High-Tech Treasure Hunts Set to Go Global | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 27.08.2002
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High-Tech Treasure Hunts Set to Go Global

Due to advances in Global Positioning System technology, people the world over are “Geocaching” – high-tech hide and seek with the help of GPS devices. DW-WORLD had a go at a game that is now catching on in Germany.


It was an eerie experience, standing in a clearing, the dog panting in the humid semi-darkness in the background, accompanied only by the beeping of my GPS device and the incesant whine of mosquitoes. I thought back on the website I’d read before embarking on this quest which warned that the last stage of my quest would require some good old fashioned foraging. So I began scything my way through a circle of waist high bracken, wondering if my search for buried treasure was really worth it.

But it was for the sake of investigative journalism, I told myself, that I had decided to try out a sport which is well known in the US, and is becoming increasingly popular in Germany – Geocaching.

Treasure Hunt for adults

Geocaching is a new craze that combines the children’s game ‘Treasure Hunt’ with grown-up computer-aided map reading – kind of a high-tech hide and seek.

The basic idea is to have individuals and organisations set up hidden ‘caches’ all over the world – usually small 'treasure chests' of CDs, cheap toys, trinkets, etc placed in weatherproof containers or boxes -- and share the locations on the Internet. Users can then use the location co-ordinates to find them with the help of Global Positioning System devices - electronic units that work with satellites to determine your location within around 2-7 metres almost anywhere on the planet .

Once a cache is located, the finder is allowed to take something from it – but good geocachers are expected to add something to the mini treasure trove in return.

Follow the trail

Before setting out on my first geocaching adventure, I located some co-ordinates in latitude and longitude close to my base in southern Germany and headed off in the direction of the Hohenzollern Castle, in the dense woodland around the southern German town of Hechingen.

Armed only with a borrowed GPS system, the requisite silly ‘game name’ – a fitting ‘Clueless’ in my case -- and a dog trained in mountain rescue, I began the search for my local cache.

For someone who finds regular maps a source of frustration, the GPS seemed child’s play in comparison. Once I had the surrounding area in front of me on the flashing screen, and the ‘waypoint’ highlighted in helpful red, I just had to follow the directions given to me as I set off into the undergrowth.

Advance in GPS

Before May 2000, the GPS signals received by hand-held devices were intentionally degraded due to something called 'Select Availabilty' (SA) which stopped public use of what was until then a mainly military application. The Clinton Administration in the U.S. removed 'Selective Availability' on May 1st, 2000 as a way to 'encourage acceptance and integration of GPS into peaceful civil, commercial and scientific applications world-wide.'

Two days later, the first cache was created in the American state of Portland, with its location and details posted on a satellite navigation newsgroup’s Internet site. By the May 6, the cache had been visited twice. Today, there are almost 10,000 caches scattered in 142 countries, around 300 of which are in Germany.

In Germany, the sport has been gaining popularity in recent months, not least due to the declining costs of GPS units. Hand-held versions, easy to use and already popular with hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, are available today for less than 100 euros.

Simple and 'Green'

The game’s popularity has been helped by the fact that it is surprisingly simple. All you need to do is enter a ‘waypoint’ where the geocache is hidden. Caches can contain just about anything – even though organisers draw the line at drugs, weapons and alcohol are unsuitable.

Once you find the cache, geocaching etiquette dictates that you take something from inside, leave something of your own and then record it in the on-line logbook. Leaving of gifts is encouraged. The official web site suggests disposable cameras for recording that ‘eureka!’ moment, cheap toys, gift certificates, money and gold bars.

Although the game does involve tramping through undergrowth and locations off the beaten track, geocaching overall is an environmentally friendly quest. Caches are deliberately placed in areas where a minimal impact will be made on the natural surroundings and they are generally located on public property to discourage trespassing. One cache is reported to be 11,000 feet above sea level, hidden in the Colorado Rocky Mountains in the United States.

No one has found that one yet.

Followers and hoaxers

Meanwhile out in my clearning, the dark had began seriously setting in and I seemed to be no closer to locating the exact position of the fabled cache, even after repeatedly circling the position of the red dot on the GPS device.

The official web site did mention the fact that, as well as attracting thousands of dedicated followers, Geocaching was acting as a magnet for a legion of hoaxers.

Believing that I had been duped by a set of fictitious co-ordinates, I was slightly frustrated at first. However, I soon took comfort from the fact that my quest had brought me into close proximity to a rather excellent beer garden.

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  • Date 27.08.2002
  • Author Nick Amies
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2ajo
  • Date 27.08.2002
  • Author Nick Amies
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2ajo