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OBVIOUS pile of rocks or OPOR; thanks for the cache or TFTC; cache in, trash out or CITO; took nothing, left nothing, or TNLN. Sound strange? Not if you’re an enthusiastic geocacher.

Geocaching has caught on big time in South Africa, and Joburg is no exception. There are approximately 250 caches in the city, in places as diverse as The Wilds, the Old Fort, Main Street, the Bus Factory, and Nelson Mandela Bridge. There are about 1 300 caches in Gauteng, and more than 7 000 hidden around the country – and the number is growing.

Geocaching is “a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices”, according to the Geocaching website.

The cache usually consists of a small plastic cylindrical container, in which a tiny logbook is placed, and if there’s space, a small toy. Cachers are required to record their names in the logbook, and if they take anything, they are obliged to replace it. They then record their find, with photographs and comments, on the website.

Retired couple Deanna and Norman Bowman from East London have just had a marathon 20-hour session in Gauteng, bagging 404 caches in one day, roaming across from the West Rand, into the Joburg CBD, and through to Centurion. Their 10-day visit to Gauteng has yielded 750 satisfying cache finds.

Cachers all use nicknames or handles – the Bowmans’ is iPajero.

They have been cachers since 2006, and notched up their 5 000th cache recently, says Deanna, making them the top cachers in the country. They have averaged 25 cache finds a day, and visited 52 municipalities across the country. They have travelled to Namibia, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho on cache treasure hunts, and have found 117 caches in these countries.

What is the attraction, I ask? “It’s a nice stress reliever,” says Deanna. And, it’s another way of seeing the country. “You drive a lot but see a lot,” she adds.

Caches are graded on a scale of one to five, ranging from easy to terrain to earth caches. The easy caches are found quite easily by following the GPS (global positioning system) co-ordinates; they are often found behind a rock, or in a magnetised container stuck to a metal post.

The terrain ones require more problem solving and hiking – there’s one on the top of the Majuba mountain, and one in the circular oxwagon monument at the Battle of Blood River site, both in KwaZulu-Natal.

The earth caches usually don’t contain an object to be found, but a geological formation that has to be uncovered.

To start out as a geocacher, you need to register on the website. You then enter a geocache location on your GPS, and get out there, looking for your first find. You must take a photograph or answer questions to show that you have found the cache. Then you post your caching stories and photographs on the website, to be shared by other cachers.

It is estimated that there are about 1,6 million caches around the world, enough to keep players busy forever. Geocaching started in the US 10 years ago, where there are probably some 50 000 caches stashed. The activity’s birth can be pinpointed: on 2 May 2000 around midnight, the US government opened its satellites for broader use, removing the “selective availability” and allowing anyone to pinpoint their location by using satellites and tracking devices.

The next day a GPS enthusiast, Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant, wanted to test the accuracy of the system “by hiding a navigational target in the woods”. He called the idea the Great American GPS Stash Hunt and posted it in an internet GPS users’ group, indicates the website.

“The idea was simple: hide a container out in the woods and note the co-ordinates with a GPS unit.”

Within three days, two people had read about his stash on the internet. Using their GPSs, they went out and found the container, and shared their experiences online. Throughout the following week, “others, excited by the prospect of hiding and finding stashes, began hiding their own containers and posting co-ordinates”.

“Like many new and innovative ideas on the internet, the concept spread quickly – but this one required leaving your computer to participate.”

Another enthusiast began gathering the online posts of co-ordinates around the world, and documented them on his home page. Geocaching was born.

The term “geocaching” was coined by Matt Stum on the GPS Stash Hunt mailing list by the end of the month. “Geo”, the word for Earth, was used to describe “the global nature of the activity, but also for its use in familiar topics in GPS, such as geography”. And a cache refers to a hiding place, with its associations of hidden treasures.

The finder would then have to locate the container with only the use of his or her GPS receiver. The rule for the finder was simple: “Take some stuff, leave some stuff.”

The Wilds
Neil Madsen-Leibold, a property specialist who started his caching career a year ago, is on the brink of finding his 2 000th cache, he says with suppressed excitement and a big smile. He set himself the goal of finding a cache 365 days in a row, ending on 24 September.

His favourite Joburg cache is at The Wilds, where you have to climb to the top of the hill to find it. There is an interesting one at the Anglo Boer War Memorial in Saxonwold, he adds.

What he loves about the game is that it takes him into nature – he now plans his holidays around cache hunting. His handle is MadSons. And he is looking forward to the cache mega event that is to take place in South Africa in October 2012.

Madsen-Leibold proudly shows me his Travel Bug bag, which contains trackable tags that can be attached to caches. This allows you to track your item on the website. “The item becomes a hitchhiker that is carried from cache to cache (or person to person) in the real world and you can follow its progress online,” indicates the website.

One of these tags is a geocoin. They are considered to be collectibles and will be proudly produced at gatherings with other geocachers.

Anyone can do geocaching – all you need is a GPS, access to the internet, and the means to move around, which doesn’t have to be a car. You could walk or cycle between caches.

If you’re not a geocacher, you’re referred to as a “muggle”, a word taken from the Harry Potter books that means a non-magical person, or, in this case, a non-geocacher.

What he likes about the game is that it is non-competitive and there are no prizes. “You compete with yourself.”

The geocache community has placed 18 caches around South Africa, and geocachers have to find all 18 to solve the puzzle of how to find the 19th cache, which is hidden on Madsen-Leibold’s farm outside Tonteldoos, near Dullstroom.

So, grab your GPS, and TFTC.

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