How geocaching took a couple from Pratts Bottom to Oz
- 23 July 2010
- From the section Technology
When he decided to try geocaching, Ian Peacock naively thought it was a trendy type of treasure hunt. Using a GPS receiver, he set off to locate various containers or "geocaches" hidden by other "cachers".
What he did not expect to find was a trove of creative, often eccentric characters in a fascinating Lewis Carroll universe, where the only enemies are the muggles.
A man in a floppy hat scuttles into the country churchyard, beating nettles aside with a stick and poring over a GPS device.
He veers his way through the gravestones. He clearly has not seen me, unlike the parishioners who have given me some odd looks. I must look a bit suspicious in my oldest trainers and scruffiest t-shirt.
By the time I introduce myself, he is deep in a nettle bed, prodding twigs. He is no less than "drsolly" - real name Dr Alan Solomon - Europe's most prolific finder of geocaches. He has found a whopping 15,120.
His only worry today is being spotted by a non-geocacher or muggle.
Muggles do not understand: "They haven't found the magic yet," says Solomon.
He could be lazing on a beach if he wanted to - Dr Solomon is a multi-millionaire according to the 2008 Sunday Times Richlist - but he would rather geocache.
"Geocaching takes you to places you couldn't possibly have dreamt existed," he says.
"It's a version of the UK that most people don't get to know about. You notice more, you see unusual things, see the world with a cacher's eye."
Since he got into caching four years ago, having mislaid his compass, he has developed as one of the finest cachers on earth.
Despite this, he is still slightly behind world record-holder - "Alamogul" from California - who had located 43,200 the last time I looked.
"One of the best caches I did was called Poor Tiddles," says Dr Solomon.
"I searched and I searched, but I didn't actually know what I was looking for. Then it dawned on me that there was a poster of a missing cat which had two phone numbers on it.
"I suddenly realised those couldn't possibly be real phone numbers. They were numbers for latitude and a longitude - the coordinates of the cache."
And geocaching can even help out with a wedding.
Kent couple Warren and Jules Dare - known as Woppy'n'Jules - are seriously into geocaching, and travel bugs in particular.
Travel Bugs - small metal tags with unique numbers on them - are simply popped in a geocache then a journey is suggested for the bug online.
After Warren proposed by hiding a message saying "marry me" during a trip to find a fake geocache, they actually used a Travel Bug to determine where they would spend their honeymoon.
"We placed a special bug in a cache," says Jules.
"We attached two hearts to it and wrote a message saying: 'Wherever this bug is at 3pm on 22 May 2010, we're going to spend our honeymoon.'"
The bug stayed in a hidden place close to the M2 - hoping it would attract someone on their way to France, for month after month until they logged on to find out the bug was in a dream location:
"A few weeks before the wedding, we found out it was in New York," she says.
"I've never ever been there. It's a dream. We even booked a hotel. But then we checked again and someone had brought it back. I was gutted, devastated. It was in Pratts Bottom."
The bug had made a round trip of 6198.2 miles and it had ended up 34 miles from the couple's home in Kent.
"I cried all night," says Jules.
"I put out an SOS next day. A week before the wedding we found out it was in Adelaide in southern Australia."
Inspired, I decided to place my own bug - Beeb Bug - in a cache, and asked cachers to take it on a journey to Land's End then John O'Groats.
It has not reached its destination but it is in a forest in the Czech Republic, which is pretty impressive for a newbie I feel.
My final task was to place my own geocache. With help from Woppy'n'Jules, I hid it in the woods near that venerable temple of broadcasting - Alexandra Palace. Ambitiously, I decided to put a mini cassette recorder in the cache - rather than a paper logbook. The idea was that cachers could leave audio messages for broadcast.
Within days, I received emails informing me that various cachers had left audio messages. So, just before recording my Radio 4 programme, I bounded off to Ally Pally, proudly brandishing my GPS, finally feeling like a caching graduate.
I strode up to ground zero and fumbled. Nothing. More fumbling - for an hour. Panicky call to producer. "You've been muggled," she sighed.
A muggle had clearly stolen my precious geocache.
Crestfallen, I recorded the programme, devoid of audio messages - and told the listeners the muggles had scuppered me. My great caching finale had been thwarted.
I then went home to log on and announce my bereavement. But I had to do a double-take. Something weird had happened. There had been a new find. Someone had located the thing. It was still there.
I felt like a rubbish geocacher, a muggle. I could not even find my own cache. I certainly could not face going back to search again.
So I sent an SOS to Woppy'n'Jules. The next day, they found it. In the exact spot I had put it in the first place.
Oddly, I did not really care about the supposed demise of the cache itself. It was the loss of the messages I was upset about.
Caching is all about the journey, the locations and the cachers themselves - I am even starting to think I have become one myself.
This is Bollycat, for the BBC, at a cache near you.