The story of FH/G3SWH

Over each of the past few years, Jim, G3RTE, and I have made at least one CW only DX-pedition together and when we left Guyana after the 8R1PW operation we planned that 2009 would be no exception.  It was a fairly quick decision that our next destination would be the French island of Mayotte at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel about midway between Madagascar and Mozambique.

 

The early sea-faring Arabs called these islands Djazair al Qamar (Islands of the Moon), which has been corrupted over the centuries into Les Comores in French and The Comoros in English.  Until the 18th century, the islands were ruled by a series of often warring tribal leaders but in 1782 Sultan Abdallah took control and sought aid and protection from the British but little stability resulted until the mid-19th century when, in 1843, the group was ceded to France and the islands became a haven for French planters and slaveholders who established sugar cane estates.  Mayotte was the only island in the archipelago that voted in referendums in 1974 and 1976 to retain its link with France and forgo independence.  The Comoros continue to claim the island, and a draft 1976 United Nations Security Council resolution would have recognized Comororian sovereignty over Mayotte, but France vetoed it.  Since 1995, the subject of Mayotte has not been discussed by the General Assembly.

 

Geologically, the archipelago is of volcanic origin and Mayotte is the oldest of the group, at around 15 million years.  The only one with an encircling coral reef, Mayotte is now characterised by relatively low, rounded hills, the highest of which is Mount Benara, reaching a modest 660-metres.

 

As with most tropical places, Mayotte experiences only two seasons.  The hot, wet and extremely humid period falls between November and April and the rest of the year may be described as “cool”.  The average, year-round coastal temperature is 25o and it rarely varies by more than 4oC.

 

Mayotte itself actually consists of a main island, Grande-Terre (or Mahoré), of around 356 sq. KM and a smaller island, Petite-Terre (or Pamanzi) of around 18 sq. KM, and several minor islets around these two.

 

Unlike Reunion, which is an Overseas Department, or French Polynesia, which is Overseas Territory, Mayotte is an Overseas Collectivity and enjoys the same status as a part of metropolitan France as St Pierre et Miquelon off the Newfoundland coast.  An election on becoming an Overseas Department of France is scheduled for later in 2009.  The subtle differences between the three definitions are beyond me, but the important thing from the amateur radio point of view is that Mayotte falls within the definition of CEPT Recommendation T/R 61-01, so licensing is not an issue provided that operators hold Full Licences.  We discussed and rejected the possibility of obtaining one of those strange, special French calls, as they give no indication of the correct DXCC entity and therefore cause much confusion.

 

hotel-trevani

 

There have been several recent DX-peditions to Mayotte, including two by Nigel, G3TXF, in 2000 and 2006 (in conjunction with Roger, G3SXW, in 2000), one by John, G4IRN, in 2003 and two in 2008, by Alan, F6BFH, and Georg, DK7LX, as TX7LX, all of which operated a fair amount of CW, so Mayotte is not very high on the various Most Wanted lists.  Of course, it was extremely helpful to have the local knowledge of these other operators to draw upon and we had very little difficulty in deciding upon where to stay: the Hotel Trevani on the north coast of Grande-Terre.  We even had recommendations as to which were the best rooms to take!

 

Getting there was a little more difficult.  The options were to fly via Paris to Reunion with Air France and then to Mayotte with Air Austral, which really is the scenic (and very expensive) route.  I was given to understand that there was a connection from the Seychelles, but couldn’t find any information, and finally tracked down reasonably priced flights from London via Nairobi with Kenya Airways.

 

It was in early August 2008 that Jim, G3RTE dropped his bombshell and informed me that he would be unable to join me on the trip for personal reasons.  Naturally, after so many successful DX-peditions together, I was extremely disappointed but at the same time grateful that he had given me plenty of notice.  Consequently, I set about trying to find a companion from amongst the hard core of the UK’s travelling CW operators and who was preferably also a FOC member.  After several false starts and almost on the point of giving up, I bumped into Richard, G3RWL, at the RSGB HF Convention, who expressed great interest and was able to confirm within a few days that he would be able to join me.  The original plan was for my non-amateur friend, Bill Vincent, who had been with Jim and me to Wasini Island (5Z4WI) and to Montserrat (VP2MTE), to travel with us.  Quite apart from being extremely good company, Bill would have a virtually empty suitcase and speaks better than passable French.  With Richard’s decision to join us, I booked the flights with Kenya Airways for the three of us for dates leaving the UK on 25th February and returning on 6th March 2009 and confirmed them with the Hotel Trevani by e-mail, clearly stating that we wanted rooms 101 and 107 facing directly on to the beach.  Amazingly, they did not require a deposit!

