Many years ago I had an acquaintance who was an accomplished magician. I got to see him practice various magic ticks as he perfected his craft and of course I learned the secrets behind many of the illusions as a result. The human brain likes to believe what it thinks it sees. The trick often reveals itself as one moves to an angle not normally available to the audience. I never tired of the illusions even when I understood the mechanics. If anything, I became more enthralled with the amount of practice, skill and timing necessary to make all of the moving parts come together in a convincing manner.
I think of "gravity hills" much the same way, with Mother Nature substituting as the magician. Gravity hills go by many names — magnetic hills, mystery spots, ghost roads, electric hills and so on — and they all describe the same basic phenomenon. It’s an optical illusion where a slight downhill appears to be an uphill. The topography, horizon, road cut, floral growth, and angle of pathway all conspire to fool the eye.
Many people ascribe gravity hills to supernatural explanations. Why they jump reflexively to an ethereal cause as their first resort is for someone else to determine. I’m simply an observer who notes that a quick Internet search will reveal countless gullible people willing to take the phenomenon too literally. There’s some weird magnetic or electrical force at work in their opinion, or a disgruntled ghost associated with some improbably legend, an alien or extraterrestrial vortex to to a different dimension, or any number of strange, devious or evil explanations. The truth is rather more mundane.
One often sees individual gravity hills described as rare or even unique. Actually, there are many such places identified worldwide. Some of them are easier to perceive than others, and of course those are the ones that become word-of-mouth or even literal tourist attractions. There are any number of lists and collections one can consult to experience a gravity hill nearby. Minor ones exist everywhere, though. I often experience the feeling of driving slightly uphill even when I know the road is completely flat as I move through long, open stretches of lightly-traveled highway. I’m not sure if I have a propensity for spotting such things or whether this is common to everyone.
Let’s take a look at a few examples, bearing in mind that Google may or may not capture the phenomenon adequately. I’ll limit myself to one instance per country so please don’t take offense if I don’t happen to mention your personal favorite. Feel free to post a link or Street View image in the comments if you like.
"Brae" is a Scottish term for a hillside. "Electric" comes from a time when people didn’t quite understand electrical forces and considered that to be a possible explanation. This gravity hill became somewhat of a local attraction. Authorities posted a stone marker to help people locate the brae and better understand the phenomenon: "Whilest there is this slope of 1 in 86 upwards from the bend at the Glen, the configuration of the land on either side of the road provides an optical illusion making it look as if the slope is going the other way. Therefore, a stationary car on the road with the brakes off will appear to move slowly uphill."
The marker can be observed on the left side of this Street View image.
Does a gravity hills operate in the opposite direction Down Under? No, that’s my poor attempt at humor. The phenomenon appears exactly the same way as it would in the Northern Hemisphere.
The International Directory of Magnetic Hills, Gravity Hills, Mystery Hills and Magnetic Mountains says, that for the gravity hill outside of Moonbi: "With caution, position your car at a point nearest the southbound lane and put your car in neutral, take your foot off the brake and you will experience the thrill of your car not only climbing the hill by itself, but gaining speed as it goes. Look out for other traffic and make sure you stop before your car rolls on to the northbound lane."
Australia’s New England Highway splits into northbound and southbound lanes in a mountainous area about five kilometres north of Moonbi. The phenomenon occurs on an access road that connects the two sides of the split highway and allows traffic from both directions to divert to an observation deck at Moonbi Lookout.
The Street View image does appear to go slightly uphill. I guess.
One needs to travel to North America to realize the true potential of a local geographic oddity: roadside attraction as money-making opportunity. I say that lovingly. I’ll alter my path in a heartbeat when I know something unusual can be found nearby, and Magnetic Hill in Moncton is but a stone’s throw from the Trans-Canada Highway. Oh yes, I’ll be stopping here if I’m ever in the area.
Those crafty citizens of Moncton purchased Magnetic Hill and diverted the highway around it. The city owns it. They’ve used it as an anchor for an ever-expanding universe of tourist attractions: zoo, water park, golf course, replica fishing village, shops and restaurants that practically overshadow the phenomenon itself.
However it’s hard to beat the Canadian’s neighbors to the south when it comes to cheezy over-the-top tourist traps. New Brunswick’s Magnetic Hill seems positively high-class compared to some of its counterparts in the United States, to wit:
Again, don’t get me wrong, I define cheezy as "good."
Nonetheless, I’ll focus on a free, easily-accessible gravity hill. I could have chosen literally hundreds of examples in the U.S. but I’ve chosen Spook Hill because it has a level of local government recognition and support. They’re proud enough of their gravity hill that they’ve named the local school accordingly. Check out Spook Hill Elementary School with its Casper the Friendly Ghost logo.
