Seek and you shall find: the art of geocaching in Abu Dhabi

We skip off the beaten track in Abu Dhabi to explore the world of geocaching, an urban treasure hunt that is gaining popularity throughout the world.

Christie Eckardt at one of about 500 geocaching sites hidden around Abu Dhabi. She has 241 finds in total: 150 in the UAE, 84 in the United States and seven in the Seychelles. Delores Johnson / The National
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"Look for something that shouldn't be there," suggests my guide, Christie Eckardt. Sifting through dust and rubble at the side of a construction site, staring intensely at every rock and crevice, I stop for a moment to reflect on how this must seem to onlookers. Odd, I imagine, might be one word to describe it. Standing in the middle of the Spinneys car park, we're embarking on a morning of geocaching – a real-world, outdoor treasure-hunting game using GPS-enabled devices – and this is our first "cache" of the day.

As Eckardt, The National's photographer and I continue to hunt around, I mentally prepare myself for a security guard to stop and question us. Or commit us. That alone is unexpectedly thrilling. Sure finding the cache – a container that is tagged by a participant and then hidden in a location that can be tracked via GPS – offers a certain sense of accomplishment, but it's the actual process of discreetly trying to find a hidden item, sometimes no bigger than your thumbnail, that can often leave you feeling like a treasure hunter, or better yet, a spy.

An American-born activity, geocaching currently has a following of about 6 million individuals worldwide, including many in the UAE, with about 500 cache sites in Abu Dhabi alone. Aside from being great fun, it also forces you to explore areas of your town or city that you more than likely overlook on a daily basis. Be it the grassy patch behind your office, the rocks next to the flagpole close to your child’s school or, well, the edge of a construction site in a supermarket car park, once you’ve spent the better part of an hour down on your hands and knees in the dirt or grass searching for a cache, it’s difficult to ever look at that area the same way again. All of this while keeping your mission under wraps from the “muggles”, a name affectionately designated to those not in the geocaching community. And like a scavenger hunt, just about anyone can take part. Even the required materials are limited and easily accessible: a GPS-enabled device or mobile, the geocaching app (www.geocaching.com), a pen, water and snacks, plus the desire to explore the unexplored.

As for the caches themselves? “It can be anything,” explains Eckardt. And it’s true. From a box covered in camouflage tape stuck under a rock in the middle of an island to a digitally coded cache (some require cracking a code before gaining the coordinates to a cache), no two caches are alike. At present, there are more than a dozen types of caches, all planted by the geocachers themselves. Once you locate the cache, fill out the log book inside the cache, trade items (when available), log your find digitally on the app, return the cache to its hiding space and move on to the next one.

After 10 minutes of hunting around, I successfully identify our first cache of the day. And just like that, I’m hooked. The smug sense of accomplishment is hard to ignore, and our next location cannot come fast enough. I’m like a kid in a dust-filled sweet shop. We eventually find our way to the second site and immediately start our search that leads us into a maze. This time, it’s not the location of the cache that provides the challenge, but the navigation of the maze itself. As I wind through the hedges, I can’t help but wonder how someone becomes a geocacher. Here I am, on a Sunday morning, happily walking through a maze in the middle of Abu Dhabi, looking for an item that I neither know the colour, shape nor size of. Saying it out loud sounds crazy. Yet for Eckardt – and many others – this scenario seems to be an utterly compelling way to spend one’s free time.

Eckardt now has 241 finds: 150 in the UAE, 84 in the United States and seven in the Seychelles. She had her first brush with geocaching last May. “I was a Girl Scout leader for my daughter’s troop and one of the badges was geocaching,” she says. “So I thought: ‘OK, let me look this up.’ It sounded cool.” Not wanting the girls from the troop to become discouraged if they were unable to locate a cache on their first attempt, Eckardt decided to come prepared and went in search of the caches herself. Setting out with the intention of finding six, Eckardt recalls returning having found only one cache. “My kids were miserable, I didn’t have water and it was hot,” she admits. “I thought: ‘Maybe this is it for me’.” In the end, she never ran the activity with her troop.

Luckily, Eckardt isn’t easily discouraged – a trait I detect in the American graphic designer that I can attest is hugely beneficial to anyone attempting geocaching. While bike-riding with her son in North Carolina later that summer, Eckardt decided to give it one more try. “The weather was nicer and we realised there were four in the park where we were riding,” she says. They found the first one with little difficulty. Realising they might have more luck than their first attempt back in Abu Dhabi, her son decided to try one for himself. “It was around this bridge, located in a damp forest. It had just rained and there were some massive spiders in the vicinity,” recalls Eckardt. “So we had to slip down this wet, mossy bank and climb under this damp, dark bridge. Under there was a bison tube – a cache – nailed to the bridge. And that was it. We were hooked.”

As we continue our hunt, it’s clear that this isn’t an activity for those afraid of getting a little messy. Since the start of our adventure, I’ve rooted around under metal stairs, crawled on my hands and knees through sand and dirt, and picked up some unsavoury-looking objects that I mistook for caches. We were also stalked by an irrigation lorry we had to dodge to avoid getting soaked. Looking down, my shoes, shirt and tights emit a yellowish hue from the thin coat of dust now covering me from head to toe.

While trying to stay clean and dry has been difficult enough, one of the biggest problems encountered by the small geocaching community in the UAE is landscapers, according to Eckardt. “You will have a tree that is beautiful, full and has a cache in it, and the landscapers will come and shave it up to 10 feet high. When they find the cache, a lot of times they think it’s trash and simply put it in the dumpster.”

We eventually wind down our day, having successfully found all of our caches – a nut and bolt, a skeleton in a box and a separate page slotted into a phone book. On our drive back, I wonder how many people we passed over the course of our morning activities had the same goal as us.

Eckardt confirms that it’s possible to detect a geocacher by certain traits, particularly in their movements. Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure what these “traits” might be – possibly a sense of purpose and a brow furrowed in concentration? As we pull off the highway, I glance out of the window and see a man in a car looking down at his phone and then quickly up at the road around him. In any other scenario, I’d assume he was either lost or attempting to [illegally] text and drive. But after a morning of hunting for “something that shouldn’t be there”, I now can’t be too sure.

alane@thenational.ae