 

Unfortunately, early in 2008, Bill had developed a medical problem and although this was responding to treatment, his specialist advised him not to make any long-haul travel arrangements.  Consequently, in late November, he was force to withdraw and to forfeit his deposit for the flights.  Even with the 2 x 23 KG per person baggage allowance by Kenya Airways, this meant that Richard and I would need to be very careful with what equipment we took.

 

g3rwl

 

The subject of antennas promoted much debate.  The hotel is located right on the beach and has a wonderful take off to the north over the sea for almost 180 degrees.  Looking at the great circle map, this gave good coverage from the southern USA through Europe and Asia to Japan.  G3SXW, G3TXF, G4IRN and DK7LX had all operated from the Hotel Trevani and used verticals mounted on the beach near the high tide line, with great success.  I must confess to being somewhat prejudiced against verticals, not because they don’t work as well as horizontal wires but primarily because they tend to be “over gauge” as far as aircraft hold baggage is concerned and I’ve had two previous operations severely restricted as a result of the airline losing the ski bag containing verticals on the outgoing flight.  After much discussion, Jim, G3RTE eventually persuaded Richard to borrow two 10-metre long telescopic fishing poles.  Richard took his usual quarter-size, half-size and a full-size G5RVs and lots of coax.  I took my tried and tested doublet with a 30-metre top which fits very nicely into a suitcase.

 

In early December I issued a short press release officially announcing our DX-pedition to the various DX bulletins under the single callsign of FH/G3SWH.  The announcement contained the fateful words “there may be some 160-metre CW activity”.  Mayotte is quite rare on the low bands and we were inundated with requests for skeds from all over the world.  Although we tried to explain that any such activity would be entirely subject to QRN, antenna space and local site conditions, the 160-metre gang was quite insistent and Richard was quite keen to satisfy as many of them as possible.  I’m afraid that, having previously tried to operate on the low bands from that part of the world as 5H1/G3SWH and 5Z4WI, I remained skeptical.

 

The official language is French but a version of Swahili is widely spoken, together with numerous local dialects.  English is quite rare and both Richard and I spent some time before travelling polishing up our very rusty French.

 

Richard and I met at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 and literally bumped into Ted, 5Z4NU, at the check in desk.  Ted is an old friend from the 5Z4LI and 5Z4WI operations and had been in the UK for medical reasons.  The overnight, outgoing flight was uneventful and after a short stop over in Nairobi, we boarded the flight to Mayotte, arriving there in the late morning, local time.  The temperature was 31oC, quite a shock after a cold February day in London!  The baggage all arrived, but we were given a bit of a hard time by the local Customs officers, who seemed to think that we were carrying some sort of goods for sale.  My limited French wasn’t up to the task, but they eventually let us go without demanding any duty or confiscating anything.  The airport is actually on Petite-Terre and it is necessary to take the ferry across to Mamoudzou on Grande-Terre, which runs at half-hourly intervals.  I was expecting to be met by a driver from the hotel, but nobody was there, so we grabbed a taxi to the Gare Maritime at Dzaoudzi and boarded the ferry, taking another taxi for the 11 KM journey to the hotel.  Whilst we got ripped off by the two taxi drivers, nobody asked us for a fare for the ferry.

 

Despite the clear request in my booking e-mail, the hotel had put us in adjacent rooms, 106 and 107.  Fortunately, the manager spoke reasonable English and, together with my limited French, we explained that we wanted to be as far away from each other as possible.  He couldn’t do anything immediately, but the next day Richard moved about 100-metres away to room 102.  The rooms were very comfortable with en-suite facilities and air conditioning, which is most important in that climate.

