Published: August/September 2009 First In: Field Notes
Go Green: Higher Power
A kitesurfing genius aims to solve the energy crisis.

When inventor Saul Griffith arrived at MIT in 1999, he encountered a problem no other Ph.D. student faced. Where to kitesurf? “Without other options, I became the first person to kitesurf on the Charles River,” says Griffith, 35. “And, yes, it was just as terrible as you’d imagine.” Now he’s tackling a slightly bigger issue: the global energy crisis. The folks at Google have kicked in $15 million to his clean-energy company, Makani Power, and the MacArthur Foundation tapped him in 2007 for a prestigious $500,000 “genius” fellowship. His hobby, it seems, has paid off. Griffith and his colleagues at Makani are now developing huge, wing-shaped kites to harness the energy of high-altitude air—which is much stronger and more consistent than the ground-flow breezes that traditional windmill-based turbines rely on. The concept is simple: The yo-yo effect of the kite being pulled in and out by the wind churns a turbine and creates energy. But for every advance, Griffith says, he’s realized there’s a drawback. “Now whenever the wind blows, I have to go test our technology—and not go kiting.”

THE BRUSH (Altitude: 60'): American Charles F. Brush was the first to design an automatic wind turbine, in 1887. The giant cedar contraption powered his 17-room mansion for 20 years.

THE WINDMILL (Altitude: 262'):Indiana’s Fowler Ridge I, one of the largest wind farms in the U.S., operates 222 turbines, each of which produces enough energy to power some 365 households.

THE KITE (Altitude: 4,100'): In 2007 Dutch scientists debuted a kite capable of powering five homes. But soon they plan to test this “Laddermill,” which they say could power 50 houses.

THE MAKANI (Altitude: 31,680'):Makani has kept its design under wraps, but Griffith says the kites could fly six miles high and produce enough energy for 100,000 homes.—Andrea Minarcek

Illustration by David Pohl
Discoveries
Auto Pilots

Earlier this summer, National Geographic/Waitt grantee Albert Lin loaded up some horses and struck out for an uncharted region of Mongolia. Among his supplies: a month’s provisions, warm sleeping bags, and two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Once reserved for top-secret military operations, UAVs are opening new frontiers for scientists and explorers. Lin, who is searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan, used his UAVs to survey a thousand square miles with infrared cameras. The digital images will reveal variations in ground heat signals, possibly indicating Khan’s burial site. “We just program in a flight path and wait for it to come back,” he says. “If we want to fly manually, there’s a live streaming camera on the front of the bird.”

According to Gene Robinson, founder of RP Flight Systems, civilian applications for UAVs include search and rescue, border patrol, and wildfire fighting. The craft, some lighter than four pounds and with wingspans as small as one foot, can be fitted with any number of cameras and sensors and programmed to look for almost anything. “At a demo in Mexico,” says Robinson, “we caught a kidnapping and a cop taking a payoff.” —Cliff Ransom

Photograph courtesy of Revo
Gear Crush
Flex Rise, Revo, $300

Founded by a NASA engineer in 1985, Revo has long been known for its high-tech shades. Then along came Oakley. In 2007 Revo’s parent company bought the king of sport-lens technology, and the brands swapped secrets. The result? One fine pair of glasses: the Flex Rise. With a single layer of material (vs. the standard three), its impact-resistant polarized lenses are superclear, and its Bio-Titanium frames are so light you’ll forget they’re on your face ( revo.com).

Map by Joyce Pendola
Where Next
The Northwest Passage Opens Up

First, it was the impossible dream of navigators like Captain Cook. Then, the province of icebreakers. Now the Northwest Passage embarks on its third phase: slightly chilly cruising destination.

“It used to be, looking at the ice charts, this wasn’t something we could reasonably get through,” says Clayton Andersen, marketing director for Adventure Canada, which has been sending tourists to the high Arctic for 20 years. However, the last three summers have seen sea ice at record lows in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, prompting the veteran polar outfitter to launch its first Northwest Passage voyage on August 21.

