QTH: Hotel Camayenne, Conakry, Guinea.
Zone: 35; Latitude 9° 32” North, Longitude 13° 41” West.
The 3X5A team in Guinea, 2007 was:
Rigs: Elecraft K2s and Alpha amplifier: seven one-kilowatt stations.
Antennas: 5 beams, 87ft Titanex for 160m, 80m vertical, 80m sloper, Flag RX for LF.
Claimed score: 14,864 QSOs; 180 zones; 708 countries = 39.3m points.
Note from team: This was our 16th CQWWCW entry from West Africa, our first year in Guinea. A big thank-you to our friends Siré Diallou (Mali) and Karel Waerzeggers (Guinea) for storage of our equipment and their friendship.
The article below the photo gallery appeared in the Chiltern DX Club members’ Digest.
The 3X5A Experience – Strange Happenings in West Africa
By Roger Western, G3SXW
and the VooDoo Contest Group
In November 2007 for the 14th straight year the VooDoo Contest Group entered the CQ World-Wide CW contest from West Africa in the Multi-Multi category. We signed 3X5A from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, at 9° 32” North, 13° 41” West. Conakry is set on a peninsula, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean – this was a big attraction for us! This project was a big success with nearly 15,000 QSOs and 40 million points. More importantly the seven operators laughed until it hurt and encountered some really bizarre experiences. Read on!
Operators this time were Ned Stearns AA7A, Roger Western G3SXW, Fred Handscombe G4BWP, John Warburton G4IRN, Rob Ferguson GM3YTS, Bob Allphin K4UEE, Mike Fulcher KC7V.
Move From Mali
Our story starts in Bamako, the capital of Mali. We had operated as TZ5A in CQWWCW in 2005 and 2006, and stored our one ton of equipment there, thanks to our good friend and retired soccer star Siré Diallou. We would move this gear to Conakry by hired bus & driver on a rather arduous two-day journey to Conakry, 600 miles to the West. Our group has learned to remain flexible and to meet challenges as they arise. The first challenge was when our bus-hire company told us at the last minute that they could not find a large (35 seat) bus for our trip, as arranged. Instead we would have to take two smaller vehicles in convoy, to transport all of our equipment and the team. This worked out just fine in the end but we did have a much bigger fuel bill which was most unwelcome. The bigger of the two new busses also needed a roof-rack which took most of a day to get welded on.
AA7A, G3SXW, G4BWP, K4UEE and KC7V left Bamako at 5.30 a.m. just before the skies turned grey, having loaded the gear on the bus the night before. We headed West, the road down to the border with Guinea being mostly smooth dirt. The route was Bamako, Guinea Border, Siguiri, Kankan, Dabola, Mamou, Kindia, Conakry.
At the border we expected to be met by our hired guards (see below) but they were not there. However, the crossing was uneventful, with six barriers: police, customs and immigration on the Mali side and then the same on the Guinea side. These were all negotiated quite smoothly, taking only an hour or so, and requiring only small ‘tips’.
Guinea has become more lawless in recent years in the provinces, with occasional banditry. Our local contact Karel (see below) recommended that we pay for armed guards to escort us to Conakry. This was a new experience for us. In all the years of travelling around West Africa with our equipment this had never before been deemed necessary. It did add a little spice to our journey (and to our budget!). However, at the border they were nowhere to be seen.
As we drove on we gave up finding these guards. We were told that ‘they will find you’. After all there is only one main road and there are few busses with several white faces and a load of equipment, so we did stand out somewhat. Some 50 miles into the journey, at Kankan, we were waved down by two armed guards in black jump-suits and berets, very smart and professional, each bearing an AK47. We feared the worst but it turned out that these were our pre-arranged guards. They were CMIS (Company Mobile Intervention Security), a government security organisation available for hire. They were tough guys but absolutely charming, polite and friendly, taking care of us at every step of the journey, each of the two busses carrying one guard.
