Our last couple of caching sessions have been good but not as satisfying as some of our earlier days out. Sharlene and I both agreed that what we needed was a big series to really get our teeth into. Seeing as there was not many weeks left till Christmas and as a result of changes to before and after school activities, it would also be our last extended day out whilst Sam was at school for the foreseeable future. With this in mind I scouted round for a series of caches that would be an enjoyable circular walk in the country and also to give our numbers a nice boost for the month which were flagging slightly. The series I found was called RAWGOLD.COMP (Click here to view the first in the series on geocaching.com) and consisted of 27 caches along a walk of approximately 8kilometers in and around Bovingdon. We talked about it a bit and realised this was a big series for us, the biggest we had ever attempted in terms of both cache numbers and distance. Could we do it? Were we physically up to the challenge? Would we have enough time to get round the entire route? What was the likelihood of all the caches being in place seeing as the series was over 3 years old now? Whose turn was it to put the kettle on? These questions and more could be answered only one way… except for the one about the kettle. It’s always my turn to put the kettle on.
The series was placed back in 2010 and has obviously suffered a little along the way. Three of the caches had been archived and from reviewing the logs others were looking like they may have gone missing too. Enough of them showed recent signs of finds though and we do like a challenge so we made preparations to take on our biggest caching day yet. Our personal best of 18 caches in one day had also been set in the same area a few weeks back when we took on the “Staggering to Bovingdon” Series )see Squelching to Bovingdon and if nothing else we wanted to improve on that total.
To enable us to have as much time as possible, we did a lot of preparation for our trek the day before. We loaded all the caches onto both phones, got the parking coordinates ready on the flash drive to upload to the car sat nav, charged phones, read recent logs to identify any potential problem caches and Shar pre-rolled a bunch of smokes. This meant that all we had to do in the morning was to make the packed lunch and then head off. We made good time and as we parked up at the suggested spot and set off to the first cache it was just after 9.40. This gave us just over 5 hours to complete the walk and get back to the car with a little time to spare before we needed to collect Sam from school.
With lunch and all the normal geocaching paraphernalia loaded into the backpack we quickly located the trailhead for the first cache at the end of a close and it wasn’t long before our boots felt the familiar unevenness of rural footpaths. It was a very still morning with almost no breeze at all but there was still a chill in the air and it was rather gloomy. It is always good to find the first one on a day out, makes you feel that you are actually geocaching rather than just fluffing about in the bushes. The first two caches were quick easy finds the walk taking us along a treeline and then across open field to reach another path flanked with trees and bushes.
By the time we got to number three the blood was starting to work its way round the body nicely and the chill had left us. The gloves could come off which always make searching for caches a bit easier. The third cache was hidden in a dense bush and by the time Shar had forced herself through into it evoking the odd shriek or muttered rude word I decided to stay outside and keep watch. My blindness was not a hindrance here and I was happy to report that I couldn’t see anyone so there was no worries about being muggled. Sharlene seemed to take quite a long time in the bushes and while she was there I had a sudden terrible thought. I had completely forgotten to remind her to look for bonus numbers on the first two caches. I called out to her in the bush and after a bit more muttering she called out the bonus number for this one. All too often we get the early caches on a series under our belt and neglect to record the bonus info… I am not sure why. I mean it isn’t hard to remember to do a simple thing like that is it? I can only suggest that the euphoria of actually finding the geocache turns your brain to mush temporarily.
After extracting herself from the bush again, a process which, to be honest, seemed more complicated than it was on the way in, we marched on to number 4. After a couple of hundred metres Shar had to stop to remove various bits of bush from her clothing and even down her trousers…. She has no idea how any of that got there… apparently.
Number four was an old friend, the Ivy Covered Tree but it was not the tree I spent five minutes getting up close and personal with, it was the one Shar chose. Four caches found and all by Shar, I really needed to step up my game here if I was going to compete at her level. I swear on occasions she uses misdirection to send me to the wrong tree so she can search the most likely candidate. I can’t prove anything of course but she just laughs and protests rather too much when I lay these accusations at her feet. We didn’t forget the bonus information this time.
Caches 5 and 6 took us along a quiet country lane and they were both relatively easy finds although number 5 was a little out of place and showed signs of having been chewed somewhat. With hides out in the countryside there is often a real threat from the wildlife in terms of being chewed or even carried off. This is one of the reasons why foodstuffs of any kind are not allowed in geocaches because it can attract animals from quite some distance away due to their enhanced sense of smell. Take this cache for example, despite not showing signs of having had food in it and being hidden well under some rocks as part of a low wall I suspect that a sheep or possibly a horse had rooted this one out at some point and had a bit of a gnaw on it. Thankfully it was not to their liking and they dropped it a few short feet away.
After number 6 it was time to head back into the woods. Woodland is probably my most favourite backdrop for geocaching. I love the feeling of being inside but not being inside. The terrain is often so varied with dips and hollows and of course there are lots of interesting sticks and logs to investigate. The woods are also a handy source of natural shelter from the rain should you be out when the heavens open.
We found the seventh cache easily at around 10.40. This meant we had found 7 in the first hour and if we kept this pace up we would have no trouble at all in getting all the planned caches found today. All was going to plan and our spirits were high as we chatted and laughed whilst we walked through the woods. We had seen almost no one at all up until this point apart from one dog walker as we entered the woods and this is the way we like it. Geocaching is definitely a good excuse for us to get away from urban Watford with all its people and noise and just be out in the open with the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees and the distant rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun.
Yep. You read that right. From the point we started on the walk we had occasionally heard the distant rhythmic sound of what we could only describe as … gunfire. We are not surprised to hear the odd gunshot every now and then when out in the countryside thinking it could be a nearby shooting range or possibly some form of bird shoot or even clay pigeon shooting but that is normally single shot sounds. This was different, quick succession repeated bursts of 3 or four shots. It seems to bit harsh to go clay pigeon shooting with an automatic weapon but then I suppose each to their own.
It was quite fitting I thought therefore that we found the eighth cache hidden amongst the remains of a dead bird. That is to say there were feathers everywhere around the GZ. It was either the location of a survival of the fittest nature animal kill or a pillow fight that went tragically wrong. I can’t help wondering what happened. A bird noticed the camo bag of the cache and thought what’s that? Landed to take a look and then got pounced on by a fox that was hiding in wait, who then proceeded to whack the bird over the head with a pillow? I guess we will never know. We were on a mission though and had no time to stand about playing Miss Marple.
At times when geocaching you pass through different levels of commitment when searching for a cache. It starts around the poking around with a stick or kicking the leaves around from the base of a tree level. This is the sort of can’t really be arsed mentality. Basically you are hoping that someone else in the group will find it quickly so you can get to the pub. Then there comes a point where you might spot something a little out of place like a rock or a pile of sticks but they are quite a way into the thicket or bush. Having this hunch to go on you feel a bit more happy to ease aside the stingers or hold back the bramble while you edge in to check out the possible hide. When you get into the bush you realise that you have increased your level of commitment to the cache now and really should see this through while in here because you really don’t want to come out only for someone else to go in and find it. That would both reveal you to be a rubbish geocacher and also a waste of space for the group. The final thrust into full commitment comes next when in the densest part of the bush you find yourself on your hands and knees, possibly even your tummy, reaching as far as you can into the hollow of a dead tree. You reach and stretch as far as you can. You are over stretching, you can feel it and your clothes are snagging on the thorns of the holly bush. You can feel a stone digging painfully into one of your knees but you can almost reach the back of the hollow now and you feel sure the cache is going to be the next thing you touch. You are certain that this is where you would hide the cache if it was up to you and feel confident that when you pull it from its hiding place the rest of the group are going to ooo and ahh and congratulate you on a fantastic find. You are now fully committed to finding this cache. It is just a matter of time before you find it and you start to pity the other members of the group for wasting their time looking in the wrong places. What you really don’t want to ear at that moment is the distant cry of another member of your group telling you that they have found it! Your heart sinks and suddenly the stone digs deeper into your knee, the holly is embedding itself even further and more painfully into your hands. Extracting yourself from the bush is now a humiliating process of reversing on your hands and knees whilst the holly slowly strips you of your coat and or other outer garments. When finally you emerge from the bush and find your partner beaming with satisfaction you have to be happy and congratulate them while they casually remark that it was an easy find and what the hell were you doing looking over here… it was never going to be here! Sharlene found number 9 whilst I was arse up in the holly bush.
