Select African Superlatives

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.

Almost Landlocked

Trivia. Trick questions. Fun Stuff. I love a good, lazy Sunday.

Landlocked, double landlocked, borderlocking and boundary crosses have occupied my thoughts at various moments over the years. What about places though that are not landlocked, but just barely? We all have our favorite territories that touch the sea by the thinnest of margins. Which ones would be the best representations?

It’s pointless to search for "Shortest Coastline." This will result in thousands of geographic trivia websites that all steal from each other. Precious little thought goes into any of these sites. They’re decorated with cleverly or not-so-cleverly disguised advertisements hoping to snag the occasional inadvertent click from some sucker who’s been tricked into landing there. Content doesn’t matter to them except to the extent they can fool search engines into pointing at their pages.

They will all say that Monaco is the answer. They’re correct in a sense. Monaco does have the shortest international coastline at about 4.4 kilometres. However Monaco is practically nothing but coastline. There probably isn’t a spot in the entire principality that’s more than a kilometre from a coastline. Throw a rock anywhere within Monaco and stands a good chance of hitting water.

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Monaco can be cleanly and clearly discarded when discussing countries nearly landlocked. It’s the typical situation of people overlooking exceptions when asked geo-trivia questions. It’s part of the fun.

Other sites bend-and-stretch "landlocked" into wincing definitions. Moldova, for example, includes a half-kilometre riverbank along the Danube River within its territory. This grants them access to the Danube international waterway and presumably access to the outside world’s shipping channels. Rivers aren’t generally considered international waterways but the Danube is a specific exception. I can see why some might argue that Moldova isn’t technically landlocked. By the same definition, however, neither are Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia. This claim seems a bit tenuous to me.

Let’s put the poseurs aside and take a closer look at the more remarkable contenders. Let’s examine the ratio of each nation’s territorial coverage to the length of its coastline. Estimates for coastlines vary. Should one measure the best fitting straight-line distance across the gap or would it be more appropriate to measure every nook-and-cranny? I decided to use a single consistent source for all areas and coastlines, the CIA World Factbook, which seems to follow coastal contours more faithfully than some other sources I consulted. Feel free to take it up with the CIA if you disagree.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

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I believe a solid argument can be crafted to crown the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the country formerly known as Zaire) as the premier example of a nation almost landlocked. This hulking nation weighs in at 2.34 million square kilometres with a paltry coastline of 37 km.

The ratio: 63.3 thousand sq km of territory per kilometre of coastline. Hey Monaco, chew on that for awhile!


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Iraq’s small outlet includes the strategic Al-Faw Peninsula. Iraq probably uses its tiny coast better than any other nearly landlocked nation. They’ve located two oil tanker terminals, Khor Al-Amaya and Mina Al-Bakr in close proximity and use their perch to control access to the Shatt al-Arab Waterway and the port of Basra. That’s quite a lot of economic activity focused on a 58 km coastline.

The ratio: 7.6 thousand square kilometres of territory per kilometre of coastline.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Bosnia and Herzegovina has a shorter coastline than either DR Congo or Iraq — just 20 km — but it’s also considerably smaller so the ratio suffers as a result. Its brief coastline along the Adriatic Sea centers on the tourist town of Neum. This strip served as an elite communist retreat during the days of the former Yugoslavia. Now its a tiny nub protruding from larger Bosnia and Herzegovina serving only to grant it an outlet to the sea.

The ratio: 2.6 thousand square kilometres of territory per kilometre of coastline.

Ratios drop quickly from there. Here are few more interesting situations that I examined.

  • Togo and Benin [map]. Togo and Benin both have respectable ratios. I like this one because they border each other. They get the coveted "Nearly landlocked binary nations award." Ratios = 1.0 thousand and 0.9 thousand respectively
  • Slovenia [map]. I thought this was going to be a real contender but it’s tripped up by its jagged coastline that the CIA measures at 47km. Ratio = 0.4 thousand.
  • The Gambia [map]. It has a short 80 km coastline but it’s also a really skinny country so the ratio doesn’t work for it. Ratio = 0.1 thousand
  • New Hampshire [map]. OK, it’s an individual U.S. state not a nation but it’s a common example a lot of people in the United States mention. Ratio = 0.8 thousand. That’s respectable but hardly remarkable. Of course New Hampshire makes sure it collects a toll from everyone who crosses its tiny coastal corridor along Interstate 95.
  • Monaco. Ridiculous. Ratio = 0.00045 thousand (or 2 sq km area to 4.4 km coastline). If I’ve done my math correctly then Monaco would need a coastline of about 3 millimetres to have a similar ratio to D.R. Congo.

Do you have any other favorites? Maybe states/provinces within specific nations?

Unusual Geography of the Republic of The Gambia

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I don’t believe I’ve focused on the geography of an entire country before, but The Gambia is simply too interesting to not focus some attention on it. First, notice its remarkable shape. It’s long and narrow like a snake as it winds its way along the banks of the Gambia River. Much of the country is floodplain flanked by low hills. It extends some 338 kilometers (210 miles) east to west, but never more than 47 kilometers (29 miles) north to south, with a maximum elevation of only 53 meters. Next, consider its size. The Gambia is barely a speck on the African map and is indeed the smallest country on the continent at only 11,300 square kilometres (4,361 square miles). As a size comparison for those familiar with United States geography, The Gambia is slightly less than twice the size of Delaware according to The World Fact Book from the Central Intelligence Agency, or less than half the size of Maryland, according to the Background Note from the U.S. Department of State. For those of you unfamiliar with those comparisons, simply note that The Gambia is really quite small.

Finally, the Gambia shares a border with only one other country. It’s nearly an enclave of Senegal which surrounds The Gambia on every side except for an 80 kilometer Atlantic coastline on its western side. A map of Senegal looks quite odd with the long ribbon of land that forms The Gambia protruding more than halfway through its lower left flank.

Divisions of The Gambia
The Gambia is divided into five divisions and a city, it’s national capital, Banjul. Many of their names remind one of its geographic placement along the Gambia River: Upper River; Central River; Lower River; North Bank; Western and the city of Banjul. These in turn are divided into 37 districts. One of these, Janjanbureh (formerly Georgetown) which is the capital of the Central River Division, rests on McCarthy Island completely surrounded by the Gambia River.Its unusual shape traced back to colonialism, and the manner in which much of Africa was divided among European powers. Rivers were strategic trade routes into the African interior where roads did not or could not exist. England gained control of the Gambia River through the purchase of trading rights from Antonio, Prior of Crato, the claimant to the Portuguese throne in 1588, and later by patent letters from Queen Elizabeth I and a charter from King James I to a British trading company. The surrounding area of Senegal was controlled by the French, and the two came to agreement on The Gambia’s current boundaries in 1889. As colonialism began to wane it was only natural that the areas controlled by the English and the French would form into countries independently and so The Gambia, with its unusual shape, evolved towards nationhood on a different path than Senegal.

Source: Wikipedia Image:TheGambia Divisions.png under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version