Geocaching Like Batman

As the days get longer and the weather gets better, woodland trails and city alleyways alike begin to more-frequently see a particular brand of explorer. Clutching GPS devices (or, increasingly, mid- to high-end mobile phones), these satellite-guided adventurers shy away from normal people, whom they call “muggles”. Outwardly, this is out of concern for the continuity of their tiny treasure, but as often as not, it’s because geocachers – and especially urban geocachers, who often don’t even have the excuse of “getting some fresh air” to justify their hobby – are likely to be seen as a little odd., “You do what for a hobby? Find lost lunchboxes?”

Geocache GC13WZQ, from a distance..
There’s a “hidden in plain sight” urban geocache in this picture. Can you spot it? (probably not, at this resolution)

I’ve written plenty about geocaching already, but the only important thing to know for this particular anecdote is how geocaches are rated to indicate how hard they are. There are two scales, each scored from one to five “stars”. The first scale is difficulty, which is about how challenging the geocache is to find – a 1-star rating means that it’s in plain sight, not camouflaged, etc., while higher ratings might mean that it’s well-concealed, tiny, disguised as something else, or requires that you solve a puzzle in order to determine where it is. The second scale is terrain, which is about how challenging the geocache is to get to. A 1-star rating is typically accessible by wheelchair – you certainly don’t need to leave paved roads and footpaths to get it; higher ratings might mean steep gradients, tree climbing, long hikes, and so on. The highest terrain ratings often mean that specialised skills or equipment are required (for example, rock climbing gear or a scuba tank).

Geocache GC13WZQ, zoomed-in
There it is: that capsule, magnetically-attached to the girder that supports the bridge, is the geocache.

As you can imagine, caches with a 5-star “terrain” rating are rarer, and are especially uncommon in built-up areas. Half-way up cliffs… deep inside caves… miles out to sea: these are the places you’d expect to see geocaches with the highest level of “terrain” score. So imagine my surprise when I discover GC13WZQ (“Swing Lower”), a geocache with a 1-star “difficulty” rating but a 5-star “terrain” rating, just a few minutes walk from Oxford City Centre. In the seven years this cache has been in place, it had seen fewer than 110 successful visitors: contrast to its neighbour, GCK57Z (“Swing Low”) – a virtual cache less than 10 metres away – which has seen about six times as many visits in only 3 years longer. This, I thought, was a cache I had to see.

The sides of the bridge, boarded up and with barbed wire. Photo by OxfordLad on Geocaching.com.
OxfordLad (who took this photo), and other geocachers claimed that, since early 2014, the cache was made entirely inaccessible by the boarding-up of the sides of the bridge.

Folks recently attempting to find the geocache had reported (OxfordLad, izybuzyfingers, twitcher50) that it had been made inaccessible by the recent addition of boards and barbed wire to the edges of the bridge. Counter-arguments were raised (sandvika, Mad H@ter) to show that this didn’t make the cache inaccessible; it merely made it accessible only by boat, which had already been suggested in the “attributes” for the cache.

Geocache with "boat" attribute
Only an idiot would attempt a ‘requires boat’ geocache without a boat. Right?

I’m not a believer in the idea that any particular geocache can only be found one particular way. Also: I don’t have a boat. So I decided to make an expedition to “Swing Lower” my own damn way. Approaching the bridge under which the cache is located, I immediately saw the boards and barbed wire that had been reported by those that had attempted it earlier in the year. But as I would soon discover, anybody who was put off by a little bit of plywood and the risk of damp feet really wasn’t built of the right stuff to be able to do what was required next. Put simply: boards and barbed wire are the least of your problems when you’re hunting for GC13WZQ.

Dan, braced between two I-beams about 5 feet apart, underneath a bridge.
It’s not the most conventional way to cross a bridge, I’ll admit.

The bigger challenge was getting to the cache once underneath the bridge. I discovered (perhaps with a little inspiration from “Jackhuber”) that it was possible to brace myself against a pair of the beams that run the length of the bridge and – facing down – shuffle sideways to get to the centre of the bridge. I felt acutely aware of the fact that until I got over the central channel, the depth of the water might not be enough to break my fall (especially if I slipped and fell head-first), but was reassured by the fact that I’d brought fellow ‘cacher and coworker kateevery and she was ready, perhaps not to swim out and get me but at least to call 999, should the need arise.

Dan holding the geocache he's found above his head, triumphantly.
This is how Freddie Mercury holds a geocache.

