Burkina Faso: 2001

QTH: Splendide Hotel, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, West Africa.

Zone 35; Latitude 12º North, Longitude 1º 30′ West. QRA Loc. IK92fi

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The XT2DX – Burkina Faso team in 2001 was:

G3PJT Bob Whelan
G3SXW Roger Western
G3XTT Don Field
G4BWP Fred Handscombe
G4iFB Gary Hinson
G4PIQ Andy Cook
KC7V Mike Fulcher

Rigs: Six TS930s and Alpha amplifiers.

Antennas: Six beams, three verticals, wires.

Claimed score: 15,970 QSOs; 187 zones; 681 countries = 41.3m points.

Note from team: Hugo/XT2HB (and Sigec Telecom) is the main reason for our success in mounting this operation. His warm friendship and cooperation with the team are greatly appreciated. Thanks also to everyone at Slendide Hotel whose assistance was magnificent.

The following article was written by Gary Hinson G4iFB/ZL2iFB:

Introduction

This is the story of XT2DX, the latest Voodoo Contest Group DXpedition to West Africa, as experienced by a new group member and rookie DXpeditioner, G4iFB.  The team operated the 2001 CQ World-Wide DX Context CW section from Burkina Faso using the callsign XT2DX.  My perspective as author is purely personal: I don’t pretend to represent the view of others in the group but I hope that I can impart some useful advice for others contemplating their own DXpedition or just those interested in working DX from home.

The Voodudes

The Voodoo Contest Group specialises in contesting from West Africa, particularly the CW leg of the CQ World-Wide DX Contest every November.  As most of the team (the “Voodudes”) live in the UK, we especially welcome the opportunity to leave the cool drizzle of home for some West African sunshine.  I’ll say more about West Africa’s other attractions later on.

The team members for 2001 were G3SXW, G3XTT, G4BWP, G4iFB, G4PIQ and KC7V (see table 1).  Two other Voodudes (G3PJT and K5VT) had originally planned to join us but events turned against them (G3PJT’s flight was cancelled by the airline at 2 days notice, while K5VT chose instead to join the ill-fated trip that tried to put Ducie Island on the DXCC map for a new one).  The team’s combined DXpedition experience is formidable.  Quite apart from the previous Voodoo trips (more below), most have travelled the globe many times on other dxpeditions.  At this point I should admit that I was most definitely the greenest rookie on the crew, having only ‘DXpeditioned’ in Europe before.  As you can probably imagine, XT2DX was a fascinating and somewhat daunting experience for me!

 

Who

About

Other calls, ops & DXpeditions

G3SXW Roger

Inspirational DXpedition leader, A1 CW op and our QSL manager. A legend of many previous CW DXpeditions and member of the Contest Hall Of Fame

3DA/G3SXW  5V7A 9G5AA  9G5SX 9N1SXW C21SX  CN5N  FH/G3SXW FW/G3SXW GJ0AAA H44SX  M5A S79SXW TY5A VK9CXW XT2SX  XX9TSX  ZC4SXW ZD9SXW ZL7/G3SXW

G3XTT Don

LF DXer, chief adjudicator for the RSGB IOTA contest, author of the HF News section in RadCom for RSGB and CDXC Editor

9G5AA  9M0C  9M6AAC  D68C  M6T NK1G G3XTT/VP9

G4BWP Fred

Globe-trotting contester and survivor of previous Voodudes DXpeditions

9G5AA  9G5FH K6BWP  XT2WP

G4iFB Gary

Rookie DXpeditioner on his first trip to Africa. Enthusiastic CW operator and contester, QRPer, webmaster and author of this article

GJ4iFB  GW4iFB  GW8GT M6T  ON/G4iFB

G4PIQ Andy

Serious contest operator and talented wielder of the soldering iron

8R1/G4SMC  9G5AA  9M6/G0SMC A35IQ  G4PIQ/TF  JT1FBW  M6T M7T  M8T OY/G4PIQ  PP2ZCB  V31RD  YB7/G0SMC

KC7V Mike

Serial DXpeditioner and long-time Voodude, tower climbing being his forte

4U0ITU 4X/KC7V  5B4/KC7V  5V7A 7J1AEN 9G5AA  C56N  CN2MF CN5N DU1/KC7V HB9/KC7V JT1/KC7V KC6MF  KH0/KC7V  KH2/KC7V KH6/KC7V KL7/KC7V KP2/KC7V KP2A OH0/KC7V OH2/KC7V OJ0/KC7V TY5A UA3A/KC7V  VE3/KC7V  KC7V/XE2  XX9MF  ZC4Z  ZC4MF ZF2MF  ZF2WW

Table 1.  The Voodudes operating team for 2001

Aside from the facts presented in Table 1, many other characteristics bond the Voodudes into a high-performance team.  We are all competent CW operators, DXers and contestants who enjoy travelling to exotic locations and get on together as friends.  Teamworking is an important theme throughout this article that gives us many advantages.

