Alex helps Norfolk families enjoy the geocaching bug
Geocaching has more than six million people around the world hooked but what is it and how do you do it? TARA GREAVES finds out more about this often-secret hobby and enjoys a modern day treasure hunt – with a surprising conclusion.
While the nearest many of us might get to a treasure hunt these days is at a children's pirate-themed birthday party, advances in technology mean the game has been given a modern makeover - which people of all ages are switching on to.
Geocaching, as it is known, uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) via a device or smart phone to enable people to seek caches - which could contain anything from a simple logbook to a trinket - hidden all over the world.
It takes place in bustling cities, the heart of the countryside or along windswept coasts – and part of its beauty is that it brings people to areas that they might not normally visit.
Alex Green, a learning officer at the National Trust's Brancaster Activity Centre, was introduced to geocaching via a friend but liked it so much she has just released her own travel bug – a trackable item carried from cache to cache by different people with a specific purpose.
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'This year is the 50th anniversary of the Neptune Coastline Campaign and to commemorate that I have set off a travel bug. Its mission is to visit as many National Trust coastal caches in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as possible and then, having had its adventure, to come back to one of our caches in Norfolk by the end of the year,' said Alex.
The National Trust cares for more than 700 miles of coastline and the campaign supports the management of coastal change – including sites that require urgent adaptation – together with the acquisition of new areas.
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Alex first went geocaching around King's Lynn but has since been all over the country.
As a result she was able to see the potential for it to be used within her work and use her experiences to set up her own caches.
'The idea behind geocaching is you bring people to places they may not have been to before but that mean something to you or are important or special for whatever reason,' said Alex, who placed her first cache on National Trust land in the county in March 2013 at Burnham Overy Staithe.
'They come in all different sizes, we have nano caches which are really tiny and have a little scroll you take out and sign and then bigger ones which have a log but also swaps which can be anything from little toys to foreign coins. The idea is you never swap something of greater value than you put in,' she said.
'We put caches on our Roman fort at Branodunum and we get a lot of comments from people saying: 'We had no idea this existed, thank you for bringing us here.''
The ethos of geocaching also fits in with the National Trust's values.
'It's about appreciating wherever it is, you're not to make a mess and people are encouraged to pick up any litter they see around the caches and help to look after these special places,' added Alex.
The travel bug has already been retrieved from one cache and taken to another 40 miles away and Alex hopes people will add photographs of its adventure to complement the story.
But the National Trust is not alone in utilising geocaching to attract visitors.
David Yates, a senior trails development officer for Norfolk Trails, believes it has enormous potential, particularly for families.
'I first came across it through some friends when my children, who are now 12 and 14, were much younger,' he said.
'We see enormous potential for encouraging, in particular families, to go out on to our trails. My boys are not desperately keen on walking because they don't really see the point of it – why bother to go out and walk only to just come back again? Whereas the treasure hunting aspect makes it much more appealing for younger people. However, since I have been doing it I have been very surprised by just how many different age groups are into it.'
Last year, Norfolk Trails – a network which brings together more than 1,200 miles of walks, cycle and bridle routes of varying lengths throughout the county – hosted a Year in Industry student from the University of East Anglia.
'He was a really keen geocacher and he was the one who masterminded a lot of the caches that we have set. He did five different series before he left and they have been very successful,' said David.
'The first one was on the Nar Valley Way, which isn't the most popular trail generally, and it has had quite a spike in usage, which could be down to a number of things but it would be nice to think it was because of the geocaches.'
Finding a cache is often not as simple as being in the right location as they are hidden with varying degrees of difficulty, including in nooks of trees, attached to metal objects such as gates or bins by magnet or even under fake rocks.
This can mean having to search or dig but part of the geocacher's creed is not to cause public alarm by acting suspiciously and so most people explain what they are doing, if asked.
While the anticipation of a find and sense of adventure are no doubt a big part of what draws people to geocaching, enjoying the outdoors – especially places they might not have visited before - must surely also help to keep them coming back.
For more information and detailed instructions on how to play visit www.geocaching.com.