Ready availability of affordable GPS has transformed the world into a giant playground for the intrepid traveller. From games that send you on a hunt for hidden ‘treasure’ to a project that urges adventurers to seek those invisible points where longitudes and latitudes intersect, GPS-based adventure quests appeal to the Indiana Joneses and the Lara Crofts amongst us.


Chased by an elephant at 21N 85E;nearly bitten by a cobra at 21N 86E;taken hostage by Naxalites at 19N 83E;attacked by a porcupine at 24N 84E;nearly drowned after a boat capsized at 20N 83E. . .

Sounds too cryptic? Well, these are just a few adventures from the online diaries of Anil Dhir. And the enigmatic numbers are merely coordinates on the earth’s grid.

The Odisha-based finance executive-like 12, 204 other people spread across the globeis part of the Degree Confluence Project (confluence. org), which encourages members to travel to the invisible points where latitudes and longitudes intersect. These ‘confluencers’ are then asked to post-to the website-photographs and a narrative of each visit.

Confluence was started by computer programmer and entrepreneur Alex Jarrett in 1996 because he “liked the idea of visiting a location represented by a round number such as 43°00’00’’N 72°00’00’’W” . And while there are 64,442 such confluences in the world, only 16,194 of these can be accessed after cutting out those that are in water and the many points close to the North and South Pole. Till date, the project has covered 6,131 confluences.

Each visitor posts photographs of the confluence (views from the north, south, east and west), a picture of the GPS screen as it reads the location and a small story describing their visit. Today, the website hosts 97, 152 such photographs from 184 countries.

While Dhir remarkably covered all the 15 confluences of his state Odisha, another confluencer Chander Devgun has visited confluences in Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
India has 298 confluence points of which 152 have already been archived by participants.

“It’s a fascinating experience to be able to explore these imaginary lines, some which cross inside forests and some inside people’s homes, ” Devgun says.

The Delhi-based astronomer, who organised educational trips with students to the various confluences, recollects how the group would often get asked, “Where are you going?” by strangers to whom they had no answers to give.

“We would walk into private farms and forests following directions the GPS would give us, ” says Devgun who runs Delhi-based NGO SPACE that works towards science popularisation.

“This was the best way to teach students about latitudes and longitudes. The project also taught us about the geographical variation of different places, ” he says.
Dhir too learnt a lot about his state while covering all its confluences in 18 months, some of which were located in Maoist areas.

“In Malingam, we had to walk nearly 30 km to and fro;crossing many mountain streams with our equipment looking for the point. It rained in the afternoon and we could not cross the flooded streams and had to wait till the water subsided, ” says Dhir.

“And in Nandul, the forest canopy was so thick that we had to wait for three months until the summer forest fires had cleared the foliage and then record the visit. ”
Dhir is now planning a book based on his travelogues to confluences.

The ancient Agrasen ki Baoli holds a hidden charm for certain tourists. They are driven to the wondrous architectural marvel by a unique quest – a quest for treasure!
Adventurers from around the world visit this stepwell close to Connaught Place to seek the stash hidden there by Delhi-based architect Yogeshwar Kanu. ‘It is 35 mm film canister placed in an air vent next to an arched window on the left staircase leading to the roof of the well’ is the final clue that leads people to the spot.

Those who end up finding the “treasure”, sign the little chit inside the canister and hide it back again.
“We are so glad you showed us this place as it wasn’t on our itinerary. Our guide decided we were completely crazy. Greetings from South Africa, ” reads a message on the Geocaching website (www. geocaching. com) where clues and the GPS coordinates for the cache are posted.

This high-tech game of hide-and-seek where players-using their GPS devices-look for hidden geocaches (or small waterproof containers carrying a logbook and sometimes a few keepsakes) is slowly catching up in India.

Like Kanu, Harshavardhan Bhat is another India-based geocacher. The software engineer learnt about the game from his colleague on a trip to Germany.
“It’s big there, ” he says. “You’ll find 10-15 caches in an area of 2 km. ”

Geocachers hide treasures in places that could be a prime camping spot, a location with a great view or a place that’s unusual. In India, some of the popular locations with treasures include Nandi Hills (Bangalore), Elephanta Caves (Mumbai), Lodi Gardens
(Delhi), Bhim Bhadak Cave Temple (Jodhpur), Grandi Island (Goa) and the Fort Kochi Jawahar Park (Cochin).

