The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed

The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Can You Name the Original Capitals of These States?

Why Alaska is Home to America's Easternmost Point

Semisopochnoi Island, top right, is the easternmost point of the United States.
Semisopochnoi Island, top right, is the easternmost point of the United States.
Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon (NASA Earth Observatory) using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey, via Wikimedia Commons. // Public Domain

In the contiguous United States, the farthest east anyone can travel without tripping into the ocean is the lighthouse at West Quoddy Head, Maine (coordinates: 44.815ºN 66.951ºW). But this beautiful spot at the northeastern tip of the Pine Tree State is not actually the easternmost point of the United States. That designation belongs, curiously, to a state that is considered part of America's west—Alaska.

While most of the United States is firmly planted in the globe's western hemisphere, America happens to possess plenty of islands and territories on the eastern half of the planet: Saipan, Guam, and Wake Island to name a few. All of these Pacific islands sit on the other side of the 180th meridian, which separates the eastern hemisphere from west, and are technically east of the mainland United States.

(Guam, an American territory with more than 150,000 American citizens, likes to boast about its eastern location, billing itself as the place where "America's Day Begins"—though, technically, that distinction goes to Wake Island. Located on the opposite side of the International Date Line, Guam sees sunrise 15 hours before New York City.)

Yet Guam (coordinates: 13.444°N, 144.793°E) is not the easternmost point of the United States either. That honor resides with an uninhabited Aleutian Island called Semisopochnoi.

Translated from Russian, Semisopochnoi means "having seven hills." It sits about 10 miles from the 180th meridian, making it America's most eastern piece of real estate in the eastern hemisphere (coordinates: 51.960°N, 179.772°E). "In other words," Ken Jennings writes for CN Traveler, "Semisopochnoi and the dozen or so Aleutian islands lying beyond it are so far west that they're actually east!" Of those, Semisopochnoi is the closest to the 180th degree longitude.

Today, this volcanic island in Alaska is home to millions of seabirds, mainly a penguin-like critter called the auklet. It's also heavily monitored by volcanologists, "likely due to its location under prominent trans-Pacific flight route," WIRED reports.

And the pedantic geography fun facts don't stop there! Since the Aleutian Islands cross the 180th meridian, they happen to contain the easternmost and westernmost spots in the United States: the latter honor belongs to the small island of Amatignak (coordinates: 51.270°N, 179.119°W), which is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

All told, the distance between the easternmost and westernmost points in the United States is just 71 miles.

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