Why XT2?

Over the past 8 years or so, Voodudes have activated three other exotic and rare West African prefixes in the area bordering Ghana – an hospitable and welcoming country with easy access by air from Europe to Accra, its capital.  Table 2 lists the group’s previous operations and the results obtained in the multi-multi category of CQ World-Wide DX CW.

 

Year

Callsign

# Ops

Result

1994

9G5AA

5

1st

1995

TY5A

5

1st

1996

5V7A

10

1st

1997

5V7A

10

1st

1998

5V7A

10

2nd

1999

9G5AA

7

5th

2000

9G5AA

4

6th

2001

XT2DX

6

2nd (claimed)

Table 2.  Previous Voodoo Contest Group operations

Accra is a convenient place in which to spend a couple of days meeting long-time Voodude friends such as Ralph (9G1RQ) and George (9G1RL), and to adjust from our hectic working schedules to the pace of life in Africa.  In the fierce sunshine and high daytime temperatures, it makes little sense to rush around like we do at home – some even refer to “GMT” (Ghana Maybe Time) meaning planned things happen ‘at some point maybe’.  Pretty soon, after a few chilled Star beers, the heat becomes more bearable and the group gets down to the serious last-minute contest preparations: confirming the detailed logistical arrangements, checking the equipment and usually a spot of operating from the Ghana Amateur Radio Society station 9G0ARS.

Members of the group have operated from Ghana many times, encouraged the local amateurs and donated items of radio equipment and antennas to the club station.  Since 9G is no longer quite as rare as it once was and the pileups seem to have diminished, the group tends to travel to other nearby countries to activate more exotic prefixes in CQ WW.  The goal of course is to make many thousands of contacts and collect hundreds of multipliers: ‘being DX’ is the group’s primary tactic, with less emphasis needed on generating outstanding signals or chasing multipliers – more on this later.

Friendships

Ralph Quist (9G1RQ) has been a long-term Voodudes friend.  Thanks to Ralph, the group has always had local help to organise things.  Perhaps most importantly of all, with Ralph’s generosity, the group has had somewhere safe to store its hoard of equipment in between contests.  Without a local store, the excess baggage charges and customs duties to carry everything to Africa each time would have made the trips excessively expensive and difficult.  As Ralph helped us load the gear into the bus at 4:30AM and watched us depart for Burkina, he must have been relieved to get the space back at last!

Another good friend in Accra is George (9G1RL).  George has helped organise licences for the group over many years, assistance for which we are most grateful.  West African officials are not renowned for their speed or efficiency, so even a relatively simple licence renewal can involve hours of work, numerous personal visits to the Ministry and so forth.  Thanks George!

Even though I had never met them before, I found Ralph and George very warm, welcoming and understanding on my first ever visit to Africa.  Ralph is a jazz musician who proudly told me he played in Duke Ellington’s band a few years back.  He took us all to a newly-completed open-air jazz club one evening – unfortunately the band did not actually show up because their amplifier had broken (if only they knew how much Andy, G4PIQ, would have loved to warm up his soldering iron!) but still we had a very pleasant warm evening outdoors, talking to Ralph and his friends over the customary Star beers.

Expertravel is the company in Accra that arranged our trip from Ghana to Burkina by bus, then back by air.  The Voodudes have used Expertravel several times before so we knew they are trustworthy.  Although there were some problems with the Ghana Airways flights this time, this was no fault of Expertravel: the airline had mechanical problems with one of their planes and had to charter a replacement, but just a few days before, cancelled the flight Bob (G3PJT) was originally going to make.  This meant that he could not get back to the UK in time for his inauguration as RSGB President, therefore he had to cancel the whole trip.  The Expertravel staff were upset to tell us the news but were happy to refund Bob’s Ghana Airways ticket.

Pre-trip planning

Naturally, the planning for a major DXpedition starts well before the actual event, typically about a year ahead.  The selection of operating location and potential team members are important considerations.  As it happened, I was invited by Roger (G3SXW) to join the XT2 trip just a couple of months before it happened – luckily for me, I had the cash and holiday time available to commit immediately.  It was an easy decision since I knew four of the team already and was envious of their record scores in previous years, although it was to be my first ever visit to the African continent and I clearly lagged well behind the rest in terms of DXpedition and contesting experience.

