I found out about geocaching during my first year of my Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology Bachelors degree. Geocaching is a form of modern treasure hunting that you play offline using GPS coordinates, on an app that gives you approximations of the cache locations and a cryptic hint to finding their exact location (usually a riddle). I was taking a class called Media Worlds, where we explored how digital tools can influence the way we perceive and interact with the world around us. This is something that is often forgotten when discussing the impact of digitalization; not only do these tools help us delve deeper into the digital world; they can also be a bridge to seeing our physical surroundings in a new light. These caches can be any size, and there are varying levels of difficulty depending on the geocacher’s experience. What’s even more interesting is that anyone that pays for a premium on the app can make geocache’s and place them wherever they want, as long as there is service in that area. This gives geocaching an even more personal touch, as users can interact with the cache makers and give feedback or even ask for help! Overall it is a hugely collaborative project with a personal touch. The geocaching app has been running since the year 2000 and is becoming more popular as the years pass. There are even micro-communities that play geocaching as a sport and in the larger, more difficult caches there are prizes to be found.
After our class on geocaching, my friend group decided to explore the North of Leiden. We all downloaded the geocaching app (image 1) and made a route that would eventually take us back towards the central station (image 2).
First, we went to Huigpark where our clue was “below the Leiden key”. This made us notice just how many depictions of keys there were in the park, and even after that day, I still now notice how many there are in Leiden itself. After all, it is known as the city of keys and its flag even has keys on it. After looking near bridges and buildings, we found a bench with a blue key on it and began to search underneath it. Soon, we found a screw that was magnetically attached to the bench’s leg and that inside the screw there was a tightly rolled piece of paper where other geocachers had left their names and the date they had found the cache. Now thinking back on this find, I really appreciate how I felt like I was sharing this experience with the others who managed to figure out the clue. Every time I go back to Huigpark I still check if it’s there and look at the names. I also liked how the app gave us a clue and approximated location, but we still had to work together and figure out the hiding spot.
After having found an easier cache, we decided to raise the difficulty level, which took us to the garden houses in Noorderpark. Here, we searched between trees and homes, getting lost and becoming unsure of what was private or public property. This cache was found outside of someone’s home, with the hint “the birdhouse up high holds a special surprise” (image 3). We went back to all the homes we had seen sporting birdhouses and eventually we knew we had the right one. This cache was more difficult to open. We soon realized it was one of those wooden impossible puzzles where you had to twist and push certain knobs to get it open. We all cheered when we got it and inside we found a small oval-shaped box with a paper of names and dates and even little trinkets like a pencil, stickers, pins, and coins. When you find caches like this there is a rule that you can take an item but you must leave one behind. We decided to leave a hair clip attached to a note, and we took a sticker with us. This form of interaction is very special because when I went back to check on the cache one month later, our note had been replaced with a “thank you” note and our hairclip was gone. I felt like I was having a secret conversation with a pen pal and that if I were to go back now I would find new, unexpected items in that box.
Then, Covid-19 hit a few months after the course ended. I was visiting family in Ireland and I told this story to a family friend. He is a cyclist who was getting frustrated with the new Covid laws only allowing people to travel within a 5km perimeter. I had suggested he should look to see if there were any caches near us and the next day he took out his bike for the first time in weeks and went geocaching. He found three caches his first day and when he came home he seemed excited and told us he had found a new cycling path under an old bridge.
This experience really solidified just how helpful digital tools can be to helping us connect to the nature around us, and how they make us appreciate what we already have. During the pandemic traveling to far-off places was out of the question but we often forget an adventure can happen in our backyard. Through geocaching, I have learned to appreciate what I have and even now it’s a new, creative way to discover new cities. Having a phone may make you feel like you don’t have to leave the house to learn something new, but we also need to remember that we, the users of these digital tools, can utilize them not only within the digital sphere but also to connect us to the physical world. In my case, participating in geocaching helped me rediscover Leiden in a brand new way and gave me my current favorite running route. Everyone should try it out at least once!
All used images and captures were taken by me.
Link to geocaching app:
Geocaching blog based in the Netherlands: