During the week or so that the Pokemon Go craze lasted, people around the world could be observed shamelessly engaged in capturing virtual monsters that “existed” only insofar as players were willing to keep their eyes glued to their mobile phones.
While I have never played Pokemon Go, I have occasionally indulged in geocaching, which similarly involves relying on a phone app – or a GPS unit – to navigate real-world locations while on the hunt for a particular objective.
The key difference with geocaching is that the goal of the pursuit is not an imaginary creature but an actual object – usually a “cache” of small trinkets or a log book stashed inside a plastic container and hidden from the sight of casual passersby.
This tangible aspect means that geocaching, which has quietly persisted since its founding in 2000, is a more subtle pursuit than Pokemon Go: The actual existence of geocaches means that they are subject to thievery or disposal by anyone who discovers them accidentally. As a rule, therefore, these GPS treasure hunters seek to avoid being observed as they remove the containers from their hiding places.
So it was that on a recent trip to Singapore, I found myself milling about a picnic area on Pulau Ubin awaiting the departure of a large group of hikers who had decided to enjoy their lunches and tick a few boxes off their bird-watching lists a mere 5 metres from where, unbeknownst to them, one of these geocaches had been concealed.
In an effort to loiter uncreepily in the vicinity, I feigned interest in the local flora, but I could only maintain my nonchalance for so long while staring at tree bark and sun-bleached leaves. The bird-watchers seemed to have hunkered down for the duration, and I eventually lost patience, remounted my rented mountain bike and pedalled away, silently vowing to return later in the day.
Pulau Ubin – an island that lies off Singapore’s northeast coast – is an undeveloped haven of traffic-free paved roads and dirt pathways that provides an easy, inexpensive escape from the commotion of the rest of the country. The forests and wetlands are best explored on foot or by bicycle, the latter of which can be rented on the island at prices ranging from S$5 to S$15 (US$3.50 to $10.50), depending on various factors such as how rusted they are and whether the gears and brakes actually work.
Bumboats to Pulau Ubin can be caught at Changi Point Ferry Terminal. The 10-minute ride costs S$3 a person, with boats leaving as soon as there are 12 passengers. Once on the island, I splurged on a workable S$15 mountain bike and cruised inland for a day of exploration.
Geocaches are each given a unique name once they’re placed and once their locations are uploaded onto the geocaching.com website, and I started by heading north to the far side of the island to find one called Orchid Garden. While I pedalled down a lonely, tree-shaded road, I occasionally glanced at the map on my phone to confirm that I was steadily closing the distance to my target.
Unfortunately, once I was within 0.1 miles of the cache, my Singapore SIM card conked out and I started receiving SMSs from a telecoms operator in Malaysia – Pulau Ubin is close enough to the border, and remote enough from the centre of Singapore, that my phone thought I had entered another country.
Unable to access the geocaching app, I continued on nonetheless, soon reaching an oceanfront campsite with mainland Malaysia visible across the briny strait. A hand-painted sign reading “Orchid Garden” pointed me to a dirt trail tunneling through the jungle.
A few minutes later I arrived at the “garden”, where I found a modest shack, storage shed and boat dock on a property strewn with plant pots, ceramic sculptures, rusting motorcycles, torn fishing nets and other detritus. A makeshift “Cold Drinks Sold Here” sign promised the undeliverable as it pointed to a phantom business venture.
Without the app to help me narrow the search, there were an infinite number of places where a small plastic box could be hidden among the clutter. After poking around for about 20 minutes I was no wiser about where it might be located. There were other caches to find, so I grabbed my bike and continued riding down the jungle trail, eventually spilling back onto pavement.
My Singapore SIM card soon returned from the dead, and I followed a network of winding roads to the western end of the island to find the Lady Gold cache hidden in Ketam Mountain Bike Park. Once inside the park, I followed the beginner-level “blue” trail to Pipit Hut, a rest area for hikers and cyclists.
I had the shelter to myself, and my phone app indicated that the cache washidden somewhere in the forest about 100 metres away. I plunged into the trees on foot but soon found my progress waylaid by a chain-link fence meant to keep people away from one of the long-abandoned quarries that in the 1960s had supplied Singapore’s construction industry and given Pulau Ubin (Granite Island) its name.
Returning to the hut, I tried following a hiking trail in the hope that it would curve around and lead me in the right direction, but the longer I walked, the farther I moved from the cache. The sky darkened and the trees started swaying in a tempestuous wind, so I backtracked to the shelter and ate crackers while enjoying the spectacle of a brief, violent thunderstorm.
The sun returned as the storm raged southwestward, but I remained flummoxed over the location of Lady Gold. Well, there were other caches to find, so once again I rode away empty-handed and followed the GPS signal to Recovery and Rest, where the aforementioned gaggle of lunch-eating, bird-watching miscreants stopped me dead in my nerdily frustrated geocaching tracks.
I was zero for three. Moving glumly onward, I aimed myself north in search of Not Too Deep, located in the forest along a nondescript stretch of pavement. I parked my bike as close to the cache as I could get on the road, and once again dived into the jungle. The trees were widely spaced, making for easy walking, but the ground was strewn with deep layers of huge leaves.
A GPS signal will normally bring searchers within 5 to 10 metres of the treasure, but actually finding it requires good old-fashioned digging and snooping about. So many hiding places, so little time. Just as I was beginning to despair about my fourth failure, I kicked over a pile of leaves and there it was – a green ammunition can nestled among the roots at the base of a large banyan tree. I fell to my knees and howled lusty praise to the gods of geocaching. A group of cyclists who happened to be passing by on the road glanced nervously into the jungle and started pedalling faster.
Flush with success, I took a break from the hunt and rode to the east side of the island to check out the Chek Jawa Wetlands, the flagship wildlife sanctuary on Pulau Ubin. A 1.1-kilometre boardwalk takes hikers through mangrove forests and along the coast, skirting an ancient coral reef, mud flats and sand banks that emerge only during low tide. There was also a 20-metre-high viewing tower, which, not surprisingly, had been commandeered by another group of bird-watchers.
The afternoon was waning, so I abandoned plans to return to Recovery and Rest, and instead resolved to find two geocaches stashed not far from the boat jetty. The first, named Treasure Island, was hidden along a beautiful stretch of trail between two freshwater creeks. There were plenty of hikers around, but a quick, efficient search among the trees during a lull in the foot traffic revealed the hiding place of the small plastic box. Two for five. I was on a roll.
My last destination was U-bin Tricked – the name refers to Japan’s invasion of Singapore in February 1942, when the Japanese duped the Allies into believing the assault would come from the northeast. The Allies, falling for the ruse, deployed their freshest troops on Pulau Ubin, leaving the northwest coast of Singapore virtually undefended against the actual attack.
I’d like to be able to report that my last geocache search was successful, but I’d be fibbing. I did find the location – an old concrete bunker cleverly concealed inside a banyan tree – but upon entering the dark, enclosed space was confronted by a foul odour and a swarm of buzzing wasps.
I didn’t stick around long enough to determine the source of the smell or to assess precisely how angry the wasps might be at my intrusion. Rather, I beat a hasty retreat while wondering whether Pokemon Go might be an easier, less hazardous hobby to pursue.