Select African Superlatives

On January 27, 2016 · 0 Comments

I thought I’d lump another set of somewhat related items together as I continued to cull the enormous backlog of possible Twelve Mile Circle topics. They didn’t have much in common except that they all involved continental Africa. Two were geographical observations and two were geological oddities. All of them piqued my interest although not enough to devote an entire article to them.

Long Flights

Most of us have probably seen the recent comparison-style maps on the Intertubes lately, some demonstrating Africa’s immense size. Brilliant Maps, for example, had a wonderful portrayal of the True Size of Africa in an article a few months ago. People tended to misconstrue Africa’s enormity, probably due to its under-representation in popular media combined with Mercator map projections that distorted its actual size. Twelve Mile Circle fell into some of those same traps as witnessed by the relatively few African article markers on the Complete Index page.

In that vein, I pondered Africa’s enormity in a slightly different manner using great-circle distances. And what better measure of great-circle distance could I generate than airline flights? One could take a direct nonstop flight from Lagos, Nigeria to Nairobi, Kenya (currently 7 flights per week on Kenya Airlines) and ponder its width. That would carry a traveler from west to east across the continent, not even its widest part, and it would take 5 hours and 20 minutes. That compared pretty nicely with a flight from New York to San Francisco across the width of the United States; or from London, England to Ankara, Turkey.

Looking at length, one could then take a nonstop flight from O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt (4 flights per week on EgyptAir) in 8 hours, or alternately to Dakar, Senegal (3 flights per week on South African Airways) in 8.5 hours. That compared rather favorably with a flight between Chicago, Illinois and Paris, France. Of course, an entire ocean didn’t have to be crossed on any of those African flights. That, to me, demonstrated its vast expanse quite succinctly.

Plus, now I get to see all sorts of interesting advertisements on my website now that Big Data thinks I’m contemplating so many far-flung adventures.

Extreme Elevation (or Lack Thereof)

Gambie by Guillaume Colin & Pauline Penot on Flickr (cc)

Africa demonstrated many extremes, although not in every instance. Certainly a landmass of its size featured an array of elevations, from Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (5,895 metres / 19,341 feet) down to Lake Assal in Djibouti (-153 m / -502 ft). I wondered though, which African nation had the smallest elevation extremes. I discounted the various offshore islands that were considered part of Africa and focused on the continent itself. The honor went to The Gambia. I featured Unusual Geography of the Republic of The Gambia in the very early days of 12MC and even commented on its elevation. What I didn’t note at the time was that its greatest "peak" (53 m / 174 f) was also the lowest national highpoint on the continent.

The website Peakbagger included this highpoint in its database, a place called Red Rock (map). Only one Peakbagger member claimed to have conquered its summit. I wasn’t surprised.

Weird Volcano

The continent also served as a home for what National Geographic dubbed the Strangest Volcano on Earth. The Ol Doinyo Lengai stratovolcano in the Gregory Rift of the larger East African Rift of Tanzania (map) was well known to vulcanologists for its unique properties. It was the only active volcano that was known to produce natrocarbonatite lava. The lava at Ol Doinyo Lengai wasn’t based on silica as was typical, rather it was composed of sodium and potassium carbonate minerals.

…the temperatures of these lavas are much lower, "only" about 600 deg. C., and Lengai’s lava does not emit enough light to glow during day,- only at night, a dull reddish glow that does not illuminate anything is visible. Also because of its peculiar chemical composition, the lava is extremely fluid and behaves very much like water, with the exception that it is black like oil. After it is cooled down it quickly alters and becomes a whitish powder.

Black water lava? I’d love to see some of that in person. I may have to settle for the YouTube video for now.

Large Crater

Map of Vredefort dome
Map of Vredefort dome via Wikimedia Commons

In the distant ancient history of the planet, something like two billion years ago, an asteroid slammed into the earth leaving an impact crater 300 kilometres (185 miles) across. The asteroid was much smaller than that, maybe 5-10 km in diameter, although it hit with such tremendous speed and force that it vaporized stone for great distances in all directions. This celestial divot was called the Vredefort crater — named for the South African settlement that grew there in modern times — the largest verified crater on the planet.

Very few signs remained because of its ancient pedigree, leaving it mostly eroded. A structure known as the Vredefort Dome sprouted at impact, an uplifting of rock that occurred at the very center of the strike. It was mostly weathered away too although it still appeared as a faint semi-circle on satellite images. A few roads also crossed its ridges, making it an interesting sight in Google Street View (image).

The thought of an impact that large seemed terrifying.

Even More Weird Placenames

On January 24, 2016 · 2 Comments

Twelve Mile Circle has been on a bit of an odd placenames fixation as of late. I found a few more examples although they didn’t have enough of a story behind them to justify an entire article on any one of them. I figured I’d resurrect an earlier series and title this "Even More Weird Placenames" in continuation of the theme. This will also help me whittle-down my ever persistent list of possible topics I’ve been compiling since I began this site.


