9L5A team in 2010:
Rigs: Elecraft K3s & Aplha amplifiers: Two one-kilowatt stations.
Antennas: Three beams, LF wires, multi-band vertical.
Claimed score: 10,151 QSOs; 159 zones; 627 countries = 23.7m points.
Note from team: The view on the front of the QSL card is to the North, an ideal take-off to EU and NA. This was our 19th straight year in West Africa: nearly two sunspot cycles participating in CQWW CW, the best contest ever! We have made about 250,000 CW contest QSOs. In Freetown we thank Zbig 9L1BTB for wonderful support.
The following article appeared in the Chiltern DX Club members’ Digest:
Roger Western, G3SXW
Four intrepid contesters travelled to Sierra Leone in West Africa in late November to take part in the CQ World-Wide DX CW contest: Ned AA7A, Roger G3SXW, Fred G4BWP, Bud N7CW. We had a great time and made a big score. But what about all those weird happenings that we seldom get to hear about? There were many: mostly amusing, some frustrating and all absolutely fascinating. There is nothing better than travelling to unusual locations, really mind-expanding.
Naturally, putting together the station inventory, travel itineraries, booking hotels, renewing licences, designing antennas, setting targets and operating rosters: all these are hugely time-consuming and vital to success. On the other hand we have all read so many such stories before. After all we have so many DXpeditions these days! What perhaps we might like to hear about is the unusual, the bizarre, the dirt on what REALLY took place, behind the scenes. Here are a few such anecdotes.
Freetown Lungi International airport is located most inconveniently on the other side of a two mile wide river estuary from the city. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office country report for Sierra Leone advises that there are several options for reaching the city. In no special order they list ferry, water taxi, helicopter or a 150 mile road journey to cross a bridge. Their report ends with the words: “None of these routes is recommended”. HA! Within recent times a ferry sank and a helicopter crashed . . . life is to be taken into your hands, y’understand. A year ago Nick G3RWF took the ferry and found it a disturbing experience: no apparent safety measures, over-crowding, pick-pockets. We decided that it would be helicopter, notwithstanding the extra cost. But unfortunately there was some commercial dispute and this service was suspended. We chose water-taxi instead. This worked out fine: life-vests provided in a 40-seater boat which took 40 minutes to cross the estuary. This was functional. And by the time we came to leave ten days later the helicopter service had been restarted so we each spent the USD $80 for the ten-minute hop across the water. But this worked only after they had despatched a truck from the heli-pad to buy fuel for the generator to provide lighting and power to start the rotor blades.
On checking into the Bintumani Hotel we knew already that the USD $140 per person per night was outrageously over-priced for the 3 star accommodation but this was a truly excellent RF location so we grinned and bore it. Most rooms are low-rise but we, naturally, plumped for rooms in the one 5-storey block. Nicely appointed and decorated but with one disadvantage: no elevator and no air-con except in the rooms. Those stairs quickly became very tiresome. Fortunately we had some porters carry our mountains of luggage up to the 5th floor for us (they earned their tips that night) and we settled into the nice bedrooms.
During the bargaining for room-rate we had been told that this new 5-storey block was full so no discount was available. During our whole stay we saw only two other guests in these 50 rooms! Then again we had promised the hotel seven guests and ended up with only four. They could not understand the arithmetic: the other three had dropped out (so our argument went) because the room-rate was increased by 40%, up from $100, last year. They would have grossed more income for 7 x $100 than 4 x $140. Duh! Anyway, we were delighted to have one of the best locations for our antennas on the whole West African coast.
This hotel is Chinese owned and managed. Since last year the whole building had been festooned with 3-colour LED lights, the moving sort which flashed all round the building, especially on our block on which was perched a massive sign of the hotel name, some 30 feet long and 15 high, and all along the edge of our roof. The red, blue and yellow lights might be considered pretty by some but the yellow was intermittent and maintenance chaps were up on the roof most of the week trying to fix the problem. The Chinese gang-master spoke not a word of English and threw a tantrum at one point after we had installed one of our antennas. When we finally found an interpreter it turned out he thought that we had drilled into his precious roof. Sliding the base a few inches to prove that it was not pinned down was enough to send him off with no further word. Social skills were not his forte.
However, all that aside, the big issue for us was of course RF interference. We all know what neon lights can do to the HF spectrum but how would these thousands of LEDs affect us? As it turned out the 2ele 40 metre loop did pick up some low-level noise, not helpful. The other bands were less affected. A 40 metre sloper (to the North naturally) was off the roof and picked up less noise. So, on that band it was best to transmit with the loop and listen on the sloper. Our fears about these lights were largely unfounded but they were an unwelcome development nonetheless.
Staying in a hotel for ten days you do need an occasional break from the hard work of setting up a big station. The restaurant fulfilled the basic requirement of preventing hunger but did little more than that! Menu was half International and half Chinese. Being a Chinese owned hotel the head chef was of course Chinese and his Chinese food was indeed very acceptable. The ‘International’ food was less so. No problem: we all enjoy Chinese food anyway so – it goes without saying – when in West Africa eat nothing but Chinese for ten days!
