When the sun goes down

When your vehicle gets stuck in a swamp at sunset in game-rich country full of nocturnal predators, you better pray your torch doesn’t let you down. Abre’ J Steyn discovers three amazing, and reliable, torches.

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I could hear something moving through the long grass nearby, but I had no idea what it was. It was so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Just before sunset we had bogged down to the axles in the mud on the Busanga Plain in the game-rich northern part of Zambia’s Kafue National Park.

The Land Cruiser was lying at an acute angle in a ditch, making it impossible to sleep in the rooftop tent or even to sit in the car. We were out in the open without any protection. We were travelling alone. With no trees around for kilometres, we couldn’t extract ourselves with the winch and without firewood, we had no fire.

It was already past midnight and our torches were of the old incandescent-globe-type, which chewed batteries mercilessly. About two hours after sunset, all the batteries were dead. Without light, I was virtually helpless. Lying on my stomach in the mud, I’d been trying to dig us out of the mire with my hands for hours, because our shovel was rendered useless by the sticky mud that clung to it like glue.

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The pitch-black moonless night was alive with sounds that made the bravest among us feel vulnerable. The thousands of lechwe around us attracted nocturnal predators that we could hear but not see – lion, leopard and a pack of hyenas. Hippo, which had left the water, could be grazing anywhere.

Despite this, I had no choice but to persevere in total darkness as a freezing cold descended on the swamp. Eventually, at three that morning, with the Cruiser’s twin diff-locks, I managed to escape from the tenacious clutches of the bottomless clay and the menacing threat of invisible predators. After levelling the Cruiser, we pitched the tent and slept like babies.

Torch revolution
That memorable night was only 12 years ago, but since then a major torch revolution has taken place. In 1889, Russian-born Akiba Horowitz, who adopted the name Conrad Hubert on immigrating to America, invented the first battery-powered torch or “flashlight” as the Yanks call it. It couldn’t be blown out by the wind, like candles or oil-lamps could. He patented it in 1903 and founded the Ever Ready Company. Alongside the many attempts through the years to replace the rather ineffective, throw-away lead-carbon batteries with rechargeable batteries, new environmentally friendly wind-up, dynamo- and solar-powered torches appeared but never made a lasting impact.

Ultimately, the design of torches changed very little, except for the introduction of smaller and more efficient batteries that made smaller torches practicable. But quite recently, the greatest advance in torch-history took place with the introduction of the light-emitting diode (LED). Advances in technology in the late 1990s made it possible to alter torch design radically and replace the common, century-old incandescent bulb with an LED.

Basically, an LED is a tiny light bulb that fits easily into an electrical circuit. But unlike the incandescent bulb, it operates by the movement of electrons in a semiconductor material. It’s used in all types of devices, doesn’t have a filament to burn out, doesn’t generate much heat and lasts a very long time – some claim as long as 100 000 hours. In a torch, the batteries last far longer.

Putting super LEDs to the test
You get the usual LEDs and then there are what I call “super LEDs”. These include the Cree LEDs, made by US company Cree Inc. These tiny square super LEDs, only 5mm2 in size, are small white chips with yellow centre dots, and they’ve changed the torch as we knew it forever. I’m currently conducting long term-tests on three Cree LED torches and, although I’ve only been using them for about three months, I can already say, in terms of performance, that they’re definitely the very best torches I’ve ever had.

Two of them are LED-LENSERs from Awesome Tools, frequently advertised in Farmer’s Weekly: the palm-sized M14 torch, and the H7 headlamp. The third is the Fenix PD20 mini torch from the same distributor, an astonishing tiny pocket spotlight the size of a lipstick tube. The lighting ability of these LED torches is amazing and is quantified by the unit Lumen, a difficult concept to explain fully and beyond the scope of this story. I

n the past, when we referred to a light’s brightness we used the unit Watt. But it’s misleading as it refers to the power consumed and, in an incandescent bulb, much of it is wasted as heat. Lumen refers only to the amount of light produced: the higher the Lumen value, the brighter the torch should be. But this isn’t always so.

What matters to our eyes is the Lux value – the amount of light that reaches and illuminates an object. That’s why some LED torches are better than others. In all three torches, this transfer is highly efficient. In the little Fenix PD20, light is concentrated by an amazingly efficient reflector. True to their name, LED LENSERs use adjustable lenses to achieve the same goal. Although I need more time to properly evaluate their long-term durability under hard use, I’ve seen enough and will discuss them in greater detail soon.

But with Christmas just around the corner, look no further for suitable gifts. I’m convinced that with our current security situation, you couldn’t give a farmer a more valuable gift than the M14. Give the woman in your life a little PD20. She’ll love you for it and its dazzling strobe light, which can disorientate an attacker, may one day save her life. The H7 is probably the most powerful adjustable headlamp available and for the outdoorsman, it’s the ideal gift to himself.