptic clue and a photograph. The challenge is then on for fellow geocachers to find it.
The first step (after registering) in finding one of these 'treasures' is to look on the website for any caches in the area you intend to search - maybe, your home location or a place you will be visiting. You could make a note of these and enter the co-ordinates in your GPS device but there are free apps available for smart phones to make this process easier.
Armed with the co-ordinates and cache information on your device, you then set about searching for it. You could be forgiven for thinking that the co-ordinates will take you to the exact spot - usually, this is not the case and you need to search around the area to discover the treasure. Many geocachers are quite devious in camouflaging them too. I've found ones hidden in logs, disguised as bolts or screws, in trees, and behind notices.
Once found, you sign the log book that is inside and, also, register on the website that you have discovered the cache. On the website log, you are encouraged to write a few words about the geocache - how easy or difficult it was to find, your thoughts on the location, what you have learnt about the area, and you can add a photograph if you wish. You may find 'treasures' for trading are inside the cache box but don't get too excited; this isn't a game for finding riches, it's about the challenge and the fun. Usually the items are small toys, erasers, brooches, badges, that kind of thing. The geocaching etiquette is that if you remove something, then you should replace it with something else.
Caches come in all sizes from micro to very large containers. With the very small containers, there is only room for a thin roll of paper on which to log your name and date. After adding your name to the list of those who have previously found the cache, you should then replace it exactly where you found it so that future geocachers can try their luck. The big golden rule is "Do Not Be Seen by Muggles" (non-geocachers) so, in certain locations, you need to wait for the right moment to retrieve the cache and then replace it.
The caches should never be buried so no need to take a pick and shovel out with you, but there are one or two bits of equipment that I recommend. First of all, a pair of gardening gloves - you never quite know where you will be searching. I once plunged my hand into a hole in some rocks only to be stung by a wasp who was, obviously, indignant that I had invaded his territory! I also take some antiseptic hand wash, a pair of tweezers (some logs are difficult to extract from their boxes), a pair of pliers, and a notebook and pen. You also need to take a large dollop of common-sense - some locations can be tricky and necessitate climbing over rocks or walking along extremely narrow cliff paths. Don't do those if you suffer from vertigo or have had a knee replacement - and, never go alone.
I've now been geocaching for just over a year and have found in excess of 200 - many in France, some in Spain, and also in the U.K. The joy for me is the information I gain when visiting somewhere new and the strange, hidden away, places I discover.
Without geocaching, I wouldn't have known about the weirdest Orientation Table I have ever seen. A springy metal seat is provided topped with a steel helmet. Once positioned on the seat and with your head in the helmet, you can peer along a metal tube. You then swivel yourself around whilst aligning your view through the tube with the orientation table in front of you. This was set up by the community of Navarrenx , a pretty town in Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
On the geocaching website I read about an extinct volcano in Southern Spain where the floor is littered with thousands of tiny garnets. No tourist office had details of this and there were no signposts pointing out the correct mountain or route to take. All the information and directions came from the relevant geocache page.
The hobby has taken me to castles, old ruins, chapels high in the mountains, along wonderful cliff walks. I've discovered old mills, ancient wash houses, mountain reservoirs, tiny hamlets, and ancient burial sites - and, through the generosity of fellow geocachers, I have learnt about the geology of the areas I've visited, historical facts that you simply don't find in guide books, and old legends. Most times, the discoveries are delightful - once or twice, the locations have not been so. For instance, without geocaching, I'm sure I would have remained unaware that a concentration camp had existed near Gurs in south-western France. Originally set up with good intentions to provide a refugee camp for those fleeing from the Spanish Civil War, by 1940, with the Nazi occupation, it had become an internment camp. I did not linger to find other geocaches in this area - it was truly a haunting place.
Far more appealing is the idea of bicycling or walking along the banks of the Canal du Midi in search of a cache or two - there are, in fact, about 25 up for grabs in the stretch between Colombiers and Capestang. Who knows, you may even find a Travel Bug in one of them. Travel Bugs? Ah yes, another fun element to this hobby. A Travel Bug, or Geocoin, is a special kind of treasure. If you are lucky enough to find one of them, the idea is to take it and then place it in another geocache, so furthering its travels. Some come with ambitions - "I want to travel the world"; "I want to see Australia"; etc. You are able to check their whereabouts, past and present, via the website and I think you would be amazed just how many kilometres some of them have travelled. For example, one, originating from Birmingham, England, I found in Spain and left in Colombiers, France. It has already covered more than 14, 000 kilometres and at present is somewhere in Holland. But, that is as nothing compared to one I found in Andalucia, Spain and took to the New Forest in England. It started out in Munster, Ireland, five years ago and is now in New Zealand. So far it has nearly 99,000 kilometres on the clock!
I find this part of geocaching strangely endearing - it seems to bring the world closer together and makes me realise how many of us share the same hobbies and aspirations - a comforting thought. "Geocaching" - a pastime that provides focus to a walk, historical facts, local knowledge, exploration and touches of excitement. What more can you ask from a hobby? It would be good if more people could become involved and help to bring us all even closer.
Further information can be found at www.geocaching.com
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