Ah! Time for GeoNord again. It was a great caching event last year (see Going Mega in France) so Izzy and I decided to go and have another pop at it to see if it would be as good this year. This year it was held in Saint-Omer, which is a conveniently short drive from Calais compared to last year. It was a good weekend.
Friday Night is M25 Night
Friday was our travelling day. It was still term time and hence I couldn’t really take Izzy out of school early. I know some parents do, but not me, well, not for this at least.
I took a half day off to make sure that I was actually ready to go as soon as Izzy was done with school, and I used the time between giving up work and fetching Izzy to get my car cleaned and to pack my bags for the weekend.
We had arranged to meet our companion for the weekend, Happy Hunter HP20, somewhere down near Milton Keynes railway station. We were a bit late because I forgot my walking boots, so I had to go home again. While we were there I thought I might as well let Izzy get changed out of her school clothes too. She had sort of grudgingly accepted the possibility of travelling to France without getting changed. So when the opportunity presented itself I figured we might as well exploit it. Anyway, despite us being late, HHHP20 was still at the station. Like he’s going to get a grump on and go home again for the sake of 5 minutes.
Back at the plot, all of this meant we found ourselves at Milton Keynes railway station with approximately 4 hours to relocate ourselves to the Channel Tunnel terminal at Folkestone. Under normal conditions that would be fine. However, this was abnormal by virtue of it being a Friday night in the summer. I have said in many previous blog posts that I don’t like to assume that the M25 will be OK on a Friday night.
On this occasion, it was not too bad, and we were around the other side of the QEII Bridge in less than two hours. Cool. We arrived at the terminal expecting we might get an earlier train, and true to normal form we were offered at check-in the opportunity to use a train 40 minutes earlier than my booking. Sorted. I like that. And look ! Here’s the photo of the bridge that I always add into posts where I’ve crossed it.
We had just about enough time to munch our way through some dinner of the fast-food variety before jumping back into the cache mobile and doing the doings. There were some shenanigans with people driving up the lane to my right and then attempting to butt their way into our stream. Some numpty in front of me actually let one car come across.
People apparently don’t realise that once you are through the passport control at Folkestone you’re just going on the next available train, regardless of what your ticket says. There is no need to jump lanes to try to get on your scheduled train. Anyway, the place was quite quiet. Once we got on the train, I noticed that the guy behind me, who’d been one of the “queue jumpers” that someone had apparently allowed to lane jump behind me, had a ticket for two trains later than the one he was now sitting on. So he wasn’t late for his scheduled train at all, he was just trying to queue jump.
Vive la France
The train journey was as uneventful as it ought to be, and we found ourselves in France at a nicely early 9:15 pm local time.
Our destination for the weekend, Saint-Omer, is only about 35km away from Calais, so even with a bit of suspect navigation we still found ourselves at the hotel in time to meet up in reception at 10 pm to go out for a beer.
Because it’s close to midsummer and France is an hour ahead of the UK, 10 pm is still tolerably light, and we were able to mooch our way up into the town centre via our first cache of the weekend (La cathedrale Notre-Dame) in decent light. We found a bar on the square that served my new favourite beer (the Half Moon Brewery’s Brugse Zot), and settled ourselves in for a relatively relaxed beer and a bit of a session planning what to do on Saturday. Well, we were going caching obviously, but the “where” and the “when” bits still needed to be finalised.
We agreed to meet in the hotel restaurant (in the loosest sense of the word) for our pre-paid continental breakfast at 8 am. We were staying at the Ibis Budget Saint Omer. If you’ve been to one of these then I don’t need to explain. If you haven’t, I would summarise that they are basic, not very expensive, but generally clean and with rooms that are big enough.
Anyway, on a caching weekend in the summer all we do in the room is sleep (and wash, I guess). We’re not there to enjoy a lavishly furnished room, massive swimming pool or Michelin starred restaurant. A decent bed, and some coffees and pastries in the morning are just fine thank you. The bed in question was the usual Ibis configuration of a double bed with a bunk single running crossways over the head of the double, so the rooms technically sleep 3 people.
Strangely, almost everyone else in the breakfast room seemed to be a geocacher. Some of them were British and some of those were people I recognised from previous events. Anyone would be thinking there was a geocaching event on.
Speaking of which, we were out of the hotel at a very respectable 8:45 am. We made the short drive to Saint Omer Wizernes Airfield via a wherigo cache that I’d solved prior to the event. Yes, I have a way of extracting the final coordinates from a wherigo cartridge without playing the cartridge. Cheating, technically, but at Mega events loads of people cheat. They sponge puzzle coordinates or lab cache answers off other people. Or they cache in large groups when they don’t really go to every cache location individually.