On every road in West Africa there are numerous road-blocks: police, army, customs, local militia. A dozen such checks per day is not unusual, mostly just to confirm that all papers are in order but occasionally more troublesome. The investment in our guards paid handsome dividends: we were just waved through each time with many big African smiles.
Overnight in Dabola
We had arranged to stay overnight roughly half way through our journey in the town of Dabola. There were two ‘hotels’ in this town and we had made strenuous efforts several weeks before to book rooms. The rainy season had knocked out the telephones but we finally got through to make the reservations. We arrived at 7pm, just after sunset only to find that they, so they claimed, had booked our rooms for the day before. They had three rooms, not the five needed. Fortunately the second hotel had two rooms, just down the road, so we were all accommodated.
Checking in we were informed that the room rate was equivalent to USD $8 or GBP £4 per night and this certainly set the tone. I recall Bob, K4UEE, asking me if we could get some sheets for the bed (he doesn’t speak French). I then realised that we had a bed and a towel but no sheets. I asked at the bar and was pointed to a pile of sheets – make your own bed. But the spaghetti and beer were very welcome. This dinner cost about the same as the room-rate. Bob wondered whether there would be a ‘No Toilet Seat’ discount but none was forthcoming!
At 6 a.m. we were again ready for departure, our armed guards in tow, and we endured a long 12-hour day of bone-crunching, spine-shuddering, teeth-juddering pot-holes to reach Conakry. Apart from some very brief stops for diesel and cold drinks we encountered no problems (and no bandits) but we did enjoy the mountain scenery. There were forests but the only animal-life we saw were cows, goats and dogs. The larger bus developed problems, managing only walking speed up the steeper hills, which slowed us down considerably but it did keep going.
It’s now Sunday evening, five days before the start of CQWW CW. We arrived at the Camayenne Hotel in Conakry to find that the hotel’s air-conditioning system was malfunctioning, blowing only hot air. It will be fixed tomorrow, they said (it never was fixed!). We repaired to the bar for a well-earned cold beer.
Now all we had to do ( ! ) was to set up seven one-kilowatt stations and a dozen antennas, but we were really excited because the hotel was located immediately beside the sea. At high tide the waves lap against the hotel perimeter wall. After several years operating the contest from close to the Sahara desert at XT2DX, 5U5Z and TZ5A we would finally enjoy the benefits of salt-water take-off.
We had read that Guinea suffered civil riots some months earlier which had forced a change of government but all seemed ‘normal’ in Conakry when we arrived. This normality included cuts to the electricity supply a dozen times each day, but the hotel generator always kicked in leaving us stranded in our showers or elevator for only about 40 seconds each time. A minor inconvenience! Fortunately we suffered these power-cuts only about 7-8 times during the contest and everything fired up again quickly each time.
We had reserved a suite and adjacent bedroom for our shack, to cater for the seven stations. The suite had a 45,000 BTU stand-alone air-conditioning unit so was very cool but the adjacent bedroom (for the three LF stations) had only the central air-con system which was close to useless, blowing warm air. Also, several of the team were accommodated in rooms with the same poor air-con. This was to become our single biggest problem of the visit. The climate in Conakry is hot and humid, around 30°C or 90° F and 80% humidity around the clock. Several team members moved down from the 5th to the 4th floor where the air-con was better and we negotiated for a stand-alone air-con unit to be installed in the LF-station bedroom. As the hotel had no cash we each had to deposit dollars as down payments on our room-bills to provide the $700 for the hotel to buy the air-con unit. This, we should emphasise, was a 200-bed hotel but with low occupancy and minimal cash-flow. It was originally four-star when the Belgian airline, Sabena, used to own it.
Any such negotiation involves several meetings and hours of time-wasting frustration. We learned not to leave anyone to carry out promised tasks – they simply didn’t do them, so we had to accompany them all the way whilst it was being completed. We also quickly learned that a small gratuity (just a dollar) was likely to secure co-operation much better if given up front, rather than after the event.
