By Roger Western, G3SXW
The importance of both a local contact and reconnaissance visits cannot be under-stated. In every country we have always managed to find an extremely useful contact and we have always made a pre-visit, except in one country where things did not work nearly as well – read on!
But first a note about terminology. In UK we use the word ‘recce’ for a reconnaissance visit. This always seemed to mildly amuse our American colleagues who use the term ‘recon’. I shall stick with my Britishness for this article! Here is a summary, ordered by countries visited.
Our first country worked well because we piggy-backed the SSB group from Central Arizona DX Association. They were there four weeks before us, for the CQWW SSB contest and left behind some equipment for our use. Importantly we learned from their experience about the Novotel Hotel and they put us in contact with the Ghana Amateur Radio Society. Of all the countries which we activated in West Africa only two, Ghana and Liberia, had such a club.
So, for Ghana we did not need our own recce visit – it was done for us by the SSB chaps! And they found the local contacts. This made it really easy for us. Once on the ground we got to know Ralph, 9G1RQ, who agreed to store our equipment for us in his shed. Ralph was not wealthy so we made him accept $1 a day for storage. Along with Kofi 9G1AJ, Philip 9G1PB, George 9G1RL and especially Samir 9G1NS we found extremely good friends who made our many visits to Accra a delight. They also worked hard at chasing up the licence applications and renewals for us which were always somewhat tortuous.
Also in Benin we uncovered a local contact, Peter TY1PS, and developed plans with him, by FAX (in the pre-Internet days!). We were to stay at his house, so again a recce visit was not essential. For example, Peter set up our transmitting licences before our visit. We learned what we needed to know, particularly about location and antennas, as we went along. In those days we were a small group with quite a small operation. As things grew bigger we couldn’t take chances like that! We became more ambitious so the risks of things going wrong grew: in those days we started to discuss aiming for the all-time world-record. Also travel gradually became more affordable so recce visits were more achievable.
The Benin project was very successful (we came first Multi-Multi) especially because our friends in Accra had introduced us to Expertravel Ltd, the company which transported us and our gear from Ghana, through Togo to Benin, and back again. The relationship with this company then blossomed: they were super-efficient, modern busses, highly experienced ‘protocol officers’ and drivers. We were to contract Expertravel for several future road-trips and were never disappointed with their service.
Crossing Togo into Benin only takes an hour or so, being fifty miles wide at that point. But we still had to negotiate customs & immigration. To pre-prepare we had secured (by FAX) letters of support from the British Consul, Jenny Sayer, in both English and French. In such a small country she was well-known – also she and husband owned and managed the British School, with hundreds of students, a major institution. These letters proved powerful and aided us through the border procedures.
For a recce, we had the ideal opportunity: we were driving right through the place, en route back from Benin to Ghana. Sitting in the bus we discussed the future. What about Togo, we asked ourselves. This was also the moment when we discussed a name for our group: I always blame Rob GM3YTS for shouting out ‘The Voodoo Contest Group’. In our euphoria of a highly successful trip this was instantly accepted. It was also Rob who suddenly pointed at a huge building and asked: “What is that?”. It couldn’t possibly be a hotel – but it was. We had stumbled across the Sarakawa Hotel with it’s fifty foot high, flat roof – a stunning 700 feet long, orientated West-East. Totally perfect. We spent an hour investigating the place and got to know the front-desk manager. Again, a one-off recce visit wasn’t needed, to find a suitable hotel anyway.
We had some spare time so again Rob (he has much to answer for!) suggested that we find the British School. Imagine, a bunch of dirty, sweaty guys turning up unannounced at a posh, well-kept, neat school, asking for Jenny Sayer. This went down very well – we were supremely impressed with the school and with the Sayers. They then became our local contact in Togo and the following year even agreed to store our equipment. However, on the back of another trip in the area (Ivory Coast, TU5A, ARRL contest) Roger G3SXW, Cris G4FAM and Tony N7BG visited for three days to make licence applications. We were stupid enough to arrange this over a weekend when the licensing office was closed but we managed to lodge them, just two hours before our departure flight! We then activated 5V7A three years running, flying in & out of either Accra (a 3-hour drive) or Lomé.
By 1998, after three years in Togo, it was time to move on. However, while Ghana, Togo and Benin are relatively close to each other, no other country could be reached with a one-day journey. We really didn’t want to head further East, into Nigeria. We decided to aim for Burkina Faso with a stop-over in North Ghana. After two more years operating as 9G5AA we finally made that journey in 2001. This was a situation where a recce visit was essential – we were by now a big group, with a big pile of equipment but we had very little information about licences, hotels etc. So, Fred G4BWP and Roger G3SXW visited for two nights, met Hugo XT2HB, applied for transmitting licences and toured all the hotels. The cost was later shared amongst all the XT2DX operators: when a cost is shared seven or more ways it becomes bearable.
Hugo became our local contact and we remained friends for many years, including his visits to UK. He managed our licence applications and provided all sorts of other assistance, especially finding storage for our gear. As to hotels, we were very lucky: our choice of the Hotel Splendide was based on the roof being the best available for our antennas. But when meeting the Business Manager to discuss our project it transpired that he was a licensed ham in France. What luck!
Again, having decided to target Niger for our next country we had very little information to go on. We made contact with Jim Bullington, 5U7JB, but at that point we did not have the full information that was needed. So, again the intrepid recce duo paid a visit. We selected the Grand Hotel and met Jim, applied for licences and got to know the lay of the land. This was by far the poorest city that we had seen in West Africa.
