Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Sept. 22 2014 11:15 AM

Avenue of the Baobabs: Madagascar's Magical Upside-Down Trees

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook,Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Along a stretch of the dirt road that leads from Morondava to Belo Tsiribihina in Madagascar stand rows of baobab trees, their stout trunks glowing and fading as the sun passes overhead. This is the Avenue of the Baobabs, one of the more striking spots for appreciating the Adansonia grandidieri species endemic to the island nation.

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Sept. 19 2014 1:10 PM

Ascension Island: Home of Lava Fields, a False Forest, and the World's Worst Golf Course

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook,Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Way out in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, 1000 miles from the nearest continent, is a small island with an extraordinary history. Measuring 34 square miles, Ascension Island boasts jagged lava fields, an artificial forest, a NASA tracking station, a graveyard full of yellow-fevered sailors, and beaches crawling with green sea turtles. And that's just a snippet of the story.

Ascension's documented history begins in the early 16th century, when an armada from Portugal encountered it on their annual supply run to India. There is some dispute as to which year this occurred—the prevailing view is that explorer João da Nova of the Third Armada first saw the island in 1501 and named it Conception Island. Two years later, on May 21, Alfonso de Albuquerque happened upon the land mass and renamed it Ascension Island in recognition of the date: Ascension Day.


Unimpressed by the barren environs, the Portuguese dropped off a few goats to serve as future food for passing ships and continued on to India to load up on spices. Ascension saw little action until 1725, when a Dutch East India Company ship returning from the East Indies dropped off its resident bookkeeper, Leendert Hasenbosch. The former soldier had engaged in sodomy during the voyage, a sin the captain chose to punish using the "abandon the offender on an uninhabited barren island in the middle of the Atlantic" method.

Hasenbosch survived for approximately six months. British sailors making a pit stop at Ascension in 1726 discovered the deceased Dutchman's diary, which revealed the extent of his suffering. Three months into his exile, having run out of water, Hasenbosch wrote that he drank turtle's blood and "some boiled piss mixed with tea; which, though it was so very nauseous, revived me much."

In 1815, the British established a precautionary presence on Ascension. The freshly defeated Napoleon had just been exiled to nearby St. Helena, and the British were concerned that the French might descend upon Ascension as part of an effort to rescue the general. The island was claimed in the name of King George III and outfitted with a garrison of naval officers.

Ascension became a pit stop and supply store for travelers on long sea voyages, particularly the those involved in the West Africa Squadron—the Royal Navy's anti-slavery patrol. Sailors who arrived bearing the tell-tale signs of yellow fever were quarantined at the alarmingly named Comfortless Cove. Some never left the island—the remains of those who succumbed to the disease still lie in small cemeteries surrounding the cove.

In 1836, a 27-year-old Charles Darwin landed at Ascension near the end of his five-year exploratory voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. The volcanic topography made quite the impression on him. "[I]magine smooth conical hills of a bright red color, with their summits generally truncated, rising separately out of a level surface of black rugged lava," Darwin wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle. "To complete the desolate scene, the black rocks on the coast are lashed by a wild and turbulent sea."

Prickly pear, introduced to the island in the mid-19th century.

Photo: Drew Avery/Creative Commons

Darwin's descriptions of Ascension's stark terrain enraptured the English botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker. Eager to see the landscape for himself, Hooker embarked on his own voyage to the island in 1843 and thereafter hatched an ambitious plan: to transform Ascension into a greener, gentler place by shipping in trees from around the world and planting them on the jagged, brown hills.

To procure the plants he needed for his artificial forest, Hooker turned to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, where his father was the director. Between 1847 and 1850, over 300 trees were dispatched from Kew to Ascension Island and planted on the highest peak—optimistically named Green Mountain—with the aim of improving soil and increasing rainfall. Over the next few decades, plants from Kew and the botanic gardens in Cape Town, South Africa, continued to arrive at Ascension. The result was an altered ecosystem. Today, Green Mountain's vegetation is a verdant mish-mash of ginger, pines, bamboo, aloe, banana bushes, and prickly pears. (The rest of the island is still dominated by browns and grays.)   

Barren lava-field terrain in the island's north.

Photo: Drew Avery/Creative Commons

During the 20th century, Ascension functioned primarily as a military outpost. The Americans arrived during World War II to build an airbase, which they used as a stop-off point for planes heading to Europe. Post-war, when the US' focus shifted to the Cold War and the Space Race, NASA established a tracking station on the island that kept tabs on spacecraft and missiles. For an insight into what life was like on the island at that time, have a read of Joe Frasketi's Range Rat page, where former Ascension workers share memories. ("I am confused about the name of the donkey called Rebel," reads one contribution. "He sounds like the same one we called JJ. In addition to hanging around the theater, he used to hang around the NASA site and we would feed him brandy-soaked sweet rolls. He would get drunk and stagger down the road toward the base.")

