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Some time ago, somewhat earlier in the year, I had an exchange of messages on Facebook with my old workmate Scott. He’s an occasional geocacher (as are the rest of his family) and I raised the subject of this year’s UK Mega event being about 20 miles from his house in Aberdeen. He very kindly offered me a bed for the duration.

Fast forward a few months and finally decided, around the end of June, that I actually fancied going up to Aberdeen, despite the weekend being only one weekend before this year’s annual summer “biggie”. None of the family wanted to come up with me, which made it easier to plan on the basis that Scott’s family were planning to be away, so we’d got a weekend of quite laddish geocaching and beer drinking on the cards. Funny how things turn out.

Anyway, early in the week before the event I concluded that if I set off from home early in the morning to drive to Scotland, as I’d originally planned, then the required day of “colouring in the counties” through Scotland wouldn’t be so much fun, as I’d essentially be tired the whole time. I therefore decided it would be good to shift the first few hundred miles on Wednesday night rather than Thursday morning, and hence looked for a hotel that was sort of on the way. I planned to go up the west side and down the east side, on the basis that Kas was taking the girls up to her mum’s, and hence there was an opportunity to break up my journey home by meeting the girls and sharing a car home with at least one of them. It also meant I got the added bonus of being able to colour counties on both sides of the country, and also it would give me the opportunity to take the car over the new Queensferry Crossing.

You can tell from the map here that my caching trips to Scotland have been somewhat limited. I made a business trip to Edinburgh in February. I went on the train and had no car at the other end. So I managed to grab two trads and attend an event on the night I arrived. This meant that the world was, essentially, my salt-water bivalve mollusc of the Ostreoidea superfamily.

So, back at the plot, I couldn’t find any hotels I liked the look of in the northern part of the M6, so I decided I might as well bite the bullet and head all the way to Gretna. There’s a Days Inn at the motorway services there. The drive up was fairly uneventful once I got out of the traffic in Northamptonshire, and I arrived at the hotel at about 11pm on Wednesday night, having stopped for dinner on the way. The hotel was basic but perfectly functional and very well positioned.

How many different districts can I find a geocache in on one day?

For Thursday I’d mapped out a whole series of caches close to motorways so I could make quick and easy stops for quick finds. I’d done it so that I could maximise the total number of counties (or, in the case of Scotland, administrative units) that I could find one cache in. The map shows there’s a lot of areas of white that could be turned to green.

The districts I passed through and cached in were, in sequence, as follows :

I hadn’t really planned in great detail, but was hoping to get roughly to the middle of the patch by lunchtime, and so it turned out to be. Getting as far as Falkirk took me until 12:30, so I decided I could afford to spend a bit of time. I didn’t want to get there too early, as Scott was working all day. So I decided to do a few touristy things in the middle section – places I’d never been to when I lived in Scotland in the early nineties. To be honest, a couple of the places I planned to stop hadn’t been built back then anyway.

The first of these was the Falkirk Wheel – a rotating boat lift that raises (or lowers) boats by 24m between two canals. Parking was easy, as was the cache I tried in the car park, but I have to say the wheel itself was a little disappointing. Maybe with a bit more time I would have got more into it. They’ve made a spectacle of the whole thing, but on a sunny afternoon in the school holidays that just meant it was crawling with punters and their kids. And anyway, the way into the woods, and loads more caches, was blocked off by some inconviently placed fencing.

So I moved on to what proved to be somewhere much more entertaining – The Kelpies. These are basically a pair of 30m high horses heads sculpted out of stainless steel. They sit astride another bit of canal. When I got there it was a very summy afternoon and there were loads of people (again), however in this park there’s enough room for them all to spread out a bit. There was an interesting selection of caches there and a good park to walk around, so I decided to stretch my legs and ultimately stayed there a good hour and a half.

Next up was a completely unplanned stop at the Wallace Monument outside Stirling. Well, I’d planned to do a cache at the bottom, but hadn’t planned to stay any longer. Time was still in my favour though, as it was only about 3pm when I arrived, so I decided to break for a while and walk up the hill to the monument. I tried not to let on that I’m English, just in case anyone noticed. I think I got away with it. The walk up the hill was a welcome leg-stretcher after spending all morning in the car.

From here it was all driving. From Stirling I passed through the best-named district ever – Clackmannanshire. How could you not enjoy a name like that ? The road took me along the foot of the Ochil Hills in an easterly direction. Once I entered Perth & Kinross I had a near disaster. I’d planned three potential cache stops, but the first two didn’t really have anywhere to stop (despite looking like they had) and I was frustrated enough with trying to find somewhere to stop and replan that I drove straight past the third potential. This placed me on the motorway north to Perth still needing to find one. Whilst stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway I noticed I could sneak in a cache if I got off at the next junction, so I went for it and after a bit of dodgy car parking I made a relatively easy find. The situation was therefore recovered – drawn back from the brink, as it were.

