The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Nature

A South African Spring Break to Remember

The cheetah's unflinching stare bore into my seven-year-old son. It seemed to be assessing him as it would a baby gazelle, already salivating at the prospect of that succulent, white meat. I never knew how much my protective, mother lioness instincts would kick in. But then I'd never seen a cheetah draw a bead on my son.

Cheetahs can run 60 miles an hour, and accelerate from zero to 68 mph in three seconds, faster than a Lamborghini. But they can be out run by a man over time. I know all this because my son, Skyler, was infatuated with cheetahs. This is how we found ourselves at the Ann van Dyk cheetah rehabilitation center outside Pretoria, South Africa. We were on spring break during our year living in Mozambique and knew we needed to design a trip around our seven- and ten-year-old kids. Otherwise, we might strangle each other.

The center's staff had carefully embedded Skyler in the center of the open-sided safari bus saying it was possible, had he been sitting on the edge, that the free-roaming cheetahs could mistake him for a tasty morsel. I didn't doubt they were right. As we left they instructed us, and Skyler in particular, not to make any sudden moves to prevent the cheetahs from springing and hitting their exceptionally light skulls on the chain link fence, and cracking them. We carefully crept away, newly in awe of their predatory power.

Driving our rented van (our claptrap jeep had broken down yet again), through the Karoo Desert to Capetown we found ourselves in Southern California, or that's how it felt after Mozambique. Minimalist, white condos perched over sparkling water, against brilliant blue skies; bouncers manned the doors of neon-lit nightclubs; pizzerias opened onto sun-baked patios and potted palms. In other circumstances, Peter and I would probably have found a spot with a view and settled in, wiling away the morning over coffee, sliding into a tantalizing East Indian lunch, slipping into an evening of wine and tapas until we melted back into bed. And, given a few more days, we'd probably have started working.

Well that was not going to happen; not with kids in need of entertainment. Instead, we took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain and skidded down a vertiginous, 3,500-foot ravine via stone stairs and dirt trails; we waited in interminable lines to plummet down the Ratanga-Junction-amusement-park waterfall in a plastic log and dangle upside down in the open air from a hundred-foot high roller coaster (the previous group of riders had been stuck there for a full five minutes, but our daughter Molly was not about to bail); and we drove twenty-nine miles out the Cape Peninsula to commune with African penguins. This was only the beginning.

Two days later, we found ourselves dangling again, this time more than one hundred feet up in the air from a zip line in Tsitsikamma Park along the Garden Route.

"Mom, you should look down. It's so cool!" Skyler eagerly urged me on. He looked ready to spill out of his oversized harness into the treetops below. But he probably would have thought that was fun!

He didn't seem to realize that if I had looked down, I'd have frozen to my little tree platform, paralyzed, as the others continued zig-zagging trunk to trunk, 1,000 meters down to the coast, dragging a gloved hand for a brake on the cable above so as not to slam into the next tree. Skyler's hands were so small they had to fasten the giant, adult-sized glove around his wrist with a rubber band.

Our next stop, Durban, boasts of an inordinate number of Great White sharks, so many that the city has sunk enormous nets so that people can swim off the beaches. But if that feels too tame, you can be dropped into shark-infested waters in a tiny cage for a heart-pumping, adrenaline-boosting, extra-close-up encounter; a prospect our kids found enchanting. We found it so sketchy we headed to the land-bound uShaka Marine World instead. Luckily, they quickly forgot the allure of shark jaws as they defied gravity, flipping in pulley-rigged harnesses for a few rand a ride.

The choice of our next destination was driven by Peter and me, though still by children's fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings had been one of our favorite childhood series. Hearing Tolkien had grown up near the Drakensberg Mountains, we went in search of the Shire. Sure enough the thatched Zulu huts became round, and the hills started rolling until they rose into the not-so-distant, plenty forbidding mountains of "Mordor." Bedding down for a few nights at Didima Camp in our own thatched hobbit hut, we hiked up into goblin caves and found on their walls not the tracings of goblins but the remarkably clear San people paintings of running animals and spear-toting men from as long as 2,400 years ago.