A young feral donkey, one of many animal species introduced to the island.

Photo: Drew Avery/Creative Commons

NASA's station is no longer operational, but the European Space Agency maintains a tracking station on the island, and the US and British air force bases remain. Around 800 people now live on the British-administered island, but none are permanent residents. In September 2013 the Guardian reported that privatization of government and military services has resulted in fewer jobs, shorter contracts, and a crackdown on the number of family members who can accompany employees to the island.

Cat Hill, the location of the U.S. military base and NASA tracking station.

Photo:JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD/Creative Commons

Despite its remoteness and small population, Ascension does have a tourism industry. The main activities on offer for visitors are fishing, hiking, and golf—the settlement of One Boat boasts a golf course that the Ascension government's own website dubs the worst in the world. The website of Ascension's Obsidian Hotel explains why: "The 'Greens' are called 'browns' and are made of crushed compacted lava smoothed flat with diesel oil."

To visit Ascension, you need to request permission from the government a month in advance and make sure you have comprehensive travel and medical insurance, including medical evacuation coverage. Then it's just a matter of hopping aboard a nine-hour military charter flight from the Brize Norton airforce base northwest of London. Bon voyage.

Passengers disembark at Wideawake Airfield.

Photo:Vincent van Zeijst/Creative Commons

Sept. 17 2014 1:46 PM

A Salute to Defiant Scots on the Eve of Their Possible Secession

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook,Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

With Scotland voting tomorrow on whether to secede from the United Kingdom, images embodying the country's national identity have been hitting American TV. The go-to cultural reference among satirical late-night hosts has been, of course, William Wallace as portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Jon Stewart, a kilt-clad Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver—in a segment inspired by Love Actually—have all included Gibson's blue-striped face in their coverage during the last week. 

With respect to the real William Wallace, who incited Scotland's first War of Independence in 1297, there is another, much more recent example of Scottish defiance that deserves attention. It involves Glasgow, a statue, and a traffic cone.


In front of Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art is a statue of the Duke of Wellington astride a horse. The Duke, born Arthur Wellesley in 1769, was an Anglo-Irish soldier who served as both Commander-in-Chief of the British Army and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Voted as one of the 100 Greatest Britons in a 2002 UK public poll, the Duke is known for his commanding role in defeating the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

None of that matters to some of the more mischievous residents of Glasgow, who, since the 1980s, have taken to placing a bright orange traffic cone on the Duke's head. The origin of the tradition is unclear—there is a chance that alcohol was involved—but the Duke's orange hat proved so popular that a new one would reappear every time city officials removed the last one.

In 2013, the city attempted to quash the conehead malarkey by proposing to raise the statue's plinth to six feet, making it much more difficult for pranksters to reach the Duke's head. The $106,000 proposal outraged the citizens of Glasgow. A petition, signed by over 10,000 supporters, made people's passions clear: "The cone on Wellington's head is an iconic part of Glasgow's heritage, and means far more to the people of Glasgow and to visitors than Wellington himself ever has."

Within two weeks of the plinth-raising application being lodged, the Glasgow City Council cancelled its plans to modify the statue. The Duke and his orange hat live on as a symbol of cheeky Scottish defiance, and shall be looking over Glaswegians as they head to the polls tomorrow.

The statue on a rare cone-free day.

Photo: Seo J Kim/Creative Commons

Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM

The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-Era New York

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on FacebookTumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

September 16 marks the anniversary of a horrific terrorist attack on Manhattan's Financial District. The perpetrators targeted a prominent building that also served as a symbol of American capitalism. But their method of attack was unusual. They did not hijack a plane or use suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their chests. They used a horse-drawn wagon.

The Wall Street bombing, as the event is now known, occured just after noon on Thursday, September 16, 1920. A wagon loaded with a bomb containing dynamite and 500 pounds of small iron weights parked in front of 23 Wall Street. The corner building was then the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co., the nation's most powerful bank. At 12:01 pm, the timer on the bomb reached zero and a terrific explosion rocked the street.


Thirty people—and one horse—died instantly from the blast. Another eight died later from the injuries they sustained. Hundreds were injured, some by shrapnel on the street, others by the glass that rained down from the broken windows of the J.P. Morgan building. The blast was so forceful that, according to a bystander quoted in the New York Times the next day, a trolley carrying passengers two blocks away was "thrown from the tracks by the shock."   