I suppose I do have to thank Sharlene for finding the cache at all because about a minute after we left the GZ a guy on a mountain bike came cycling past and at least I was not still up to my backside in holly at that point. We tromped on to number 10 where I spent a good 10 minutes searching every nook and cranny of a very large tree to no avail. At one point I crouched down on my haunches but unfortunately the weight of the back pack caused me to topple over backwards and I was momentarily flailing around on my back with my legs in the air like a beetle. When finally I got myself back to my feet Sharlene moved over to a different tree and made a quick find. Grumble grumble. It is a bloody good job we are not scoring because today so far I have found a glorious total of 0 to Sharlene’s 10. At this point we realise also that not all of these caches seem to have bonus information on them. The CO has written the bonus letters on the log sheet and in some cases it appears the log sheets have been replaced but no sign of bonus letters. So maybe whoever replaced the logs has not transferred it. This does not bode well. Looking at the cache description of the bonus I can see we need the letters A-L, a total of 12 letters and by this point at number 10 we only have 5 letters. It might be ok…..maybe.
After a quick find at number 11 we broke out of the woods, crossed a road and then made our way up the mother of all hills to find number 12 hanging in what looked suspiciously like a Christmas tree. Worryingly our average was dropping now as by midday we had only done 12 which meant that whilst the first 7 took us an hour the second 5 took us one hour 20 minutes. At this stage we still felt confident that we were in with a chance of being able to get all the caches. Thankfully the hill plateaued and we carried on, making easy finds at both 13 and 14. After locating the Christmas tree at 12 we were also feeling festive as we passed a large house along the way that was resplendent with decorations including a reindeer in the garden even though it isn’t even December yet.
The walk to 15 took us down a lane that went into a farm. There are plenty of farms all over the countryside that also have footpaths going through them and it always feels a bit weird as you pass through. And so it was that we reached the GZ of number 15 which was located at a stile. Just as we were about to start searching Sharlene noticed that a woman was walking across the field with a horse in our direction. We spent a couple of minutes fumbling with phones etc., employing the usual geocacher time-wasting tactics. Finally she past through the gate with the horse looking a bit pissed off to see us to be honest. The woman that is… not the horse, although that did have a long face too.
That was my best joke!
I found number 15. Me, me, me. Woo hoo, yeah baby which put the score at ….ready?… drum roll please… 14 to Shar and 1 to me!
I must confess to using hints all the time when geocaching. Some people don’t like hints and don’t use them at all but quite frankly I have enough trouble finding anything so feel no guilt for checking out the hint even before reaching the GZ. It is fantastic when cache owners include nice specific hints although I don’t mind the vague ones either, any sort of clue is well received. It is however slightly annoying when the hint is very specific…. And wrong. If a hint says old gate post, I spend my time searching every last inch of the gate post. I don’t expect to find the cache in the end of the actual gate. If you say gate then I would search gate and gate post, but if you say gate post I search the post. Mutter mutter….. and breathe. It was past lunchtime by now and I was hungry. I have spoken many times about the foolishness of geocaching on an empty stomach and so it was that after number 16 we stopped at the next nearest convenient log and broke out the grub.