Spook Hill received a flurry of coverage after the Wall Street Journal featured it in a 1990 article (often referenced, unfortunately I couldn’t find an online link to it). It also has nice coverage in Roadside Americana. One simply needs to park a car at the sign on the right side of the Street View image, put it into neutral, and let gravity take its natural course. It’s dispelled the same way any gravity hill can be debunked. As SunCam explained, "We took a carpenter’s level to Spook Hill and discovered that what was ‘up’ was really ‘down.’ The lay of the terrain around Spook Hill is responsible for the illusion. If you approach the hill from the opposite direction and survey the surroundings you can clearly see how the illusion works. In conclusion, cars do not roll up hill; they are actually rolling down hill."
Like any good magic trick however, knowing the secret doesn’t have to spoil the fun.
I had an interesting exchange of email messages with reader "New Taste" recently about a corner of Australia where Queensland and New South Wales hit the Coral Sea. The discussion had been triggered by one of my earlier articles I called "What Crosses an Airport Runway?." A surprising number of unexpected things cross an airport runway I should note as I did back in May 2010, but the single item of interest for this purpose happened to be the Gold Coast Airport. The Queensland – New South Wales border bisects a runway there.
Our reader drew my attention to a spot a little farther along the border, just outside of the airport grounds to the east, and was kind enough to create a map:
These are two small gated communities, The Grove and Ocean Breeze. By now some readers might be saying "so what" but savvy long-time followers of the Twelve Mile Circle are no doubt exclaiming, "Wow! — practical exclaves!" A practical exlave isn’t truly an exclave because it’s physically connected to the rest of its associated geographic unit. However, as a general rule, a visitor wouldn’t access a practical exclave from within the unit. I discussed some examples in Andorra recently that might help explain this better.
In this instance, both gated communities are part of Tweed Heads, NSW. However, they can be accessed only from Coolangatta, QLD. Certainly someone with enough determination could drive down Ourimbah Road and hop the fence on the backside of the communities and never leave New South Wales. But is that a practical thing to do? Would security guards employed by these gated communities take issue with that? That’s what I mean by a practical exclave. It’s not really an exclave but it behaves like one in ordinary circumstances. If you were lucky enough to live within the geo-oddities communities of The Grove and Ocean Breeze, the only way you could access your home or exit to the rest of the world in a legal manner would be through Queensland, even though you happened to a resident of New South Wales.
I wished I lived in a geo-oddity. I’d probably pay extra for that privilege. Well I kind-of live in a minor geo-oddity ("smallest self-governing county in the United States") but it’s not a very impressive one. I’d rather be in a practical exlave or better.
I spotted another area immediately west of the gated communities, the property adjacent to Gold Coast Airport. It’s Border Park Raceway, a greyhound track. This turns out to be another practical exclave. According to their website, "Tweed heads Coursing Club operates from Border Park which is situated on QLD and NSW border. The Border Park complex operates greyhound racing and a betting auditorium in a family friendly environment." The 2011 Galaxy Winner was Pretty Malaika and in 2010 Big Bunga. That last sentence was totally unnecessary except to say Big Bunga.
Usually when a business such as this locates directly along a border it means the laws are friendlier on their side of the line and they are attempting to attract residents from the other. Are gambling laws in New South Wales more relaxed than Queensland, or is Border Park Raceway’s unusual location a coincidence? I don’t know but I certainly did appreciate the border sign at the park’s entrance when I peeked at it in Google Street View.
That’s all fine and wonderful but I found something even more fascinating. I thought there could be a third NSW practical exclave where the state border intersects the Coral Sea.
My vicarious email guide helped me sort through this. First, it should be noted that the border as drawn on Google Maps isn’t entirely correct. We’ve seen that before so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The true border goes down the median between the two sides of Boundary Street as shown by a large border marker.
Queensland is on the left and New South Wales is on the right.
This is where the situation becomes very special, perhaps unique, meaning I didn’t bother looking for any other occurrences: the curious case of a semi-practical exclave. One can exit the community while remaining in NSW (a reminder for North American readers that drivers stay to the left in Australia) BUT the only way to return to the community is via Queensland. Thus, it’s a practical exclave going in one direction but not in the other. A semi-practical exclave!
You can confirm the situation on the land and property maps page on the Tweed Shire Council site since Google gets the border wrong.
I’d like to throw one final oddity into the mix. New South Wales observes daylight saving time while Queensland does not. Imagine all of the repeated time changes as one travels from these practical and semi-practical areas during the summer. I’m sure nobody actually changes their clocks as that happens so perhaps this creates a practical time zone? It’s all too amusing.