No-one claimed responsibility in the aftermath of the attack, leading many on the scene to conclude that the perpetrators were communist agitators fresh from the Bolshevik Revolution. On September 17, 1920, the Times reported that "both the police and the government investigators were inclined to the theory that Reds had placed a time bomb in the wagon." Russians were the prime suspect in the eyes of John Markle, a wealthy anthracite coal field operator who happened to be at the J.P. Morgan building when the blast occurred. "[T]here is no question in my mind," he told the Times, "that the explosion was caused by Bolsheviki."

Not everyone, however, thought red was the color of guilt. Department of Justice agent Frank Francisco was reluctant to believe J.P. Morgan had been targeted and figured the explosion may have been an accident. The Times quoted him thusly: "If an attempt had been made on the Morgan offices, I believe it would have been made at night, or some radical would have secured a position in the institution and planted an infernal machine inside."

People standing in front of 23 Wall Street in the aftermath of the explosion.

Photo: Bain News Service (Library of Congress)/Public domain

In their haste to reopen the New York Stock Exchange the day after the blast, city officials swept away evidence that may have led to identification of the perpetrators. Despite a three-year investigation, those responsible for the attack have never been officially identified. In 1944, however, the FBI revisited the case and concluded that Italian anarchists were likely behind the plot—the group had conducted a series of bombings across the United States in 1919, which fueled the nation's first Red Scare.

Today, the limestone acade of 23 Wall Street still bears the scars from the shrapnel that blasted into it 94 years ago. These little marks are the only on-site hint of the attack—no signs or plaques commemorate the bombing.

The scarred wall of 23 Wall Street today.

Photo: Ella Morton

Hand-sized pock marks still mar the facade.

Photo: Ella Morton

Sept. 8 2014 12:18 PM

Solving the Great Stink: London's Gorgeous Victorian Sewage Cathedrals

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook,Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

The night men of Victorian London had it rough. Tasked with hauling away "night soil"—human waste—under the cover of darkness, night men ventured into the city's 200,000 cesspits armed with only buckets, rope, and the desire to make money at any cost.

Between midnight and 5 a.m., night men climbed down into the pits of human effluvia, filled their buckets, and hauled the waste into carts. It was dangerous, disgusting work: beyond the appalling stench and hard physical labor, night men risked death by asphyxiation due to the overpowering gases and fumes.

A cartoon by John Leech addressing the Great Stink in the July 3, 1858 issue of the London satire magazine Punch. The three figures emerging from the river represent diphtheria, scropula (a condition involving enlargement of the lymph nodes on the neck), and cholera.

Prior to the installation of the sewer system, London was a city of overflowing cesspits that drained into a putrid Thames. Cholera ran rampant and the air was a miasma of human waste smells, slaughterhouse run-off, and factory emissions.

Conditions were particularly noxious during the summer of 1858, a time known as The Great Stink. The smell of the sewage-filled Thames was so horrid that it affected operations at the Houses of Parliament. A transcript from parliamentary proceedings on June 11, 1858 notes that "Gentlemen sitting in the Committee Rooms and in the Library were utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench which arose from the river." In an attempt to mask the smell, the parliamentary curtains were soaked in chloride of lime. But the distracting odor remained.

The Prince of Wales and a gaggle of gentlemen start the sewer pumps at Crossness Pumping Station in 1865.

Clearly, something had to be done. The solution came in the form of a sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Construction on six intercepting sewers—which diverted waste from the city to a Thames estuary downstream—began in 1859.

Among the most beautiful components of the new sewer system were the pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills. Designed in Byzantine style with hints of Moorish influence, these ornate cathedrals of waste held steam pumps surrounded by red-brick arches, octagonal cupolas, shiny brass handrails, wrought-iron detailing, and elegant "MBW" monograms—for the Metropolitan Board of Works. At Crossness, the steam pumps were named Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward, and Alexandra, after members of the British royal family.

The Crossness and Abbey Mills pumping stations have been superseded by more advanced systems, but the ornate Victorian buildings remain. Crossness station, located on the south bank in the borough of Bexley, has been restored and is available for hire—the official website recommends you consider it as a location for product launches, viral videos, and Shakespearean theater productions. The Abbey Mills pumping station, situated on the north bank near West Ham, is generally closed to the public, but Thames Water occasionally conducts tours as part of city open house programs.   

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the Crossness and Abbey Mills pumping stations.

Abbey Mills Pumping Station, completed in 1868.

Photo: Ian Wright/Creative Commons

The "Prince Consort" steam engine, named after Queen Victoria's husband Albert.