So there you go. To all of you wusses for whom “there are boards and barbed wire in the way” was an excuse: you hadn’t even begun to face the challenge of “Swing Lower”. I’ve written up a Batman-themed description of the expedition as part of my log report.

A screenshot of the clue for GC54F78, one of the caches in my new series.
Can you make out the coordinates in this image? No? Maybe it’d help if you looked at geo.danq.me.

This conveniently coincides with the week that I launched my new collection of puzzle geocaches, the Oxford Steganography Series – four geocaches (GC54F78, GC54F7B, GC54F7J, GC54F7N) whose coordinates are concealed within images or text, each of which contains a transparency film that can be used (I made a video showing how) to determine the coordinates of a fifth, bonus cache. I’m reasonably pleased with the series, and I’ve been enjoying reading the reports of the ‘cachers who’ve been out hunting for them, so far.

Dan Q found GLE7H2JG Swing Lower (Historic Site)

This checkin to GLE7H2JG Swing Lower (Historic Site) reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

After my visit the other day, I went home, read some of the logs, and thought about this cache. Boards? Boards are something that people worry about when they’re not Batman. A cache that’s placed in the middle of dead space? That’s not a problem Batman would have. I can be Batman, sure. I AM BATMAN!

So today, I finished work, changed into a set of loose clothing (that I could comfortably climb in and wouldn’t mind having to swim in if I had to), rallied my coworker and fellow ‘cacher kateevery to act as my eyes-on-land – and my photographer – and set out to the bridge.

The boards on the side I opted to start my expedition from were a little more-troublesome – stretching farther out over the water – than the one I’d taken on before, but that hardly mattered: today, I was Batman. A grab and a leap, and I was on the other side. Next came the tough bit – the crossing: no Bat-Belt; no Batarang… but I still had my pure Batmanosity. Leaping up and bracing myself against the beams, I began shuffling across. Just as I began to tire, kateevery – my very own Robin – called out, “just four more steps”, exactly the motivation I needed to complete my crossing and grab the cache.

Totally great location. Totally Batman expedition. Totally adding this cache to my favourites.

EDIT: I’ve now written a blog post about the experience – https://danq.me/2014/05/18/batman-geocaching/

The epic (and challenging) geocache GC13WZQ.

Map of 51.75557,-1.27013

On This Day In 1999

Looking Back

On this day in 1999 I sent out the twenty-eighth of my Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth emails. I wasn’t blogging at the time (although I did have a blog previously), but these messages-back-home served a similar purpose, if only for a select audience. You can read more about them in my last On This Day to discuss them or the one before.

For technical reasons, this particular Cool Things Of The Day appears to have been sent on 27th October, but in actual fact I know that the events it describes took place on 5th November 1999. The obvious clue? The fireworks! I knew that Cool Thing Of The Day as shown here on my blog was out-of-sync with reality, but this particular entry gives a great indication of exactly how much it’s out by. And no, I can’t be bothered to correct it.

Back in 1999 I started as a student at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University), moved away from home, and had a fantastic time. One bonfire night, I called up two new friends of mine – Rory and Sandra – and persuaded them that we should wander over to nearby Trefechan and climb the hill (Pen Dinas) there to watch the fireworks. It was a wild and windy night, and certainly not the conditions to climb an unknown and occasionally-treacherous hill, but we weren’t dissuaded: we set out!

You know those films or sitcoms where the protagonist (usually through their own stupidity) ends up on a date with two people at the same time, trying to keep each unaware of the other? That’s what I felt like at the time: because (though neither of them knew this at the time) I had an incredible crush on both of them. Of course: back then I was far shyer and far less-good at expressing myself, so this remained the case for a little while longer. Still: my inexperienced younger self still manged to make it feel to me like a precarious situation that I could easily balls-up. Perhaps I should have better thought-out the folks I invited out that night…

A storm blew in furiously, and the fireworks launched from the town scattered around, buffeted and shaken and only occasionally still flying upwards when they exploded. The rain lashed down and soaked us through our coats. We later found ourselves huddled around a radiator in The Fountain (under its old, old ownership), where the barman and the regulars couldn’t believe that we’d been up Pen Denis in the

Looking Forward

A little later, I got to have a ludicrously brief fling with one of the pair, but I was fickle and confused and ballsed it up pretty quickly. Instead, I fell into a relationship with my old friend-with-benefits Reb, which in the long run turned out to be a very bad chapter of my life.