About a year earlier, Roger and Fred (G4BWP) had already made a reconnaissance visit to XT2, met with Hugo XT2HB and selected a potential operating location.  With Hugo’s invaluable assistance, they had obtained personal XT2 licences plus XT2DX for the group.  Hugo renewed these in time for the 2001 event.  Obtaining and renewing licences is critically important and the effort required should not be underestimated, especially in West Africa.  The process takes several months and requires numerous visits to the government authorities.

The individual group members made their own travel arrangements to and from Ghana, obtained visas and had the necessary vaccinations.  Purchasing a plane ticket to Accra was simply a matter of selecting a route and airline, and booking by credit card over the Internet or telephone.  Somewhat curiously, I discovered that flying to Accra from Amsterdam on KLM on a ticket purchased through eBookers.com was actually more expensive than flying from London Stansted to Accra via Amsterdam … but due to my work commitments there was little I could do (next time, I’ll know better!).

Visas are required for Ghana and Burkina so I had to take a half-day off work to visit the Ghanaian embassy in North London and the Burkina Faso consulate south west of the City.  Queuing for the Ghanaian visa and ‘negotiating’ with the official to get it issued the same day (as I needed my passport to go abroad the following day) was my first taste of “GMT”.

A recent outbreak of yellow fever in the North of Burkina meant a certificate was required to confirm the yellow fever inoculation as a condition of entry.  This caused me a slight problem as I was working abroad five days a week and had to arrange to visit one of the special London travel clinics authorised to give the yellow fever injection on one of my home visits, but at least it lasts for ten years so I will not have to worry again for a decade.

Currency was the next problem: due to poor planning, I found myself at Amsterdam airport without any cash for the trip.  I knew from Roger’s EMAILs that I would need something over a thousand US dollars for the hotel and bus but the first bureau de change I tried would only let me buy one hundred dollars and some Dutch guilders (not much help in West Africa).  The next needed ‘special authorisation’ from my bank for another thousand dollars.  Unfortunately for me, the cashier was in her first week at work and had to find out what ‘special authorisation’ actually meant before she could do it … after an anxious 45 minutes’ wait, several pleading conversations with the cashier, one with her manager and one with someone at the Dutch bank, disclosing my mother’s maiden name, displaying my passport and two further mobile telephone conversations with my own bank in London, I signed the third slip of paper authorising the bank to extract the equivalent of a thousand dollars from my account, plus of course several percent for their trouble (!).  Well at least I now had some cash.  [With US dollars in my hand, obtaining Ghanaian currency was far simpler in Accra the next day – we simply walked from the hotel to a foreign exchange shop about fifty yards along the road and handed over the cash.  Mind you, the thick wad of mixed-value Ghanaian banknotes I obtained for $50 was quite a surprise: the largest denomination Ghanaian note is worth less than a dollar!]

Logistics

I met up with Fred (G4BWP) and Andy (G4PIQ) at the duty free store at Amsterdam airport during the stopover from their flight from London.  After a quick beer, our flight from Amsterdam to Accra was an uneventful six or so hours but the arrival was ‘interesting’.  After a great deal of official stamping of passports by somewhat surly immigration officers and then a rapid passage past customs, hoping they would not stop us to check our heavy suitcases for anything untoward, we descended into the waiting pack of ‘officially authorised’ baggage handlers desperate to relieve us of a dollar or two to push our luggage trolleys 50 yards down the ramp to the taxi rank.  The interminable wait for our hotel courtesy bus was our first real opportunity to experience the African climate:  despite being about ten o’clock at night, it was still well over 90 degrees and humid, but everyone seemed in good spirits.

We spent the next couple of days at The Paloma, a comfortable and friendly hotel in Accra, acclimatising to Africa, visiting and activating the radio club 9G0ARS and catching up with old friends of the group including the travel agency Expertravel.

As we acclimatised to the African environment, we took the opportunity to visit the Ghanaian Amateur Radio Society club station 9G0ARS near to the hotel.  Whilst I practiced my pile-up techniques on 10m, Mike KC7V and Fred G4BWP installed an antenna and listened to white noise on 6m and Andy G4PIQ repaired the club linears.

We arranged with Expertravel for our bus to Ouagadougou to come to collect us well before dawn so that we could load up the gear and get under way at first light.  This meant removing the equipment from Ralph’s dark shed into the bus – luckily the only animals we encountered were Ralph’s chickens.   With all the gear safely stowed on and in the bus, there was barely enough room for us to clamber aboard but soon we were under way with distant memories of school rugby trips filling my head.

We were on the road North the whole day, watching the countryside get less and less green as we went.  As we were travelling only a month after the end of the rainy season, I was surprised how good the roads were – apparently, the main North-South highway had recently been rebuilt so there were relatively few emergency pothole-avoidance manoeuvres.