Photo: Steve Cadman/Creative Commons

The octagonal domed ceiling of Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

Photo: Matt Brown/Creative Commons

The C Station Pump House at Abbey Mills.

Photo: Msemmett/Creative Commons

A section of the London sewer at Fleet River near Farringdon.

Photo: Commons

Sept. 5 2014 9:15 AM

The Magnificent Mud Mosque of Mali

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook,Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Last year, the UNESCO-heritage-listed Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali sustained damage to its walls and had to be repaired by members of the community. But that wasn’t cause for concern—it happens every year.

Like hundreds of other buildings in Djenne, the Great Mosque is made of mud. It was built in 1907, but the town's mud architecture dates back to at least the 14th century. To create the buildings, masons pack mud and straw into bricks, allow them to dry in the sun, and stack them to form walls. A layer of mud plastered on top provides a smooth surface and better stability.


Though the buildings are sturdy and often sprawling—the Great Mosque can hold 3,000 worshippers—they are still vulnerable to the elements. Rain, humidity, and temperature changes cause cracks and erosion in the walls. Djenne's mud masons regularly band together and repair the mosque to keep it from falling apart.

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the Great Mosque of Djenne and Mali's mud architecture.



A man walks among the mud buildings of Djenne.

Photo: Juan Manuel Garcia/Creative Commons

Sept. 3 2014 9:03 AM

A Fiery Farewell to Spreepark, Berlin's Beloved Abandoned Theme Park

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Much to the dismay of urban explorers, forest ravers, and kings of carousels with dreams to build German Disneylands, the abandoned Berlin amusement park Spreepark is at the end of its era. Not only does 2014 mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with it the fall of one of Berlin's most beloved former GDR pleasure palaces.

Aug. 29 2014 8:55 AM

Nubians on the Nile: The Other Ancient Pyramids of Northern Africa

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Egypt isn't the only African country with ancient pyramids rising from its sands. In fact, there are more pyramids in one small section of the northern Sudanese desert than there are in the whole of Egypt.

During Egypt's 25th dynasty (760 BC until 656 BC), Meroe, now located in Sudan, was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, ruled by Nubian kings who had conquered Egypt. Often overlooked in the history books, these black pharoahs presided over an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to present-day Khartoum. 


Meroe, a city nestled against the Nile 200 miles north of Khartoum, contained a necropolis for royal burials. As in Egypt, Nubian kings and queens were buried with gold, jewelry, pottery, and, occasionally, pets. Some royals were mummified, while others had their remains burned or buried whole. A sandstone pyramid, steeper and more narrow than the Egyptian variety, was built over each tomb.

In all, about 220 pyramids were built in Meroe, spread across three sites. They remained relatively intact until the 1830s, when Italian treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini smashed the tops off 40 pyramids while searching for gold and jewels. In recent years, a few pyramids have been reconstructed to give travelers a sense of what they used to look like.

You can visit the Meroe pyramids via car ride and camel from Khartoum, but due to ongoing violence in Sudan, the Department of State currently advises against traveling to the country.

View Pyramids of Meroe in a larger map

Aug. 27 2014 1:03 PM

The Battle of the Oranges: Fighting Tyranny With Citrus

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Bad news: you've just missed La Tomatina, the Spanish tomato-throwing festival that takes place on the last Wednesday in August. Good news: there's plenty of time to plan for the Historical Carnival of Ivrea, an Italian festival in February that culminates in three days of relentless citrus-based combat.

During the Battle of the Oranges, the townspeople of Ivrea divide into nine squads, each with its own distinctive uniform. Supplied with crates of oranges, the teams stand in the main square and await the arrival of the enemy: carts full of orange throwers poised to strike. Then, the fruit flies.


An important detail: the people on the carts are decked out in armor, including face-protecting helmets. Those on the street squads are not. It is not uncommon to see people stumbling out of the square with orange-induced injuries, such as black eyes, cuts, and the sting of citric acid in a wound.



The origins of this food fight are a little murky, but the most popular explanation begins with an attempted rape, a vengeful decapitation, and a torched castle. In the Middle Ages—so the story goes—local vile tyrant Marquis Raineri di Biandrate visited a young woman named Violetta on the eve of her wedding, intending to cash in his droit du seigneur.

But Violetta fought back, producing a dagger and lopping off the tyrant's head. When the villagers saw her holding the head aloft toward them in triumph, they took the opportunity to unleash the anger wrought from years of oppression. They stormed the castle, burned it to the ground, and vowed to never submit to tyranny again.

