Caching In

20th January 2012

Heather Harris goes hi-tech treasure hunting

I even bought them a puppy – but he ended up lazier than they are. Despite the combined transportation power of ten legs – six human and four canine – getting my three children out for a walk demands as much effort as getting them to wash.

“Why?”… “Where are we walking to?”… “But we went for a walk last weekend!” are the most common cries, along with unconvincing wheezing, limping and bouts of bubonic plague (and that’s just the dog).

It’s not that they sit and vegetate in front of their numerous television and computer screens; in fact, according to them, I make Genghis Khan look almost democratic when it comes to the power I wield over their remote controls. They are, in fact, happiest outdoors: my daughter shovelling horse poo and the boys kicking a ball around… but it’s not ‘family’ time.
Walking is simply the only pursuit which is free, forces us to spend healthy time together and pretend – for just a couple of hours – that we really are like those rosy-cheeked, smiling families promoting Centre Parcs.

Overhearing my bemoaning of my plight, another mother at the school gate mentioned Geocaching. Not wanting to reveal my ignorance and reinforce my position as the oldest Mum in the class (or the universe according to my 11 year old) I rushed home and hit the Google button…

Result…

Geocaching is in fact the answer to every parent’s dream – a walk that not only involves technology but also has a purpose at the end. And five million people are currently doing it in more than one hundred countries across all seven continents – statistics even my 14 year old would find hard to argue with.

Basically, the components Geo (for Geography) and Cache (which, as all Boy Scouts will know, is the hiking term for a hiding place concealing provisions) combine into a worldwide high tech treasure hunt. And Cache Cache is also the French for hide and seek, so it all ties together nicely. It’s claimed to be “one of the fastest-growing live, recreational social media activities…” Some would argue (the words ‘live’ and ‘social media’ not always being compatible) that it’s the only one…

It was started in 2000 by Dave Ulmer who was testing out the accuracy of the improved GPS signal newly available to civilians. Clearly having too much time on his hands, he hid a box of ‘treasure’ (the cache) and shared its co-ordinates online. A chap with an equal amount of time to kill, Mike Teague, found it and duly posted his experience online.

A few trillion clicks, backspaces and log in and outs later, and – hey presto: 75 other would-be pirates had hidden little treasure chests around the world and the search was on.

It was not until entrepreneur and Cryptologic Linguist Jeremy Irish found one around four months later, though, that anyone saw beyond boxes in trees. Irish founded Seattle-based Groundspeak (mission: ‘to inspire outdoor play using location-based technology’) and established geocaching.com – now the world’s largest location-based gaming portal, holding the database of 1,591,495 active caches currently hidden around the world, including when they were last found… because that’s the thing: with this high tech hunt you don’t get to keep the treasure at the end. This was a major stumbling block with the most mercenary of my children who assumed Geocashing to be the point, and had only agreed to join us in anticipation of finding wads of bank notes hidden down rabbit holes.

Nevertheless, after registering and seeing that there were about 20 lots of treasure hidden just in our local wood, we set off on a test run with two other families (the children being less likely to abuse me/sulk/refuse to get out of the car etc if in company) plus assorted dogs and enough food for a biblical feast.

Armed with one ‘hand held GPS-enabled device’ (ie a basic i-Phone) between us we quickly realised that the younger ones were the most phone savvy and handed over control. After entering the GPS coordinates, we headed towards the red flashing dot on the screen.

I had secretly selected the ‘easiest option’ when asked which level of difficulty required, as some of the caches are hidden underwater or up a vertical mountain range and can range in size from a ‘nano’ ( the proverbial needle in a haystack) to the size of your average Tupperware box.

“At least this isn’t costing us anything,” whispered our fellow cynical Geocache virgins as the children ran into the sunset before one of them cried, “it’s 100 metres back that way…”
The clues are very precise in terms of both distance and direction – so knowing how to work the inbuilt compass on the i-Phone helps (none of us did, so we adopted a running-in-circles approach; the dogs loved it).

There’s also a help button giving clues, although, as we were in the middle of Ashridge Forest, landmarks were reduced to trees and fields. As one small exhausted child remarked sadly, “Everything looks the same. We’ll never find it!”

Inwardly, we parents all thought the same thing but with the perfect Centre Parcs family in mind, I rallied the troops with an enthusiasm bordering on manic, “We’re only one metre away now. Let’s all split up and look for a hollow tree!”

“Found it!” came the cry from my son’s gymnastics-loving friend (always handy to have one on any team) from the top of a large oak, waving a small camouflage tin box in his hand, we all gathered round.
“There’s crayons and a wind-up toy, and a rubber bouncy ball,” shouted out one of the younger girls. Her sentiments weren’t shared by the teenagers who were frantically tipping out the tin in search of anything they could sell on eBay.

We parents swapped a mutual look of incredulity: secretly, none of us really thought we’d find anything. In these cynical, materialistic times we had all presumed that someone would have stolen it or maliciously moved it out of phone reception reach.

Then the youngest girl filled in the log, painstakingly spelling out all our names, and adding TFTC (‘thanks for the cache’ the official sign off) plus a rather less professional LOL and a sideways smiley face.
After reading out the messages from previous successful geocachers, dating back to 2000, we added some items of our own – mostly gleaned from McDonald Happy Meal Boxes; there’s no need to go to any expense – and put the cache back.

As we consumed our ‘biblical feast’ we calculated that we had probably walked around three miles with children aged from seven up to 14 and, aside from some tantrums over who was going to hold the iPhone, the moaning had been positively minimal.

And the proof was in the pudding – or in the lack of it as they spurned the parental offer of fresh fruit to end the meal (I do keep trying…) – the kids put a new set of coordinates into the iPhone and we were off again…

…with rather less success. In fact, this is where the happy family image fades into a dismal reality: after two more hours the dogs had found a the remains of a discarded kebab but we were still cache-less.
“Knew it wouldn’t work,” came the first muttering from one of the hormonal teenagers and dissent quickly spread through the ranks. Mutiny was avoided only by the discovery of an app on the iPhone which showed what we’d all look like if we were fat and old: not good for the adults’ egos but absolutely ideal for quelling a potential sit-in in the middle of a forest.

Arriving back at the car, it was 4pm, and that was a success in itself. We’d set off at 11am. Everyone was exhausted – especially the youngest child and the dog with the shortest legs. Our faith in humankind and his selfless desire to hunt and find treasure for non-monetary gain had partially been renewed, and we did have rosy cheeks.

Could we do it as a family? Definitely, although the teenagers might be better with friends or participating in one of the numerous Mega-Event Caches, each attracting over 500 geocachers from all over the world to an outdoor location; like a rock concert but without tents.

And next time I might do a recce first, to make sure that the cache is actually there. Not exactly in the spirit of a true treasure hunt, I know, but, hey: when it comes to family bonding, preparation is everything.

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