As we munched our sandwiches and drank hot chocolate we reviewed our progress so far. On the positive side we had attempted 16 caches and found all of them. This was excellent progress. However, the time was ten past one which meant it had taken us 3 and a half hours so far. With only about another two hours or so before we needed to be back at the car it was looking like a rather tall order to be able to find all the remaining 10 caches. Not impossible but it was going to be close. So far we had been very lucky with nearly all of the finds being quick. Only on a couple of occasions had we spent more than a few minutes searching at each GZ. We resolved to keep an eye on the situation and if we started to run out of time then we could just walk the route back to the car and not stop to search for caches. Looking back now, if we had just stopped there and then, it would have been a good day. But we didn’t…. and after lunch things started to go wrong, and then just kept getting worse…
After lunch we got back on the trail to number 18 but hit a problem almost straight away. We emerged from the woods at a road with about 200 metres left to go. The phones were pointing us straight across the road but there was no obvious place to go once on the other side. The cars were travelling at quite some speed and there was no pavement. After a frustrating few minutes not knowing what to do or which way to go we decided to go left and then after 30 metres or so changed our mind and turned right. A short time later we did find a place to turn off the road down a lane leading into a farm. We gratefully took the lane and headed in the direction of the cache. The lane took us parallel to where we wanted to be but it was quite clear that we were to stay on the lane and not go into the field. We carried on and then eventually after we were giving up hope of finding a way to get to the GZ we found a sign instructing walkers about staying on the path. The path led in two directions, left and right and as we needed to get left, that’s the way we went. This took us along the edge of a field that had electrified fencing all the way along. I have never had the experience of what it feels like to get a zap off one of these fences and despite a sizable curiosity I decided that today was not the day to be finding out. Skirting the field we eventually arrived at GZ and searched for the cache. Unfortunately we were unable to find it and we had to record the first DNF of the day. We don’t like DNFs. Sharlene definitely doesn’t like DNFs but they are a part of geocaching and you have to deal with them. I dealt with this one by extracting myself from the barbed wire fence that I had become ensnared on and walked away. The route to the next cache was obviously back the way we had just come leading me to believe that we should have approached this cache from the opposite way to that from which we had but I am buggered if I know how we were supposed to do that. Sharlene studied the surrounding area and could see no likely route to this point other than the one we had just travelled.
The walk to the next cache was a little longer as number 19 had been archived and so it was number 20 that we were now heading for. The journey took us along a lane through farm land and it had one of those “I feel like I am walking through your back yard” type of feelings to it. Soon enough though we had passed through this area and travelled down a path that was enclosed and very gloomy. The cache was quickly found once at GZ and there was even a Travelbug in there which we pinched out to move on to somewhere else.
On the way to 21 we had to traverse a field with horses in. One horse in particular was waiting for us by the entrance to the field and showed no signs of wanting to move to allow us to pass. We stared at it and it stared at us and neither of us moved. The most direct route would have been to walk behind the horse but we opted for the safer route of passing around the front of it, through the mud and horse crap that littered the field. The horse was obviously bored as once we had passed by it decided to follow us for a few metres before getting bored again and opting instead to stand still and swish its tail.
The hint for 21 clearly pointed to a warning sign about another electric fence. It implied that the cache was at the base of a pole near the warning sign but we could find no sign of it. I was reluctant to do too much searching for obvious reasons. Whilst I expect that the jolt you get off these things is not too dangerous I still think that a blind man groping around wildly for a cache near an electric fence is a “You’ve Been Framed” moment waiting to happen.
We encountered another dead bird on the way to 22 but it had nothing to say of interest and its carcass was not concealing the cache so we quickly moved on. Time was starting to become more of an issue now and we were still around 3km from the car with 7 caches between us and it, so there was no time to be performing an impromptu autopsy on the remains of Buzby.