It often takes as much time to decompile and process a wherigo cartridge as it would to play it. But it means you can spend that time in your pyjamas at home late at night rather than using valuable outdoor time on event day. I pretty much always try to pre-solve all puzzles and multis before travelling, which is fair game. So why not also pre-solve the wherigos?
Back at the plot, we reached the event site quite early and queued up for our event packs. I’d bought one “Premiere Class” entry (which allowed all the event activities) and one “Supporter Pack”, which was much the same, but also included a special geocoin and a whole ammo can. Rather than carry a big metal can around all morning we put it in the back of my car. Whilst there I picked up my sunglasses. That proved to be a wise move.
At this event, they had gone over the usual levels with the lab caches. The going rate is to do 10 of them for a mega event. Brugse Beer this year did 19 lab caches (why not 20, I’ll never know). GeoNord this year did 20. All of them involved actual activities too. They were either physical things to find or to do. Some of the Brugse Beer ones just involved reading the event book or taking a photo of something. We did all 20 of them. Although as is often the case, we “did” some of them by swapping answers with others in the queue. All the ones that looked like fun physical activities (like the chuck-a-duck, chuck-a-frisbee, hopscotch, archery and laser-maze-using-string) were done properly by at least one of us anyway.
Of the 20 available, 16 were outdoors on the tarmac. Another three were in the big hangar where the bar was. The last one involved spotting a specific aeroplane on a fly-by, which no-one seemed actually to understand. However we did find someone who had acquired the answer by some foul means. I was logging them all onto my own account as we went around, just to make sure the “acquired” answers were actually correct.
By the time we’d done all this lot it was getting on towards drink o’clock, so we grabbed a seat at the trestle tables and Izzy dived into a sugar and cream topped waffle while the Happy Hunter and myself contented ourselves with a cold and fizzy one from the bar.
Real Caches Too
From here we decided to take a little walk to look for a few caches near to the event site. They’d placed a power trail of over 100 letterbox caches, and they’d also placed another 5 wherigos which had endpoints quite close. We targeted 2 of the wherigos and the first letterbox for a visit via Shanks’ Pony. The first letterbox was well off the given coordinates but was an absolutely huge (and practically unmissable) ammo can.
The first wherigo was exactly where I’d decoded and we found it quickly. The second proved more of a challenge. Wee only found it when a couple of other guys arrived and started looking for it too. There was supposedly another wherigo in the woods here but we couldn’t figure out how to get to it from where we were, so we went back to the event site and jumped into the car.
The rest of the afternoon was spent driving to other wherigos and then around the letterboxes. We did a couple of short out-and-back walks, but mainly it was a process of me driving and HHHP20 jumping out to do the business. Of the 104 letterboxes, a good 50 of them could be reached from the roadside. And, thankfully, all of those ones were placed in locations where there was actually somewhere to get the car off the road. Lazy caching, I know, but it was a warm day, the caches were too far apart to walk all the way around (30 km total) and we didn’t have bikes.
While we were in the middle of doing this, we took the opportunity also to have a break at a cafe in Helfaut to grab some cold drinks and rather tasty pizzas.
Nuffski – Time for a Break
Eventually, we all hit the “meh!” point and decided to head for home. It was getting a bit late in the afternoon (probably “evening”, to be honest), so we did a quick turn around and headed out for a beer.
We were at the same bar as the previous night but they didn’t do ice creams, so they suggested we walk to the other end of the square to get an ice cream for Izzy, and then bring it back to their bar and grab ourselves a beer. That worked for me. Izzy picked a mint-choc-chip ice cream that tasted like actual real mint leaves. I’ve never tasted one like that before.
After the beer we took a walk through central Saint-Omer to collect 7 wherigo caches and then returned back to the hotel.
Once back at the hotel we did a very quick turnaround and then went out once again to get dinner. By this time it was 9:30 pm, so well past Izzy’s normal bedtime, but she was coping well and we were a bit hungry. We found a decent looking restaurant close to our favourite bar and had a light dinner. Those lunchtime pizzas were still weighing us down a bit. It was nice though.
So back home to bed, with sixty-something caches completed plus 20 lab caches. Not a bad total for one day. Here they are….
Sunday morning greeted us with more bright sunshine and another tray full of juice, coffee, pastries and bread at the hotel. Me and Izzy got down a few minutes before our agreed 8 am call (again) and so managed to avoid the massive 8 am queue (again).
The morning activity for the day was another event cache. This one was held at the La Coupole in Helfaut. It’s an old V2 storage bunker and launch site that has been converted into a war museum. We had tickets for a tour of the facility, followed by the caching event itself, which was being held on the lawns just up from the car park. The tour was interesting but I guess I would have liked to have gone there on a day when we weren’t also trying to get some caching done. We spent about 90 minutes inside. Izzy and me left a little early as Izzy was getting a bit cold and hence wasn’t really enjoying herself.