 

After a quick lunch, we set about viewing the antenna possibilities.  There is a screen of palm trees overhanging the beach between the high tide line and the beachfront rooms, but they are very close together.  There is a track owned by the hotel immediately behind the beachfront rooms and another row of rooms behind that.  The land rises steeply behind this second row of rooms and is populated by some much taller palm and baobab trees.  Unfortunately, this hill effectively blocks all signals to the south of the site.  My catapulting skills were severely tried attempting to get lines over these trees, but eventually I managed to get my doublet running east/west between two of the tallest at a height of around 15-metres to the centre.  In anticipation of his move the next day, Richard used one of the fishing rods and rigged his half-sized G5RV.  We quickly set up the stations and Richard made the first QSO with ZS5LB on 30-metres at 16:03 UTC on 26th February.  I started off on 40-metres but, after calling CQ for quite a while, had only managed to work VU2TS.  Despite both of us using Dunestar filters we suffered a high degree of mutual interference, because the antennas were so close together, so I left Richard to a nice run on 30-metres, unpacked and had a much needed early night.

 

I was up early the next morning and had a nice run of mainly far eastern stations on 20-metres.  After breakfast, we moved Richard to his new room and, once again using my fabled catapulting skills, rigged his full sized G5RV parallel to the beach and between two convenient trees, almost end to end with my doublet.  We also rigged his quarter sized G5RV at a different angle.  Both antennas were at about 15-metres to the centre.  It was then that we were able to settle down and to run the pile-ups, which were quite ferocious at times and much more intense than Richard had previously experienced on any of his previous DX operations.  We worked many old friends who greeted us by name:  Richard was often called Phil, I was often called Dick and we were both often called Roger (whoever he might be).  Thankfully, the move had obviated the mutual interference problems although we both continued to use the Dunestar filters.  The QSO total racked up steadily and we saw little of each other except at meal times when we discussed performance and strategy whilst watching the nightly display of lightning flashes.

 

g3swh-fh 

 

I was aware from my correspondence with the hotel that telecommunications were not very good but we had been hoping for good Internet access from the hotel.  Whilst the manager was happy for us to use his office computer (which had a French keyboard, of course), it was via a very slow and extremely unreliable dial-up connection.  Of the three cell phones we had between us, only one connected to a local network but we were at least able to send and receive text messages.

 

Given the interest in low band activity, we tried 80-metres on the evening of 27th February and called CQ laboriously with only one QSO with ZS1JX, who was obviously having trouble hearing us.  The QRN level was very high, not unexpectedly given the lightning, and we made no other QSOs that evening.  Richard was anxious to try 160-metres and, as there was no room to erect a separate antenna for that band, proposed laying out two 40-metre radials along the high tide line and to strap together the feeder on the full-sized G5RV.  We kept in touch with Bernie, W3UR of “Daily DX” fame, by text message and arranged a sked for 2nd March.  Bernie was requested to publish this information so as to maximize the opportunities for QSOs with the USA and Europe, depending upon the success of which we could arrange further skeds for far eastern and Pacific stations.  Richard did manage a QSO with W3UR but only made four other 160-metre QSOs that evening.  Being 2 a.m., Richard had big trouble keeping his eyes open.  We’re both of us getting too old for these late night sessions!

 

Previously that same evening, Richard had once again tried 80-metres and managed to make 35 QSOs with European stations in an hour under heavy QRN.  Surprisingly, he said that the QRN was less on 160-metres than on 80-metres.  Next day we agreed that we had tried and could consider our efforts an honourable failure, deciding that our time would be better used giving out QSOs on the higher bands than fighting the QRN and that there would be no more 80-metre or 160-metre operation.  With the benefit on hindsight, the timing of our DX-pedition could have been better as far as the low bands were concerned, as it fell during the rainy season.  When I got home, Georg, DK7LX told me that, at the time of his June 2008 operation, QRN was quite manageable.

 

Richard also discovered an interesting point about receiving through heavy QRN. Those people who sent their CW too fast just got chopped up by the QRN. It seemed to be best when the CW speed is about the same as the shot-rate of the static crashes. Those who slowed down (to about 17-18 WPM) got through, but they had to be pretty strong anyway just to beat the noise level. He could hear lots of stations running fast but they didn’t beat the noise.

 

On the afternoon of 3rd March, we were visited by Alain, FH1LE, who is an English teacher in one of the local schools and his English is excellent.  Alain and I had been in contact via e-mail prior to leaving the UK and had sorted out some very important details for us when I couldn’t get replies from the hotel direct due to the poor Internet access.  The weather that afternoon was appalling, with extremely heavy rain and Alain got soaked. I had hoped that he would have been able to join us for a meal but we did manage a beer or two whilst chatting and counting the time between the lightning flashes and the claps of thunder.