Two more DNFs in a row now at 22 and 23. I fell in a small hole at 22 whilst searching and getting pricked by holly and brambles… which was nice. Number 23 should have been hanging in a holly bush and we even found a piece of garden wire that had been fixed to the bush and had a loop the exact size of a 35mm film pot, but no sign of the cache at all. We search the ground guessing that it must have dropped but in the end we had to admit defeat. Three DNFs in a row can really start to sap your enthusiasm, especially when the clock is ticking.
As well as time starting to slip away we were also experiencing another problem. Both our phones were starting to run low on battery power. Having employed all normal battery saving tactics we had also decided to alternate the use of phones on caches so that one of us would use their phone whilst the other did not to lengthen the battery time. Sharlene was down to her last 10% and I was under 20 by this point.
As we made our way to 24 we stepped up the pace a little and shortly found ourselves on a road which made progress a bit quicker. Our run of DNFs was broken as we managed to find number 24 behind a wall. The hint was a little confusing but we did not hang about to argue but quickly made our way towards 25.
Despite being in a hurry some things in life just make you stop dead in your tracks and take a second to absorb what you are seeing. Along a narrow village lane we came across this sign simply stating “Slow Cats crossing!” us So many questions in my head that I hardly know where to start with this one. Firstly I am not sure of the grammar here. Is it telling us to go slow as there are cats crossing or is it simply informing us that there are slow cats crossing the road here. If the latter is the case, are we being advised of the speed at which these cats meander across the lane or are we being told that these cats are retarded? Then there are other questions such as who in their right mind would pay to have these signs produced and erected and most importantly, why? This is a narrow village lane only wide enough for one car, there are many reasons not to travel down it at speed and I am astonished that someone, somewhere feels that the most important reason, and the one that we need to be informed about is that cats might be crossing the road!
We only allowed ourselves a little time to scratch our heads on this as we hurried off to make a quick find at 25 down behind a water hydrant sign. As we left 25 and headed for 26 I realised that we had just broken our personal best for caches in one day taking our new record to 19. We bested it again further along the lane to make another easy find at the danger of death sign that is cache number 26. The time was now around 3.20 and we were starting to get quite concerned at the amount of distance left to travel.
This is the point at which Sharlene’s phone battery died and now it was all down to the 10% battery life left in my iPhone. I think this is the point at which we started to get seriously worried and lots of things started running through my head, things that we should have done and didn’t. Like for example making a note of the street name on which the car was parked for starters. The GPS would guide us there of course, but only if we had a working phone to do it. At a time when you really don’t need to make any mistakes, we made one. It was one that I had actually read other people had done in the logs of cache 27. We crossed a main road and started heading in the direction that the phone wanted to take us and I got the sense that we were in some sort of caravan park. I confirmed this with Sharlene and then I told her about the logs and that people had said that they had ended up in the park and eventually found that they needed not to be in the park but on a path down the side of it. We frantically started looking for the path, my phone was now down to 7% and we really didn’t need this right now. Thankfully as we were backtracking our way out of the path arguing about how to find the path a man working in the park enquired as to whether we were looking for the path. We said yes and he directed us to it. This is a massive coincidence as I remember reading a log almost identical to this where someone had been directed by a man working in the park. We high tailed out of there and soon found the path. To say that we were walking fast now was an understatement. We agreed that there was no time to look for caches now we just had to get back to the car before my phone died. As we walked I frantically scrolled through the waypoints in my phone to find the parking coordinates and was astonished to find that it was still 2 kilometres away roughly straight ahead of us. But a bearing of straight ahead over a distance of 2km can end up being quite a bit off to the left or right in the end. 5% battery now and the air was tense between Shar and me. We weren’t blaming each other but we were both worried and both desperate to get back to the car. We had no idea where we were exactly other than what the phone was telling us, we had no idea where the car actually was other than what the phone was telling us. We had no way to call anyone if the phone died and we had to be in Watford to pick our son up in one hour. We streamed past number 27 not even stopping to consider looking and I took a fix on the phone for number 28, it was about 500 metres away. We hurried on, starting to build up a sweat now and not talking to each other. We were walking single file with me behind Sharlene and as we were rushing I was taking less care and bumping off things left right and centre. Then my cane caught on the fence and the momentum with which I was travelling just pulled the roller tip clean off. Shar retrieved it from the floor but there was no time to fix it now as the elastic that holds the cane together had disappeared inside. On we rushed and now my cane was even less effective than it was before. And then… my phone died.
