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The trials of trivia: David Whitley

If you’re going to market yourself to geography trivia anoraks, then at least have the decency to get facts right…

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Foaming rage was coursing through my veins. Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte is the capital of Sri Lanka, not Colombo. And if I’m going to go to the effort of learning to spell it properly, then I fully expect the quizmaster to do his research properly and not hide behind the coward’s excuse of “I’ve got to accept what’s written on the card.”

Such unbecoming fury is the dark side of a pathetic love for geography trivia. I blame my parents for this — the easiest way to shut me up as a kid was let me bury my head in an atlas. Consequently, I knew every capital city and could identify every flag by the age of eight. If ever there is a case of being a winner and a loser at the same time, this is it.

Over time this has gotten somewhat out of hand, to the point where I’m unhealthily obsessed with geographic oddities. Such as knowing Monaco has the world’s shortest coastline. Or that there’s not only a border between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and France (it’s on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten/Saint-Martin), but also a hotel that straddles that border.

It’s the kind of affliction that leads to me continually shouting “Sao Tome and Principe” at the telly while watching Pointless, and frittering my life away trying to name the 20 most populous German cities on Sporcle.com

It also means that when I have the chance to visit one of the subjects of these pieces of futile trivia, I become disproportionately excited. Hence giddily standing either side of the Greenwich Meridian, gurning by a sign marking the Tropic of Capricorn and going on an absurd detour to a Samoan beach because it’s the first one after the International Date Line.

The key redeeming factor in all these gleeful odysseys has been the presence of other people doing exactly the same thing. Rest assured, there’s an unstoppable army of geography geeks out there, intent on conquering every river source, most easterly point and continental plate boundary. If you want a photo of yourself at the point where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet, or one of the many Equatorial monuments, then you’re probably going to have to join an orderly queue.

This obsession was how I ended up doing a quiz on a cruise ship, getting angry about the capital of Sri Lanka. The ship wasn’t just going to the Norwegian fjords — it was going to the North Cape, the most northerly point of Europe.

Such ships have plenty of evening entertainment options, but most fit into the washed-up comedian or greatest hits of musical theatre mould, like the entire programme’s on day release from a 1970s TV prison.

For anyone who regards that as purgatory rather than pleasure, relief comes in the form of either heavy drinking or running around from quiz to quiz. Tackle it with military precision, and you can end up doing four a night, gleefully whiling away the hours by scribbling down Winter Olympic host cities and Irish counties.

After days of this (and, it must be said, some of the most extraordinary coastal scenery imaginable), the ship docks at Honningsvåg — the gateway to the North Cape. It’s on the island of Magerøya, which instantly makes me think something’s wrong. If we’re counting islands, surely Svalbard way to the north has Europe’s most northerly point? Still, I’m prepared to let it go.

The bus to the North Cape lurches through mountainous tundra, reindeer staring all the way, before arriving at a spiffy looking visitor centre. Then there’s a cliff staring out over the Barents Sea, and I stand as close to the edge as I can safely manage.

I scan the panorama, smugly satisfied at reaching the top of Europe. Just birds, sea and… WHAT? To the west, just a couple of kilometres away from the North Cape, is the finger-like Knivskjellodden peninsula. The angered spluttering starts immediately. “But it’s clearly sticking out further north than the North Cape,” I protest to anyone who’ll listen. “Why would they do that? Why would you build a visitor centre at what’s clearly not the most northerly point when everyone can see the real most northerly point from there? It’s like pretending a bollard next to the Eiffel Tower is the real Eiffel Tower.”

Fellow passengers edge away like I’m crazy. Colombo apologists, the lot of them.

Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)