 

Richard had announced that he wanted to operate some RTTY or PSK31 once the pile-ups had died down, but they never did.  He did try RTTY on both 20 and 15 metres, but could not generate very much interest, making only 8 QSOs in total.

 

The table below shows the full QSO breakdown by band and mode:

 

BAND

160

80

40

30

20

17

15

12

10

TOTAL

CW

5

36

350

1,099

2,102

3,262

2,505

491

38

10,103

RTTY

0

0

0

0

7

0

1

0

0

8

TOTAL

5

36

350

1,099

2,109

3,262

2,506

491

38

10,111

 

We were quite delighted that 12 –metres and to a lesser extent 10-metres opened to Europe during our operation.  The trick seemed to be to announce the intention to QSY from a different band once the pile-up had been reduced, rather than just to go on and call CQ on what appeared to be an otherwise dead band.

 

As always, stations making duplicate QSOs were a problem.  In the light of previous conversations with G3SXW, G3RTE and others, Richard and I resolved to log all duplicate QSOs on this trip.  I started off doing exactly that, but the numbers were just too high to be as the result of missed acknowledgements so that after the second day I refused to work or log any duplicate QSOs.  I firmly believe that the vast majority of such QSOs are as a result of bad operating and should be treated as such.  Richard thought it was quicker just to work them rather than argue and ended up with 107 dupes compared to my 35. Dupe policy is obviously a matter of personal preference.

 

Earlier in the year, I challenged a well known G3 operator as to why he was attempting to make a second 160-metre CW QSO with ZD8UW, only to be told that he was “testing the ZD8’s receiving set up”.  Words failed me, I’m afraid.

 

All too soon it was time for us to go QRT.  By one of those strange coincidences, Richard made the last QSO with Georg, DK7LX, who had operated from the Hotel Trevani as TK7LX in 2008.  Georg later told me that we’d given him four new band slots.  The timings of the flights back meant that there would be no activity on the morning of 5th March, as originally planned.  We needed to be up at dawn to take down the antennas and pack up before the taxi back to the airport left at 9.15 a.m.  Once again, we got ripped off by the taxi drivers but, again, somehow managed not to pay for the ferry across to Petite-Terre.  The girl at the airport check-in desk wanted to charge us excess baggage but when we explained that we were traveling on to London, she relented.  The flight actually landed at Moroni in the Comoros to refuel, and I managed a very sneaky extra DXFC, much to the amusement of the cabin attendant.  There was a six hour wait between flights in Nairobi, which is not the most comfortable of airports, although the flights themselves were uneventful.  The temperature in London when we arrived was -1oC and I had to scrape the frost off the windscreen of the car before I could drive home.  Quite a shock to the system, believe me!  Richard took the London underground from Heathrow to his local station, where Sylvia collected him.

 

Richard has asked me to add his personal apologies for not sending the callsign often enough early in the trip.  In the heat of a pile-up it’s easy to forget this and experienced DX operators discipline themselves to do it.  New DX-pedition operators might want to take note of this.

 

It was extremely disappointing to download the Cluster spots from DX-Summit and to find that we had been the subject of pirate activity, particularly on 80-metres SSB after we had closed down.  I just hope that the pirate didn’t disappoint too many people.

 

The logs have been uploaded to and are fully searchable on my web site (www.g3swh.org.uk/mayotte.html) and Richard, G4ZFE, has kindly modified his Searchlog program to show the operator’s callsign against each QSO.  Special, colour photo QSLs have been printed and are available direct with SAE and adequate return postage (recommended).  Bureau cards can be requested from the web site and will be processed as quickly as possible.  Cards are also available via the traditional bureau route.  Logs will be uploaded to LoTW after I have weeded out as many of the inevitable busted calls as practicable, probably in July or August 2009.

 

Our particular thanks go to our XYLs, Sylvia and Jan for allowing us to go; to Jim, G3RTE for the loan of equipment and to all the staff at the Hotel Trevani (www.hoteltrevanimayotte.com/) for making this DX-pedition possible, as well as to all of our sponsors (RSGB, Chiltern DXC, GDXF and Clipperton DXC) for their support and for making this DX-pedition possible.

 

oooOOOooo

 

 

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