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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been to Florida many times and always considered it to be incredibly flat. It was one of the flattest of all states with a mean elevation of only 100 feet (30 metres) — edged out only by much smaller Delaware — and definitely represented the smallest elevation span within its borders, extending from sea level to only 345 ft (105 m). Nonetheless it seemed to display some pride in what little elevation it had, puffing it up like it was much more spectacular that the actual situation deserved.
I’ll begin with that most diminutive state highpoint, Britton Hill (map). I know many Twelve Mile Circle readers have experienced Britton Hill in person although I’ve not been fortunate enough to have that opportunity yet. It was my kind of highpoint though, one that any "climber" could conquer easily by automobile, and accessible from an adjacent parking lot collocated in Lakewood Park. Some states with considerably more remarkable highpoint summits did less to mark their magic spots so congratulations to Florida for making an effort to recognize it puny promontory. The mountaineering website Summit Post did its best to keep a straight face and craft a justification to stop by for a visit.
Some may ask why anyone would want to travel to this remote area and walk in the relatively flat Florida panhandle forest. Britton Hill certainly does not provide the best Florida has to offer, but highpointing takes you places you would never think of going – like a unique tour of America that few get to experience.
In truth, nobody would consider this as a particularly remarkable place, much less stop to visit, if it wasn’t a state highpoint. Nonetheless someday I’ll strap on my crampons, prepare my ropes and tame the mighty summit of Britton Hill. Yes, I’m fairly certain that even I could accomplish that.
Britton Hill didn’t actually start my train of thought on this subject. Rather, it was the ridiculously named Highlands County, Florida. I’d been to the Highlands of Scotland a couple of times and it certainly bore little resemblance to anything in Florida. I felt it was more than a bit presumptuous to attach Highlands to a state know for its flatness, and yet there it appeared. Highlands became a county in 1921 and several sources stated emphatically that it was due to the surrounding terrain. Yet its highest elevation never exceeded 210 ft. (64 m.) in several spots so how much variation could there be?
A fascinating facility known as the the Archbold Biological Station held the several highpoints within its 5,200 acre (21 km2) natural preserve (map) so it was easily accessible to county highpointers. The research institute was created in 1941 by Richard Archbold after his original research in New Guinea had to be curtailed at the outbreak of the second world war. His Florida station was positioned at the headwaters of the Everglades in a distinctive habitat known as the Florida Scrub. They’ve done some great fieldwork there over the years.
Hillsborough County — which includes the city of Tampa — contained an inordinate amount of formally designated Highlands. In fact, fully half of Florida’s populated Highlands listed in the Geographic Names Information System fell within the confines of Hillsborough. I wondered if it might actually be hilly. It was named HILLSborough, after all. It turned out to have nothing to do with the terrain, having been named for the Earl of Hillsborough "who served as British Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1768 to 1772." I found it odd that this happened in 1834, a long time after American independence, adding more to the mystery.
Curiously, not only did Hillsborough lack any meaningful hills, it had an indeterminate highpoint even though the climbing site Peakbagger attempted to affix one (map) at an elevation of approximately 160 ft. (49 m.). The County Highpointers Association basically threw its hands into the air declaring, "This is a mess. The entire area has been strip-mined for phosphates."
Given that, why did Hillsborough have Auburn Highlands, Claonia Highlands, Hiawatha Highlands, Hickory Highlands, Highlands Oaks, Hillsborough Highlands, Mill Highlands, River Highlands, Sidney Highlands, Stephen Foster Highlands, Temple Highlands, Terrace Highlands, Valrico Highlands, West Highlands, and Wilma Highlands? I can only guess that local developers simply had a penchant for using the term independent of its actual meaning. Maybe it simply sounded good.
The second day-trip loop from Asheville plowed nearly due west onto the domain of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, and then continued into Great Smoky Mountains National Park for another easy U.S. state highpoint capture. I guess it was actually more of an out-and-back although one could cut the corner just a bit on the return trip with a brief yet scenic jaunt down the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We rolled through pleasant countryside along serpentine roads, over hills and dipped into hollows as we followed U.S. Route 19 into the town of Cherokee. Something completely out of place loomed suddenly from the valley floor, not a mountain, rather a massive multi-story building with a huge parking garage. It was a resort hotel casino (map). I doubt there was a taller building anywhere closer than an hour away in Asheville. Here it stood probably fifteen stories high, an urban structure without a downtown.
