A new internet craze is taking enthusiasts away from their computers and out into the hills. Intrigued, Malachy Tallack tries out geocaching.
In the past few years, the internet has spawned a dazzling array of opportunities for anyone with a desire to waste their time and money. Computer users are offered an ever-increasing choice of cyber-hobbies, social networking sites and online procrastination options, each of which allows us to disconnect just a little bit more from the real world and the real people around us.
So it was surprise to learn recently of one pastime which, though it is accessed online, is actually encouraging people to get up and leave their computers. And not just that; this particular hobby involves going outside your house and into the fresh air.
“Geocaching” is a simple concept with a silly name. Essentially it is 21st century treasure hunting, with a couple of twists. The first twist is that, rather than employing a map with X marking the spot, geocachers use Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to locate the hidden stashes. And the second twist is that the treasure isn’t really treasure at all, and it isn’t really the point. In fact, for the newcomer, it is not immediately clear what the point actually is.
I decided that the only way to find out was to give it a go.
Getting started with geocaching is pretty simple. All that’s required is a computer with an internet connection plus some kind of GPS device. While these were once expensive and, for most people, unnecessary gadgets, today many new mobile phones come with GPS included, allowing even more people to get involved.
The first step is to sign up (for free) at the website – www.geocaching.com – and then to locate a cache that you’d like to find. I was surprised to learn that there are already over 50 hidden in various locations throughout Shetland, and so plenty to choose from. I selected one that looked reasonably easy to find, called “Broch view”, then copied down the co-ordinates and headed into town. The broch in question was Clickimin.
For this first cache I managed to convince a somewhat sceptical friend to accompany me on the search. Even if the geocaching proved a total waste of time, I pleaded, surely a quick walk up Staney Hill couldn’t be a bad thing. The sun had been shining for most of the morning after all. The sceptical friend reluctantly consented, and together we made our way out to Clickimin and on up the old hill road.
The sun was no longer shining as we walked, but there was still a hint of warmth in the air, and it was certainly good to be outside. I could even tell myself I was working – doing research, no less – and feel much less guilty about skiving on a weekday afternoon.
Halfway up the hill I switched my GPS on, stood still and waited. Last time I’d used this thing I was on the other side of the world, and it took several minutes to figure out where I’d gone this time, but it got there eventually. Hideous yellow gadget now in hand, we carried on walking.
You might imagine that the combination of precise co-ordinates and a very accurate electronic instrument would make locating caches pretty straightforward, and up to a point you’d be correct. A gentle amble up the road, then out on to a rough track, took us quite quickly to the general vicinity of what we were looking for. The co-ordinates were almost matching up.
This initial success however was followed by some stuttery to-ing and fro-ing across the side of the hill as we took a few steps north, then west, then north again, then south, then waited for the GPS to catch up, then became frustrated and stopped.
“Let’s just look around, see if we can find it”, I said. The to-ing and fro-ing continued a little longer as we looked for possible hiding places, among rocks, down holes, behind boulders.
We’d been engaged in this curious dance for five minutes or so when my sceptical friend, now somewhat more animated than she had been to begin with, finally called out, “I’ve found it!”
There, in a cleft in the hill, behind some stealthily placed stones, was a plastic bag containing a plastic box. We pulled it out and emptied the contents onto the grass, just as it began to rain. The box contained some “calling cards” belonging to previous visitors, as well as a little notebook for each finder to log their visit. Inside the logbook we discovered the date the cache had been hidden – 2nd February, 2008 – the first time it was located – 30th March, 2008 – and the most recent find, which surprisingly was only the day before our visit. In between there had been an impressive list of finders from all over the world: Norway, Germany, the USA, Canada, the Czech Republic. Many of them used peculiar nicknames – “shelf dude”, “pumpkinhead” – and left comments on the weather and the reasons for their stay in Shetland.
In addition to the notebook there was “the treasure”. To be honest, I’m not really sure what I’d been expecting to find in the cache, but the small selection of items contained in that box really was extraordinarily disappointing: a dice keyring, a tiny “magic slate” toy, and a brown plastic dinosaur with one arm and one leg missing. That was it.
The general practice when locating a cache is to take one item out and to leave something in its place, but we hadn’t remembered to bring anything and didn’t really fancy any of those particular treasures anyway, so we wrote our names in the book and closed the lid, tucking the box carefully back into its hidey hole in the hill. And that was that. We logged our visit on the website and forgot about it all for a few days.