Bloody stupid iPhone and its clever failsafe system. It obviously switches off at 3% in order to enable it to do a proper shutdown not compromising any data. But this was a disaster! We now had no phones and no means of knowing where we were or where we were going. The air was blue with expletives and it has to be said that the panic was starting to creep into my voice. We barrled on and I hoped that this was a path that would take us right back to the car, it must still be about 1.5km away at this point. But then we came out at a road that went left or right and no way to go across, which is what my last reading off the phone wanted us to do. Now we didn’t know what time it was either and the light was starting to fade and we had no idea which way to go. I was starting to feel very panicky. I know that in this day and age and considering where we were there was little chance of us having too much trouble finding someway to get help or whatever, but our biggest problem and the one thing that was eating at me was that Sam would be finishing school and I desperately, desperately did not want him to be waiting wondering what had happened to us. That was eating me up inside.
We went right and with nothing else to do just kept walking. I started counting paces in a vague attempt to try and gage how far we were travelling. It was futile and Sharlene said as much but I had nothing else to do and it kept my mind busy whilst we half walked half jogged along the road. I commented that I felt slightly better about going right as this was heading towards caches that we had already done and maybe, just maybe we would stumble upon somewhere that Sharlene might recognize. I felt pretty helpless at this stage, not being able to see the landscape, or landmarks, or make any helpful suggestions. It makes you realise how easy it is to put all your faith in technology and how difficult it can be if that technology lets you down. We had no map, not even a print out of a google map of where the car was, we did not write down where the car was, we had nothing, what a bunch of amateurs.
But then as we came to a point where a footpath cut across the lane, Sharlene noticed the name of the lane and then with a sudden flash of recognition realised that we had crossed over this lane on this very foot path near the beginning of the walk. She promptly took us left and we hoofed it in what we hoped was the direction of the car. I felt a glimmer of hope but was still quite freaked out. I asked her if she was sure and got a very terse response indeed. This was obviously not a time for talking let alone to be questioning her. A few hundred metres later and we came across another point she recognized and then a bit further along we found the GZ of a cache we had found. As we marched on past it I fiddled with my voice recorder which I use to record notes about each cache and bonus numbers. I tried to find the note about a cache at the foot of a post and found that it was number 2. We had crossed over to the path we had taken at the start of the walk and were less than a kilometre from the car now in a straight line. The air lightened a little but we were still practically running as we both really wanted to get back in time to pick up Sam. I was rushing so much that when following Shar out of a kissing gate and even though she reminded me about the wood that had been embedded into the earth at this point I didn’t slow down and just barrled into her, knocking her over and half trampling on her. This was not what we needed right now and not good for relations between us at this moment. Sharlene was surprisingly calm and told me to get a grip and calm down. Thankfully she was not hurt and we got back on the path. Soon we passed number one and then it was a quick walk back across a field and along a tree line until we emerged into the close just a few short metres from the car.
As we arrived back at the car the feeling of relief was very strong and we jumped in and got moving. One good thing that I did pack was a charger lead for Shar’s phone which meant that we could now get some juice into her phone so that we would be able to use it if we needed to call ahead to say we were going to be late. In the end we made it to the school with minutes to spare, still wearing our geocaching gear, covered in mud and looking rather worse for wear.
I think on balance it was a very good day for us. We did well with our caches, beating our personal best but more importantly we learnt some valuable lessons along the way. Having spare batteries and making a note of the car’s location and having some sort of paper map are a must if going out for a long day’s caching. It was unbelievably good to get back home that night all safe and sound and I don’t think I have been so glad to see a large glass of red wine for a long time.