x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Treasure hunters of the satellite age

A global game of hide-and-seek known as 'geocaching', which uses GPS technology, is the latest craze to hit the UAE.

Grant Little with his son Alex, 10, centre, and Alex Voutchkov, nine, go geocaching in Abu Dhabi.
Grant Little with his son Alex, 10, centre, and Alex Voutchkov, nine, go geocaching in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // A global game of hide-and-seek is the latest craze to hit the UAE. The game players are part a growing band of "geocachers" who scour cities and the countryside in a worldwide "treasure hunt" combining the internet, GPS technology and old-fashioned exploration.

Participants conceal - or cache in French - items and share their co-ordinates with an online community for other enthusiasts to find. There are 249 active geocaches in the UAE and hundreds more around the Gulf. It all started in 2000 when a GPS, or global positioning system, previously available only to the US military, was opened up for general use. Internet chat rooms were suddenly alive with discussions about how the technology could be used, and to put it to the test, an American computer consultant, Dave Ulmer, hid a navigational target in woodland in Beaver Creek, Oregon.

He coined it the Great American GPS Stash Hunt and posted details of the experiment along with the co-ordinates in an internet GPS users' group. There was just one rule: the finder could take something from the cache but must leave something in return. From there, geocaching was born. There are now nearly a million sites around the world, with between two and three million active participants, according to Jen Sonstelle from the founding organisation, Groundspeak.

She said that since September 2000, the number of active geocaches worldwide had grown from 75 to more than 900,000. "We do not have specific information on the number of geocachers in the UAE, as we do not require location information when users sign up for an account. "Geocaching participants include a large variety of people from all age groups. There are significant groups of families with children, college students, adults and retirees that enjoy geocaching," she added.

With the only requirements for participation being online access, "a sense of adventure" and a GPS device - falling prices over recent years mean a basic model costs less than US$100 - Ms Sonstelle said it was easy and cheap to take part in the growing craze. Details of caches are posted on the geocache.com website, as are members' experiences of tracking them down. Each cache contains at least a logbook for finders to fill in, and often an assortment of more or less valuable items. It is hardly treasure in the truest sense, but enthusiasts leave anything from pool balls to toys and examples of local craftwork.

Part of the appeal is the exploration, as the caches can take the hunters anywhere from stunning wadis in the desert to historical ruins to breathtaking mountain views. Some are easily accessible in local parks, others in more challenging terrain off the beaten track. In Florida there are even operators running geocaching tours for visitors. In Abu Dhabi, geocachers have set up sites taking people to some of the city's parks and sites such as the Corniche as well as further afield.

One local enthusiast, Grant Little, has created several, including one near the site of Masdar City where he works, overlooking Khalifa City and what is soon to be transformed into the world's most environmentally advanced city. "It is right next to the airport so even people who are on a short layover can come and see it, and it brings Masdar to many people who would never have known about it," he said.

The Masdar geocache had already attracted visitors from as far afield as Germany, he said. Since taking up the hobby more than two years ago, he has visited sites in 16 countries from Germany to the US, and says it is the most fascinating way to learn about a new place and meet new people with local knowledge. "One time I was on business in Zurich and through geocaching I met this great guy who showed me some forest and castles I'd never have known about otherwise. With my job I travel a lot so it's a great way to see a place quickly."

Mr Little, who moved to the UAE from South Africa a year ago, said another of his caches was near Al Raha Mall. "My son used to call the Aldar building the 'dirham' building because of the shape of it and so in that geocache I've left the history of the dirham and the currency here so people can learn a little bit about the local history," he said. Out of the concept of miscellaneous articles left in caches has grown the idea of "trackable" items, tagged objects that finders can take from one location and leave in another. These "travel bugs" are registered on the website and tracked to see how far they go.

Although several sites have fallen victim to the UAE's construction drive and been built over, many are in beauty spots. "The first one I found here took me out by the car museum, which was a great find," said Mr Little. "There is also one underwater in Sharjah which you have to scuba-dive to. There's another one over on Sir Bani Yas Island." Eric Lightner, also based in Abu Dhabi, said he loved the hobby as it had brought him closer to the country's Bedouin communities.

"Through geocaching, you get to meet the wonderful people who dwell in the desert and farm areas and they are amazingly polite, hospitable and caring, not caught up in themselves like many of us city dwellers." Robert Weener, known as "Camel Master" in geocaching circles, recently left Dubai for Oman, but over the past two years has grown passionate about his new pastime. "Because of the unspoilt nature still abundantly available here, there are thousands of beautiful places to hide your cache in the UAE," he said.

"My favourite spot is Dhayah Fort cache in Ras al Khaimah. The cache is well hidden in a beautiful location which otherwise I would never have known about." He has 17 caches in the UAE, six in Oman and one in Syria. mswan@thenational.ae