By this time it was getting on a bit and, as I discovered just as I passed Perth, the City of Aberdeen is still quite a long way. It’s a long way from anywhere, to be honest. By the time I’d stopped in Dundee and Angus, and made an unplanned stop in Aberdeenshire, it was more or less 7:30pm by the time I arrived at Scott’s house. His family had not gone away for the weekend, as planned, so I nicked his son’s bedroom for the duration, forcing him to go share with his older sister. They also fed me, which was unexpected and very welcome. When I’d finished we were talking about this and that, and Scott revealed there were caches a few hundred metres from the house. It was too much to resist, so off we went. It took us three attempts, but I eventually got my 12th district of the day, at which point we retired to a nearby pub for a well earned beer.

Soggy Friday – Weather that Scotland is famous for

The weather forecast for Friday was typically Scottish, by which I mean cool and grey, with the likelihood of heavy rain, and so it turned out to be. It was wetter than something that’s very wet.

Scott volunteered to drive and we decided to go and have a pop at a bunch of the Munro Mega Mystery puzzles to the north-west of Banchory. Staying in the trees seemed like a good idea if it was going to rain. Optimistically there were two or three separate-looking loops of caches we could go for, depending on how fast we were covering the ground. It was a day of learning from each other. Scott and his family had never really tried to do any puzzle caches before, so Scott was learning a bit about that. And I’d never been walking in the woods in Scotland before. Scott’s main guidance tips were a) the caches are pretty much bound to be next to a path, as going anywhere else would risk dangerously boggy ground and b) it’s a good idea to assume that the path you’re on is likely to loop around rather than looking for another, or trying to walk cross-country when you don’t know the terrain. Wise advice indeed. In some areas the ground was what horse-racing commentators would describe as “heavy”, or possible worse, if there is a term that’s worse than that. The footpaths also alternated between quite wide paths with bracken and pine detritus underfoot to very narrow paths with neck-high undergrowth. Those with the high undergrowth were obviously fun in the rain, because they meant that your upper clothing got wet as well as your feet.

After completing the first loop (of about 24 caches) we retired to a nearby garden centre for a bit of lunch. The one in question had some nice warming soup. Not an obvious choice for most places in August, but very welcome on this particular day.

In the afternoon the rain seemed to have slowed up a bit, so we went for another one of the two circuits hoping to be able to finish that quickly and see how we stood. That one had 16 caches on an elongated loop starting from Banchory’s Cricket Club and Curling Club. Neither sporting venue was in use. They have an open air curling rink which was, for all intents, a very square-looking pond. The cricket pitch looked much the same.

Anyway, the dry weather stayed with us for about three-quarters of that loop, and then the heavens opened again and we got completely drenched just as we were starting to feel like we’d dried out. “Booooooo!” And “Hissssss!” I say. The drenching dampened the enthusiasm as well as the clothing. I looked at the proposed northern loop (the planned final one of the day) and suggested that 6-7 of them looked as if they could be done as a drive-by, so we went off with that in mind. Scott stayed in the car, while I jumped out, got more wet, and dashed as quickly as I could to and from a few more caches. Once we’d done all the drive-bys the time was looking pretty much against us, and I think we were both completely drained by the wet, so we gave up and went home.

Once at home we got cleaned up and went out for some Italian food with the rest of Scott’s family, followed by a couple of quite half-hearted beers in what I’d think on any other night would be an excellent bar – six°north. By the time we went out the rain had stopped but it was foggy. When we left the pub the fog had gone and it was a lovely night.

Back at Scott’s gaff, we amused ourselves for a while by looking at photos of the state of the entrance to the camping field at the Mega Event site. The rain and traffic had turned it into a quagmire, and eventually they had to stop people from going in and out, as most were failing even with help from a tractor, and they were just making the problem worse. It’s days like that when I’m glad I don’t like camping. I guess the problem was that the camping field isn’t normally a campsite, so it was just grass. No hard standing through the entrance or around the field at all, so once it’s wet, you kind of have to stay there until it’s dry again. Oops ! You have to feel sorry for the event organisers though. Weather as bad as that is something it’s difficult to anticipate, even in Scotland.

I didn’t take any photos during the day. Neither my phone nor my camera are sufficiently waterproof.

