Boosted by smartphone techonology, the thrill of the hunt is attracting hundreds of Leeds residents to take up the hobby of geocaching. Jonathan Brown reports.
A treasure-hunting phenomenon has seen mysterious packages hidden all over Leeds and West Yorkshire.
Once a playground for IT-mad explorers and outdoor pursuits enthusiasts, the global treasure hunt that is geocaching has quietly spread around our region through the advances in mobile phone technology in recent years.
American Dave Ulmer planted the first geocache package or “cache” in 2000, when he buried a bucket filled with cash, beans, a log book, DVDs and CDs to test whether US military navigation satellites were accurate enough to help people locate items by new-fangled GPS.
The experiment was posted online and the craze took off in the USA, where people would hide plastic boxes filled with notepads to log who has found them along with a random collection of everyday items before noting their coordinates and posting them online.
Over the last 14 years the thrill of the hunt has seen more than 2.3m caches hidden worldwide, including thousands in Leeds and West Yorkshire, and geocaching has become infinitely more accessible.
In 2014, inbuilt GPS in modern smartphones is common place and the geocaching hobby is just the touch of a button away through a mobile phone app which costs just £6.99.
Pudsey hairdresser Jess Chippendale got hooked on the treasure hunting bug less than a year ago and now regularly spends free weekends touring the region for as many as 12 mysterious packages at a time.
The 22-year-old said: “I suppose if you’re out walking you might think, ‘there might be a geocache around here’, and it [the app] says how many are in the area.
“The app tells you how many metres you are away from them but you have to think outside the box to find them.
“It’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush, especially if you’re out in the woods when there are walkers around – you’ve got to look like you’re not looking for it.”
She said the only rules of geocaching are that once you’ve found a cache you must write about your find in the contained logbook and if you take something from a cache you must replace it without something of equal or greater value.
And as well as the treasure hunting past-time being easy to get into and virtually free, geocaching is the hobby that’s on your doorstep whether you’re aware of it or not.
Having found everything from rubber ducks to a nun’s wimple in Leeds caches, Jess claims her most unusual find had travelled thousands of miles before it landed in woodland near Batley.
She said: “We once found a geocache compass – it’s called a trackable and through a bit of research we found out that it had started in South America and travelled through three different countries before it ended up here.”
There are hundreds of caches in Leeds, from a package near The Headrow and one tucked away near Leeds train station to the watertight plastic boxes dotted around our suburban countryside.
“If you go on the website you can talk to people about it, there’s a secret society aspect to it and that’s what makes it so much more fun,” said Jess.
But geocaching’s secretive side – so not to give the exact location of the packages away – and its rising popularity have also seen it hit the headlines in West Yorkshire for the wrong reasons.
After a member of the public placed a suspect package under a planter in The Shambles, in Wetherby, in 2011, a neighbouring cafe owner reported it to police.
Army bomb squad officers were called in to destroy the box in a controlled explosion but it emerged the package was in fact an innocent geocache.
The incident prompted national media attention and a police warning urging gamers to “use their common sense when placing items” and urged them away from urban areas or to liaise with police when hiding such caches.
Despite the unfortunate incident, there are thought to be dozens of packages in and around Leeds city centre alone although many geocachers prefer to keep away from areas of high footfall.
Jess said: “I always feel really self conscious – you look really odd doing it.
“You can get away with it in the countryside especially when you’re out with a dog but you look well shifty in the centre of town.
“I think geocaching is growing but not at the rate it probably should be but then if everyone did it there would be no fun in it.”
Outside of the city, nature organisations are jumping on the idea as a way of encouraging people to explore the countryside.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park even offers special GPS receivers for £5-a-day rental from some of its centres, while a newly-launched National Trails website encourages walkers to take the five-cache tour of the Yorkshire Wolds Way in East Yorkshire.
Anne Clark, managing director of Walk Unlimited which runs the site, said: “The new website is just the start of our work to raise awareness of these fabulous trails, and the amazing landscapes they pass through.”
Through nature walks and the free fun factor, the hobby is something that is becoming increasingly popular with walkers and young families.
Mum-of-one Rebecca Whittington, 32, was introduced to the high-tech hunt by Jess.
The Bramley resident, her husband Ben and their 18-month-old daughter Lizzie have since started impromptu searches all over the country, most recently in Bramley Fall Woods.
“It’s the kind of thing that’s ideal for a Sunday when you don’t have anything planned and the weather is not bad – combine it with a pub lunch or something and you’ve got your day sorted,” she said.
“The other beauty is that once you’ve paid for the app it’s free to do, which is always handy for cash-strapped families and you can do it pretty much anywhere, which is also great if you are on holiday and at a loose end.”
Through technological advances, it seems the geocaching phenomenon is here to stay.
For information visit www.geocaching.com.
INNOCENT FUN THAT LED TO A FULL SCALE BOMB SCARE
A Leeds market town was brought to a standstill when a geocaching package was mistaken as a bomb threat in 2011.
Buildings in Wetherby town centre were evacuated, while army bomb squad officers sealed off Market Square, Cross Street and The Shambles after a suspect package was reported to police.
Karen Brittain, owner of the Gourmet Cafe, in The Shambles, witnessed a man acting suspiciously, talking on his mobile phone and then placing a plastic box underneath a planter opposite her business on July 1 2011 at around 11.30am.
Officers descended on the town centre and destroyed the box through a controlled explosion soon after police were called.
It was the first time the game had led to a controlled explosion in the UK.
When interviewed in the days after, Ms Brittain said: “I had never heard of this game before, maybe if it had been made clearer we would have looked it up and known, I still think that I made the right decision in calling the police, what would have happened if I hadn’t bothered and a bomb had gone off in the centre of Wetherby? That doesn’t bear thinking about.”
Businesses in Market Square were most affected, with trade stopping for around four hours on the day while buildings were evacuated.
The incident led to national media attention and stark warnings from police.
Chief Insp Mick Hunter, who lead the police operation, said: “Anyone living locally will have seen the disruption and inconvenience this caused and I would ask those who take part in the geocaching game to use their common sense when placing items.”
He advised gamers not to place caches in urban areas.