Each one of these recce trips could form a chapter of its own! Fred and I had fun but were, to be truthful, rather adventurous! On the way back to Ouagadougou, after the Niger recce, our four-by-four threw a wheel bearing. That was more ‘adventure’ than we really needed, whilst trying to make our flight back to UK! But we had achieved what was needed for the group visit the following November.
After two years signing 5U5Z again it was time to move on. We decided to move back West, rather than to go East into Central Africa. This meant returning the equipment to Burkina Faso, where Hugo again provided storage for us. Then, the following year, we moved it to Bamako, Mali. By this time we had set a trend: Fred and I uncovered a local contact and made the recce visit.
I was sat in a bus travelling from Dayton airport to the Crowne Plaza Hotel with a bunch of other hams. One of them was describing his operation in Mali. My ears pricked up! I asked him later and he provided the ideal contact: Siré Diallou. Here again we were to build a solid, long-lasting friendship: he was not a ham but provided all the assistance that we asked for. He was well-connected around town so when Fred and I visited he had prepared things (I had posted him a copy of our ‘Contesting in Africa’ book so he was well tuned-in). We visited all his recommended hotels. By this time we were a well-oiled machine! We did the deal with Hotel Olympe, applied for licences, tested out a couple of local restaurants and we were ready!
This was yet another example of a country about which we knew very little. We had happened across Karel, a Belgian chap who, as it turned out, had lived in Conakry for many years, running his own successful business. The intrepid reconnaissance duo made their now normal-practice visit for a couple of nights. We got to know Karel, checked out all the hotels and met the licensing managers. We also secured Karel’s agreement to store our stuff after the visit.
So in 2007 (and also in 2008) we were well prepared to activate 3X5A. It seems that our team had by now become experts at finding local contacts and making those recce visits and recognised that these are almost essential for the full success of our November visits.
We always do whatever research we can before a recce visit, including contacting anyone who had recently DXpeditioned to our target location. In this case we had lots of help from our good friend Andy, G4ZVJ/G3AB who pointed us towards Cape Sierra, Aberdeen where there were two suitable hotels. Fred and I were joined on our recce for this trip by Vince K5VT. We had our problems, especially at the border (a long tale!) and had our first and only traffic accident (yet another long story!).
However, we made it and were bowled over by the Hotel Bintumani, the perfect location for our needs. We had come armed with a description of amateur radio in Mandarin Chinese, met the local managers and all was sweet. Not so with our vehicle which developed all sorts of problems. We cut our visit short by one day, having achieved most of what we intended. Especially, we had got to know Zbig 9L1BTB/SP7BTB. What a great guy: he joined our team and was really enthusiastic to help in every way, including storage of our gear. Yet again, just one individual had come to our rescue, there being no local amateur radio club, and yet again a long-lasting personal friendship developed.
This was the one time that we did not carry out a recce visit. Neither Fred nor I, nor any others of the team, wanted to visit. So, instead we approached the Italian group who had recently DXpeditioned. Stefano IK2HKT was very helpful, giving us lots of detail about the Thinkers Village Resort. This included the several down-sides which did damage the project (almost no contacts on 160 metres for example). It also meant that we shipped our gear from Sierra Leone using a professional company. This incurred a large invoice and took a long time. Our normal way of transporting gear ourselves was clearly to be preferred – but no-one in the group wanted to make the trip this time.
But the group met Dickson, EL2DT, the first indigenous member of the LRAA club, and Richmond EL2BG (recently returned from living in California) was extremely helpful, with applying for licences etc. So for the second year, 2012, the 2011 contest visit had in a way served as the recce. We found a better hotel location, the Golden Gate Hotel, renewed licences and had a very successful contest.
In a way, our group grew over time and then eventually reduced – not so much in size of the group (always between five and ten) but in terms of ambitious projects, detailed recce trips, research and so forth. It’s as if we were beginning to run out of steam. We had had the adventures and started to find the frustrations of West Africa somewhat irritating, rather than enjoying the challenge.
But in those many countries we had met lovely people, seen a lot, learned a lot, won the contest several times, and wouldn’t have missed those years for the world. Especially the honour of developing several life-long friendships: Ralph 9G1RQ, Hugo XT2HB, Siré in Bamako, Karel 3XY2D, Zbig SP7BTB, Dickson EL2DT and Richmond EL2BG – to all of whom we say a big Thank You for such marvellous assistance. We would have been far less successful without you.
And come to think of it Fred and I, also Vince, thoroughly enjoyed those several recce visits. Stepping into the unknown was always an adventure. We knew that we were trying to set up successful projects for the whole team but we also loved doing it!
Now with light-weight equipment we don’t need to be tied to West Africa and our ageing stock-pile. Instead we can fly anywhere! This might not, in future, mean that recce visits and local contacts are not needed, but travel is cheaper, the internet provides marvelous research material so it is all somewhat easier than in days gone by.
In summary, reliable information is the key to successfully avoiding pit-falls, so that projects are successful. Much more information can be pre-obtained these days on the internet, even for out-of-the-way countries. So, hotel selection is now easier. But to gain the confidence of the hotel managers that we are responsible, experienced in what we do, reliable – is much easier face-to-face. Secondly, to obtain transmitting licences remotely is sometimes almost impossible in these countries. It needs, again, a personal contact with the licensing office, either by a local contact or by ourselves on a recce visit. Indeed, in Africa the personal touch is always of greater importance than in first-world countries. Oh, and never rely on normal post: letters are ignored so use e-mail, but to gain some degree of personal touch it is very worth making the first contact by telephone so that they know you are serious. There is often no magic wand – it just takes some personality and confidence to go for it!