I thought I’d stick with the theme of head torches for the moment as I know the subject is dear to your heart. And I’ve had a lot of them. This is actually my 2nd Tikka XP; the first was one of those many lost ones that I mentioned last month, and now resides in a mountain hut in the Groot Winterhoek mountains in South Africa, if it is still alive. They’re pretty resilient units as long as the batteries don’t leak through misuse and kill the thing dead. You want to watch that, by the way. Always remove the batteries for storage or you’ll be one sad torchless waster.
As soon as I got to Australia I replaced it; that was seven years ago and my second Tikka XP is still going strong. Well actually, not so strong. Currently I use it strapped backwards on my bike helmet with the red LED flashing when I ride home from work in winter. Not a proud boast for the twilight years of any portable lighting device (except, of course, a bike helmet light) but unfortunately what was once considered a super powerful light output is now considered pathetically weak.
Giving the evil eye to following motorists
As I mentioned last month, the leap from luminescent bulbs to LEDs was a revolutionary step in lighting and the first Tikka XP was a whopping 40 lumens of brightness. At least it felt whopping at the time. Nowadays any head torch advertising a 40 lumen output would be laughed off the market until it ran home to cry under the bed. My current XP is, I think, 60 or 80 lumens, and that is why it has been relegated to rear-facing bike duty. The newest generation XP boasts (at current attitudes) a barnstorming 180 lumens of output, plenty enough to go, say ... tubing down river rapids at night in the highlands of Guatemala. Try that with my old XP and the only thing you’d be illuminating would be your own bloated corpse.
Tubing at night – now there’s an activity for which you’d require an excellent head light. Or not, if you’re a couple of rambunctious young travellers with a greater sense of adventure than of security. In August 2001 I arrived at a town called Lanquin, two days ride on chicken buses from anywhere, and in the local campsite I bumped into Mucki, one of the original non-warmdüscher crew that I’d met weeks before in Nicaragua. Delighted at our serendipity, we rallied all the nearby travellers for an expedition to Las Grutas de Lanquin, a little-explored cave system nearby which disgorged millions of bats every evening at dusk.
The gates closed before sunset but we clambered over and up to the small cave mouth where we waited expectantly. We weren’t disappointed. From ones and twos the flow of tiny bats swelled to hundreds per second flying out from the darkness, swerving unerringly past the obstacle of our small group. It was a crazy sensation: the sight of their furry bodies hurtling full pelt at us, the twittering of their echo location, the flapping of their leathery wings past our ears. If we waved our arms quickly enough we could cop a touch of warm wing on our fingertips. For a good ten or fifteen minutes they whooshed past in a thick cloud before thinning out and dwindling to a few stragglers.
So far so good, but Mucki and I had planned a ridiculous encore. One of Lanquin’s other popular activities was to borrow inner tubes and float down the river from the cave back to the campsite. This was usually a daytime activity but since Mucki was leaving in the morning and wanted to fit it in, he suggested we do it after the cave visit. I agreed. What could possibly go wrong? We’d brought our tubes so while the rest of the group wisely hitch-hiked home we jumped in the river and floated away.
Mucki & I, shortly before our near-near-danger experience. (the pictured light sources did not accompany us)
We were still adrenalized from the bats and enjoyed the sensation of sensory deprivation. I was surprised at how dark it was, although I probably shouldn’t have been. The water was warm enough and there was a wan glow from a small moon but the only electric light was from distant houses hidden among the trees or on mountain slopes. The river had looked harmless and fun by day but now we couldn’t really see when bends were coming up or dodge submerged rocks. Several times our low-riding behinds bashed painfully into hidden obstacles or our faces were slapped by overhanging leaves. The sensory deprivation started to get old quite quickly and our happy laughter became more of the nervous variety.
Before long we began to worry about our exit point. Our campsite was right on the river and we had been told it would be obvious, but obvious to whom? What if there was a power cut? That wouldn’t be unusual. We’d seen a few lights on the river bank but nothing big enough to be our camp, and we’d been floating a while. Doubt began to gnaw at us. What if we’d missed it? Where would we end up? Over a waterfall? The sea, eventually. The longer we waited the more I was convinced we should put out at the next possible opportunity and find the road. In the dark though, no such opportunities presented themselves.
I was leaving worry behind and straying into mild panic when we finally rounded a bend and saw the bright lights of home. The camp! Our friends! It was obvious! Of course, we told ourselves, we had been in no danger at all. Pah! What a fuss over nothing. The near escape wasn’t wasted on me though; I like to think that I learn from my mistakes. I immediately went and bought myself a decent head torch as soon as I could afford one, which was about six years later.