foray into geocaching


when: 02.08.2010
where: hessen, germany
tools: Garmin nüvi 755t, camera, pen
treasure found: yes


First, for the sake of those who don't know what geocaching is, I'll share what little I know about the phenomenon. It developed from a seemingly more complex variant known as letterboxing which dates back to the mid-1800s, where enthusiasts would carefully construct a series of clues and puzzles leading to a concealed box. Inside this box, a logbook allowed those who found the box to mark their visit. Actually, letterboxing is still popular among groups across the world, particularly North America. The great jump in technology during the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the first civilian GPS devices hit the market, and it wasn't long before the "sport" of geocaching was born, a mutant combination of traditional letterboxing, the modern blogging community mindset and technology advanced enough to keep up. The number of geocaches worldwide has recently exceeded one million, and over three million signed-up (but not necessarily active) geocachers, based on my member number. It's turned into the kind of phenomenon that letterboxing never was, with an online community of geocachers actively pursuing geocaches daily, unbeknownst to the larger population of oblivious "Muggles" or non-geocachers. But you can look up all this and more detailed history yourself if you want to know more.

When a friend first told me about geocaching, I didn't think too much of it. I didn't own a GPS, and the idea of what is essentially a pseudo-hunt seemed strange, especially if it means amateurs put themselves in potentially fatal situations. There are also security risks associated with geocaches that I hadn't even considered, and while it's undeniably a bit amusing there is a reminder here that geocaching is a game that above all shouldn't endanger anyone, be they geocachers or "Muggles". The majority of geocachers seem to realise and respect this, and follow guidelines about safety laid out on various geocaching websites. There is an overall vibe of fun and adventure that doesn't seem to be too serious, and I think this contributes to what makes geocaching so popular.

I recently found a Garmin nüvi 755t in a sales bin at an electronics store in Darmstadt and, having been preoccupied with the idea of getting a GPS for a while (my preference remains in favour of the Oregon 550t, but this will have to wait for better funding), I bought it since the price was reasonable and I've heard that auto GPS devices and handhelds serve quite different, possibly exclusive purposes. Indiana Jones, also in the store, agreed.

I can't believe I waited so long to get something as awesome as a GPS, but at the same time I'm kind of glad I waited till the technology had developed to its current state because, as cool as it is, it still appears to be in the process of evolution. The accuracy is impressive, and its speed calculation quite accurate to my excitement. Note how it says "walking"? :D

It's quick to calculate routes (unless you give it the mean task of calculating a route from Frankfurt to London!), and adjusts to match your current route much faster than I expected. The voice-guided system is a bit lame, so I'm not sure how much I'd use it if I was actually driving. But as a passenger, it makes for very easy direction and a fun journey. There are extras such as games and traffic advice, but I feel that in the extras department it falls short a bit, and it took a great deal of customising to get the GPS in the geocaching state I wanted it to be. Now, however, it's all good in the geocaching department, thanks to this guide to offline geocaching.
And although I was hesitant about geocaching, I definitely wanted to try it to see what it's all about.

We quickly discovered there is more to geocaching than I at least had expected. I used the Garmin online geocache downloader and was rather disappointed that it only let me download 5 geocaches at a time, per day. That's not cool! But it was enough to start, so that night after visiting a small festival, we scoped out three different geocaches in a small area of Heppenheim. The first was near where we had parked, apparently down a creepy alley that was completely dark. We looked around, setting off the sensor light so we could see, but all we found were a couple of trash bins and a "suspicious" suitcase of newspapers chained to a pole, which upon reflection (and further investigation) we realised was completely off-track.

I learnt my lesson well: always bring a torch! The next was near a bridge crossing a small river, and I again rued my lack of the super bright torch that should have been in my bag. We looked around but it was dark and we suspected the cache would be under the bridge or in the water, somewhere we certainly weren't going without a torch. There was a big stone with an X carved onto it, but although it seemed good at the time we would have needed digging tools and this seemed to be too much effort for a geocache. It's probably a good thing we didn't dig it up, since it probably marks an electricity or water line.

Finally, we had a look at a piece of Roman road with a small memorial stone nearby. My hindering lack of German prevents me from describing it more, but safe to say it is a small square of cobblestone that seems to be fairly old and historical. I thought it would be under the bench and my friend thought behind the sign, but in the dark and without any real idea of where to look or how elaborately hidden caches are, we failed to find it. I had previously thought that geocaching was simply go to a location (specified by coordinates), and then find the geocache. But it's a bit more involved than that, and not the simple hide-and-seek I was expecting.