For decades, only those outfitters with the strongest ice ships have been able to lead tourists successfully through the Arctic Archipelago. The fact that regular ice-strengthened vessels can now access the region cuts trip costs by thousands and doubles the number of opportunities to see it: In addition to Adventure Canada, Quark Expeditions and Cruise North Expeditions will also send out ships this season.

And what is it, exactly, that you’ll see? Mostly brown hills and fog, with a few bird cliffs and Inuit villages scattered in between. “The landscape isn’t as scenic as you’ll find in other parts of the Arctic, and the wildlife isn’t as abundant,” says Jill Dickens, of Cruise North Expeditions. “It’s really the history that’s driving our bookings. Here’s a region that has been virtually impassable throughout the ages—so many famous explorers have tried and failed and perished. And now it’s possible.” —Catharine Livingston

Photograph by Nicholas Parfitt/Getty Images
Brace for Impact
Is Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater about to hit bottom?

If Noah’s ark had off-loaded into a massive version of Yankee Stadium, the result would have looked a lot like the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. The 102-square-mile caldera corrals great herds of zebras and gazelles and all of Africa’s Big Five. But recently, Tanzania’s chief tourist draw has started to buckle under the pressures of fame. “In the 1970s, when the crater was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, there were three or four vehicles inside it on any given day,” says Craig Sholley, a vice president of the African Wildlife Foundation. “Now it’s out of control.” During peak season some 300 4x4s descend 2,000 feet into the crater daily. The local population has also skyrocketed. Today 64,000 people, many of them subsistence farmers, live within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area—double what the ecosystem can support, according to the African Conservation Foundation. Earlier this year, the Tanzanian government sent a team of legislators to meet with area officials, tourism stakeholders, and community representatives to discuss solutions. But whether they decide to relocate villagers or limit the annual number of tourists, the clock is ticking. UNESCO has stated that Ngorongoro may be relabeled a World Heritage site in danger, unless the destructive trends of overdevelopment and human encroachment are reversed. In the meantime, some tour operators have taken matters into their own hands. “We need to dramatically cut back on the number of tourist vehicles going into the crater,” says Mark Thornton, a Tanzania-based safari outfitter who now encourages his clients to stay in one of the spectacular lodges on the crater rim but to avoid going down in. “The 5,700-square-mile Serengeti, which borders Ngorongoro, offers a lot more space and wildlife to see,” he says. “The crater needs time to heal.” —Costas Christ

Illustration by Aaron Ashley
Achtung!
Follow that German!

No matter what corners of the globe you’ve reached before any of your friends, you’ve likely found one thing there upon arrival: Germans. Somehow, they manage to get everywhere first. Since August is Europe’s biggest vacation month, we checked in with Hauser Exkursionen in Munich to find out where Volk are going this year—so that we know where to book for 2011.

NAMIBIA: Alternative safari destination for those who've done the South Africa-Zambia circuit.

LIBYA: Former Qaddafi citadel now open to lovers of wind sand, and stars. Especially sand.

ARMENIA: Mini mountainous nation is current bragging-rights champ among Deutschlanders. You heard it here first!—Caroline Hirsch

Photograph by Aaron Huey
The Click ‘N’ Save Duo
Nat Geo filmmakers plot to open viewers’ minds—and wallet

Despite a do-good vibe and a lack of focus on designer shoes and dating, last year’s debut season of Sol Guy and Josh Thome’s reality series 4REAL was a surprise hit for the National Geographic Channel. Broadcast in 166 countries (and on the CW network in the U.S.), the program connected celebrities like Mos Def, Cameron Diaz, and Eva Mendes with young leaders in developing nations. With season two in the works, you’d think the duo would be cashing in. And they are, sort of. The newly upgraded 4real.com site “lets visitors flow marketing dollars to all the causes we introduced them to on the show, Thome says. “They can help ignite grassroots change just by clicking the links.” 4REAL subjects have included a Brazilian rapper whose hits empower local favela youth, and a survivor of Liberia’s civil war who now runs orphanages for former child soldiers. Guy and Thome aren’t exactly straight from The Hills, either. They grew up together in remotest British Columbia without electricity. Guy went on to become one of hip hop’s biggest producers (Lauryn Hill, OutKast, The Roots), while Thome received the Sierra Club President’s award for his environmental work. And now? “We finally found the right platform to really help the causes we care about,” Thome says. —Andrea Minarcek

Book 'Em
META, EVEN BETTER

Fan of kayak.com? You’re in luck. These days, new metasearch engines for travel—which scan hundreds of sites to bring you the best deals—are popping up all the time. Here’s a look at our three favorite rookies.