As darkness fell, we arrived at a frontier town called Bolgatanga for a stopover.  Inside its concrete compound, the hotel we Christened the ‘Bolgatanga Hilton’ may not have been the sort of place you’d see in package holiday brochures, but after a day in the bus, the no-frills rooms and basic restaurant were just what we needed.  My room (see figure) at least had the luxury of a ceiling fan, envied by those with non-functional air conditioners.  Dinner that evening was soon followed by a deep sleep.

The next morning, after breakfast, we headed back on to the main road and within an hour or so reached the Burkina border crossing near Po.  The first border post (on the Ghanaian side) was a civilised affair through no-man’s land to the Burkina side and another customs post.  This was also fairly straightforward, although a large irate group of local nomads seemed to be having trouble when we arrived and were still arguing vociferously and gesticulating as we left.  Meanwhile, having met our guide from Burkina, we were whisked past the noisy crowd directly to the chief officer’s inner office and the formalities were completed in about fifteen minutes, with the ritual stamping of passports as usual.  A few minutes later, the ‘customs duties’ having presumably been paid, we were on our way into Burkina proper.

At the time, it seemed odd to me that our bus-load of goodies hadn’t been inspected … the reason became apparent a few miles along the highway when we reached the customs post proper.  Here at the small shanty-town called Po, buses, trucks and all manner of other vehicles huddled around the customs buildings, awaiting their inspections.  Although we all filed off the bus and past the customs officers, then back aboard quite quickly, the process was far from over.  It took a couple of hours more waiting and a bill for over a thousand U.S. dollars to clear customs, although in one way we were luckier than another bus that had to completely unload all passengers and bags for individual inspections (presumably they had argued a little too hard about the customs duties!).  Lacking sufficient cash, we hoped we might negotiate a reduction but the customs manager had another idea: if we’d take one of his officers to the airport at Ouagadougou, we could pay by credit card at the main customs building there, so with the customs officer now aboard our guide’s car, we all departed North for Ouagadougou.  At least now with the customs man aboard, we sailed past yet more police and customs posts without further incident.

Despite the gloom over the customs bill, the group was looking forward to our arrival in the capital.  Just past the airport, on a main road to the city centre, we found the Hotel Splendide looking just like its pictures on the hotel’s website.  Roger and Fred had already visited the previous year to identify the location and discuss our requirements with the hotel management, but still it was an exciting arrival.

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso is a land-locked country in the French part of central West Africa, lying between the Sahara Desert and the Gulf of Guinea.  Although independent and no longer a French dependency, it still shows signs of its colonial past.  French is widely spoken in the main towns, whilst English is rare.  There are good French-style restaurants in its capital, Ouagadougou, serving traditional French fare alongside French versions of local dishes.  The currency was tied to the French Franc and is now tied to the Euro.  Other, perhaps more subtle signs of French influence include some architectural cues and good-quality main roads carrying decent, safe vehicles (none of the Ghanaian-style taxis I had earlier likened to stock cars!).

All of this belies the country’s extreme poverty.  Burkina is said to be the poorest country in the world in terms of per-capita income.  It relies heavily on foreign aid (governmental and private) to supplement its meagre natural resources.  From what we saw, though, its people are resourceful and far from resigned to their fate.  Private enterprise is flourishing.  Just behind the hotel, for instance, we saw from the roof a thriving business refurbishing mattresses.  In a small courtyard space, Burkinabe men were beating mattresses all day regardless of the blazing sun, apart from the conventional prayer breaks.

Burkina’s main exports are cotton, gold, granite, livestock, peanuts and products of the shea butter tree (Butryospermum parkii).  Vegetables such as green beans from Burkina are increasingly found in our British supermarkets.

Tourism is not as well developed as many other parts of Africa.  There are a few hotels and game reserves with lions, elephants, hippopotamus, various monkeys, warthogs and antelope.

Setting-up

Inside half an hour, the whole bus was unloaded beside the rear of the hotel and the laborious task of getting all the gear onto the roof began.  Even with a load of local helpers, the next couple of hours were tough.  It was an hour or so after noon and difficult to find any shade from the blazing sun.  The bags of cables were hoisted by rope but most of the boxes (including transformers for the linear amplifiers) had to be hand-carried up four floors to the roof.  We all earned our beers that night!

By sunset that first day, we had started unpacking, sorting and laying out the towers and antennas.  The L-shape roof meant we had room for two HF beams on each leg and the largest (40m) beam would go in the middle of the L, on top of the engine room for the lift.  The LF verticals would go into the ‘field’ next to the hotel (actually a construction site for an hotel extension: with near perfect timing, the ground had been cleared and concrete blocks were just being laid out by the time we left!), with wire dipoles sloping down from the roof towards the North.