Knockemstiff, Ohio

A anonymous 12MC visitor landed onto the site by chance seeking information about Knockemstiff. I didn’t know anything about it and had nothing prepared so I supposed they left disappointed. Even so, it sounded like a suitable topic and I knew I’d explore it eventually. It took little effort to find Knockemstiff once I got around to it, a crossroads in Ohio near another place featured on these pages previously, Chillicothe.

Knockemstiff served as the backdrop for a series of short stories published in 2008 by local writer, Donald Ray Pollock, in a book with the same title. One review said Pollock "presents his characters and the sordid goings-on with a stern intelligence, a bracing absence of value judgments, and a refreshingly dark sense of bottom-dog humor." His literary works received national attention including the New York Times which profiled the settlement of Knockemstiff, attempting to learn the story behind its unusual alias.

The town’s name is a source of folklore and conjecture… a resident saying that the origins dated far back, perhaps 100 years, to an episode in which a traveling preacher came across two women fighting over a man. The preacher said that he doubted the man was worth the trouble and that someone should "knock him stiff." But variations on that story exist, as do ones that say the name is associated with moonshine and bar fights.

That was a long way of saying that no definitive explanation existed. The story had been lost to history. Nonetheless this brief summary will be waiting here for the next unknown visitor who may stumble onto 12MC searching for Knockemstiff.

Ennis in Ellis

Bluebonnet Sunrise - Ennis, Texas
Bluebonnet Sunrise – Ennis, Texas by Kelly DeLay on Flickr (cc)

The City of Ennis fell within the confines of Ellis County, Texas. Ennis had been named for a railroad official, Cornelius Ennis. Ellis probably referred to Richard Ellis, who headed the commission that declared Texas’ independence. The two men had no connection or relationship that I was aware of, although that was completely irrelevant to this story anyway. My fascination centered on the peculiar notion that if one replaced the “nn” in Ennis with “ll” it became Ellis. I was unaware of any other town-county combination where one could make a simple letter substitution in the town’s name to transform it into the county name. Of course I didn’t look too hard trying to find other examples either. I’d like to say that I wanted to reserve that puzzle for the 12MC audience although the real reason was my laziness.

Completely unrelated, the aforementioned Ennis in Ellis "was designated by the 1997 State Legislature as the home of the ‘Official Texas Bluebonnet Trail’ and was designated the ‘Official Bluebonnet City of Texas.‘" That was a pretty big deal considering the prominence of the bluebonnet in Texan culture. The Department of Horticultural Science at Texas A&M University elaborated,

As historian Jack Maguire so aptly wrote, "It’s not only the state flower but also a kind of floral trademark almost as well known to outsiders as cowboy boots and the Stetson hat." He goes on to affirm that "The bluebonnet is to Texas what the shamrock is to Ireland, the cherry blossom to Japan, the lily to France, the rose to England and the tulip to Holland."

During times when bluebonnets weren’t in bloom, no worries, one could always visit Bluebonnet Trail — not the trail itself, rather a street named Bluebonnet Trail — in a local trailer park (map).


Welcome to Brazil, Indiana
Welcome to Brazil, Indiana by Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr (cc)

I’m sure if I thought long and hard enough I could figure out a few similarities between Brazil and Indiana. Nonetheless I still found it strange to see a town named Brazil in Indiana (map). It wasn’t a small place either. It had eight thousand residents and served as the seat of local government in Clay County. I wished I could have found a decent explanation. Several sources pointed back to the naming of a local farm in the 1840’s, designated Brazil because the nation had been in the news frequently during the era, supposedly. The town then adopted the name of the nearby farm when it was founded in the 1860’s. I guess I could accept that even though I couldn’t find any solid attribution. I’ve heard of stranger explanations for town names.

High Point?

High Point, Palm Beach Co., Florida

I didn’t know what to make of High Point in Palm Beach County, Florida, except that I wished I’d known about it when I wrote High Level some time ago. What point of High Point was actually high? It’s total elevation barely broached 20 feet (6 metres). It wasn’t even the highest point in Palm Beach, where two separate spots reached pinnacles of 53 feet (16 metres) according to the County Highpointers Association. I realized those two co-highpoints didn’t have magnificent summits either, although 53 feet completely dominated 20 feet. I guess it didn’t matter. High Point and its condominium community were in the process of being annexed by the nearby city of Delray Beach, anyway. The name will probably disappear.

The Year in Geo-Adventures

On December 30, 2015 · 3 Comments

The final article of 2015 felt like an appropriate time to reflect upon my personal geographic sightseeing adventures during the past year. I accomplished a lot in 2015, more than typical, and I recalled my travels fondly. Plus I figured that readership always dropped way off during the slow week between Christmas and New Years so it didn’t really matter what I published. This seemed as good a time as any for a clip show where I could take a little mental break while offering an opportunity to wax nostalgic and share a few favorite photos. All images in this article were my own for once.

