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The curious world of geocaching by Iain Aitch

It's hard not to feel furtive when you are scrabbling around in the bushes somewhere in Milton Keynes as joggers trot by, craning their necks to see what you are doing. After all, doing anything in bushes is pretty much deviant behaviour once you are an adult. They're fine to hide contraband cigarettes or girlie magazines in if you are a teenager, but rustling in the undergrowth as a grown up marks you out as some kind of weirdo or, at the very least, a birdwatcher.

Luckily I have my girlfriend, Christina, with me to help allay any suspicion and I also have some electronic gadgetry that tells me this is a very specific bush; the one I have been looking for; the one located at N52° 03.352 W 000° 47.640. The gadget in question is a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, which triangulates your position by bouncing a signal off orbiting satellites to tell you where you are.

The reason we are stumbling around the shrubbery is to try out the little-known but fast growing GPS-based pastime that is geocaching. Barely four years old, geocaching started when someone buried a stash of goodies and posted the co-ordinates on the Internet. The hobby then quickly grew from the reserve of a handful of gadget freaks into a global game of hide and seek, using the website geocaching.com to register and find new caches.

"There are 80,000 caches worldwide, mostly in the US," says Richard Peat, one of the founders of the Geocaching Association of Great Britain, who enjoys geocaching as a means to get out and about in the countryside. "The UK is fourth with about 2,500 caches." There are now thought to be as many as 3,000 geocachers in the UK.

All you need to do is put in a postcode and the website finds a cache near to you. You then punch the co-ordinates given into a GPS receiver (which can be picked up for less than £100) and it draws a line from your location to the cache.

Our borrowed GPS receiver insists that we are right on top of the cache, but we can't find anything that resembles the Tupperware containers or ammunition boxes that usually hide a log book, a handful of key rings or the odd small toy. We look up trees, kick aside leaves and get chirped at by a robin, whose nest we seem to be right next to, but to no avail.

Eventually we admit defeat and head off in search of another cache.
Christina already seems somewhat disillusioned with the hobby as she gets back behind the wheel to traverse the many roundabouts of the New Town. Things get worse as I try to direct her through the bizarre maze of housing estates and numbered roads that make up the town's traffic system, using GPS rather than road maps.

It doesn't help that I'm not very good with right and left.

"Right here on V10, er… no, I mean left," I say, receiving a black look for my troubles.

Eventually we reach Milton Keynes village, the hamlet where the urban sprawl began and the place that we have to pick up clues for a quiz-based geocache. We have some of the co-ordinates from the website but have to count doors, fire hydrants and words on monuments to get the rest of the figures.

"Pull over here," I say, spotting the bus shelter with the doors that we have to count.

"I can't," says a somewhat tense Christina, citing a fictitious build up of traffic behind her.

One argument and some counting later we have nearly all the numbers we need. We then realise that we are not alone. Another couple are obviously doing exactly the same as us. I had assumed that they were just out walking their dogs, but they have pencils and paper. And cagoules.

It feels like we have been caught doing something sordid in the bushes, and before we have even got to the rooting about in the bushes part. Luckily it seems that they feel the same way and keep their distance. They also get one of the clues wrong and head off in the wrong direction, leaving us to find the cache first and feel all superior.

The cache is in a green ammunition box. Not much of interest in there, but we sign the logbook, leave some stickers and head for our next target, which promises stunning scenery. This is what much of geocaching is actually about, with some caches being 'virtual caches' where an unexpectedly attractive location is the reward and there is no hidden box. Though more experienced cachers often shun these in favour of 'micro caches', which consist of hard-to-find 35mm film canisters with tiny logbooks inside.

As we head off we again find ourselves at the mercy of Milton Keyne's bizarre traffic system, where A-roads suddenly disappear into housing estates with no easy way out. Eventually we find the Bow Brickhill village church alluded to in the website instructions and head past it to a car park. From here we clamber up a path and find ourselves rewarded with a picturesque walk through the woods, with the trees displaying every shade of red, orange and brown imaginable.

After a leisurely autumnal stroll through crunching leaves and a minimal amount of scrabbling through an evergreen bush we find the cache. I open the ammo box, which is reassuringly marked 'contents harmless', and discover a smurf, some chalk and a Bob The Builder notebook. Hardly the Holy Grail, but a little better than our last find so I drop a badge, a sticker and a toy tooth with waving arms into the box before re-burying the container under leaves and heading back to the car.

By this time it is getting dark and we are both in the need of some food, so I dig out the Good Pub Guide that is left in the glove box for such occasions. Disappointingly, none of the listings have GPS co-ordinates next to the descriptions of food and drinks on offer. So we have to resort to the old fashioned road atlas to get us to our pub of choice, which seems a most unsatisfying way of finding things just as I was getting used to my every move being dictated by long strings of numbers and guided by expensive hardware orbiting miles above my head. Roll on geopubbing.

You can find out more about geocaching at www.geocaching.com and the Geocaching Association of Great Britain's website, www.gagb.co.uk.

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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