The challenges of setting up our stations and antennas were ‘normal’. But the humidity cost us dearly. The roof, at 50 feet, had no restraining wall but we managed to find ways to anchor the guys for the various mono-band antennas. The 160 and 80 mtr verticals adorned the gardens, the hotel management and the other guests accepting that this was normal behaviour for crazy foreigners.
Tables and chairs were located and even more importantly the circuit- breakers were upgraded to 60 amperes per room, so we had plenty of mains electricity! The sun beat down but the elevator did work for the crucial periods when gear was transported to the roof. We will never forget that elevator, with its scraping noises and a heart-stopping, violent shudder every time we passed the first floor. After a while, though, we decided that the risk of getting trapped in it was worth it: we only had to climb the five-storey fire-escape a couple of times to realise that. We were each drinking around three litres of water each day.
We installed mono-band Force 12 beams for 10, 15, 20 metres, a Cushcraft 40-2CD for 40 metres, plus verticals for 80 and 160, a C3 tribander for mult-hunting and a 80 mtr sloper. Flag RX antennas for 160/80 mtrs, beamed to N/E and N/W, were installed on the roof and worked well (thanks to Ned).
The seven stations were one per band plus one for mult-hunting, each consisting of Elecraft K2 transceivers plus old Alpha 76 and 78 amplifiers. The K2 rigs are carried in each year with luggage but the Alpha amplifiers are taken out of the stock-pile each time and mostly just fire up without a hiccup. This time we burned out one K2 and one Alpha, using up all of our contingency gear, but we were OK so long as we time-shared the 160 and 10 mtr stations.
There were more frustrations on this trip than usual. We were blessed with ocean-side fresnel-zone RF enhancements but the lack of air-con and the climbing five floors whenever the elevator was out of order did stretch our patience. The hotel restaurant quickly ran out of anything which involved meat. The vegetable soup, chicken sandwich and fish were fine but quickly became tedious. The bar quickly ran out of anything but beer, but hey who’s complaining ? !
This used to be a four-star hotel. Everyone in the hotel tried their personal best to welcome us and we felt that they too were frustrated by the lack of cash. It came as no surprise to learn that new investors are looking to buy the hotel. Meantime, the current owners seem to be bleeding it dry.
Communications were also very difficult. It’s hard to imagine but the hotel had no telephone connection in or out, only internal between rooms. Our Cellphones didn’t work because there are no roaming agreements in Guinea, so we needed to buy local SIM cards. Thank Goodness for the Iridium phone provided by Bob, K4UEE. We did have slow always-on internet connection, negotiated with a local ISP for a fee, wired into our shack.
Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but when we met John/G4IRN and Rob/GM3YTS at Conakry airport the day after our arrival on the bus they, apparently, had been genuinely concerned as they had not heard from us since leaving Bamako. We had to explain that we really had no way of telephoning or texting. These days we have all quickly accepted that instant communications is the norm. But it’s not the norm in Guinea!
Another “strange but true” story concerns money. There are about 4,000 Guinea Francs to the dollar or 8,000 to the pound sterling, yet the largest denomination note in general circulation is 5,000. We all had bulging pockets and found it sensible to change money daily rather than resorting to wheel-barrows! Hotel exchange rates are always really poor so when checking out we called our Money Exchange man to the hotel again for some major transactions and then hauled large piles of filthy notes to the Cashier’s desk, in plastic carrier-bags. It was a pleasant surprise to note that when it came to cash everyone was straight and honest: exchange rates on the street were not open to negotiation and were fair, almost official, and we soon learned to do as they did and just count the number of bundles of 50,000 GNF (about $12 or £6) rather than counting each individual note. One 5,000 GNF note is folded around nine more. Even the hotel just counted the bundles when we were checking out.
