I received an email message from 12MC reader Andrew a few days ago. He said that he and a friend have been playing a game using Google Maps. The rules are simple: try to find the longest possible Google Maps route by providing only a starting and an ending point. Both points have to be place names, not lat/long coordinates. Also, results have to be the default Google routing (no fair adjusting the route manually by pulling it onto other roads to create artificial extensions).
The best example they’ve uncovered is Agulhas, South Africa to Pusat Serenti Pengerang, Malaysia. Here is the default route that Google suggests:
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This is an amazing distance of 30,160 kilometres (18,741 miles) that should take 17 days and 7 hours if undertaken as a continuous journey and everything goes perfectly. I’ll ignore the obvious obstacles posed by Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan for someone of my nationality. Sudan and Myanmar probably wouldn’t be a picnic either.
I played around with this but I couldn’t improve upon the result. The best alternative I generated was Agulhas, South Africa to Magadan, Russia (route map) at "only" 29,619 km (18,404 mi).
The northern tip of North America to the southern tip of South America might seem to like a legitimate candidate using the famous Pan American Highway. However, as odd as this might sound and even after more than a century of automobile road building efforts, the grids of the two continents do not connect. This is known as the Darién Gap. Roads simply do not penetrate this 160 km (99 mi) stretch of swampland and rainforest in Panama’s Darién Province. Nor is the distance likely to to be bridged anytime soon. There are serious environmental concerns within this unspoiled region. Road projects have been proposed in the past and they’ve all been rejected. Sure, a few expeditions on motorcycles and four-wheel drive vehicles have penetrated the gap. However, an average sane motorist would never attempt to recreate it.
I’m assuming that Andrew & friend have already picked-over the most likely alternatives. Nonetheless, go ahead and give it a shot and see if you can improve upon it.
I think South Africa to Malaysia is a perfectly legitimate route although some might quibble with step 245, "Take the Algier, AL to Marseille, FR ferry…" I’ll always take a ferry if I can find an opportunity. Nonetheless, let’s take this as an opportunity to try a variation on this game. What is the longest route Google suggests that remains completely upon existing road surface without resorting to a ferry?
The best I could do was Agulhas, South Africa to Aswan, Egypt.
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Google suggest 17,661 km (10,974 mi) in an unusual reverse question-mark shape. The funny thing with this one is that there appears to be a route through Sudan along the seacoast that bypasses the loop through the Sahara. Nonetheless, that’s how Google routes it by default and that’s the result I’ll report. The other fascinating feature is that I can’t get anything to route through Israel. Ask Google to take one from Agulhas, South Africa to Amman, Jordan and it will return a message that says, "We could not calculate directions…"
The best non-ferry route I could find for Eurasia was Brest, France to Pusat Serenti Pengerang, Malaysia at 15,196 km (9,442 mi) (route map). For North America it was Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the previously-mentioned Darién Gap at 11,849 km (7,363 mi). I didn’t find much in South America. Google Maps still doesn’t provide very comprehensive routing down there.
There are plenty of other variations one could attempt. The longest route I found for the United States was Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Key West, Florida at 8,827 km (5,485 mi) (route map), albeit much of the path goes through Canada. Theoretically one can complete that journey in 4 days 15 hours. For Canada, how about Inuvik, NT to Labrador City, NL (route map) at 8,087 km (5,025 mi)? — although that does includes a ferry.
I’ll leave this game for now with one more example, the longest road distance I could find from my hometown.
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Google suggest 7,485 km (4,651 mi) between Washington, DC and Prudhoe Bay.
Go ahead and have some fun with this and be sure to post your map links or embedded images in the comments. Thank you Andrew for the great suggestion! I’ve had a lot of fun with this over the last few days.
It all started innocently enough as a challenge from loyal reader "Matthias" who pondered various geo-oddities surrounding the northernmost reach of Google Street View. I was up for a mental adventure after having been trapped in my home for several days due to snow.(1) Unbeknownst to Matthias however, Google Street View updated their imagery overnight in the very few hours between his issuance of the challenge and my acceptance. Thus, I will present this article in two parts: the first (today) with the current northernmost view and later (in a few days) the previous contender. Both have a number of fascinating aspects.
The Northernmost Street View as of February 12, 2010
I think I’ll play it safe and provide this qualifier with the date because it will change eventually. Currently the northernmost Street View image extends to 70.242777 degrees north latitude in the North Slope Borough of Alaska.
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This spot is located as far north as vehicles can travel on the Dalton Highway before reaching a restricted checkpoint at the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. The amount of industrial activity strikes me. Take a moment to swing the image around in a 360 degree arc and notice the amount of equipment spread about the terrain. Ponder for a moment that we’re located on the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean, 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle and only 1,200 miles (1,900 km) from the North Pole.