Outside in the sunshine we found a wherigo cache in the car park before HHHP20 came out. From there we did a walk around the back to grab another 4 of the letterbox series and two earthcaches. At the second of these, we had the bizarre experience of bumping into a very familiar-looking Dutch guy. It was the same one that had given me a look of some disgust at the GeoNord event last year while I was dismantling a field puzzle cache with a screwdriver (because we didn’t have the code to do it properly). He signed it though. And we didn’t actually do any damage to the container. Anyway, it was him, and he did recognise me once I’d spoken to him and taken my big hat off. Small world!
Walking in the Sunshine
Adding in the event and another wherigo just over the road that meant we’d found 10 caches in the morning, and we decided we’d better get a move on with our main event of the day, which was a series of puzzles and wherigos that I solved some time ago in anticipation of coming to the event. There were 24 in the series plus yet further wherigos in the vicinity. That made a total of 27 planned for this bit of the walk.
We started heading off on a clockwise loop, having singularly failed to acquire chilled beverages at the main station. We couldn’t see a single kiosk or shop. By the time we’d done three caches we made a policy decision that continuing without drinks was a bad idea,#. So we did an about turn and headed back to the town to try to find a shop. We didn’t find one. We did, however, find a small bar, so we had the fastest drink ever before moving on. If we were in the bar for five minutes I’d be surprised. We felt a bit refreshed afterwards though.
From that point things perked up for a bit. We were walking alongside a wide canal on the edge of Saint-Omer’s centre, heading southwards. The series was sort of a loop, only one that has been flattened out a bit. Essentially you walk out down one side of the canal and back up the other side. We were going around in reverse order, but who cares.
Time to Start Heading Home
It turned out to be quite a long walk and we’d all had enough by the time we got back to the car. Anyway, time was marching onwards and we’d discussed and agreed that if we had an hour spare we’d go to Belgium so HHHP20 could do a single cache there. So after the walk we decided to head for drinks at McDonalds. The one we went to didn’t have milkshakes though, which was a big disappointment, so instead we popped into the Subway next door and bought a load of cold drinks, some crisps and some cookies (for Izzy). The first bottle of diet coke didn’t touch the sides.
We took the scenic route up to Dunkirk from here rather than the autoroute. It went quite quickly and we were handily placed for hopping over the border into Belgium. The closest town was Adinkerke, scene of one of mine and Ami’s escapades in April (see Jeux Sans Frontieres), so the easiest caches in town were off limits.
We drove around a bit and stopped for a while looking for a cache that looked quick and easy to do. We were in a bit of an empty spot, but eventually we picked one close to where we’d driven in and hoped we could find somewhere to park there. About 150m away there was a lay-by with a space, so we just had to make a short walk and then decide whether to look on top of the bridge or beneath it (a big road bridge). Gut feel said to go below, and the gut was right. So that’s Belgium “done” for HHHP20 with plenty of time left to drive back to Calais, despite the roadworks and queue on the motorway.
Adding up all those caches found near Saint Omer took us up to the high thirties for the day. That’s just over 120 for the weekend, which is a tidy sum for a 2-day trip, I reckon. And despite going home on Friday night to collect my walking boots, they remained unused all weekend.
So here are Sunday’s finds in glorious map-o-vision……
As we checked in we weren’t offered an early train, however, the terminal itself was far more empty than any previous trip I’d made through there. We barely had to queue to get food. Irritatingly, though, they seem to close the gents toilets at this time of day (about 7pm) for cleaning. That happened in April too. Having decided we could hold on for a while, we went straight to our train. We didn’t have to queue for that either.
As I drove into the start of the lane I noticed a green light at the other end. So for the first time ever I didn’t have to stop at all once we’d left the terminal. We drove straight onto the train and Bob’s yer proverbial. The train we got onto also left a good 20 minutes before the time our ticket said. I guess it was so quiet that they couldn’t be bothered. Excellent news.
Having failed to use the gents in France though, we needed a stop in the UK at the first opportunity. HHHP20 wanted to be eligible for a “three countries in a day” challenge cache. So we stopped at the Folkestone services and did a cache in the car park. And then we pulled into the fuel stop to fill up the car and empty ourselves.
From there it was a fairly dull journey home aside from the mandatory queue to get through the Dartford Tunnels. We got round to dropping HHHP20 of in HP20 (Aylesbury) at about 9:30 and just made it home for 10pm, whereupon Izzy proceeded directly to bed, without passing “Go” or collecting £200. She’d been awake the whole journey, picking her way through another Harry Potter book.