Unlike almost any other country in the world Guinea insists that all amateur radio call-signs have a second letter in the prefix: 3XY. Each service, military, aircraft, marine, public comms etc has a letter and ‘Y;’ is for amateur radio. They then issue them in numeric-alpha sequence: 3XY1A, 3XY2A up to 9A, then 1B – 9B, etc. We were allocated 3XY5D so this was the call-sign which we publicised prior to the trip.
However, we explained that we would send this call-sign some 30,000 times during the 48 hours of the contest and the extra letter ‘Y’ would slow us down and damage our chances of winning the contest. We’re sure that they thought us crazy to make such a big issue of it. But they relented. To make a short call-sign on CW they created a new series: 3XT. They were right: ‘T’ is a lot shorter on CW than ‘Y’. Then to show their maximum co-operation the call-sign was officially changed to 3XT1. No suffix to minimise transmitting time! Again, we tried to explain that while their flexibility was greatly appreciated this would cause much confusion on the bands. Can you just imagine how many callers would think that they had not copied the suffix and ask for a repeat?
Could we not, as previously requested, change this to 3X5A, please? They did so, but this was confirmed only at the last minute and the new licence handed to us two days before the contest. This was a big relief to us and we want to thank Karel and Mr Camara for their tremendous help with local negotiations – it did make a big difference to us.
Many articles have been written about operating the contest so we will be brief. At the equator things are somewhat different. We were one of the few stations who could make QSOs on 10m, being close to the equator. The HF bands (20m, 15m and 10m) usually provide non-stop pile-ups which is the driving force behind our efforts to undertake these difficult projects. But this time, being at sunspot minimum, all HF bands were closed or nearly closed during the second half of the night.
It is the LF bands which demand special mention: 40m is known as ‘The Zoo’ amongst the VooDudes, as loud signals emanate from all directions, the pile-ups are enormous and the operating-skill of callers seems far worse than on other bands. We even resorted to transmitting high in the band and listening for callers a few hundred Hz higher. Each fifteen minutes or so we had to QSY and start a new pile-up as things would get completely out of control: continuous callers cover the frequency making it difficult to complete any contacts.
We suffered Cluster pile-ups within 3-4 minutes of starting on a new frequency each time. For us, DX Cluster is a curse – it seems to encourage callers to just hit the button and start calling without listening.
Our 160m and 80m antennas worked very well and we made (VooDoo) record numbers of QSOs, nearly 1,000 on 160m. This was no doubt the result of being immediately beside the sea. A number of people reported that we had big signals on these bands, much bigger than we usually have, and yet we were using our normal transmit antennas.
With only seven operators we were quite stretched to man the seven stations. We closed 10m at night, and even 15m for a few hours each night, leaving these two bands to be checked by the Mult station. Of course, 160m and 80m were closed in daylight, but 40m was workable for all but the middle 8-9 hours of the day.
The path to Europe (North and North-East) and North America (North-West) is ideal, mostly over salt-water. However, to Japan the path is far harder. We did make the first ever (we believe) 3X to JA contacts on 160m but unfortunately only three of them. The other useful opening to JA is long-path over South America in the middle of the night: this happened only on 15m this year with very weak signals, but we did manage to scrape in 100 or so. The VK/ZL openings are even harder to find, and yet the most difficult path this year was to KL7: not a single zone one was worked on any band.
On the computing front we elected to switch logging from CT to Win-Test this year for the first time. This was an excellent decision: it worked flawlessly, a great program. We also decided to go to wireless networking for the first time. Another great decision. No RF problems, even with seven KW in the room. With our internet always-on connection the Cluster spots were propagated to the appropriate band and all was sweet. We have John, G4IRN, to thank for this huge leap forward in our technology.
Our rough Claimed Score is as follows:
Compared to last year (TZ5A) the extra 160m and 80m QSOs made up for the reduction in 10m QSOs, so we finished with slightly more contacts, but fewer Mults and almost the same score.