The bar consisted of a portable three-foot blob on wheels, located in the main lobby. This was positioned immediately beside the television, of course! We seldom frequented this ‘bar’, a major disappointment! The pool was frequented, once by Fred G4BWP, to my knowledge but it looked a bit murky to me. Nice for sitting next to, with a cooling G&T in the early evening though! The casino was popular with Chinese people. Again to my knowledge none of us entered.
That was it, mate! We just enjoyed each other’s company, a magnificent meeting of minds, i.e. sense of humour. We did of course go out to eat in local restaurants a few times, most enjoyable.
SP7BTB/9L1BTB is responsible for the U.N. helicopters in Freetown. His fleet has reduced since the war from 22 to just one, much to our advantage as Zbig has an amount of free time to spend with us. What a star! A real live-wire, full of energy and can-do attitude. He made the whole visit so much more successful.
His local knowledge was especially valuable, of course. If we needed to change money he pulled into his local filling stations and asked for “300 special litres” (to change USD $300 into local currency). The currency is the Leone, roughly 5,000 per dollar. The biggest note is 10,000 ($2): wheel-barrows recommended. He of course also knew the best places to eat.
After installing all the antennas we had enough spare time to take a trip down the coast to “River Number Two”. (Apparently there is no Number One!). This is a superb beach an hour’s drive south of Freetown. After a bone-jarring ride on dreadful roads we sat and enjoyed Zbig’s wine and snacks. He and Fred had a dip in the sea. Then we went for lunch in a local restaurant, magnificent raw fish carpaccio. And then we were treated to an unexpected spectacle. A big truck arrived on the beach just in front of us. A dozen guys started shovelling beach sand into the truck. Within ten minutes two policemen arrived brandishing rifles and arrested them all. These guys were made to walk on their knees, hands behind their heads, for 200 yards where their boss was interrogated. All the while we were enjoying our lunch and jolly nice wine. Finally they were all let go, but the truck was confiscated. Just as we were leaving the truck returned – empty. Now where did all that sand go?!
I mentioned that Zbig was a star. He did really sterling work to rig the 160 metre dipole across to a neighbouring building and two 80 metre slopers out into the mini-forest. What an effective guy. Nothing was too much trouble for him!
Some infrastructure development is indeed happening in Freetown these days. There has been such a massive influx of humanity into this already incredibly congested city with barely enough basic facilities that the extra population is stretching things way beyond breaking point. Things such as roads and water supply are clogged. Not to mention frequent power cuts.
On our way to the beach we saw what Zbig had been trying to describe to us: an amazing sight! They had decided, quite sensibly, that the arterial route out of the city, to the South, needed widening. It was a simple road, just about two winding lanes wide. So they came along and marked out the minimum width to which the road would be widened. Unfortunately many buildings like homes and shops had been built on the newly sequestered land. Instead of pulling them down and offering compensation they simply came along and chopped down buildings, back as far as the new road-edge. Driving along this road we saw many half-houses with gaping holes into living rooms. This stretched for a mile or two. Meantime, the water-main was lying exposed and folks had been cut off. So what did they do? Of course they simply ran some blue plastic pipe from their newly decimated house and tapped into the water supply.
I suppose in the long-term it will be an improvement but for the time being residents are struggling somewhat!
Nothing surprising happened. No power cuts. No PTT inspections or anything untoward. We operated two Elecraft K3 stations non-stop (24 hours operating time for each operator) and scored some 24 million points in the Multi-Two category. Later we learned that we had been beaten into 3rd place, World. Never mind: winning is always nice but not essential.
Our one-ton stock-pile had finally been shipped down to Freetown by truck from Conakry, Guinea (3X-land) and seemed to have mostly made it. We lost two of nine tower sections but everything else was mostly there. Unfortunately when powering-up one of the Alpha amplifiers it went up in smoke – a risk we take when storing stuff for two years with no air-conditioning. As we only needed two amplifiers and had seven in stock this was a minor problem!
We did have a DX Cluster connection which added to the fun and multiplier score. But only because Zbig loaned us his Zain Mobile dongle, permitting slow internet, but adequate for the low data amounts. The hotel’s WiFi did work but only on the wrong side of the building!
As always in low sunspot years we made, I’m sure, far more ten metre QSOs than anyone else. We have that advantage, counter-balanced by lower LF numbers. Our competition in CT3 creamed us on 40 metres which I concluded was blurring of pile-up CW signals by the K3, seriously depleting our hourly rates. VK/ZL is always by far the most difficult path from West Africa but JA has some good openings, on several bands.
Our contest group has operated in West Africa for approaching two sunspot cycles. The usual way is to move country every other year. We’ve done most of those countries now and the next logical step geographically is to move South to Liberia, EL-land. As with Sierra Leone the wars there are long gone so safety is less an issue. Logistics are more of a problem, especially moving the equipment. Some initial researches suggest that this could be made to work but won’t be easy. Freetown to Monrovia is only 200 miles as the RF flies but is over 300 miles on appalling roads, a 2-day drive. Ferries don’t exist. It might be that Zbig’s helicopter can be put to good use! We shall see.
Come what may, the VooDoo Contest Group will be in action again next year from somewhere. We wouldn’t miss CQ WW CW for the world!