To look for buried treasure these days you don’t need a map – just an app. Flic Everett has her mind blown by the secret worlds that anyone can find on their doorstep.
I’m standing in the cupboard in my utility room. It’s full of mouldering garden cushions, and it’s a tight squeeze – but according to the new app on my phone, I should be about to find treasure. After a cursory poke through the cushions, though, it seems that something has gone wrong. I exit, embarrassed, and reset the coordinates to somewhere further away, hoping that this time I’ll be sent to a stash of buried jewels – or at least, a forgotten plastic bracelet.
I’m using the Randonautica app, which sends users on quests to discover random local places, objects and even weird messages that they never knew existed. Since it launched last year, it’s been downloaded more than a million times, and during lockdown it’s gone viral on TikTok, the hugely popular mini-video platform, with videos of users heading off on adventures garnering almost 40 million views under the hashtag #randonaut. The nature of the app is all about discovering the unknown. And given recent months spent at home, it isn’t surprising that we’ve felt drawn to the idea of adventure. This app might be the solution to our collective longing for something interesting or unexpected to happen, in a world that has become grindingly predictable.
Randonautica’s principle lies in encouraging users to break from their predetermined paths and discover something new. Linked to Google maps, the app generates map coordinates within a set radius of your location and asks you to ‘set an intention’ before heading to the designated spot to see what you find. An intention can be anything from ‘I want to see a black cat’ to ‘the colour blue’ or ‘something creepy’. Bizarrely, most users report that the spot they were sent to lined up with their intention – whether a house entirely painted blue or a spooky abandoned shed in the woods.
But it’s not just a woo-woo variation on positive thinking – there’s science involved, too. The idea behind Randonauting is to send you somewhere you’ve never been, no matter how close to your home it may be. In Randonaut lingo, these places are known as ‘blind spots’ and to ensure true randomness, the coordinates are created by a quantum random number generator.
The quantum science bit, where mind and matter may ‘entangle’ and influence each other, lies in the high level of occurrences reported on these trips, such as stumbling on the blue house. By deliberately stepping outside our usual reality, we are briefly entering a ‘rabbit hole’ where anything could happen. (According to Randonautica co-founder Auburn Salcedo, Randonauts often see images and models of white rabbits on their trips.)
And what happens on each adventure depends on how many coordinates there are in a given place. Areas where there are many clusters of coordinates in the vicinity are known as ‘attractors’, which often turn up motivational or positive experiences for the explorer. But places where coordinates are few and far between are known as ‘voids’ – which often provide a higher number of odd occurrences. One recent expedition detailed on Facebook resulted in a couple of ‘freaked out’ Randonauts heading for a void with the intention of ‘something creepy’ and stumbling on an abandoned house that had a noose hanging from the ceiling.
I’m desperate to try it, but I live in the West Highlands, between a loch and a dense forest, neither of which I fancy plunging into, so I’m not wildly hopeful of a life-changing coincidence – point proven when I’m sent to the cupboard. But you can always try again. And my next attempt, still with the intention set to ‘treasure’, is more likely; according to the map, the new location is about half a mile behind our house, within a bit of just-about-accessible forestry. I have to enlist my partner Andy to accompany me, as my chances of getting lost are so high they could easily break the quantum universe. On the way up a deserted track, I spot an orange arrow painted on a rock. A sign! ‘They do that to show the forestry workers which way to go,’ says Andy. Oh.
We park and locate the spot about 100 feet from the path. This requires us to cross a stream and stumble towards a row of young fir trees. As we push on through the branches, I feel quite excited. There’s a red pointer on Google Maps showing my destination and a blue dot that’s me – all I have to do is get my dot to the spot.
‘I think this is it!’ I say, coming to a halt wedged between two branches and a tree trunk. I scan the ground. Twigs, moss, pine needles… and at the exact spot, a little clump of bright golden flowers. According to my handy plant app, it’s a cinquefoil, which, I later discover, is also a shape often found in medieval artefacts (treasure!) that symbolises hope and joy.
And after weeks of lockdown, who isn’t after some of that, not to mention adventure?
‘I just wanted something different to do with the boys during lockdown,’ says Lindsay Edwards from Bedfordshire, owner of Reimagise Personal Styling and mum to Jake and Christopher, aged 11 and 13. ‘I downloaded the app and they set their intentions to “lockdown”. It took us to a house along Devon Road, nearby – we’d never been there before. The boys were excited, as one of our favourite holidays was in Devon.’
Outside, Jake noticed there were stepping stones forming a walkway across the grass. ‘Then we realised there were carvings on each one. It was unnerving, as we hadn’t expected to find anything particularly significant. But we became completely absorbed in deciphering our own meanings from them. Jake pointed out that the hand carvings resembled the henna tattoos they had applied during the Devon holiday. There was a carving of a bike – we’ve been out on weekly bike rides as a family during lockdown – and the one of a family holding hands made us think about how we are all in lockdown together, supporting each other,’ she adds. ‘It was a brilliant experience.’
‘The unpredictability of Randonauting is what makes it so exciting, says the app’s co-founder Joshua Lengfelder from his Dallas home. ‘There are some Randonauting circumstances where it’s just too weird, and you’ve got to think that there’s something more than just coincidence behind it.’
Joshua recalls an occasion this year when the app sent him to a store in Dallas he’d never been to called The Virgen De La Candelaria Botanica. ‘I messaged my Randonaut friend Tobias about it, and it turned out he was in Candelaria in Tenerife and had just attended a candlelight procession for the Virgin, because it was her feast day.
‘Another time Randonauting took me to this drainage ditch, and I found a carved drum in
a tree. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever discovered,’ Joshua continues. ‘When I returned to see if it was still there, there was a mysterious snake earring there, too. The next time I went, I almost stepped on a red rattlesnake.’
Odd artefacts are often reported at Randonautica-generated points – a quick scan of its Reddit discussion forum reveals that Randonauts have recently found broken statues, discarded toys, an abandoned swing, signs with their own surnames on and, in one case, a palm-tree shaped standard lamp in a car park. Randonauting does seem to work best for urban types, who are surrounded by streets, buildings and the potential for coincidences, such as the first-time Randonaut who recently reported on Reddit that she set her intention to ‘love’ and was sent to a window displaying the sign ‘You are loved’.
But be careful what you wish for. One recent user wanted ‘scary’. He videoed himself journeying to the woods where the app had sent him, and stumbled on an abandoned car at the very spot he was looking for. As he peered through the windows, a distinct voice on the video murmured ‘help me’. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t seen for dust. Another was sent to a cemetery where headstones were found bearing his family name. It turned out they were long-deceased relatives – and their tombs were at the exact coordinates that had been generated. In June, the app made headlines when a group of teenagers in Seattle who had discovered a suitcase containing human remains posted a video on TikTok and stated that the app had directed them to its precise location. Not every Randonaut experience is so gruesome – Joshua Lengfelder said he never expected anyone to find a dead body – but even without a strange or mind-blowing experience, Randonauts love the opportunity to do something different with a goal in mind, whether it’s ‘find a dog’ (one user found one in a deserted area, who led them to the spot on the map) or ‘magical’, which led to a hidden garden, full of rainbow animal sculptures and spinning wind chimes.
‘There are studies showing that injecting novelty into daily life can make you happier,’ says Joshua, ‘and paying attention, searching for synchronicities, increases perceptual awareness. Randonauting changes the way you interact with the world.’
For more information about the Randonautica app, visit randonautica.com.