The next few days, right up to the start of the contest, were spent erecting towers, beams, verticals and poles in the baking sun.  The group’s prior experience paid dividends here: everyone found something useful to do and shared the workload.  Mike just loves climbing towers.  Roger enjoyed collecting water and other essential supplies from the local markets.  Andy, of course, was happy with a soldering iron in hand.  The rest of us helped put the antennas and towers together so Mike had something to climb!

The towers were mostly anchored to convenient pieces of rebar sticking out of the roof, but Fred had to be inventive to make guy-points at the roof’s edge.  In the end, he was able to ‘lasso’ the tops of the hotel’s outer concrete pillars with several turns of rope, then tie the guys to these.  Although these were temporary fixtures, they held for the duration of our visit (only just – one broke literally as we dismounted the 20m tower on the final Monday!).

Operating location

Ouagadougou in central Burkina Faso is a little over ten degrees North of the Equator, due south of the UK.  From this location, an arc from North West to North East more-or-less covered the Great Circle short-path bearings to most of the world’s amateurs.  The East-West roof of the hotel across the road might have been ideal to minimise interference between our beams, but lacked the easy roof access we needed to get all the gear up there.  As it was, the Hotel Splendide’s L-shaped roof meant we sometimes beamed at each other but the distances between antennas, plus the band-pass filters on every band, gave us very few intra-station problems.

The ‘field’ next to the hotel was fine for our LF antennas, although the neighbouring hotels stretched North-North-East of us and must have partly shielded us in that direction on 80 and 160m.  Next time, with any luck, the hotel extension will be at full height so there will be plenty more roof space to play with.

The 40m beam took pride of place on top of the lift-room.  This has a smaller roof, about 5 metres square and completely flat with no edge barriers.  Standing up there, looking over the rooftops of central Ouagadougou to the airport control tower and beyond, is not ideal for those with a fear of heights – even less so at the top of the tower section!

The hotel lift caused us a few interference problems, especially on 40m.  Because of its close proximity to the lift motors, the antenna presumably picked up noise from the magnetic as well as electrical fields: even Faraday shielding would probably not have helped, but we might try a ‘QRM Eliminator’ next time to null-out the local noise on 40m.  As it was, every few minutes, the band was wiped out for five seconds by 30-over-9 hash.  We were very tempted to pull the fuses on the lift during the contest but decided it was better to stay on good terms with the hotel management and guests who were already being very patient, given the TV interference and physical disruption we caused!

HotelShack facilities and shack

The Hotel Splendide is a modern, clean and tidy hotel with about 60 guest rooms on two floors.  The ground floor houses the reception area, bar and dining room.  The hotel’s top floor contains the main conference room (about 100m2) in the centre with ‘syndicate rooms’ (about 20m2) on either side.  The main room was ideal for our purposes, and the hotel kindly lent us the conference room furniture – sturdy tables and comfortable chairs.

We arranged the six monoband stations in band sequence in a U-shape, making it easier to pass multipliers between adjacent bands.  Most of the time, there were at least three stations in operation.  At dawn and dusk, all stations were manned, although of course the level of activity varied across the spectrum.

By arrangement with the management, Roger persuaded the hotel electricians to run dedicated mains power cables to the conference room from the hotel’s main supply.  I was relieved to hear that the hotel had a standby generator but needn’t have worried as we experienced no problems with the power.

There was easy access to the aerials from the corridor outside the conference rooms.  Fire doors at each end lead out to the flat roofs of the lower floors, and a staircase from the lower floors leads up to the lift room and upper roof.  We simply laid the antenna and rotator cables across the floor and out the doors.  If anyone wanted a break from the contest, a short walk onto the roof was usually enough: at midday, it was well over a hundred degrees as the intense sunlight reflected off the roof’s reflective covering.

The conference rooms’ air conditioners were more than adequate to the task – in fact, at times it felt quite cold.  They also dry the air so it was even more important to keep drinking bottled water (we probably averaged about three litres each per day).

Station

Our main transceivers were TS930s.  These venerable rigs had done sterling service for the Voodudes over the years but are now showing the effects of age and storage in less-than-ideal tropical conditions.  Two of them failed in testing prior to the contest although, with some help from a service manual on the Internet, Andy was able to scavenge parts from one to repair the other.

We used three other rigs:

  • An IC756 on topband – also used on 6m outside the contest
  • FT1000MP on 20m
  • TS850SAT on 10m.

The amplifiers were five Alphas plus one Ameritron.  We generally ran less than a kilowatt because, with reasonable antennas in a good location, there was no need to run the amplifiers flat-out.  More power might have helped us control the pileups but we seldom needed it (I doubt the ‘ugly’ operators [see below] would have suddenly doubled their IQ just because we were a few decibels louder!).

Next to the rare callsign, of course, our antenna farm was our greatest asset.  We ran dedicated monoband antennas for each station:

 

Band

Antennas

160m

Sloping dipole

Loaded vertical

Beverage (shared)

80m

Vertical loaded dipole

Sloping dipole

40m

Two-element Yagi

20m

Three-element Yagi

15m

Three-element Yagi

10m

Four-element Yagi

Table 3.  Antennas used

In previous years, the group has used a helium balloon to raise the topband antenna but helium is prohibitively expensive.  With the additional risk of snagging the other antennas, we decided to make the best of the roof height to support wire dipoles on 160m and 80m, sloping down to the adjacent field to the North.

The beams were each installed atop 10 or 20-foot lattice tower sections temporarily held in place with rope guys tied off to rebar stubs protruding from the hotel roof, or to rope lassos over the concrete parapet.  The rotators, recently refurbished by our friends in Ghana, were mostly OK apart from the 15m one which had problems with the midday heat (maybe we should paint them white or silver next year?).

Installing the antennas was the slowest and most laborious part of the station assembly, especially under the blazing African sun.  The fact that our three local helpers spoke no English and were all called Mahmud made the process something of a challenge!

The Beverage antenna was a great disappointment.  Mike installed the antenna wire along the back of the hotel on top of a convenient wall.  It seemed to work well before the contest and for the first few hours, but during the event it proved useless.  We never did diagnose the problem, although at first we thought the wire may have been stolen (it wasn’t).

All logging was computerised using K1EA’s CT program.  The computers were networked using Ethernet over coax, allowing us to exchange messages and keep track of the overall score progression from any station.  We also used a Packetcluster connection using a modem to access the Internet through a Burkinabe Internet Service Provider whose office was conveniently just across the main road from the hotel.  This worked fairly reliably throughout.

The remaining peripherals were pretty standard: ETM3C or MM3 keyers, various paddles and headphones, and loads of patch cables, computer cables etc.  Worthy of special mention, though, were walky-talkies used to contact operators in the shack from the antenna field.  These were extremely useful during antenna tuning and testing.  The brand new 80m vertical dipole, in particular, was specially built for us and required careful tuning to match it to the cable: this would have been even more tedious if we had to shout each message from the ground to the roof and then relay to the shack!

Working pile-ups – from the DX side

Undoubtedly the biggest lessons for me as a rookie DXpeditioner came when I went on air with such a rare prefix.  Generally it only required a CQ call or two before the callers started appearing.  Virtually all my operating was contest-style, including from 9G and XT2 prior to the contest itself.

Almost always outside the contest, I operated split (mostly listening 1 to 5 kHz up the band from my transmit frequency) to make sure callers could hear me working people so I could keep control of the pileups.  Even during the contest, I was quite often listening slightly off-frequency (within a few hundred Hertz either side) because the pileups were so huge that I had to move the receiver just to resolve individual calls.  More on this below.

Our operating techniques during the contest were optimised for efficiency, accuracy and speed (more-or-less in that order).  We could have sent and received faster Morse but that would have impacted the efficiency and accuracy.  The most accurate QSO style, however, with full repeats and confirmations would have been too slow for the contest, so we compromised.  For example I chose to fill-in partials rather than repeat the whole call (e.g. I might pick-out “2XX” from the pile-up, reply “2XX 5NN35”, receive “5NN05 W2XX” and I’d confirm “W2 TU”).  Sometimes when the pileups were really huge and unruly, I was only able to pick-out individual characters: this time, I’d just repeat a character once and listen, trying to match the caller’s rhythm and speed so he would realise I was calling him.  The most astute callers would simply repeat their callsigns once and listen for me to repeat the characters I could pick out, and so on until I had the whole call.  This process worked especially well when callers were slightly spread out since I was also listening intently to the tone of one particular caller.  Another caller with some of the same letters in his callsign would almost certainly have called back off-frequency (although I did have a couple of coincident partials during the test and lost a little time sorting them out).  And of course I hoped that the lid callers with entirely different calls were at least off-frequency.