The continents were as follows:
|Band||EU %||NA %||Rest %|
Before the contest we ran sporadic pile-ups as a way of testing antennas and stations and getting our operating up to speed. This is enormously enjoyable because outside the contest we can use proper split frequency DXpedition tactics. We also activated the WARC bands after the contest.
For the second year AA7A & KC7V also did EME on two metres. At TZ5A last year they made some 80 contacts. From 3X5A they made 125, aided by a second 16-ele beam. Seven CW contacts were also achieved but trips to the roof were needed every half-hour or so to turn the beam.
In total we made over 20,000 QSOs from Guinea, all on CW (except EME).
The evenings before the contest are also ideal for socialising, catching up with all the news with pals who we have not met for some long time. We were fortunate to find excellent restaurants in Conakry including a Chinese and an Indian just near the hotel. We found everything was cheap in Guinea. Group dynamics are also important: with only seven we could all stay closely in touch with what everyone was doing.
Ministry of Telecommunications
We were honoured to be visited at the hotel by Mr Sow, the Director General of the Ministry of Telecomms and several of his aides, including Mr Camara (Licensing) and Mr Bah (Training). They in turn invited us to visit the Ministry after the contest. They are all keen to develop amateur radio in their country and we are keen to offer help.
They wish to set up a club station, and already have a TS930 transceiver. We unpacked it and fired it up and showed them the fundamentals of using this equipment. They now only need a location and an antenna. We offered to supply some peripherals and will progress this project during our 2008 visit.
We can also help by securing training materials in French language, examination questions and so forth. They are already affiliated to IARU.
All these government officials were charming and welcoming, and we really appreciated their hospitality.
After spending five long, hot, sweaty, frustrating days setting up the whole station and antennas it was all dismantled in just a few short hours. We always employ some boys to help us with the lifting and carrying and they are happy to get the work, always proving very willing to please.
We then transported all materials to storage facilities at STI-Guinea, for which we are very grateful to Karel Waerzeggers, 3XY2A. They will stay there until next November.
To be recommended is the pre check-in facility offered by Air France. We went to their downtown office in the afternoon, checked our baggage and secured our boarding passes. This makes the airport experience in the evening much more bearable.
Then comes the boring bit: the long flights home. It is overnight to Paris then onward connections. Our U.S. team-members must find this considerably more tiring than the British.
As I write, we are just tackling the post-trip activities. This includes designing and printing the QSL cards, analysing our logs, submitting them to CQ and to LotW, final reconciliation of accounts, sending e-mails to action outstanding matters etc.
QSLs for 3X5A go to G3SXW, direct or bureau. Bureau replies can be solicited by e-mailing QSO details to firstname.lastname@example.org – we do not need your paper QSL card. Direct replies will be posted in early January.
Then, while the trip is fresh in our minds we draw up an action list for next year: equipment that needs to be repaired and acquired. Our usual modus operandi is to activate each country twice, so we expect to return to 3X5A next November. Then it will be time to move on. We have already started looking at maps and see that Sierra Leone, 9L, is only a short journey, and we understand that this country is quite stable these days. So, we might arrange a brief reconnaissance visit there next November to prepare for 2009. The following years could then also encompass Liberia, EL, and Ivory Coast, TU. The alternative is to move North to Guinea Bissau, J5 but then there’s little other potential further up the coast: Senegal, 6W, already has contest stations and we have previously activated Gambia, C5.
Whichever direction we choose to travel it seems highly likely that the VooDoo Contest group will be entering CQ World-Wide CW Contest for several years to come, from West Africa. All team members enjoy the experience enormously: we laugh a lot, we love the pile-ups and we embrace the challenges. Here’s to completing a second full sunspot cycle in Africa!
Thank you for all the QSOs – C U in November 2008 from 3X5A.
The position of the Hotel Camayenne in Conakry is shown below on the Google map:
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