Having had no success, we called it a night and headed home. I found on the Internet that there was actually a great deal more information about a particular geocache in general, something the Garmin downloader had failed to tell me. Most, if not all, are hidden so well that only the solution of a puzzle or a series of clues will lead a knowing geocacher to find the cache, to protect the caches from those terrible muggly bystanders. We decided to give the Roman road cache another go because it didn't sound particularly difficult.

The next day we visited Schloss Auerbach, the remains of an old castle near Bensheim. There is apparently a cache there, but the German instructions were long and too much for my poor English brain, and we didn't really try to find it although I did have a look around just for anything that might have been it. No luck finding anything. It seems it's quite hard to find caches without solving the clues involved. Which I guess is a good thing overall. I did find a spot where I thought it would be awesome to hide a cache, however my cursory inspection did not yield anything.

We stopped by the Roman road cache spot again, now with further information (particularly the word "magnetic"), and found the cache in less than a minute. I was the one to discover it! It was quite a clever cache I thought, but given it was the first one I had ever seen, that probably doesn't say that much. It was actually somewhere my friend had looked but in the dark, it wasn't that obvious. And from the colour of the cache, it seemed like it had once been where I thought it was. Anyway, I was excited because it was our first cache found! We signed the logbook and put it carefully back where it was supposed to be.

Later we took the family dog for a walk in the vicinity of another close cache, and I realised the power of knowing the area - my friends basically knew where it would be before we'd even left the house! Not bad. We found the second cache pretty quickly too, although I admit I wasn't the one to find it. I'd looked practically everywhere else though, ironically. We signed another logbook, trying to avoid looking suspicious (and failing, I think), and then headed for home.

Overall, I think there is a great deal to be learnt from geocaching. It's fun, and it's actually not as easy as you might think. We've only done very low difficulty caches that haven't involved very much thinking, and most geocaches are much more involved. You get to know your GPS very well, as well as some new areas that you might have not otherwise seen. Even areas you know, you look at differently, assessing them as places you might find or hide something. It makes you think more carefully, like a detective. It's made me realise that I'm a long way off real treasure-hunting, which is itself great leaps ahead of something like geocaching. In geocaching, there are many visits to the cache, even within one day. In treasure hunting, it's only the first that matters. That's a pretty big difference.

I think I will continue to search for geocaches for now. I had to sign up for a premium membership to get the script for offline caches to work, so at least for the next year I'm in. We'll be looking for some in Berlin, and when I get back to Sydney I'll definitely be on the lookout. It's good practice if nothing else, but it's also pretty fun too. I'm looking forward to finding a cache that actually has something other than a logbook inside, because I am really a magpie at heart. I really want to find a travel bug, geocoin or pathtag! They sound really cool. And to search and find something that's been hidden in a place you haven't been by someone you don't know, found daily by people who could be anyone you're passing on the street - there is definitely something neat about that.

I don't know how I feel about the adopted "Muggle" notion from Harry Potter, it seems a little bit cheapened somehow - there must surely be better names for non-geocachers although I can't think of any clever ones. I'm apparently not the only one who thinks this, and some people appear to feel more strongly about it than others (see this mini-rant or this definition). I'm not anti-Potter, the series was pretty cool and definitely a part of my highschool years. But I wouldn't go so far as to integrate Harry Potter with something like geocaching, because it seems to me a bit more creativity-fail than fun. I like the suggestion of "locals" and I will probably use that from now on. It's simple, normal terminology that accurately describes what it needs to. I also quite liked the definition of a "cache maggot" - that is definitely win.

What I find interesting about the word foray is that it has a great deal of meaning built into it that is perhaps lost from modern use. It derives from a more violent origin, sharing the same roots as forage, and originally described a brief invasion or raid of a presumably enemy camp. Now it describes new undertakings or an initial experience of some activity, still with the connotation of "invading" something that is foreign and often used with the adjective brief. And I think that pretty much sums up my geocaching adventures thus far. It's a cool concept at its core and it's certainly rewarding when you find a hidden cache somewhere where many people must surely pass by unaware. But I chose the word foray particularly because I don't consider myself a true geocacher. With time, and more caches, we'll see! But I think it takes a while to transition from local to geocacher, and there is still a bit to learn.

And it's a step closer to being a real treasure hunter, so what could be wrong with that?

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