Hide and Seek

by twinink on February 11, 2013

(This article appeared in the Feb-March 2013, Hana Hou Magazine)

(photos by Elyse Butler)

A moment ago the tunnel entrance was filled with sunshine and birdsong. But now, a quarter-mile in, the light from the cave’s mouth has narrowed to a pinprick. The only sound is the sloshing of unsteady feet as we push deeper into this secret irrigation flume. In the dark heart of the Ko‘olau mountains, my brother’s headlamp flickers off, then back on. “Of all the moments to die, it had to be now,” he mutters, slapping the only light we share between us. Arms linked, we stumble onward into the dark, seeking one of the most elaborate and adventursome geocaches in Hawai‘i: “The Holy Grail.”

“If you try to explain what geocaching is, you get a lot of funny looks,” warns Errol Hopkins, president of a successful insurance company by day, treasure hunter by night. He has met us in the shaded corner of a mall parking lot, safari hat tucked low, GPS held high. At first glance you would never guess that Errol—better known in the cache kingdom by his handle “Dadwrap”—is one of Hawai‘i’s pioneer geocachers, a man famous for creating some of the Islands’ most mind-expanding, puzzle-based “hides.” With his smudged bifocals and collapsible walking stick, he more resembles a high school history teacher than a weekend Indiana Jones. And yet Errol has found nearly all of the 1,200-plus caches in Hawai‘i to date.

Still the question remains: What is geocaching? And why when we ask does Errol’s face contort in comedic exasperation? To answer, we must rewind the clock.

It began at the stroke of midnight on May 2, 2000. President Bill Clinton issued a release encouraging the “acceptance and integration of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) into peaceful civil, commercial and scientific applications worldwide.” For nearly three decades prior, the government strictly controlled satellite tracking. Now, overnight, GPS technology was open to anybody. That morning David Ulmer, a computer consultant in Oregon, stashed a container in the woods behind his house to test the navigational accuracy of the new civilian devices. He uploaded the coordinates to an Internet newsgroup. Three days later his “cache”—which contained software, books, food, money, a slingshot and a logbook—was found and logged online twice. The sport of geocaching was born.

Today there are more than five million registered “cachers” searching for almost two million active caches hidden in every country and on every continent, including Antarctica, on Earth. There’s a cache at the top of Everest, another sunk seven thousand feet down at the Rainbow Thermal Vents off Portugal. There is even a cache on the International Space Station, though only astronauts and stratospherically wealthy space tourists will ever find it. That said, most geocaches are more accessible: hidden along hiking trails, in city parks or at scenic lookouts for any amateur archaeologist to uncover. Hawai‘i itself is a geocache hot spot, with one of the highest cache densities in the world, including famous ones like “Diamond Quest, ”a virtual multi-cache on the landmark Diamond Head lookout trail; “Pier Pressure,” a cleverly hidden Dadwrap cache near the Ala Moana Boat Harbor; “Kaniakapupu,” a hike to the ruins of King Kamehameha III’s summer cottage; “Saphira’s Teeth,” an educational “earthcache” on Maui featuring unique lava formations; and “GC23,” one of the oldest and most popular caches on O‘ahu. All you need to play “the game” is a GPS-enabled device (like a smartphone) and a sense of adventure.

The first cache Errol leads us to is a mere two-minute walk from our car. Hidden in the twisted roots of a giant banyan tree just off Manoa’s Woodlawn Drive, we find a tiny Tupperware box. Wedged inside are a whistle, a pink plastic hair-tie, glitter hand sanitizer and a metal dog tag. “Oh, you found a travel bug,” Errol explains as he shows us the unique tracking number stamped on the back of the tag: “These and ‘geocoins’ are special items that hitchhike from cache to cache.” He pulls a plastic moose from his pocket, sporting its own metal tag that, once found and logged online, will be hidden in a new locale: “I found this one in Canada. So far it’s been to over thirty countries.” Sensing our disappointment at the uninspiring swag, Errol chuckles. “My wife calls it ‘cache-trash.’ She thinks I’m crazy, wasting all this time hiking around looking for a McDonald’s toy.” In truth, the majority of geocaches hold plastic “prizes” worth less than a dollar. Only a rare few, mostly caches sponsored by corporations like Jeep or the film Planet of the Apes, hold anything of real value. And the die-hard cache community frowns on such promotional hides. “The value of the find isn’t the goal,” says Errol. “It’s the challenge, the search.”

“There are also significant real-world applications,” says University of Hawai‘i professor Paul Lawler (geotag “Plawler”), who incorporates geocaching into his Information Technology in Tourism course. “Geocaching combines technology, geography, sustainability, athleticism.” Lawler, who initially got into geocaching as a way to get in shape, embodies this application in action: “I’ve lost twenty pounds!” he boasts. For his course’s final project, Lawler divides his students into teams, each tasked with finding sixteen different caches. “The greatest benefit has been the teamwork caching encourages,” Lawler asserts. “I see many couples out hiking together and even more families,” says Errol, who loves taking his grandsons caching with him. “It’s a way to get out in nature, to get active, to bond. But above all, it takes you back to that rush you felt as a little kid, when everything still held mystery and wonder.”

