A healthy mix of orienteering and treasure-hunting, but what exactly is Geocaching?

A cross between orienteering, treasure-hunting and tourism, geocaching can, paradoxically, get both children and adults away from the computer screen and out into the real world, writes Conor Power.

Conor Power and his son Mark, 13, and friend Finnian O'Donovan, 13, find the buried "treasure" using geocaching. Pic: Don MacMonagle

HAVING fun with children isn’t what it used to be. There are so many distractions that it’s often hard for them to be able to enjoy anything. These days, it’s as if part of their soul was being taken away by computers and their hand-held spawn. At least, that’s how it can look when you stand in the middle of the living-room floor and announce that you’re all going for a nice walk in the countryside and are met with low grumbling noises without anyone lifting their head from their little screens.

Happily, there is a place where the world of the outdoors and the digital/internet/smartphone/ computer world meet. It’s called geocaching.

Essentially, geocaching combines orienteering, treasure-hunting and tourism in one happy amalgamation.

It all started back in 2000 when the American military decided to rent out its Global Positioning System (GPS) for the use of the common man and woman around the world. Many people may not realise it, but the systems we use for tracking where we’re going in our car sat-nav were designed initially by the US military to track the progress of missiles and drones.

When the technology became worldwide common property for more fun-oriented activities, a man called Dave Ulmer in Oregon thought that it would be a fun idea to test the accuracy of the new systems by hiding a bucket containing videos books and food, posting the co-ordinates online and inviting people to come and find it.

The response to the challenge was overwhelming and now geocaching has become a worldwide phenomenon. At any given time, there are 2.4m caches hidden around the world and over 6m geocaching devotees signed up to play. It’s an unseen army — a veritable nation of people walking around in search of lunchboxes … with no lunch in them.

We were first introduced to geocaching by some people from Kildare that we met while on holiday. They explained it to us before setting off with their teenage son and daughter to go explore the local area and find a cache. It was a revelation: I had barely seen their son and daughter over the previous days. Like most youths of their age, they spent as little time as possible with their parents, preferring their own solitude with a pair of earphones stuck in their ears to hanging out with Mam and Dad. Yet, here they were, happily toddling off with their parents on a treasure hunt.

Once we got back home, we were no sooner in the door than we were online checking it out and signing ourselves up to the international fraternity of geocachers. Just as our friends had suggested, there were plenty of geocaches hidden unbeknown to us in very close proximity to where we lived.

Out we went to explore them. The first one we found was down on the particularly beautiful Sheep’s Head Peninsula which isn’t far from our home. This cache consisted of an old metal ammunition box hidden in a stone ditch. In it, we found several items that included pencils and souvenir toppers, as well as a tape of Dutch folk music. Basically, it was an old box full of bits of tat, but we all stared, touched and pored over its contents like a bunch of pirates who had just found a chest of gold sovereigns. We read through the log book that had lovely hand-written notes from happy people who had come from all over the world and we added our own entry before replacing the cache were we found it. We took a photo of ourselves and paused to admire the scenery. We’d certainly been around here before, but not at that precise place and it felt like seeing it all anew.

One of the next beauty spots we were to discover properly for the first time was the Standing Stones at Kealkil. Set high in a field above the village, there are magnificent views of Bantry Bay and what seems like half the mountains in West Cork. In spite of living near it, we had never taken the time to go and look at it. But that is one of the real strengths of geocaching: it gets you out exploring places that guide books and even personal recommendations might fail to persuade you to visit.

Donnacha McCann is a geocaching enthusiast who has been at the very heart of the matter in Ireland since 2003, when he was among those that established Geocaching Ireland, of which he is still the administrator.

“For me, it was the sense of adventure,” says the Wicklow-based technology consultant. “I’m one of these guys that loves the outdoors and the sense of adventure that geocaching brings.

“A lot of people use the caches as a sort-of tour guide around Ireland because you’ll be brought to places that wouldn’t ordinarily be on the tourist trail; the caches are placed by guys with a good local knowledge of the beauty spots where not many people frequent.”

The first geocache in Europe was placed at a spot in Bray Head. Donnacha and a friend of his found it, and then wondered what to do next. So they each hid one and it took off from there.

Today, there are over 6,500 caches in Ireland alone. You can find them in all sorts of locations, whether it’s a little 35mm film box in a high-volume busy urban location or a great big ammunition box full of goodies in the middle of the countryside. They’re there, but you won’t know they’re there until you become a geocacher yourself.

The other thing that you can do is to get yourself a “geo-coin”. These are especially-designed trinkets that you can buy online and which come with a serial number. You then place them in a cache somewhere. Other geocaching folk will visit the cache, take the coin and place it somewhere else on this planet, from where another geocacher will move it on somewhere else. You can then trace the progress of your geo-coin online and follow its adventures, along with all the various comments from the different people who “meet” it. Armchair travel was never so visceral! The byword on the geocaching website reads “… where you are the search engine”. It’s a phrase that accurately gets across the idea of how an internet-based notion can, paradoxically, get children and adults away from the computer screen and out into the real, three-dimensional world.

For that reason alone, it’s an idea that will, I believe, continue to “cache” on.

GETTING STARTED ...

GPS: this can be in the form of one of the more accurate ones for orienteering purposes; a car sat-nav, or even one that comes built into your smartphone.

Computer and printer: this will be handy for printing off the details of the cache, including co-ordinates and any special directions to help find the cache, although you can also download the co-ordinates directly into your sat-nav.

Visit the sites www.geocaching.com and www.geocachingireland.com for further information on getting started.

A lunch-box: the most commonly-used storage device for hiding a cache. Be aware that you do need to have permission from the land-owner for placing a geo-cache on their land.



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