Another difference I noticed compared to calling DX stations from home was that I rarely needed to use narrow CW filters: mostly, I was listening through the SSB filters at 1.8kHz or wider.  Sure, this meant I heard a whole lot of calls all at once but, once I was really up to speed, I found I could more easily pick out individual signals by ear, focusing on the tone, speed, timing and style of the callers.  With narrow filters, I found I was wasting time tuning in each signal and still had to wait for full or partial calls to come through.  [The opposite is true from the home end: there, I usually put all the filters in to pick out the DX station from the mush of other callers.  I’ve noticed that it’s usually better to open up the filters when tuning around the pileups looking for the callers being worked (here’s a CW DXer’s hint: listen for the “5NN” exchange).]  One exception, though was a huge pileup on 10 metres.  The pileup was unusually big with lots of lids constantly calling over me and each caller.  Here I was genuinely surprised to discovered that Japanese hams, more than most others, make a real effort to listen in the pileup.  Despite the constant big pile of lids, I was able to keep a good rate of mostly Japanese QSOs using all the TS850’s CW filters, tuning slightly to one side or another to pick-off callers.  The Japanese seemed highly adept at calling precisely on my receive frequency just as the previous QSO finished.

Accuracy is always a major concern in multiplier contests: there’s nothing more frustrating than missing a potential multiplier because you are unable to confirm the complete callsign (usually because of lid callers who just won’t give it a rest, sometimes because of QRM from other pileups).  We all took as much care as possible to work and log callers accurately, but inevitably we made mistakes.  This was the main aspect where I feel I could have done better: having not been very active for some time before the contest, I took longer than usual to get my ear tuned-in and found myself struggling to send accurate Morse.  I suspect my worse performance on both send and receive was early Sunday morning, after a long overnight operating session, when my energy really dipped-out.  Next time, I really must reserve more energy for the Sunday dawn marathon (and maybe some caffeine and sugar would help).

CW speed is always an issue during contests.  Not all of us are ardent CW enthusiasts, whilst QRM and band conditions often cause additional problems.  Throughout the contest, I tried to not to let my sending speed up too much but, with the adrenaline rushing and the pileups never-ending, it was a constant tendency.  One thing I consciously tried was to match my sending speed to that of each caller, but even this cunning strategy was thwarted by the huge pileups at XT2DX: there simply wasn’t the time or energy to keep twiddling the keyer speed knob.  Still, if anyone was noticeably slower and seemed to be struggling to copy me, I usually made the effort to slow down and confirm the details, especially my callsign.

Speaking of callsigns, I think we all naturally adopted a strategy actively promoted by long-time DXer and Voodude, G3SXW.  We sent our own callsign often, generally as part of every QSO or CQ call.  If anyone mis-logged us (and there are bound to have been some), they really have only themselves to blame.

The realities of being DX really hit me on the Sunday morning.  The combination of physical and mental exhaustion, QRM/QRN, and sheer frustration at the usual raft of arrogant lids made me resort to something I’ve never done before: I gave up on good pileups in order to move and find a clear frequency.  Here I’d start over until the lids found me, and eventually I’d move again.  I wish to apologise openly to all the patient, good operators who I deserted each time, and hope that that they worked us later on.  Sorry, it was all I could do to stay awake and keep working.  At least I took some pleasure in the thought that the most incompetent lids probably carried on blindly calling me for ages!

As to the DX station’s view of those on the other end of the pileups, I guess personally I would split them (us!) into three camps:

  • Firstly, the Good.  These matched my speed, timing and style, and were efficient to the extreme – no continuous repeats, listening intently between each transmission, responding instantly to being called with the bare minimum information, sending perfectly and rhythmically.  Working the Good ops was sheer pleasure – each one meant another solid call in the log with no waste, and straight back to business.
  • Next the Bad.  They would call out of turn, repeat information unnecessarily without listening, send superfluous information (“TNX CUL” etc.) and were generally clumsy (e.g. slow to respond when called).  Working them was more of an effort but we got there in the end.
  • Lastly, of course, were the Ugly.  These lids and self-appointed pileup police were either totally deaf or, at best, were “having severe trouble” hearing me.  They made little or no attempt to follow what I was sending, ignored my pleas to QRX, and continually interfered with everyone else.  Some of them may just have been Bad operators having a really Bad day, while some were simply incompetent operators.  I suspect, though, that the rest were plain rude and ignorant.  Working the lids was always a nightmare, best avoided at all costs.

Dear reader, ponder a moment: given the choice of working Good, Bad or Ugly callers, guess which we’d choose first?  Why spend unnecessary time working Bad ones when the Good were waiting patiently?  Even with a more limited choice, do you think we’d ever work Ugly ops when we could be calling CQ to get the pileup going again?  Please remember this in your next pileup.  If you call blindly you will probably reduce your chances of ever working the station compared to just listening!  Instead of calling, spend your time listening to the DX operator’s style and rhythm and, most importantly, listen in the pileup until you hear someone he is actually working (‘UP 1’ doesn’t necessarily mean exactly 1,000 Hz higher!!).  If you are CERTAIN the QSO has completed successfully, by all means tail-end, but always beware of doubling.