Great Allegheny Passage

Mason & Dixon LIne
Mason & Dixon Line

It seemed like ages ago when I climbed atop my bicycle and set off on a 150 mile ride (240 kilometres) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland with a couple of friends. I kept reminding myself that it was only last April. The quest seemed daunting although we spread it over multiple days, and we pedaled a nice, easy pace. The Great Allegheny Passage trail followed rivers for the most part, the Monongahela, Youghiogheny and Casselman, pushing through mountainous valleys and woodlands. The passage also crossed a couple of notable geographic features including the Mason & Dixon Line at the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and the Eastern Continental Divide (photo) where water flowed either to the Atlantic Ocean or to the Gulf of Mexico.

Cape Cod and Nearby

Plymouth Rock
Plymouth Rock

Geo-oddities weren’t a primary objective of my adventures along Cape Cod and Nearby although I supposed the closest object that fit the definition might have been Plymouth Rock. I’ve talked before about its dubious historical claim and its underwhelming presence. Still, it was Plymouth Rock for cryin’ out loud. That counted for something. A large glacial erratic known as Doan Rock (photo), perhaps the largest Ice Age wanderer on Cape Cod, actually impressed me more. The trip wasn’t a total geographic bust by any means. I did manage to snag several new counties including two requiring ferries (Nantucket and Dukes) and I finished the remaining counties in Rhode Island.

Oh, and I also experienced a lot of great stuff that had nothing to do with geography.

Western North Carolina

Mount Mitchell
North Carolina Highpoint

Some journeys seemed to lend themselves better to collecting notable geographic peculiarities. For me, that wonderful confluence of events happened naturally during July’s trip to western North Carolina. I captured two new state highpoints, Mount Mitchell in North Carolina and Clingmans Dome in Tennessee. Neither required anything special beyond minimal "climbing" from parking lots near their respective summits. That was a real bonus for someone of my sluggish tendencies. I also ate lunch at Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant that may or may not have actually straddled three county lines simultaneously (photo).

Yes, of course I realized I strayed across the border into Tennessee so it wasn’t technically a trip dedicated solely to western North Carolina. In my defense, the boundary between the states cut directly through the summit of Clingmans Dome. The mountain was tall enough to be considered Tennessee’s highpoint although not for North Carolina. Mount Mitchell reached 41 feet (12 metres) higher than Clingmans Dome and it was also the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. I needed to visit both of them.

Really? I didn’t actually need to visit both of them, and I probably wouldn’t have if they’d been more troublesome.

Center of the Nation

Center of the Nation
Center of the Nation, north of Belle Fourche, SD

Naturally I’d expected something particularly significant from a Mainly Marathons event named specifically for a geographic feature. The Center of the Nation adventure didn’t disappoint. Indeed, I was able to experience one of the more notable "centers of the nation" in South Dakota which tend to vary depending on how one defined center. I also saw a completely false center established at a more accessible location a few miles away at a park in the town of Belle Fourche (photo) just for good luck. If that weren’t enough I then drove through the nation’s smallest county seat of Amidon, North Dakota (photo) although it had been eclipsed recently by an even smaller county seat in Nebraska.

County Counting

Green Lake County Line
Collecting my final county of 2015

I had a banner year for County Counting in 2015. I don’t recall exactly how many new counties I added and I’m too lazy to figure it out although a quick scan led me to believe it was probably somewhere around fifty. My travels were good enough to bring my lifetime total up to 1,302, or 41.4% of counties in the United States. The final capture of the year happened only a few days ago. I had to get out of the house for a couple of hours while visiting the in-laws in Wisconsin. I actually have great in-laws — that wasn’t the problem — I still needed to wander somewhere after sitting around the house for five days. You know how that goes. I drove just far enough to cross the border into a doughnut hole county that had been tormenting me for several years. Green Lake County, you were mine!

Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael

The final geographic moment actually didn’t happen this year, it happened in 2014 when I visited Ireland. However it made its screen debut in December 2015 so I counted it as an achievement for the current year. We’d traveled to remote Skellig Michael (map), a rocky islet jutting from the sea a few kilometres from the southwestern edge of the Irish mainland. That same spot was visited coincidentally by a filming crew for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens a few weeks later. Skellig Michael appeared in the movie when it was released a year and a half later.

I won’t provide any spoilers for the one or two 12MC readers who may not have seen the movie. However, I will note that Skellig Michael served as the setting for the very final scene at the end of the movie (and will likely appear again at the beginning of its sequel). I marveled at how the crew managed film around thousands of puffins that made the island home because those birds were literally everywhere. Viewers can see scattered puffins flying around on a few shots in the distant background of the movie, and I swear I spotted at least one puffin burrow that the editors somehow missed although I couldn’t be sure. I’ll have to look more carefully the next time I watch it.

12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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