My second cache was found alone, on a sunny afternoon just a week later. I’d spent the whole morning working, staring at the computer screen, typing away and getting increasingly fed up, until at half past two I realised that I’d forgotten to eat lunch. The sun was streaming in through the window and it seemed a terrible waste not to be outside. So on impulse I checked the website to find the nearest geocache to my house, packed a sandwich into a bag and headed out to make the most of the weather.
As it turned out, the nearest location was at St Ninian’s Isle, just a few minutes away, which was ideal. The sunshine had, as always, brought a fleet of cars and a stampede of families to the beach – children and dogs were swimming; parents were looking on from the shore.
This time I found the cache quite easily, close to the chapel site on the isle. Again, the little plastic box was hidden beneath a small pile of stones, and inside again was a motley array of cheap objects. This time though I had brought something to swap: a bottle of bubbles, which seemed suitably inexpensive and useless. I rummaged through the available items – a dinosaur-shaped eraser and some assorted keyrings – and came out with a wind-up plastic Christmas pudding with a smiling face. But the toy itself was not what I wanted (though I am notoriously fond of Christmas puddings); it was the metal tag that was attached to it that had caught my eye. It was a Travel Bug.
A Travel Bug is basically a dog tag, carrying a unique code number. The code allows the tag to be tracked, so it can be left in a cache then followed online as it is picked up from one place and left in another, rather like a message in a bottle with a tracking device inside. The system adds an extra dimension to the geocaching experience: for those unable to travel, you can send a small metal object in your place.
I put the toy and tag in my pocket and sat down to eat my lunch with the sun in my eyes. I was back at home before an hour was up.
Once there, I logged on to the website again to check the origin of my Travel Bug. According to the cache log it had come from St Bernard’s Well in Edinburgh, and indeed the website confirmed that it had been taken from Edinburgh on the 6th of July, exactly a week before I found it. A few days earlier, the bug was near Queensferry on the Firth of Forth. In June, it moved between various locations in the East Midlands, and before that the West Midlands. It had begun its journey early in April, not far from Milton Keynes. I suspect the person who left it there would never have imagined it might end up on a small uninhabited island in Shetland.
Now I would have to move it on.
I decided for my third cache that a more challenging hunt was necessary, and this time my sceptical friend was a little less sceptical and a little more eager to join in.
After a quick scan of locations in the central Mainland I settled for one called “Njugle’s View”, and on a sunny evening we drove from the town to the Brig o’ Fitch and a little way out along the road towards Scalloway. I parked the car opposite the plantation on the Burn of Njugal’s Water, and we set off up towards the loch.
It was a beautiful walk along the side of the burn, though it proved fairly slow going since one of us was struggling with entirely inappropriate footwear (it wasn’t me). We jumped from one bank to the other (one of us hopped) then, finally, made it to the loch. I checked the GPS and headed up the steep slope on the east bank. There was a repeat of the baffled dance, up then down the hill, back and forth, before we stopped and knelt down beside a suspiciously unnatural looking pile of stones.
Sure enough, beneath the stones was a little box containing a yellow yoyo, a toy wasp with a hideous sound effect, a little statuette of a puffin, a set of chattering plastic teeth and, bizarrely, a roll of insulation tape. I selected the puffin figurine and placed my Travel Bug and pudding in the box, then signed the log and put everything away in its place.
We leaned back in the heather and enjoyed the sunshine, with the swishing of the Burradale turbines in our ears.
After three caches, and with only a two inch puffin to show for my efforts, I was still not quite convinced that I would be going much further with this new hobby. But, if nothing else, I think I was beginning to see the point.
I wanted to make my own mark on the map though, and the best way to do that was to create a cache and to hide it somewhere. And I knew just the place: on one of the islands where no caches had yet been hidden.
So I acquired the necessary materials – a plastic box, suitably waterproof; a trackable Travel Bug of my own, so I could see where it went; a notebook and pencil; and an assortment of little goodies to be swapped. I added the tiny puffin to the mix and closed the lid.
There is a surprising level of personal investment in something like this. Choosing the contents of your box; finding a good place to hide it; registering the cache online; then waiting to see who finds it. I was almost, almost, excited as I packed up my little thermos treasure trove.
Unfortunately, since joining the website is an essential part of the geocaching process, I can’t actually tell you where I’ve hidden it. Nor, after all that, can I tell you what the point of geocaching really is. For the answer to both questions, you’ll have to sign up to find out.
Since beginning this article, a new booklet, Geocaching in Shetland, has been produced by pupils in Ollaberry. A “cache event” is being held on Thursday 12th August in Wester Quarff, for Shetland geocachers to meet. Details of this event, and any other information necessary for newcomers can be found at www.geocaching.com.