People worldwide are tuning in their GPS's to find hidden secrets. Catherine Smith investigates.
If you've been pottering through a park or walking around your neighbourhood, you may have wondered about the strange containers you have spied taped in a hidden spot. Open it and you find a collection of $2 treasures, or a log-book with lists of names and dates.
You have stumbled upon one of the newest sports to hit New Zealand - geocaching.
The high-tech treasure hunting game uses GPS devices to locate hidden containers, called geocaches. Finders then share their experiences online, through a highly active website, geocaching.com. Prompted by the massively increased accuracy of GPS after civilians gained access to the 24 navigational satellites in May 2000, the first geocacher placed a container 'in the wild' and posted its co-ordinates. It was found within three days and the sport took off, worldwide. New Zealand's first cache was hidden near Rotorua on May 12, 2000, and one placed on May 26 near Wellington is still surviving. By July 2000 the website geocaching.com was founded and the sport grew: today there are nearly 1.3 million active geocaches around the world, and about 1250 in this country.
"Unlike other internet-based games, this one actually required the player to get outside and do something. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment," says Rotorua-based Kevin Carroll who chairs the Kiwicaching Association of New Zealand. Like most players, he has a nom de plume - his is GenCuster. Kevin, a self-confessed "gadget person" had been given a GPS about three years ago and a client showed him this cool new use for it. He's now on to his fourth GPS (and also has an app on his iPhone) but calls himself a "slow cacher" because he finds only about 100 caches a year. He played with his family when they were younger; now the dad has the ignominy of having to call calling his teenage son for help when he is struggling to find a cache. Some caches, deliberately aimed at kids, are filled with $2 trinkets: finders can retrieve something and replace it with a new treasure so the cache stays fresh.
Players can be involved by both finding caches and placing their own. There are now more than 12,000 active caches in New Zealand in spots ranging from urban parks and inner city artworks to the tops of mountains and underwater. Caches can vary from nano-containers (approx 10 mm diameter) to wheelie bin sized, with two-litre containers being a popular choice. Steel ammunition containers are the rodent-proof solution in country or bush.
Once a reviewer has verified a cache placed by a player, it is published on the website and play begins. Hunters download the co-ordinates to their GPS (there are now kid-friendly ones for the game called geomate.jr) and start searching.
Naturally the game has evolved. Some hunters love "stealth" caches where retrieval is right under the noses of the unsuspecting public (aka Muggles). Others involve wily disguises, or a three-day tramps using climbing gear, or creating clues that involve solving Sudoku or cryptic crossword-type puzzles.
"Kids seem to pick up the knack of using a GPS very quickly and they have an eye that is fresh and always looking for that "something" out of place," says Kevin. He enjoys caching as a chance to get out of his hotel room when he is away on business trips. A subset of the game is to send out Travel Bugs or Geo Coins, giving them a mission and tracking them as they get carried around the world. There are DNFs (Did Not Finds), even for experienced cachers and PAF (Phone A Friend) for those who are stumped, but it is the FTFs (First to Finds) that are keenly sought - the winner can be mere minutes ahead of the rest.
One of the country's most prolific cachers, Cameron Kerr (aka TheWonderStuff) has found more than 8000 caches, including a concentrated three-day hunt that unearthed more than 1000 on a recent trip to America. He has hunted in Australia on a campervan holiday, his wife has found caches in Hong Kong, Spain and England, but Cam most loves going to remote spots in the Waitakeres or Coromandel where the hunt has the added dimension of spectacular views, history and new places.
"You get to the point where you're always noticing things," admits Cam. "I'll sometimes look at a place and think 'I could place a cache there'. But mostly it's about getting out and seeing new sights."
To buy the geomate.jr ($149) click here.