Part of what makes geocaching so popular is its simplicity. There are only a few core rules: You may either plant a cache or hunt a cache; caches may not be placed within a quarter-mile of each other; caches should be placed only on public-access land, not private property; anything you remove from a cache must be replaced with something of equal or greater value. Following these guidelines, the number of caches has exploded in recent years. Just punch in your ZIP code to geocaching.com, the mother ship for all geocache enthusiasts, to view dozens of caches within a ten-mile radius of your front door.

The sheer variety and complexity of the hides can be overwhelming. Beyond regular caches and “trackers” like the one in the banyan tree, there are virtual caches, puzzles, multi-stage hides and “munzies”: a tech-hybrid involving photographing hidden QR codes. And the caches themselves come in all shapes and sizes, from nanos (miniature magnetic containers the size of a fingertip) to macro-scale containers. Many are camouflaged in plain sight. Errol takes us to one called “Finding Nemo,” where a fishing pole has been cleverly hidden inside a PVC pipe painted to match a neighboring telephone pole … and that’s just the tool you’ll need to uncover an even more ingeniously concealed cache.

“Try to be discreet,” Errol instructs as a passing fisherman eyes us suspiciously. People have been known to call the cops on geocachers. “One woman got interrogated for twenty minutes before the officer finally admitted he was a cacher himself, using geotag ‘Five-O,’” Errol chuckles. But it’s not always so innocuous. Numerous caches have been destroyed by bomb squads suspecting the contents might be dangerous. Then there are the other things geocachers stumble upon: “In the process of hunting, I’ve found a number of drug stashes,” Errol says. For this reason, geocachers try to maintain a low profile and steer clear of oblivious pedestrians. “We call them ‘Muggles,’” Paul Lawler explains. “Like in the Harry Potter books, part of the thrill is belonging to a hidden world just beyond normal view.”

That hidden world can often be so carefully constructed that it takes people months, even years to navigate. Errol describes a multi-day hunt in San Francisco that covers hundreds of miles and requires cachers to solve complicated riddles written in invisible ink. Another requires learning crochet to knit a pattern, which once completed reveals coordinates. “Personally I try to design my caches so that you go through a journey,” says Errol, who in a few short hours takes us zigzagging across town to some of the fifty caches he’s placed on the island: the grave site of the real-life detective who inspired Charlie Chan, the headstone of a Titanic survivor who lived in Hawai‘i, a scenic, secluded beach. “My favorite finds are the ones that give you that ‘Eureka!’ moment,” Errol acknowledges. “For me that’s what geocaching is all about: finding places you never knew existed and learning in the process.”

On a Waimanalo back road misted with rain, we meet Dadwrap along with a ragtag group of veteran cachers (who self-deprecatingly call themselves the “Knights of the Round” in honor of their general portliness). In the back of Errol’s truck driving toward the Ko‘olau, you wouldn’t at first glance take us for anything other than everyday hikers. But we’re here on a sacred quest: the search for “The Holy Grail.”

As we start up an overgrown public trail into the jungle, all echoes of civilization quickly fade. For a time it’s easy to get lost in the fantasy … until the loud chime of our GPS snaps us back. Up ahead, a waypoint: the mouth of the irrigation flume. Plawler leans inside the dank entrance, his hand coming away covered in cobwebs. “Why did it have to be spiders?” he groans, half mock-Indy, half genuinely unnerved. We shuffle single-file into a darkness punctuated only by the sporadic glitter of minerals embedded in the TNT-blasted stone. “I’ve lived here all my life, and what amazes me is that I’m still discovering new things,” whispers “Queenbee,” the sole female cacher in the group. “That said, I would never do this by myself.” For “Honupohaku,” an international relief worker who has geocached all over the globe, “caching is all about the camaraderie. It’s a great way to meet interesting people and learn about these incredible, secret places.”

Ten minutes in, our toes have gone numb. The tunnel forks and narrows. “The penitent man shall pass,” laughs Plawler as he kneels low to duck-walk through the sunken section. Suddenly Honupohaku rears up, holding an empty Michelob bottle high. “I’ve found it!” he jokes. “Beware he who drinks from false grails,” Errol fires back. He zips the bottle into his pack, in accordance with the geocacher’s environmental creed: Cache in, trash out. A moment later the lights of our LED torch bounce off a golden chalice buried among the rocks.

While it might not be a true treasure granting eternal life, as foolish as it seems standing here in the cold pit of a mountain, signing our names in the logbook under a short list of other successful seekers, the find is rewarding nevertheless. “Just be careful,” Errol warns as we stumble back out into the light. “Once you’ve been bitten by the geocache bug, it’s contagious.”

In conjunction with this story, we’ve hidden a cache somewhere on O‘ahu: “The Hana Hou(ly) Grail.” To find it, you’ll need to first solve the puzzle on our Facebook page. Go towww.facebook.com/hanahou  to start your quest.