Trefechan – exotically across the river from the rest of Aberystwyth – didn’t seem so far away after a few more years in Aberystwyth… only a stone’s throw from Rummers! But for three new students, just a couple of months into their new home, lost and drunk and fumbling their way using an outdated map and seeing by firework-light, it was an exciting adventure. In 2004, SmartData (my employer at that time) moved into their new premises, right over the road from The Fountain and in the shadow of Pen Denis. The Technium turned out to be a pretty good place for SmartData, and it suited me, too. Some days in the summer, when it was warm and sunny, I’d leave work and take a walk up Pen Dinas. It wasn’t the same without the fireworks, the company, or the mystery of being somewhere for the very first time, but it’s still a great walk.

Sometimes I’d go up there in the rain, too.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

Touring Scotland

While JTA was off breaking parts of his body (and showing off his injuries on Reddit) with Ruth on the second part of their honeymoon, the week before last, I too took some time off work in order to have a bit of a holiday. I’d originally hoped to get some cheap domestic skiing in, but the weather forecast showed that Scotland was going to consist of exactly two weather conditions, depending on where you were:

  • Snowy, but with 55mph winds.
  • Not snowy.
Scotland. Snowy, but with 55mph winds. It looks like this.

This kind-of put a dampener on my plans to get some snowsports done, but I’d already taken the time off work so I re-arranged my plans into a “make it up as you go along” tour of the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.

Highlights of my little tour included:

  • Renting an almost brand-new car, and – by the time I returned it – being responsible for more than half the miles on the odometer.
  • Visiting my family both on the way up and the way down – my dad injured his back while cycling around Italy this winter, and had originally hoped to join me in Scotland (perhaps to get some more training in for his upcoming trek to the North Pole). He couldn’t, as he was still recovering, but it was nice to drop by.
  • Being virtually the only guest at each of Glen Nevis and Glencoe youth hostels; getting an entire dormitory to myself at each.
Ben Nevis. It looks slightly less-hostile here than it did on the day of my ascent.
  • Exhilarating but exhausting trek up Ben Nevis. The freezing conditions, plus the incredible wind, meant that I spent the Tower Ridge stretch clinging to a steep ice slope against the push of a gale-force blizzard. Spectacular.
  • Ice climbing at Ice Factor. I’ve never done ice climbing before (y’know – scaling a glacier with crampons and ice axes), and it was spectacular. Also, very tiring, especially after just coming down off Ben Nevis a couple of hours earlier. I was pleased that not all of the rock climbing experience I’d had, over 15 years ago, was completely forgotten, and my stamina – if not my flexibility – was better than I expected.
A climber fights to free his axe from the wall.
  • Veggie haggis, tatties, neeps, and a dram of whisky on Burns Night, drying myself off by the open fire in a wonderful little pub.
  • A reasonably-gentle walk along the lochside at Fort William, in order to allow my knee – which I banged swinging into a wall of ice – to recover a litle.
  • Visiting the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. Did you know that the wheel is apparently so efficient that it costs only £10 a day in electricity to run it?
The Falkirk Wheel. Photo by Sean Mack.
  • Live comedy and music in Edinburgh. Also, meeting fabulous strangers and hanging out with them drinking whisky and singing along to bawdy Scottish folk songs until past midnight.
  • Returning to Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel to find it full of Spanish sports fans. Sharing pizza with them, and conversations in broken English.
  • Visiting the Wallace Monument and learning all of the bits of 13th Century Scottish history that they don’t teach you in Braveheart. It’s far cooler, yet much much bloodier, than you’d be made to believe.
The Wallace Monument, photographed by Finlay McWalter.
  • Geocache-maintenance expedition with Kit, along with the opportunity to dress up in invisibility jackets and hang about near roundabouts and road signs.
  • Chinese buffet with Kit & Fi, two of my favourite people to go to a Chinese buffet with. Surprisingly impressive selection of veggie-friendly foods, which is something I look for, these days.

All in all, a delightful little tour, particularly impressive considering that it was launched into with the minimum possible amount of planning.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #30:

Gather together a werewolf and an irishwoman, and, together, climb an unlit hill with a treachorous unmarked cliff, in an unfamiliar nearby town, in the darkness of the night, during a storm, and watch fireworks while clinging to a hundred-year-old momument to save yourself from being sucked over a 140ft precipice over a wave-smashed beach. Fail to find the ‘fort’ which the maps clearly state is right by the monument. Cause excess concern in the natives in a nearby pub upon your return: “You weren’t up the hill tonight, were you?” Smile. Nod. Sup your beer.

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #19:

Get very drunk, and fall asleep up a tree. Wake up at sometime after 3:00am, in the rain, and wonder where the fuck you are, before climbing down and going to bed… Realise that a search party had been organised to try to find you. Eek!

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.