Two weeks later, we picked up our jeep with its rebuilt engine and putted back over the border into Mozambique, tired but exhilarated. Although I might have liked more coffee houses and wine bars, nine years later that vacation still rates as one of the best. Our kids kept us moving, so that insidious magnet, work, didn't have a chance to suck us back in. And they forced us to be enterprising, to find active things to do. By the end, we felt rejuvenated by the physical activity and had got a real mental break. Thanks kids—for your contagious energy, your eyes-wide wonder, your curiosity about everything. You can design a trip anytime.

Read More

Insect Energy Bars: The Next Paleo Nutrition Craze

The package’s contents were chirping loudly—plaintively, almost—and room­mates Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz, both seniors at Brown University, began to question their plan. But they’d come too far to quit, having ordered the 2,000 crickets from an online pet-food store. That evening, Lewis and Sewitz froze the insects, then toasted them in a 220-degree oven before running them through a Vitamix blender. The process resulted in a half-pound of smooth, antenna-free cricket flour. Lewis and Sewitz then mashed honey and dried fruit into the flour and molded the paste into protein bars, which they brought to their local CrossFit gym. The verdict? The bars, containing about 40 ground-up crickets each, tasted surprisingly good. “Like almond ­butter,” said one tester.

Last May, after graduating, Lewis and Sewitz moved to Brooklyn, New York, where, buoyed by their test run, they launched the cricket-flour food company Exo (short for exoskeleton). This spring they’ll release their first batch of energy bars, with flavors like PB&J, Cashew-Ginger, and Cacao Nut.

Incredible as it might seem, Exo is not the first cricket-based food company. That ­honor goes to Salt Lake City’s Chapul, which began producing its handmade Original Cricket Energy Bar in 2012. (There are now three flavors to choose from: Aztec, Thai, and ­Chaco.) There’s also San Francisco’s Bitty Foods, founded in May 2013, which will release a line of products this summer. It will probably be a while before you see any of these at your local Whole Foods, but at a time when eating bugs has become less than stomach turning, the notion of a high-nutrition bug bar for athletes may just have, well, legs.

Adventurous foodies have been eating insects for some time now. Fried crickets, caterpillars, and larvae have all made it onto the menus of some of the world’s most upscale restaurants, including Santa Monica’s pan-Asian Typhoon. The idea of eating insects got another boost last May when the UN released a report claiming that entomophagy has a “low environmental footprint.” A flurry of media reports followed, including a Sierra Magazine cover story, proclaiming that, “as protein sources go, bugs may be more sustainable than almost anything else in our diets.”

So far, food security and environmental benefits haven’t done much to persuade rank-and-file Americans to eat bugs. But the same hordes of dedicated athletes who adopted the paleo diet, ditching grains and dairy for meat and fruit, could be ripe for it.

“People have been eating insects for eons,” says John Durant, author of The ­Paleo Manifesto, the food bible of many CrossFit devotees. Insect protein, Durant argues, is a natural part of the diet: it’s normal fare for hunter-gatherers all over the world, an excellent source of protein, and a whole food. “It checks all the boxes,” he says.

Indeed, insect meal stacks up well against other superfoods. It has more protein than a wild-caught salmon, with a complete set of amino acids. Cricket flesh has more iron than beef, more calcium than milk, and plenty of the B vitamins absent from vegetable-based protein sources like hemp and soy.

But the real advantage? Surprisingly, the taste. Bug flour is relatively easy to disguise compared with whey and soy powders, so the bars made from it don’t need to contain as much sugar. While standard-issue Power­Bars and Clif Bars contain as much as 26 grams of sugar, Exo bars have as little as 13, and all of them have about the same amount of protein.

The trick, of course, is getting over the ick factor, especially when such intrepid professional eaters as Anthony Bourdain have declared bugs “disgusting.” This is why Exo and other emerging bug-bar brands grind the insects into flour: you get all the nutrition and none of the visual hurdles or textural issues that can trigger a gag reflex.   

“We combine the crickets with almond butter, a little bit of dried fruit, and a touch of honey,” Exo’s Lewis explains, “and it doesn’t taste like crickets at all—whatever crickets taste like.” Bitty Foods founder Megan Miller (full disclosure: she’s also a former editor and writer for Outside) says that she’s more interested in making foods like muffins, crackers, and even cookies, with cricket flour as the base holding the other ingredients together.

