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Archive for July 2015

Cache exchange: The hidden world of GPS treasure hunting

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Geochaching Thiri Lu

Following the Geocaching app to treasure. Photo: Thiri Lu

The familiar, mundane geography of topographical features, roadways and shopping malls is overlaid with countless maps invisible to those who lack the tools, faculties or knowledge to interpret the signs: Gang territory demarcations, the scavenging routes of urban wildlife and sacred zones governed by local nats all exist in domains subliminal to our own.

Nestled among these hidden maps is the obscure world of geocaching, a hobby that was invented 15 years ago after the US Department of Defense allowed public access to the signals emitted by the 24 global positioning satellites orbiting the earth.

The GPS transmissions were unfettered on May 2, 2000, and suddenly anyone with a GPS receiver was able to pinpoint precisely where on earth they stood. They could also determine the exact distance and direction they needed to travel to reach any point whose coordinates they had entered into their receiver.

Creative, fun-loving nerds were quick to take advantage. The day after the signals were unblocked, a computer consultant named Dave Ulmer bought a plastic bucket, filled it with inexpensive objects – including videos, books, software and a slingshot– and hid it in the forest outside Portland, Oregon.

He then published the coordinates of the hiding place on the internet, inviting others to use their GPS receivers to locate the spot and exchange something in the container for something they had brought along for future treasure seekers. Within three days two people had found the bucket, and by the following week a website dedicated to “GPS stash hunting” had been established.

Thus was born geocaching – as it was later renamed to avoid the negative connotations of the word “stash” – a perfect storm of geekiness and outdoor activity that combines technology, walking and treasure hunting.

There are now more than 2.6 million geocaches around the world, the locations of which can be found by logging onto and downloading the site’s app onto a smart phone. After that, all users need to do is pick a cache to hunt, lace up their walking shoes and set off in the direction indicated.

Caches are rated from one to five stars for difficulty and terrain. Depending on its location, finding one can involve anything from an easy stroll on city streets to a long, vigorous hike through the mountains. Caches can adhere to the original “take something, leave something” ethos, but some include log books to sign, while others merely require that a photo be taken at the location and uploaded onto the website. These days, most containers are substantially smaller and easier to hide than Ulmer’s bucket.

The app will generally get users within 10 to 20 feet of the cache, and then it’s up to them to actually find it, whether it’s hidden in a cranny between two rocks, tucked beneath a shrub or resting on a branch high up in a tree. Coded but easily decipherable clues are usually available on the website to help those who come to a dead end in their search.

In the past few years geocaching has come to Myanmar, with a handful of locations set by participants in Yangon, around Bagan and even along the Nay Pyi Taw highway. Most have been given one-star ratings, so they’re appropriate for kids and lethargic adults.

Downloading the app took me about 30 seconds, and upon consultation I found that the nearest cache was a mere 1.29 miles east of my downtown Yangon apartment. This prompted an exploratory stroll through Chinatown and beyond on a gloriously fresh early-monsoon morning.

As I closed in on my goal, the app counted down the distance and the map zoomed in and became more detailed. I eventually found myself within 10 feet of the cache but, anticlimactically, the precise spot lay within an area that had been cordoned off by a Yangon City Development Committee maintenance crew.

Also, there were just too many people milling about the vicinity to allow a proper search. As a rule, GPS treasure hunters want to avoid being observed by non-geocaching passersby as they remove a plastic container from its hiding place. It’s a testament to the hobby’s lofty nerd quotient (NQ) that such unwanted observers, or any other squares who aren’t hip to the geocaching craze, are referred to on the website by the term “muggles”, lifted from Harry Potter.

So, with the plastic container beyond reach, or perhaps even discovered and discarded by perplexed YCDC muggles, I used my phone to snap a photo of the location. I wasn’t too disappointed at not having found this particular “treasure” – I had enjoyed a pleasant walk through downtown Yangon on streets that were not on my regular scavenging route, including breakfast at an unfamiliar teashop. And besides, there were millions more caches out there, and a whole world to travel to find them.

This story was originally published in the July 3-9 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.


Written by latefornowhere

July 16, 2015 at 1:29 am