using a GPS to track down secret caches stashed around the globe, the new world sport of geocaching is really catching on.

Story By Nick Cook

With a determined rev and a throb of their diesel engines, the vehicles charge down the earthy slope and plunge into the Macquarie River not far from Dubbo, NSW. As they plough through the chilly winter waters, it folds in front of them like dirt before a bulldozer, sliding to each side and creating a wave that peels off behind them. It’s a sunny winter’s morning and nearby a trio of black swans cruises across the Macquarie River with the stately grace of luxury yachts, watching the procession with muted curiosity. By any standard the river crossing is fairly mild – only just out of reach of the average two-wheel-drive – but there’s still a sense of achievement among the drivers when they pile out of their vehicles on the other side to dissect the experience with a knot of laughter and excited voices. It seems as though they’ve already gotten their money’s worth out of the morning, but this is no ordinary four-wheel-drive expedition and they’ve only just begun. This is geocaching. On foot, the party walks upstream. All attention is focused on the hand-held GPS devices several members of the party are carrying. They eventually stop in front of a tree and, after a brief search, one of them reaches into a hollow and produces a small plastic canister to the sound of cheers from the others. They’ve just found their first cache of the day. Less than 10 years old, geocaching is still relatively unknown in the mainstream but it has gained something of a cult following among those who take part. At its most basic level it’s a game of hide and seek, except that it’s played across the entire planet. One geocacher hides a cache (pronounced KAYsh) in a secret location, then notes the GPS coordinates of the site and broadcasts them over the internet to other geocachers who can then go and search for it. While there are some rules (all caches have to be accessible to the general public, for instance), there is no central organisation or leadership structure. The sport is totally free for anyone with a GPS to play. Back at the Macquarie River, the located canister found by the group is cracked open to reveal a note of congratulations. It also contains a log book that everybody signs and a number of small toys, free for the taking as long as something of equivalent value is left behind for others. The sport offers a wide variety of experiences for its participants over a wide variety of terrain. One expedition has the hunters walking up a rocky slope through dense, trackless scrub while another has the group following a dried creek bed. There is a multi-cache hunt which has them following clues from one waypoint to another like an old-fashioned treasure hunt, and a micro-cache which means the object being sought is no bigger than a film canister and very difficult to find. One of the caches even involves having a photograph taken next to a Ned Kelly-like letterbox, and the final cache of the morning is collected simply by arriving for lunch. Len Wellington, whose online nickname is “Geonads”, was one of the first in the Dubbo area to take up geocaching. In those early days around 2002, he had to travel 800 kilometres for five different caches, but since then the sport has boomed and a quick glance at the map on his laptop reveals more than 30 sites in his immediate area. There are even some hidden right in the middle of the town, including one in the carpark of a major fast-food outlet (revealing its location to an audience of non-geocachers is serious taboo). For Len, who has searched for caches in every state and territory, it’s more about the journey than the destination. “I just love the places it takes me to,” he says. “I love the technology. I’m a bit of a geek I suppose, but mainly it’s all about the places we see and people we meet. I was in Tasmania looking for a cache that took me to Tin Lake, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The water was the most magnificent blue I’d ever seen, but there was only a tiny sign to it from the main road. I would never have seen it if I wasn’t geocaching.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #64

Outback Magazine: April/May 2009