All this activity exists solely because of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield which underlies the land, the largest such deposit in North America. Nothing short of a precious resource in great quantities could account for such a massive human presence on this scale in an inhospitable and unforgiving environment. Conditions are so harsh and relentless that oil companies construct many of their rigs with self-contained enclosures to protect equipment and workers from the elements. Prefabricated sections form habitable Camp Rigs that can be disassembled and transported to new drill sites as required. Construction takes place during the winter months when soil layers harden sufficiently above the permafrost.
Deadhorse (website) is the unusually-named town that provisions the Prudhoe Bay oil field. It’s only four miles away from the northernmost view. I thought for a moment that Deadhorse was a rather unfortunate moniker but it seems to fit within the rugged terrain and the demanding tasks of the oilfield workers. Deadhorse is testosterone city and it may be the most male-slanted population on the planet. Maybe 99 percent of the people here are men. A place like this almost demands a tough name like Deadhorse if only to scare away the weak-hearted.
It’s not much of a "town" in the traditional sense as far as I could tell as I traveled its streets vicariously through the internet. You won’t find single-family homes adorning residential streets lined with shade trees here. Few people reside in Deadhorse permanently so that’s not a necessity. Rather, it seemed to be all warehouses and 18-wheelers and arctic tundra. This is a transients’ town with a couple of thousand burly roughnecks rotating in-and-out for shifts lasting two or three weeks at a time. Even the strongest men can take only so much of the relentless cycle of working, sleeping and eating at a stretch before they need to return home.
It’s also a "dry" town, which is probably intended to keep the workers from drinking themselves to death in the tedium. That right there would be enough to keep me away except for a short visit . So why would anyone subject himself to these extreme working conditions? Simply put, the compensation is phenomenal in this remote Arctic boomtown. Like $1,000 a day.
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It’s an oilfield town but tourists can visit. There are actually a couple of different lodging options. The Prudhoe Bay Hotel offers amenities such as a restaurant, car rentals and internet access, which are all features one would expect of hotels in much larger towns. Here it’s downright remarkable given the remote location. However, in addition to rooms for tourists, the hotel also offers an odd geographic twist: dormitory-style space available for oilfield workers (or adventurous tourists I suppose). There’s another hotel in town, the Arctic Caribou Inn which seems to have positioned itself similarly. I’d love it if one of the guests of either hotel ever found this website and posted a comment from the hotel (leaving a nice Deadhorse, Alaska marker on my Google Analytics map!). Hint. Hint.
I suppose the Prudhoe Bay Hotel is technically an airport hotel since it’s directly across the road from the Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse Airport. Bear in mind that Alaska Airlines offers regularly-scheduled nonstop flights from Anchorage before you scoff at the notion. This is a real airport with actual commercial airline flights. You could fly here if you wanted to see an actual oilfield, or maybe observe some local wildlife or dip your toe in the Arctic Ocean.
Here’s a 2006 article on Deadhorse from the Daily Mail if you want a more colorful description of the town.
Civilization all but disappears further south. The Dalton Highway extends down to Fairbanks along more than 400 miles of unpaved roadway through unspoiled scenery. Drivers will pass only two towns between the endpoints, Coldfoot and Wiseman, with only a handful of residents each.
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This is such an arduous trek that it may be the only time I’ve seen the Google Street View cars traveling in tandem. Notice in this image that the other car is also equipped for Street View filming. I suppose they considered it either too unsafe to travel alone or too remote to make a return trip due to equipment failure. Either way they travel together and I’ve observed the tandem in some of the Deadhorse images so it’s not a fluke.
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Everything here comes back to oil. Deadhorse exists because of the oilfield. Similarly, the Dalton Highway exists because of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which transports oil from Prudhoe Bay all the way down to Valdez on Alaska’s southern coastline, "the northernmost ice-free port in North America." It’s one of the longest pipeline systems in the world — 800 miles — and it has transported more than 15 billion barrels since its startup in 1977.
From there they pump oil into tanker ships. That’s 19,000 tanker loads so far, and counting.
(1) We’re Number 1. Washington, DC set a snowfall record for any winter since recordkeeping began more than a hundred and twenty five years ago with 55.9 inches as of February 10, 2010. The old record had stood since the winter of 1898/1899. I told my family that I’d be really, really angry if we didn’t hit some kind of record given the horrible winter we’ve experienced so far. I’ve been feeling a little like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Fortunately that crisis has been averted now that we’re in the record books.