There I am, rear end in the air, kneeling in deceptively long grass alongside the Hoopenberg gravel road a good few kilometres from Stellenbosch, and peering under a rotten tree stump for a container the size of a 35mm film canister. Our search is being viewed in a desultory way by a road-maintenance team 300 metres away, as they prepare to fill in hundreds of potholes.
“We’d better move fast,” says Chris Readman. “We don’t want to give away the location of this geocache.” With that he shows me the geocache container he has found, extracts a few items from the container, fills in the logbook and allows me to take a few quick photographs of the badges in the container before returning the cache to its hiding place.
This is the moment I join the ranks of thousands of ardent, treasure-seeking South Africans aged between eight and 80, trekking around country and urban locations trying to find geocaches hidden in often quirky spots.
3 million caches
But before this first excursion into the world of geocaching I have to cut and paste into my mind the nature of the activity. Chris helps me with a short and pithy introduction. “Geocaching is the outdoor sport or game of searching for hidden objects in rural or urban areas by using GPS coordinates posted on the Internet.” If that sounds a little wacky to your ears, know that millions of people around the world are geocachers. Geocaching has become a worldwide phenomenon since the game was launched in 2000.
“Some geocache aficionados have located and logged upwards of 5 000 geocaches in South Africa and elsewhere, many in country areas,” says Chris. “There are around 15 000 caches hidden throughout South Africa, virtually all
of them in locations that can be easily accessed by the public day and night.”
Quoting from the geocaching website, Chris tells me that there are three million geocaches in 190 countries being sought out by thousands of treasure seekers. By default, and often intentionally, geocachers assimilate geographical, anthropological and historical facts about the areas in which they are conducting their searches.
Becoming a geocacher
Chris has been a geocache fan for several years, during which time he wandered around scores of country and urban locations tracking down 1 244 geocaches or containers (at last count) secreted in incredibly diverse hiding places.
“I’ve found myself competing against entire families trying to locate geocaches in similar areas of the countryside. You have to be careful that you don’t unwittingly give away the location of a geocache. Often you have to be just a little circumspect because most of the ites are in public spaces and places.”
Explaining the process, Chris says each waterproof geocache container has a logbook in which you write your name and contact details to record that you’ve found the cache. Various other items left by previous geocachers are often found in the containers.
“You log your find on the geocache website at www.geocache.com and have access to a finders’ page where you can write a short article about the challenges you overcame to find the cache, if that’s what you want to do.”
You can also set up a geocache in your own location and load the site onto the geocaching website. Some geocachers make their caches more difficult to find by developing puzzles that have to be solved to pin down the coordinates of a geocache. Others use existing on-site information boards and even roadside signage to provide clues.
Users can download a free app from the geocache website or simply use a hand-held GPS device to locate geocaches, some of which are extremely well hidden. The process of finding a geocache is made easier by tips provided on a geocacher’s hand-held device, by a map that is downloaded onto the device and by a distance finder that tells you how far or how close you are to the geocache you’re trying to find.
First tentative steps
Before taking my first tentative steps into the geocacher environment, I make contact with senior corporate consultant Gareth Tiedt, who was introduced to the activity in July 2010 by his late father, well-known geocacher Peter Tiedt. Gareth’s enthusiasm for geocaching has a strong emotional element, and he tells me that being a geocacher saved his father’s life. “When he had a heart attack in his home city of Durban in 2016 he called the person nearest to his home, geocacher Deon Louwrens. Deon rushed his friend to hospital.”
My first activity as a novice geocacher is to log on to the geocaching site under the name ‘findblikkies’, a name I made up on the spur of the moment. Each geocacher provides his or her unique name when they register on the site.
With Chris acting as navigator, I set off on the N1 from Cape Town in the direction of Paarl, knowing that the geocache locations Chris has chosen earlier could be sited in game and nature reserves, wine and housing estates, and parks, monuments and view sites.
Chris has drawn a rough map showing the general location of each of the nine caches we are attempting to find. As a further aid, he has downloaded a document from the geocache website that rates the difficulty of finding each cache, the GPS coordinates and subtle hints to help us find the hidden caches.
With the Hoopenberg cache logged, our next target is on the other side of the N1 so we backtrack and head in the direction of Stellenbosch, before turning off onto a little-used dirt road to search for a cache entitled Sunday Drive TR1. Surrounded by vineyards, and overlooked by the Simonsberg mountains, we spend a frustrating 25 minutes searching for the cache. Chris classifies the search as a ‘did not find’ (DNF).
Our next location is Muratie wine estate, one of the oldest estates in South Africa, and in the picturesque Knorhoek Valley north of Stellenbosch. The clue given by the cacher indicates that the container is hidden in a ‘green machine’.
I manage to find the micro-container and Chris logs the find before we take a breather to enjoy coffee under the old oak trees. The coffee stop also gives us the opportunity of reading up on Muratie’s colourful history. This is my first visit to Muratie and I’m determined to go back soon to taste the wines and delve deeper into the history of this fascinating estate.
In the next hour, we have one more find and a DNF before we detour off the Franschhoek road to Boschendal for a light, outdoor lunch at the wine estate’s popular bistro. We are among a dozen patrons joined by a flock of well-fed chickens begging for titbits, their portly stature a clear indication of past success. I wonder if Chris feels a little guilty as he finishes his crumbed-chicken lunch.
Setting the difficulty
Our penultimate stop is Cape Winelands Riding, an enterprise that offers guests guided tours on horseback to various wine-tasting venues. The site, amid white-fenced corrals and paddocks, is an idyllic environment and available to geocachers from 9am to 4pm daily. To gain entry to the site you have to phone the central office from the gate. A lecturer from the University of Cape Town hid the cache at this location.
Cape Winelands Riding owner Louis Geyer says he was approached by the cacher two years ago to allow her to place a cache on the site. “I told her we would welcome geocachers but advised that she shouldn’t make the geocache too difficult to find. She’s a very clever woman and I had the feeling that she might create a puzzle that she felt was easy to solve but would defeat many other people. She’s a horse lover and usually spends time here riding to various wine estates in the area with our groups of tourists.”
Louis says he has regular visits from geocachers, especially in summer. After searching for the cache they usually spend time petting some of the 40 horses on site.
Our next destination reinforces the incredible diversity of geocache sites in the area. We turn off the Franschhoek road and head towards Paarl and the Drakenstein Correctional Centre (previously called Victor Verster Prison where former president Nelson Mandela was incarcerated) and see for the first time the imposing statue of the former president on a plinth outside the gates of the prison. After a short search Chris locates the container nearby, records the find in the cache’s log and returns the cache to its hiding place.
Locating a cache at an upmarket housing estate a few kilometres away seems like an anticlimax after the find in the shadow of the Mandela statue.
We set off for home extremely satisfied, having located and logged seven of the nine caches on Chris’ rough map. We take the N1 on-ramp within sight of the imposing hill on which stands the Afrikaans Language Monument, site of a number of additional caches.
Reflecting on the day’s adventure, I have to conclude that treasure hunting for caches in the countryside adds a new dimension to my enjoyment of the countryside and draws me to areas I have not visited or been attracted to in the past.
In particular, to experience vicariously at the gates of the Drakenstein Correctional Centre (once the Victor Verster prison) a tiny element of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom makes me ponder once again the vagaries of life in South Africa. By way of contrast, the laid-back ambience of Murantie wine estate hints at the genteel art of wine-making going back hundreds of years. Perhaps geocaching has its hooks in me? Time will tell.