1. Voyij.com: The most comprehensive deal-finder yet: Enter your starting point and dates of travel, then hit “Find Sales.” Up comes a list of cheap flights, hotels, and packages.

+BEST FEATURE: Need inspiration? The “Featured Experiences” tool kicks off the search by theme (“fishing,” “outdoors”), then guides you to the most relevant bargains from there.
+DOWNSIDE: Only covers North America and Europe. Stay tuned for Asia and Africa next year.
+ADVENTURE RATING: 4 Stars


2. Bing.com/travel: Microsoft’s much buzzed about foray into the metasearch world covers the basics well (hotel and flight searches), with useful extras like Farecast’s price-predicting system and topical travel blogs.

+BEST FEATURE: The “Hotel Rate Indicator” compares current prices with past rates to see if your chosen digs are indeed offering a good discount.
+DOWNSIDE: The “Destinations” tool only pulls up hotels for a given area. We’d like to see local highlights and activities too.
+ADVENTURE RATING: 3 Stars


3. Optifly.com: The first flight-search tool to scan more than 200 low-cost carriers (think JetBlue for foreign countries) in addition to major airlines, letting you build the cheapest itinerary, period.

+BEST FEATURE: Synchronizes with Google Maps to help you visualize your route—and avoid out-of-the-way connections.
+DOWNSIDE: The destinations could include more teeny-but-key airports (we found Kathmandu, but no Telluride).
+ADVENTURE RATING: 3 Stars —Catharine Livingston

Photograph by Joshua Scott
The Good Stuff
Real Pilsner

Roman Halbhuber, bearded and six foot three, strode out to greet me as I drove through a pine branch gateway, past a flag sporting a flying horse with a beer keg torso. “Welcome to Free Land of the Vogelsang,” he said, and handed me a cold Budvar.

I had motored to Ranch Vogelsang, a trekkers’ lodge in the Czech Republic near Šmava National Park, after a tour of the Budweiser Budvar brewery. The American beer Budweiser was named after the world-famous style perfected here, in Bohemia’s vast expanse of rolling hills, verdant pine forests, and soaring church steeples. But until very recently, that was about as close as Americans could get to the Czech original. Now craft brewers like Lagunitas in California and Stoudt’s in Pennsylvania are creating fine examples of pilsner—golden, bitter, clean-tasting beer that has been “lagered,” or cold-stored, for smoothness. Considered the hardest beer in the world to perfect, it can take a lifetime to hone the beer’s color, effervescence, balance, smoothness, and crispness. Bohemians have had since 1842 to get it right. And here, every other town (and at least one trekker’s lodge) boasts a local brewery, each with its own flavorful hops.

That night, while Halbhuber and I cooked up a batch of home-brewed pilsner, he explained his vision for the lodge. Vogelsang, he said, would someday be its own, independent country, a nation dedicated to “good friends, good times, and good beer.” He’d even printed up money and fashioned a passport stamp. So as I worried about what U.S. Customs officials would think of my trip to Vogelsang, Halbhuber raised his glass and toasted the first (but certainly not the last) American to visit. Na zdraví! —Christian DeBenedetti

How to Get There: Ĉeské Budějovice, home of Budweiser Budvar, is an easy three-hour train trip from Prague. Vogelsang lodge and saloon, on the German border, has its own mini-brewery (a converted chapel) and sits alongside hiking-friendly Šumava National Park (from $27; vogelsang.cz). Stateside, Whole Foods carries all manner of good pivo (beer), including Lagunitas Czech Style Pilsner, Stoudt’s Pils, and Czechvar—Budvar’s court-enforced alias in the U.S. ( czechvar.com).