Geocaching is a treasure hunt which brings families together
Geocaching, an outdoor treasure hunt using GPS devices, is rapidly gaining fans in Hong Kong,writesCharley Lanyon
Tim Teahan was deep in the Malaysian jungle with his young son, Ringo. They had been hiking for three hours, stepping over millipedes, pausing periodically to remove hungry leeches from their skin. Their only companions were the monkeys looking down from the trees. Finally, they found the treasure they were seeking hidden behind a waterfall: a jar containing a notebook.
Teahan, a Hong Kong-based physical education teacher, and his two sons, Ringo, nine, and Anakin, 10, are keen geocachers. This means they are participants in an ongoing hi-tech treasure hunt that has spread across the world. The hunts have been made possible because GPS (global positioning system) devices have become increasingly accessible and sophisticated.
Geocaching began in the United States 12 years ago. Now there are enthusiasts in more than 200 countries. Players hide caches - most often sealed containers with notes or small trinkets and a notebook - in out-of-the-way places and then post the GPS co-ordinates online. There are sometimes cryptic or coded clues to help the search.
When players discover a cache, they log their discovery in the notebook and post their success online. They can take the item if they replace it with something of equal or greater value. All a budding geocacher needs to get started is a GPS device (an iPhone will do just fine) and access to the online forum at www.geocaching.com
The pursuit has certainly exploded in popularity in Hong Kong. In 2008, there were only 99 caches in the city, and around 20 active participants. Today, a quick browse through the website shows hundreds of caches here. The Hong Kong geocaching group on Facebook lists 362 members.
To non-players, or muggles as they are known in geocaching circles, the quests may sound simple, even boring. But geocaching requires careful planning and combines outdoor adventure, exploration, and the thrill of the hunt. Youngsters love it, and because the activity gets kids outside with their families, parents do, too.
"It's a truly amazing game," says Teahan, who introduced it to Year Six classes instead of orienteering.
His family has found more than 200 stashes, and he reckons this shared interest has brought them closer together. "The whole process of researching, planning, going on the search and finding it are all special moments for us," he says.
Freelance writer Karmel Shreyer and her husband, civil engineer Darrell Kingan, love to go on searches with their daughters, 12-year-old Emi and 10-year-old Blaise.
"It's great for multitasking mums. We can combine a nice hike with the excitement of finding a new cache," says Schreyer. "The girls enjoy the walk, instead of moaning about it," adds Kingan.
Their daughters treasure more than the hunt. They also appreciate the time it allows them to spend together. "My dad leaves the house at seven every morning and comes home at six in the evening," Blaise says. "So for me to be able to do an activity with him is really fun."
One of the defining features of geocaching is that it is both local and global. In the search for a cache, players venture into rarely visited neighbourhoods, scale mountains and explore Hong Kong's lesser-known country parks.
At the same time, players are acutely aware they are members of a huge international community. There are more than 1.8 million caches hidden across the globe, and more than five million people searching for them.
Caroline Koh and her family, who moved to Hong Kong from Australia four years ago, found geocaching a great way to get to know the city. Koh, a stay-at-home mum, geocaches with her 10-year-old daughter Charlotte Kinley, and her eight-year-old son Sebastian, at weekends.
"It gets us out of the apartment, brings us closer together and gets us closer to nature. It also takes the kids away from their Xbox and iPods for most of the day," she says. "It has allowed us to discover many new places in Hong Kong. You can also find caches anywhere in the world."
Unable to contain his enthusiasm any longer, Sebastian adds: "Including space!"
"And Antarctica!" says Charlotte.
The children aren't making it up. There is a geocache hidden in Antarctica, and there's even one on the International Space Station.
To add to the global flavour of the game, special purchasable caches have been created. There are geocoins, which are etched with specific designs to commemorate a place or special events or occasions like Lunar New Year's Day.
The "travel bug" is the most popular. This is a tag with a tracking code that enthusiasts can attach to an item. By registering it on the geocaching site, players can track its journey around the world as other gamers move it from cache to cache.
"My first travel bug started in Hong Kong, travelled to Spain, went to Portugal and is currently in France," Charlotte says.
The Teahan family is also tracking travel bugs. One is now in the US, while the other has turned up in Singapore.
Every geocaching family has stories of hard-to-find caches. Sometimes, after weeks of ferreting around, they discover that a cache has been deactivated - removed by the person who placed it, swiped by a hapless muggle, or, rarely, stolen by a singularly nefarious geocacher.
Teahan fondly recalls his son Ringo's favourite hunt in the second world war tunnels of Shing Mun Country Park. "It was pitch black when we were going through the tunnels and the GPS wasn't working [underground]. So we would find an opening and check if we were in the right place and then head back into the tunnels." The quest was maddening, but fun, Teahan says.
Scrambling through tunnels in the dark, or peeling off leeches, may not be everybody's idea of a fun time. Players all have different ideas of what constitutes an enjoyable adventure.
Charlotte doesn't hesitate to answer when asked about her favourite geocaching experience. "At Penfold Park, after we found the cache, we settled down for a snack and rest," she says. "As we were eating, a weird pug dog started running around, making funny groaning noises.
"I think that was my funniest cache," she laughs.