Thank you "New Taste." I’ve had a lot of fun with this one.
I went on a brief roadtrip last Autumn, an experience I described in more detail in my Adventures along Maryland I-70/68. I mentioned a massive road cut at Sideling Hill. I couldn’t find a reason to highlight another feature, a runaway truck ramp just west of the cut as one descends descends the hill at great speed. I had enough material for the article so I saved it for another day.
You’ve probably seen these ramps too: odd, stubby stretches of roadway designed to halt trucks in their tracks should brakes fail while descending scary road grades. They exist all over the world with a similar purpose although under different names. Runaway truck ramp; truck arrester bed; safety ramp; escape bays, escape ramps and other variations influenced by engineering techniques or geography. Let’s see one in action during a 2009 test conducted by Canada’s Ministry of Transportation on Highway 11 in North Bay, Ontario. This one comes courtesy of YouTube. It’s all rather self-explanatory.
Few people probably realize that there are several different types. Auto Evolution describes four of them: A gravity escape ramp forces a truck uphill so gravity can slow it down. Arrester material ramps feature a thick gravel layer or some similar material causing friction as a truck passes. Sand pile ramps work in a similar manner. Arrester barriers act somewhat like arresting wires on an aircraft carrier as trucks barrel through a series of cable nets. Designs can be mixed-and-matched. The one I saw in western Maryland combined a gravity ramp with sand piles.
Runaway truck ramps have become a common roadway feature in mountainous areas. They also come in handy more than I imagined. Car and Driver explains,
By 1990, there were reportedly 170 runaway ramps in 27 (mostly western) states. Current data is scarce, but a 1981 NHTSA study notes there had been 2450 runaway-truck incidents that year, with 2150 of those involving the use of ramps… [a study described] the stopping inertia as “strong but absent the jarring impact of other crashes.” Vehicle damage was confined to lower engine accessories and air tanks.
Does this stretch of highway look familiar? It should. I found the exact place along Highway 11 in North Bay featured in the video. The most difficult part of today’s article was finding runaway truck ramps on Street View. They aren’t labeled and I had to search areal imagery in painful detail before drilling down. I’m actually pretty proud of myself for finding this one.
This ramp definitely has cable nets and possibly gravel judging by the dust kicked-up as the truck makes its approach in the video.
I already mentioned the example in Maryland. This particular version can be found just outside of Vail, Colorado along Interstate 70. Notice how it would force a truck uphill so gravity could slow it down. It also appears to use a thick bed of gravel. It’s hard to tell.
I managed to find an Australian example in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Here signage along the Great Western Highway declares it a "Safety Ramp." Once again, gravity and gravel are combined to force a stop. I’d be a bit wary of the large stone outcrop on the right. The ramp seems a little narrow to me. Imagine barreling down a mountain in a tractor-trailer without brakes and having to angle for that slot. I’d categorize that as a good example of threading-the-needle.
12MC reader "Thomas" in Scotland challenged me to find more Scottish material for my articles. Thomas, I searched satellite imagery all over the Highlands for a solid half-hour trying to uncover a runaway truck ramp for you, and I failed. Send me a map link if you’ve seen one.
The United Kingdom was difficult and not because of the issue of Truck vs. Lorry. Search engines dealt with that distinction without a problem. I did finally find one as I was about to give up on the UK entirely. It’s in Wales along the A4119 as one approaches Tonypandy in the county borough of Rhondda Cynon Taf. In this instance the descent doesn’t last very long but there’s a vicious roundabout at the bottom. I’d hate to consider the devastation that would ensue should a lorry plow into the circle at full speed, and I guess the road engineers in Tonypandy felt the same way.
I know runaway truck ramps exist in other countries but I don’t know what they’re called in their native languages. It’s hard enough with all the different English variations. What might this piece of road engineering be in German or Russian or Portuguese? A search engine isn’t much use if one can’t plug-in the proper term and, as I mentioned, they are exceedingly difficult to spot from satellite imagery.
Please post your favorite runaway truck ramps along with map links or embedded Street View images in the comments. Readers posting examples found in non-English speaking countries get double bonus points.
Good times were had by all at the American Meridian Happy Hour on Tuesday. Our county counter extraordinaire is on the left (he said it was OK to post this). I’m on the right. Can you tell it was a LONG day at work? I’ll let other attendees self identify if they wish. We swapped all sorts of travel adventures involving geo-oddities. Thanks guys! — I wish the rest of the 12MC audience lived close enough to attend. Where else can one find people who totally understand why I once took my family miles out of the way to see the 45X90 Spot?