The Lion Mountains


The mountain range known as the Lion Mountains, whose highest point is Picket Hill at just under 3,000 feet, is located on the Atlantic coast entirely within what nation?


This trivia question stumped me.

The Atlantic Coast is the first clue. That info restricts our answer to North America, South America, Europe, and Africa. If the name of the range and the hill are not translated, then, our second potential entry might point us to English-speaking nations. That’s a big assumption, but one we can follow.

I have never heard of the Lion Mountains, so I figured the answer was not the United States or Canada. Then I jumped to South America. The eastern portions of that continent are not exactly known for their mountains. Further, nearly everything there is named in Portuguese or Spanish, with a smattering of Dutch, French, and  English exceptions in the Suriname-Guyana-French Guiana region. South America seemed wrong.

The European nations on the Atlantic are limited. In my travels to Ireland, I never encountered Lion Mountains, so that choice hit the trash bin. England? Lion Mountains again did not seem correct, but the nickname of the national football team is The Three Lions, after the crest they wear on kits, which stems from the emblem of King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart. I’ve never heard of a Picket Hill in England; it’s certainly not the highest point in England. But the question doesn’t say it’s the highest point in the country, just the range! OK, England doesn’t seem accurate, but let’s file it as a possibility.

The football crest of the national team of England

France, Spain, and Portugal all seem wrong. Gibraltar? English, but I don’t think it’s big enough for a range. Iceland? I seriously doubt anything on that isolated spit would be named Picket Hill.

Onto Africa. I nearly discounted the entirety of the African coast because of the dominance of French and Portuguese colonization. But then I recalled the British influence in the northeastern portion of the continent, which doesn’t help us at all because it’s not on the Atlantic, and the southern part of the landmass. South Africa! Could that be it?

It still didn’t quite seem right. English is abundant there, but so is Afrikaans and various indigenous nomenclature. Still, my knowledge of the mountains of southern Africa is not all that extensive. Perhaps the Lion Mountains were hiding there.

My educated guesses were England or South Africa. I simply didn’t believe I would never have heard of the Lion Mountains somewhere in the United Kingdom. So, I decided to throw a dart at South Africa.

In the end, I should have realized the key to the answer went through Humprey Bogart!

I should have thought of Bogey
The colonial jigsaw of Africa - image by Somebody500

The map above shows the way European countries had carved Africa into their own colonial jigsaw puzzle. While I was largely correct in my viewpoint of England’s reach – southern and northeastern – there were a few spots I missed. Running through the countries in British West Africa, none seemed likely to yield the correct answer to the trivial query. The names and cultural influences of these nations just didn’t seem to fit. That assumption just goes to show my ignorance, however!

The still of Humphrey Bogart comes from one of his most famous films. Somewhat ironically, his most well-known picture, Casablanca, is set in Africa, but Morocco is not the answer to our question. Instead, we need the one which takes place in Mexico. The trick to the question lies in the mishmash of etymology.

Bogart’s film in question is 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The keyword there is “sierra.” As in, the Sierra Nevada, California’s wonderful mountain range, or your favorite soda, Sierra Mist, or the Sierra Club. Sierra is Spanish for “jagged mountain range” or “saw,” which evolved from the Latin word for saw, serra (think “serrated”). The Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental are two major ranges in Mexico.

Perhaps you’ve pieced together the puzzle now or maybe you knew it before reading this meandering screed.

The Lion Mountains - photo by Erik Cleves

The trick was an African nation with English influence that doesn’t sound at all English.

Sierra Leone!

Of course, literally Lion Mountains. After seeing the answer, it seems obvious, but that’s what makes it a great trivia question.

The Lion Mountains line the coast of Sierra Leone. The first Europeans to view this range were the Portuguese, who called them Serra Leoa. The reason behind the name is seemingly lost to antiquity. Some claim early explorers thought they appeared leonine; others believe they heard lions in the distance; another idea stems from thunder in the mountains sounding like roars. Whatever the cause, the name stuck. Years later, an Italian explorer rendered the name in his mother tongue (via Spanish) for a mapmaker and Sierra Leone stuck.

The Lion Mountains from the beach - image by Nick Ledger
The view from Picket Hill - photo from VisitSierraLeone

The Lion Mountains stretch just 20 miles near the capital of Freetown. They are, however, some of the only high terrains in this region of Africa’s coast, so they would have easily impressed the early maritime adventurers. Picket Hill rises 2,913 feet above the ocean. Though it is not Sierra Leone’s highest point, – that designation goes to Mount Bintumani in the inland at 6,381 feet – it offers a striking view of the surrounding lowlands.

Although I might have pieced together the answer to the trivia question if I had gone country-by-country through a map, I greatly overlooked the complex amalgamations caused by humanity’s desire to colonize. An African location with English names, whose modern name comes to us through Italian and Spanish. When it comes to the backgrounds of the world, you know what happens when you assume: you might be wrong!

Further Reading and Exploration

The Real Meaning Behind Sierra Leone’s Beautiful Name – Culture Trip

Sierra Leone – World Factbook

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – IMDB

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