Mega Event Day

Mega-day looked a bit more promising on the weather front, but we started off with the distinctly non-geocache-related activity of running a parkrun. Scott’s closest is, funnily enough, Aberdeen parkrun. Because it’s quite dark in the mornings in the Scottish winter, it starts at 9:30 rather than the more traditional 9am. This gave us the opportunity to grab a couple of geocaches before it started. One was a puzzle I’d worked out on the assumption we might come to this parkrun. The other was a trad which was located, as it happens, about 2 metres from the parkrun director’s table. That was a good thing, because I’d left my pen in the car for the run, so needed to borrow one. The table had a notebook and pen, and at the time was devoid of human presence. Ideal then.

The parkrun itself is a flat out-and-back along Aberdeen’s sea front promenade – out goes along the upper layer and back comes along the lower layer. The whole thing is paved, fairly wide, and lacking in hills. That lot, combined with cool and slightly foggy weather, made for a fast run, and I set a new PB for this year.

So back to Scott’s for a quick change of clothes and then into the new cachemobile for a drive over to Banchory.

I was very much hoping that the car park for the event wouldn’t involve grassy fields. The new car is a little closer to the ground than the old one, and I’m not keen on going off-piste in it, especially if the grass has suffered 24 hours of continuous rain. When we got on site it was apparent that most cachers were being directed towards a grassy field. The man in the hi-vis jacket did say we were welcome to drive up to the top and see if we could get into the “proper” car park, though. We did consider trying to pretend not to be geocachers, but just as we were doing so, my car was spotted by HHHP20, who happened to be walking past us, and that put a stop to any pretence. Still, the guy let us go up to the top, and when we got there, we found a parking space that was pretty much as close to the castle as we could ever have got. Gardner parking-karma strikes again.

The event was being held at Crathes Castle, which I’m sure is a place I’ve been to before (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away). When we parked up, the whole place was blessed with bright sunshine, so we decided to go have a good mooch around the event site to see what, and who, we could find. We found a bunch of people from the Beds, Bucks, Herts area and also found the new “Adventure Labs” caches in full swing. They are much like the old lab caches, except you have to log them through the phone app and, more importantly, you actually have to be in the right place when you attempt to log them. If you’re too far away, you can’t submit an answer.

We went into the event tent for a while too, where it was hot. Really hot.

To finish off the adventure labs it was necessary to walk down towards the grassy car park, and by the time we got there we found ourselves amongst some new “real” caches that had been set for the event and were only released after I’d left home on Wednesday. We had to do them on the phone as a result. After doing the labs, mine was getting a bit shy on ziggies, but we had enough to get round the ones we did.

Once we’d finished those we decided to go head for a few more of the Mega Mystery ones, including the few on Friday’s third walk (which we never did) and #34 – the one which required you and nine other people to be physically present at the event site at the same time. Or, in our case, required you to know someone who’d got the coordinates already. This one proved to be about 100 metres away from the first placed we’d parked on Friday, but we didn’t know that at the time.

Saturday night was a bit of a “M’eh!” night, partly because I was planning to leave early and partly because Scott was on duty to go fetch Fraser back from work at 10pm, so going out for beers wasn’t really an option.

A Long Way Home

I’d briefly entertained the idea of driving north through the districts of Moray and Highland but had been advised not to unless I fancied getting up before I went to bed, so I left Scott’s house at about 8am and headed straight back down the most direct route back to Dundee and Perth before stopping in Fife for a coffee and a couple of caches. Well, one cache, as it turned out. I wasted 20 minutes at the first planned one because I couldn’t find it. The second I tried was closer to the car and I found it straight away. Not to worry.

My target for the day was to get close to Sunderland between 2 and 3 pm so I could meet the ladies of the house and we could drive the rest of the way home in tandem. I didn’t really know how far that was.

The advantage of driving down the east coast was, of course, that I had a bunch more districts to stop in and do a single cache. I limited it to one in each (apart from Borders) because time was disappearing rather quickly. That proved to be a sound idea because just at the point where I left good roads to work my way down the single carriageway section of the A1 it started raining, which meant the traffic slowed down to about 35mph and hence added a good 40-50 minutes to the trip.

The caches I managed to complete on this leg were :

I eventually made it to Grandad Dennis’ house at about ten past three, where I had a quick cup of coffee and a biscuit before jumping back in the car at four o’clock for the drive home. At least I had Ami riding shotgun for that section, so I had someone to talk to. We eventually got home between 9 and 10 pm, arriving just early enough to go into the Co-Op to buy breakfast and beer. I made a fairly half-hearted attempt at beer, because I was a bit tired.

By the end of it, my caching map looked a bit more full, especially in the vicinity of Scotland. I guess that was kind of the point.