Bhat himself has hidden a cache near his hometown in Karnataka. “I’ve posted the GPS coordinates and a small puzzle, which you have to solve to find the location. The puzzle also teaches the seeker some trivia about the location, ” Bhat says.

Each treasure has a name too. Alice in Wonderland is the name of a cache hidden by Kanu in Begumpur Mosque. “The cache is behind a small doorway making you feel like a giant Alice because you have to bend to find it, ” he says.

“One of the caches in Bangalore’s Cubbon Park had a clue that read: ‘Here knowledge and water flows’. The GPS coordinates took me to a library (knowledge) and I found the magnetic cache stuck to a drain pipe in front of it. It was an adventure for me, ” says Kanu.

Caches come in different sizes including really small ones which only have a log book called nano cache and large ones that contain trinkets like keychains, action figures and coins that can be taken and replaced with something of equal or greater value.
“The only problem in India is the caches tend to get ‘muggled’ – geospeak for stolen – so you have to find a safe spot and hide it when no one is watching, ” says Kanu.

Robert Owens uploads photographs of obscure locations without naming them. He waits patiently till someone else discovers his pictures and takes up the challenge of finding the location.

This location-finding game called Shutterspotting (shutterspot. gpsgames. org) has shutter-happy travellers creating picture puzzles for others to solve. And unlike most traditional GPS games where you are given latitude and longitude to find a hidden object, this game expects hunters to find the spot and record its coordinates to prove they found it.

“I found it intriguing. I was a geocacher looking for new experiences. I like how this game turns virtual geocaching on its head. It’s a lot more difficult most of the time, ” says Owen who now posts populous areas to draw more people to take up the challenge.

“I have posted spots on islands that one has to paddle a mile to, at baseball fields, churches, museums, restaurants, and odd things along the road, ” he says.

The site allows users to search for Shutterspots by country, region and city, by most recent listings or by owner.

“Users have posted photos of places that either have an interesting monument or places that have a nice view, ” says Florida-based Patricia Coelho who recently signed up on the site after she learnt about it from a friend. “It’s a great way to explore local areas, ” she says.

Owen – who has uploaded 79 Shutterspots of which 18 have been found – describes what he likes best about the game.
“There is something about standing exactly where someone else stood to take the photographs. The original photographer wanted me to stand there to see exactly what he saw. Getting there is thrilling as you know you completed the task, ” says Owen.

Things you would need to play
A GPS device is a gadget that can determine your location on the planet. Each GPS device receives signals broadcast from GPS satellites – and it needs to read signals from at least three satellites at a time to calculate its general location by a process called trilateration. With signals from four satellites, a GPS receiver can get a more accurate fix that includes altitude and the exact time, as well as latitude and longitude.
You can use the device to navigate from your current location to another location by reading the coordinates in latitude and longitude. Some devices have their own maps, built-in electronic compasses, and voice navigation. Manufacturers such as Garmin, Trimble and SatGuide make GPS devices that can cost anything between Rs 6, 000 and Rs 30, 000.

A GPS app on your GPS-enabled phone:
You can also use your smartphone-along with a combination of GPS and cell towers-to determine your approximate location. There are various GPS apps like Google MyTracksand GPS Logger by Mendhak (both for Android) that give you data about your coordinates on a map.
Additionally, specific geocaching apps like Geocachingby Groundspeak Inc (iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 7) and c:geo – opensource (Android), CacheSense (Blackberry and Android) that allow you to find caches in your locality also come in handy for the game.

What is GPS?
GPS or Global Positioning System is a satellite-based navigation system that provides location information anywhere on the Earth where there is an unobstructed link to four or more GPS satellites.
The system uses a network of 24 satellites that were placed into orbit by the US Department of Defense for military applications. In the 1980s, however, the US government made the system available for civilian use.

This article first appeared in Times Crest.