Early numbers suggest that consumers are open to the idea. Chapul’s bars are now in more than 70 health-food stores in 15 states, and Exo’s July 2013 Kickstarter campaign reached its $20,000 goal in just three days. The company’s first batch: 20,000 bars.

In the meantime, word-of-mouth anecdotes about cricket energy can only help. When pressed, Lewis will even offer one of his own. After he and Sewitz experimented with their recipe, they signed up for a regional powerlifting meet. Lewis deadlifted 495 pounds, nearly three times his body weight. The slender Sewitz didn't go that heavy but had a similar ratio. Both ended up winning their weight categories. "I would never claim causation, of course," says Lewis. "But you can infer what you like."

Which to Eat: Energy Snacks or Insect Nutrition?

Clif Bar (Apricot)

  • Calories: 230
  • Total fat: 3.5 grams
  • Total carbs: 45 grams
  • Protein: 9 grams
  • Sugars: 23 grams

Main ingredients: Organic brown rice syrup, organic rolled oats, soy rice crisps (soy protein isolate, rice flour, rice starch, barley malt extract), organic roasted soybeans, dried apricots, organic oat fiber, organic milled flaxseed, cane syrup

Probar Performance Energy (Peanut Butter)

  • Calories: 240
  • Total fat: 4 grams
  • Total carbs: 44 grams
  • Protein: 9 grams
  • Sugars: 26 grams

Main ingredients: Dual source energy blend (cane invert syrup, maltodextrin, fructose, dextrose), oat bran, soy protein isolate, peanut butter, rice crisps, brown rice flour

Exo Energy Bar

  • Calories: 290
  • Total fat: 20 grams
  • Total carbs: 27 grams
  • Protein: 10 grams
  • Sugars: 14 grams

Main ingredients: Almonds, dates, coconut, honey, cricket flour, cacao powder

Read More

Can the Colorado River Flow to the Sea?

Last Monday, in the town of San Luis Río Colorado, in the Mexican state of Sonora, hundreds of people gathered below a bridge that spans the dry channel of the Colorado River. The polka-beat of Ranchero music mixed with sound of laughter across the sandy basin. It was a party of all ages and everyone waited for the guest of honor: agua.

Located 23 miles downstream of Morelos Dam—the last dam on the Colorado—San Luis is where the river finally leaves the border behind and journeys into mainland Mexico. From here, the riverbed winds 90 miles to the Sea of Cortez. But for nearly two decades, water has rarely escaped the sealed downstream gates of the dam. Instead, Mexico's entire Colorado River allocation turns west—diverted into a giant, concrete irrigation canal—leaving a river of sand below.

But at 8 a.m. on Sunday, March 23, the red steel gates glided open, releasing the beginning of a 105,392-acre-foot "pulse flow"(an acre foot is roughly a football field one foot deep). This blast of moisture, designed by hydrologists to mimic a natural flood, will last eight weeks with a peak flow cresting today, March 27, until 30. An additional 52,000 acre-feet will be dispersed over a five-year period as a supplemental "base flow" to support sprouting vegetation. All said and done, this gush of liquid gold represents what many thought to be the unfathomable—an international partnership to bring a river back to life.

By Tuesday in San Luis, the party by the bridge had built momentum. The river was late, but no one seemed deterred. Two men in business suits walked the dry riverbed before me. I asked them why they braved the heat here on this sunny afternoon.

"We are here to see the water, of course. Do you know where it is?" they asked in Spanish.

"Arriba. Upstream I think. It should pass here soon, for a bit," I speculate.

"Si, que bien, soon is good but we need to see it here permanently." He smiled and they continued walking the sand, looking upstream.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/rio-colorado_fe.jpg","caption":"The Colorado River near San Luis Río Colorado, Mexico."}%}

By Wednesday afternoon, I returned to see the fiesta had quadrupled. And in the distance, 300 yards above the bridge, I saw why. Like nearly everyone passing by either in vehicles or by foot, I was stopped in my tracks. The agua had finally made its debut. Inch by patient inch, the river moved down its old dusty path toward the San Luis bridge. A sense of giddiness grew with every foot the water advanced. Families picnicked in the backs of trucks and on beach towels beneath shade tents; fireworks popped, kids splashed in the shallows, cowboys danced horses, and ATVs and dune buggies roared about, rooster-tailing sand into the afternoon light.