I’m not a gambler so I never felt any temptation to answer its call. To me the most fascinating feature was the casino’s complete lack of context with all that surrounded it, like a giant middle finger to those who had mistreated the tribe since Europeans first landed on the continent and pushed into the mountains. North Carolina didn’t want casino gambling? Those laws didn’t apply here. I hope the Eastern Band makes a ton of money from their venture given how much they’ve been treated for the last couple of centuries… just not my money.
Oconaluftee Islands Park
We’d been eating out a lot and visiting multiple brewpubs so we decided to do something a little bit different, a picnic lunch outdoors. I’d wondered if that might be possible as I examined Street View the previous day. The main strip seemed pretty touristy. Then I noticed a little green spot (map) while poking through online map sites and identified Oconaluftee Islands Park. That was just what we needed, a little oasis of nature and solitude surrounded on all sides by water, accessible only by footbridges. Children splashed and rode inflatable tubes down a lazy river, ducks and geese floated by, the wind rustled through a bamboo forest, and we enjoyed our respite at a shady picnic pavilion. The price was right too: FREE.
The town of Cherokee served as the headquarters of the Eastern Band. Members of the nation were descendants of a small residual group of Cherokee that remained in North Carolina in the early 1800’s. They avoided the infamous Trail of Tears, however not without their own hardships. They were forced to renounce or hide their own culture for much of the Nineteenth Century, and spent the next hundred-plus years trying to revive it, a process that continues today. They also had to repurchase the land that rightfully belonged to them.
In North Carolina, those Cherokees who escaped removal either through a North Carolina provision called the Reservation Act of 1819 or by evading the United States Army remained behind in a land less state. By law, Native Americans were neither citizens of the United States nor the state where they resided therefore none could hold property… This ambiguous status continued until after the Civil War when the Cherokee question surfaced again. After several years of legal wrangling, the Cherokee formed a corporation. As a business, the Cherokee could hold the land and the land, which was to become known as the Qualla Boundary again, was in Cherokee control.
The entire history of the Cherokee people was explained in detail at the well-done Museum of the Cherokee Indian (map). It was a large facility and it took quite awhile to see everything in the level of detail it deserved. That took us longer than expected. Other sites nearby included the Qualla Arts & Crafts Center and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. I’d wanted to see both of those and we simply ran short on time. Most visitors would probably want to spend at least an entire day in Cherokee. We didn’t have that option because I had an important geo-oddity that required my attention.
We’d reached the summit of North Carolina’s elevation highpoint the previous day. Now it was time to do the same thing for Tennessee at Clingmans Dome, (map), with an elevation of 6,643 feet (2,025 metres). I know what readers are thinking — this is supposed to be an article about western North Carolina, not Tennessee. If it makes anyone feel better, the Tennessee highpoint fell directly upon the boundary between the two states. The Clingmans Dome summit also served as the highpoint for Swain County, North Carolina. That could be used as a justification to maintain the sanctity of the article title. We were only ever a few feet across the border into Tennessee and only momentarily.
I expected this to be another easy highpoint directly within my lazy mountaineering ethos. It was crowded! I knew we were in trouble when I saw cars parked along the access road more than a half-mile away from the official parking lot. Clingmans Dome (map) fell within the confines of Great Smokey Mountains National Park which had 10 million visitors in 2014, making it one of the most popular properties in the entire National Parks system. It was summer. We arrive at the middle of the day. What else should we expect?
Proving the adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good, a parking space opened up directly in front of us, practically the best spot in the entire lot. Clearly a higher power wanted me to visit the highpoint, or more likely didn’t want to hear our kids whine because we were going to the spot even if we had to park all the way down the road and walk the extra distance by golly. I didn’t drive all the way out to a remote mountain and up to the top to turn around and head home. From there we trekked from parking lot to summit along with a few hundred of our new best friends, looped to the viewing platform and jostled through the crowds searching for the horizon. I much preferred the experience of North Carolina’s highpoint the previous day, shooing away swarms of insects instead of people. The Tennessee highpoint would be best appreciated during the off-season.