A few centuries pass, yadda yadda yadda, and the throwing of oranges to simulate the defeat of the tyrant becomes a yearly tradition, complete with rules for participants and guidelines for spectators. (Don't throw an orange at a horse; wear a red floppy cap if you don't want to get hit; no strollers.)

The next Battle of the Oranges takes place on the three days preceding Mardi Gras (February 15-17) in Ivrea, just north of Turin.





Aug. 25 2014 12:14 PM

Attack on Kiska: Untouched Relics from a Baffling WWII Battle

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Kiska Island, in the Aleutians far west of Alaska, is not a hospitable place. It's cold. It's topped with a volcano. It's 1,000 miles from medical assistance. No one lives there, and if you are bold enough to visit, you'll be greeted by a shipwreck in its harbor.

Kiska is also the site of a deadly World War II battle in which only one side fought. Here's the story.


In the early hours of June 7, 1942, 1,200 Japanese soldiers stormed the island. They didn't have a lot of overpowering to do: Just 10 Americans were living on the island, operating a weather station. After killing two of the Americans and sending the other eight to Japan as prisoners of war, the Japanese settled into Kiska and stayed for more than a year, carving out tunnels, building machine gun bunkers, and even planting gardens.

With no Americans left on the island, the U.S. Army was not concerned about civilian casualties. Within two weeks of Japanese occupation, the United States launched a series of bombing campaigns on Kiska. A few ships and submarines were destroyed, and Japan lost hundreds of soldiers, but the big attack on the island did not come until Aug. 15, 1943.

The ruins of the Borneo Maru, a Japanese army transport ship damaged by U.S. bombing.

Photo: Brendan Coyle

On that day, almost 35,000 Allied soldiers landed at Kiska ready to overpower the Japanese. As they stormed the beaches, braced for heavy casualties, they noticed something unexpected: No one was fighting back.

After learning that the United States had attacked the Japanese base on nearby Attu Island, Japan ordered its soldiers—which now numbered 5,400—off Kiska. All departed on July 28, 1943—more than two weeks before the Allied soldiers arrived.

Suspicious of the silent plains and abandoned artillery, Allied troops scoured the 107-square-mile island for more than a week. Kiska was beset by heavy fog, and the on-edge soldiers occasionally fired at one another accidentally. Booby traps left by the Japanese caused more casualties. About 100 Allied soldiers ended up dying, either at the hands of a comrade or in encounters with unexploded mines.

The island is still littered with items left by the Japanese as they fled in haste  that day in 1943. But due to its remote location and harsh conditions, Kiska is not a popular stop on World War II relic tours. You're not supposed to set foot on the island unless you are conducting research, and for that you will need permission from the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If the authorities determine that your research is valid, it's just a matter of flying to Anchorage, then getting one of the twice-a-week fights to the island of Adak, then hitching a ride to Kiska on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel. You'll need to bring your own food, water, and anything else you require to while away a summer on a barren island among rare war relics.


Photo: Brendan Coyle

Brendan Coyle, author of the upcoming book Kiska: The Japanese Occupation of an Alaska Island, recently spent a summer on Kiska as a field assistant to a biology professor. The pair was tasked with researching the effects of the Norway rat on the island's indigenous bird populations. (Rats were introduced to Kiska in the 18th century when fishing vessels landed there.)

Though not entirely unexcited by rats and their destructive effects on an island eco-system, Coyle's main aim was to document the mostly untouched relics left by the Japanese. (For that reason, Coyle notes that the biology professor he assisted wishes to remain anonymous. "The national science council partly funds this research," he said, "so he doesn't want to give them the impression he's out there looking for World War II items when he should be looking at birds.")

During his 51 days on Kiska, Coyle photographed rusting guns, crumbling tunnels, gas masks whose tubes coiled like sea snakes in murky puddles, abandoned pairs of split-toe tabi shoes, and bombed-out submarines half-submerged in grass. Between photography and research expeditions, he and the professor spent time in their beachside tent, cooking meals on a propane stove, updating their journals, and being frustrated by frequent storms. (House M.D., screened on a laptop powered by a generator, was the entertainment of choice on bad weather days. There was no Internet.)

Some of Coyle's stunning photos are below. Many more images, and the story of his summer on Kiska, are found in Kiska: The Japanese Occupation of an Alaska Island, to be published in October.


Photo: Brendan Coyle

Split-toe jika-tabi footwear left by Japanese soldiers.

Photo: Brendan Coyle


Photo: Brendan Coyle


Photo: Brendan Coyle


Photo: Brendan Coyle

Japanese ships burning in Kiska Harbor following a U.S. Army bombing in 1942 or 1943.

Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force/Public Domain

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