To see crowds celebrating the return of the river—even briefly—leaves me marveling. When I first started chasing the Colorado, nobody spoke about water in the delta. That was six years ago, when I joined my friend Jon Waterman on a mission to travel the river source to sea. While Jon paddled every inch of the main course, I chased every bend in her path by foot, boat, and plane—anything to get me a unique perspective. For me it was personal. My family, like many, depends on the river's flow to irrigate the hay crops on our cattle ranch upstream in central Colorado. I was curious to see firsthand what became of our irrigation water downstream; would it reach the sea?

For six million years, the river did, annually flooding its delta. That cycle, however, diminished starting in the 1960s and then stopped completely in the late 1990s. The growing demand for water across seven U.S. and two Mexican states finally surpassed the river's over-allocated and drought-stricken supply. Today the Colorado is the lifeline for 36 million people and over four million acres of farmland. Without the Colorado, the West and most of the nation's salad bowl wouldn't exist.

This week's rare flow is just a test to solve the decades-long issue of water shortage on the river. In 2012, after years of uphill work, officials agreed on an addendum, known as Minute 319, to the original U.S.-Mexican water treaty of 1944. The agreement states that the United States and Mexico will share water surpluses and shortages until the end of 2017. It also mandates the experimental release of what it calls "water for the environment," in a deal brokered by a coalition of NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, The Sonoran Institute, and the Mexican conservation group Pronatura.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/new-colorad-river_in.jpg","caption":"Kids playing on a moving beach in San Luis Río Colorado, Mexico, Mexico."}%}

Don't worry, California. The flow isn't coming from your water budget. Technically, it's made up of surplus Mexican water from previous years, which has been banked in Lake Mead (providing additional benefits like helping Vegas' drinking supply). And in the grand scheme, the water allocation is puny—less than one percent of the river's average annual flow.

For some, there is a concern that this flow will prove to be more symbolic than a true fix. Fred Philips, a habitat-restoration expert based in Yuma, Arizona, is moved that this section of river, "the most forgotten in the world," is getting attention. For months, Phillips and scientists from Pronatura and the Sonoran Institute have been scurrying around the chapped delta, wedging saplings and planting seeds, holding their breaths to see if the vegetation recovers and if some of the delta's 300,000 migrating birds return.

But Phillips worries that the hype will die with this week's pulse–leaving many people's hopes to dry up with the delta again. "They should use the minimum amount of water for the photo op," he says, "and the maximum amount for habitat restoration."

No matter what happens downstream, there is no denying one thing. Enthusiasm on both sides of the border is rising along with the water.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/colorado-delta-parched_in.jpg","caption":"The Delta downstream—dry but patiently waiting for water."}%}

Yesterday I visited Morelos Dam. Most of the dam's gates were flung wide open like windows, and a giant lazy lake stretched downstream. In six years of visiting here, I've never seen anything but a trickle of seepage flowing downstream. Five years ago, when Jon and I paddled that trickle, we made it only a few miles before we were marooned in a pit of frothy muck and garbage—forced to hoof the last 100 miles of delta shouldering our rafts and packs.

Tomorrow, Outside contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen and I will join a band of river biologists and restoration experts to see if we can actually paddle to the sea. It will be my third attempt. This time, I'm hopeful the crest of this historic pulse will float us across the delta. Walking is out of the question.

Peter McBride and Jonathan Waterman vividly showcase the Colorado River in The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict.

Read More

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Outside GOOur hottest adventure-travel tips and trips. Sent occasionally.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Subscribe
to Outside
Save Over
70%

Magazine Cover

iPad Outside+ App Access Now Included!

Categories

Authors

Advertisement

$ad.smallDesc

$ad.smallDesc

$ad.smallDesc

Previous Posts

2014

2013

2012

Blog Roll

Current Issue Outside Magazine

Subscribe and get a great deal! Two free Buyer's Guides plus a free GoLite Sport Bottle. Monthly delivery of Outside—your ultimate resource for today's active lifestyle. All that and big savings!

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Gear of the Day The latest products, reviews, and editors' picks. Coming soon.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Ask a Question

Our gear experts await your outdoor-gear-related questions. Go ahead, ask them anything.

* We might edit your question for length or clarity. If it's not about gear, we'll just ignore it.