Using satellites and the Web, a new sport-- Geocaching -- goes high profile with a Planet of the Apes promo

By Noah Robischon
Updated August 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

By its very name, the Global Positioning System (GPS), a constellation of 24 satellites that can pinpoint your exact location on Planet Earth, suggests a grand adventure. But unless you’re trekking through the jungle like astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) in Planet of the Apes, or lost in a rental car, GPS is pretty useless. That’s beginning to change: In May 2000, 55-year-old Dave Ulmer hid a bucket filled with CDs, a can of beans, and a logbook outside Portland, Ore., and posted the coordinates to a Usenet newsgroup. Since most GPS devices are accurate only up to a 30-foot radius, finding Ulmer’s half-buried treasure posed a challenge. But three days later, the booty was discovered and two intrepid Netizens noted their visits in the logbook — and online. Thus was born the 21st-century scavenger sport known as Geocaching, which includes more than 3,000 caches hidden in all 50 states, as well as in at least 59 other countries. The game’s official atlas is Geocaching.com, a website at which new coordinates get posted and hunters exchange stories. Garmin, a company that makes GPS devices for consumers, estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 people are playing along.

In June, Twentieth Century Fox upped the ante by stashing props from Planet of the Apes in 14 locations around the world and working with Geocaching.com to announce the coordinates. The first container, planted near San Francisco, held a wooden spoon that could fetch as much as $1,000 from a collector, according to Fox. The second, coincidentally captured by Ulmer himself outside Portland, included one of the clubs wielded by the film’s simian rulers. The last of the ”Project A.P.E.” coordinates will be announced Aug. 10, nearly two weeks after the fiilm’s opening. But even if you miss out on the prized collectibles, Fox is adding new goodies to its caches periodically. Here are some tips to help you start monkeying around with Geocaching:

— Buy a handheld GPS navigator. Magellan and Garmin both manufacture units that retail between $100 and $200. Get some extra batteries and a compass for backup.

— Log on to ProjectApe.com or Geocaching.com and enter your zip code to see a list of caches in your area. The locations are ranked by level of difficulty from 1 (an easy hike with the kids) to 5 (which includes a scuba-diving cache on a sunken tugboat in the Red Sea).

— Don’t loot the cache. There are only three rules: Take an item, leave an item, and write in the logbook. Each entry on the website includes a description of what kind of treasure you’ll find. In Connecticut, there’s a DVD library, and someone in Indiana started a CD-trading ”Share the Music” cache in response to the recent court decision against Napster. There are also theme caches like those tied to Apes or the one near Dracula’s castle in Romania — which includes a mirror and a logbook pencil that doubles as a wooden stake.

While Fox is the first to turn Geocaching into a marketing tool, it’s not likely to be the last. Jeremy Irish, the 28-year-old webmaster of Geocaching.com, has already been approached by other entertainment companies interested in creating prizewinning caches. But for most players, having an excuse to tromp through the forest like a high-tech ape is reward enough.

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