Lastly, don’t forget this is supposed to be fun for all of us!  If it all gets too much, take a break, like I did.

The Contest

With a reasonable sunspot count, propagation was good on the mid- and high-frequency bands.  15m and 20m were open day and night, with 10m and 40m not far behind.  The two highest bands closed down for a couple of hours around noon due to solar absorption, apparently (remember: operating from a tropical location was an entirely new experience for me!) and were pretty slow overnight.  Otherwise, our QSO rates on most bands were limited by contest QRM and (in my case at least) operator fatigue.  160m and 80m, however, were hard going.  Our low QSO count on 160m in comparison to the other bands tells its own story, and was certainly not due to lack of effort or experience on that band.

In the week before the contest, Roger figured out an operating rota on the assumption that Bob would join us.  When this became impossible, we extended our ‘on’ periods to cover the gaps and basically muddled through.  With hindsight, we should have taken more care over the Sunday morning session.  Having operated hard on Saturday, those of us who stayed up Saturday night were completely exhausted by dawn Sunday.  I found myself literally falling asleep at the key once or twice, and my accuracy, speed and tolerance all suffered (belated apologies for anyone struggling to understand my nonsense sending!).  Some strong coffee might have helped us through the Sunday morning doldrums but at least we slept well when the day crew took over around 8am!

We tracked our actual scores graphically against ‘stretch targets’ discussed and agreed the previous week, on an hourly basis.  Our performance was very close to the predictions, thanks to the group’s prior experience and good conditions, leading to our highest-ever QSO count (nearly 16,000) and claimed score (41.1 million points).  The band-by-band breakdown is shown below.

 

 

 

Multipliers

Band

QSOs

Zones

Countries

160m

168

12

44

80m

590

23

75

40m

2061

35

118

20m

4342

40

146

15m

4600

38

149

10m

4212

39

145

Total

15,973

187

677

Table 4.  Claimed score breakdown

Breaking down & storage

Those of you who are involved in Field Day probably know that dismantling a temporary station takes a fraction of the time it took to put together.  With the elation of a very successful contest behind us, we ignored our tiredness and in about a day, all of the equipment was neatly boxed and bagged on the ground, ready for the next trip.  A hired truck carried it all, plus us, to a secure storage place and we experienced our last trip across central Ouagadougou watching the hubbub of city life over the truck’s side panels.  The sight of so many happy white faces peering out of the truck caused many bemused looks from the locals, who maybe thought it was a prison truck           !

Pretty soon we paid our hotel bills and said our goodbyes, then departed on the Ghana Airways plane for Accra.  By the time we arrived back at the arrivals hall at Accra, the tiredness had started to kick in and I, for one, was soon tucked-up in bed that night.

QSL Information

The Voodudes QSL policy remains as in previous years.  Rather than just sending QSLs for all QSOs, Roger G3SXW replies individually to all requests.  The incoming requests are still coming via EMAIL (G3SXW@Compuserve.com), direct (Roger Western, 7 Field Close, Chessington, Surrey, KT9 2QD, ENGLAND) or via the QSL bureaux.

Conclusion

Looking back on the DXpedition and totting up the cost (around $3k per person), it is fair to ask, was it all worth it?  Speaking personally, I’d say “definitely”!  We experienced West Africa up close, had thousands of QSOs (hopefully making 2nd place in the biggest CW contest of the year) and had a lot of fun together.  I learnt a whole lot about DXpeditioning, found out what it’s really like to be at the DX end of huge pileups, and made it home in one piece.

References

On the group’s website at www.voodudes.org you will find some more pictures and tales from our trip, along with hyperlinks to other information resources on the World Wide Web including those we used to prepare ourselves for the trip (such as the useful www.state.gov/www.background_notes/burkina_0398_bgn.html).  The Internet really is a marvellous source of data and advice if you know how to look (I usually start by searching on www.Google.com and work out from there).  Sources such as the CIA World fact book (http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/) give statistical data about any country in the world, along with travel safety advice.  There is even a site that gives current weather from Ouagadougou (autobrand.wunderground.com)!

The Government websites are good places to look for official information on visas and inoculations, whilst hotels often have their own websites so you can see where you’ll be staying (unfortunately, few of them seem to show pictures of their takeoff towards the major population centres).  The Hotel Splendide in Ouagadougou has its own website at www.ahrbf.com/pwesplen.htm, while the Paloma Hotel in Accra is online at www.africaonline.com.gh/Paloma/hotel.html

Our travel arrangements were made through Expertravel (www.expertravel.com.gh) in Accra, Ghana.  The friendly, helpful and efficient staff went out of their way to make us feel at home.

For those without Internet access, books such as the Rough Guide to West Africa are ideal for general information about travelling to and within these countries.