It’s drizzling and Roman Kadlec, 29, a service account manager for an IT company by trade and an avid geocacher in his free time, is at Vltava’s riverbank, revisiting what he considers one of Prague’s most interesting caches — containers that geocachers hunt down using GPS-enabled devices. It’s hidden inside a hollow sign, tailor-made by its author. The large cookie box contains what to a layman appears as a bunch of random trinkets, along with a log book signed by all its finders, with Kadlec — “FilemoniCZ” in the geocaching community — listed as first, on May 23, at 00:20 a.m.
It’s not the location, but the tracking process that puts this “treasure box” among Kadlec’s Prague top five. While some caches’ coordinates are readily available for cachers to download online, this origami-themed stash requires work before hitting the streets. A cacher needs to fold up an intricate origami to generate the algorithm and coordinates of the cache. It took Kadlec and his fellow cachers (kačeři — as in ducks — in Czech), all veteran hunters, three-and-half hours to track the box down.
This cache — whose location is keenly kept secret by cachers to prevent theft — is one of the more than 2,000 dotting Prague and some 24,000 scattered throughout the Czech Republic, making the country fourth in number of caches in the EU, after Germany, the UK and Sweden, and the third most-active globally.
This outdoor treasure hunting game in which participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find a geocache hidden at that location isn’t limited to IT enthusiasts. Though the IT crowd is the most active, it comprises just one-fourth of geocachers, a July survey by Aspectio Research shows, with students making up 28 percent, followed by entrepreneurs and business owners at 10 percent, each. The first cache here was planted in June 2001 near Ostrava by a Texan-American with Czech roots.
The game originally took off in the United States in 2000, shortly after the government lifted restrictions on civilian access to the same highly accurate satellite signals as used by the US military. As GPS units became more accurate and more affordable, geochaching spread worldwide, with more than four million GPS-armed hunters active today. It eventually diffused into the Czech Republic in June 2001 with the first cache planted in Kopřivnice, near Ostrava, by a Texan-American with Czech roots.
Czechs lead in quality caches
David Vávra, 24, who’s recently created an accredited geocaching course within P.E. at the Czech Technical University in Prague and developed a Java application to facilitate geocaching for older mobile phones, called Handy Geocaching, links geocaching’s popularity to the country’s strong tradition in tourism. An IT student and currently a London-based application developer for Android, Vávra — known as “Destil” in the cacher circles — says that Czech Republic’s caches are of highest caliber.
“I must say that I’ve hunted for caches in many countries and the quality of the caches here is very high—cachers really put the time and thought into them, so that it’s not just a box, but will be in a beautiful location or the cache will have an interesting concept,” he says.
The recent boom has inevitably taken its toll on caches’ quality, since anyone, no matter how experienced, can plant one.
“There used to be really high-quality caches set up by a group of people, an elite, who’ve been at it for long,” Kadlec, who’s set up 13 himself since his beginnings in 2006, says. “They really thought it through. Today, you’ll find a cache behind every gutter in Prague, somewhere by a school, and that doesn’t bring much to the table.”
While Kadlec enjoys challenging, themed and bike-friendly caches in tough terrain and Vávra digs nature-based ones threaded with a narrative, the types of caches are seemingly endless. Only few rules apply: If you take something from the cache, leave something of equal or greater value; no food and, the obvious, explosives, ammunition, knives, drugs and alcohol.
Treasure hunters can choose from multi-caches — where hidden clues lead them from one location to the next until they find the final cache, mystery caches that require them to solve a puzzle to get coordinates, virtual caches which involve finding a specific location instead of a physical cache, Letterbox hybrids that use clues rather than coordinates, and then there’s the event cache, the webcam cache, the reverse cache, and interactive caches and then a dozen more, all ranked according to difficulty.
Spicing up outings
For most trackers, geocaching is about getting to know new places and spending time in nature, Aspectio Research’s survey shows.
“The initial vision was really to get outside, do something interesting, see interesting places,” Kadlec, who’s been introduced to the “highly addictive” activity by his friend, says. The game’s global character makes it great for alternative travel, he says, since it takes you off the beaten path, revealing the underbelly of foreign places or offering rare angles on tourist mainstays. “To be, for instance, viewing the Eiffel Tower from a rare angle that only few know of is really something.”
Showing locations of beauty or personal importance to others is as much part of geocaching as exploring new places. Vávra says he likes to lure people to little-known, intriguing spots with his caches. ‘I won’t deny that I follow how I rank, and I won’t deny that I don’t want the first place.’
For most cachers, the number of finds, as the survey says, is a byproduct. That’s not to say that enthusiasts leading the rankings don’t have cache-collecting ambitions. “I won’t deny that I follow how I rank, and I won’t deny that I don’t want the first place,” Kadlec, who ranks seventh in the country with more than 9,000 finds to his name, says.
Kadlec ideally hunts on a daily basis. The trunk of his Škoda Superb is stuffed with all the necessary gear: backpacks, Travel Bugs — trackable items that allow geocachers to follow the items’ real-world travels on geocaching.com — and hiking attire, so that when his mobile phone alerts him of a freshly-planted cache, he’s ready to go.
As an ardent FTF — a cacher who strives to be the first to find a cache — he can’t afford to lose time. Hunting with his girlfriend, he says, gives him an advantage with caches that require prior puzzle solving, since he can hit the road while she’s busy solving. Kadlec hopes to move up the ranking and take the lead after his 10-day intensive hunt in Spain at the end of the month.
The hi-tech hide and seek has in the recent years become a mainstream past time, especially with young families that appreciate the adventure element for children.
“When we go on a trip, the children need a goal to enjoy it,” Eva Kotlánová, a mother of two preschoolers, whose husband brought the idea and the GPS home last Christmas, says. The dozen caches hidden just around their home in Satalice, Prague 9, keep the children busy for the day and satisfied by the end of it. “They’ll bring a bunch of goodies, mostly from Kinder Surprise eggs, excited about what they’ll find.” ‘They’ll bring a bunch of goodies, mostly from Kinder Surprise eggs, excited about what they’ll find.’
Businesses like Česká spořitelna and Škoda have jumped the bandwagon and employed geocaching in contests like Hon za pokladem (Treasure Hunt) and Chyťte si Yetiho, než on chytí Vás (Catch Your Yeti, Before He Catches You) promoting the new Škoda Yeti model, while, for instance, Šumava National Park’s managment has encouraged geocaching in the area, planting their own two Travel Bugs in 2010. Geocaching is also being used for corporate teambuilding purposes. Teambuilding Akce, for instance, employs tailor-made geocaching events for various businesses.
Still, as Vávra notes, these remain isolated instances in a country where geocaching isn’t yet being exploited to its fullest.
Martina Čermáková is a Prague-based freelance writer