S9DX – A German DXpedition to São Tomé in February 2011

With nine passengers, our weight limit for the air travel with the portuguese airline TAP was 180 kgs. Not much for three complete shortwave stations with amplifiers, mast, antennas, cables and so on. TAP charges 55 € per kilo and direction for overweight luggage! To avoid such extra costs we had sent an advance package of 20 kg to our hotel. It contained cable and other heavy material that we could have replaced and added to our luggage if the package had gone lost. Luckily the hotel confirmed the arrival of the package a month after it had been sent and few days before our departure. Even if part of our checked baggage would have gone lost had we still been able to become qrv one way or another.At Munich airport we met and convened from four different regions in Germany and everybody brought the equipment they had prepared for the expedition. Here we split up all material into handluggage and suitcases so that for example cables were spread over suitcases to minimize the consequences of a potential loss of a suitcase. Hartmut had urged everybody to carry as little personal luggage as possible as most of the weight limit was dedicated to our hobby’s paraphenelia. Even cameras were ‘restricted’. We took all three K3s and amplifiers into the cabin as our hand luggage.

A night flight via Portugal’s capital Lisboa took us to São Tomé and we arrived eleven hours after departure from Munich early at the next morning, 05:35z.

São Tomé and Príncipe is a Portuguese-speaking island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western equatorial coast of Central Africa. It consists of two islands: São Tomé and Príncipe, located about 140 km apart and about 250 km off the northwestern coast of Gabon. Both islands are part of an extinct volcanic mountain range. At sea level, the climate is tropical – hot and humid with average yearly temperatures of about 27 °C and little variation. Our visit coincided with the rainy season that runs from October to May. Rainforest covers about 74 % of the country. Other habitats include savanna and mangroves. Sao Tome and Principe are oceanic islands which have always been separate from mainland West Africa and so there is a relatively low diversity of species, restricted to those that have managed to cross the sea to the islands. However the level of endemism is high with many species occurring nowhere else in the world. São Tomé and Príncipe has little more than 200,000 inhabitants and is the second smallest country in Africa. It was released into independance from Portugal in 1975. There is a multiparty system since 1990, however governments have been instable. Sao Tome is amongst the countries with the lowest gross domestic products woldwide. 93 % of their exports are cacao.

At 8’o clock, three hours after landing we had passed immigration control. Travellers need to proof yellow fever vaccination. Malaria is also present in the country. Eventually we were ready for the trip with the hotel bus to the south tip of the main island of São Tomé. The driver and the staff loading our equipment did not comment but their faces left no doubt the amount and weight of luggage was totally different to the usual tourist’s.

The trip ahead was roughly 60 km. ‘No matter’ you might believe thinking of the roads back home in your country. The road we were to take actually was the main road on the island. It meanders along the eastern coastline. Some of the bridges over the rivers that flow into the sea, however, were broken. Noone cared and they were already overgrown by vegetation. Apparently, the local approach is not to repair the bridges but to use narrow fords instead besides. The driver carefully maneuvered the bus across.

The small boat from Porto Allegre at the south end of São Tomé needs little more than ten minutes to our final destination, the little island of Rolas. But everybody was required to use life jackets because we sailed on the Atlantic ocean. The island of Rolas is a vulcanic rock and extends for no more than three kilometers in any direction.

On arrival the hotel manager welcomed us with coconuts. Its milk is delicious, yet not too sweet and refreshing. The little island is used mainly by the hotel resort. The reception in this building is opposite the pier and provides WLAN internet access. Hotel guests are accomodated in semidetached bungalows. For the nine of us, we had three bungalows for living and one separate bungalow solely for use as shack. The shack was in the front line of bungalows facing the shore and offered enough space to set up our antennas. Most tourists choose these bungalows for the nice view and access to the beach while we accepted the extra cost because it offered more and better options for our antenna setup.

Though exhaused from the night flight and travelling, we immediately started erecting the first antennas. Everything had been configured and planned in detail to facilitate and speed up antenna work on site. Antennas were the responsibility of the Berlin members of the team, Siggi (DM2AYO), Rolf (DL7VEE) and the author. All antennas had been thoroughly pre-tested back home in the garden of our mastermind Siggi. Our SteppIR 2ele Yagi was the first antenna ready for operation.

At 15:28z the team leader Hartmut completed the first QSO of S9DX. He and Ulli (DD2ML) – the Bavarians – took care of the station setup including logging software, WLAN network, filters and cables. We had three identical stations to enable an operator to take over from another operator seamlessly or to change from one position to another. The stations consist of Elecraft K3s, Tokyo Hi Power HL-550 amplifiers and microHAM’s micro Keyer II. Logging was done with F5MZN’s Win-Test and all three notebooks were linked by a WLAN network perfectly configured and maintained by Ulli.

Tokyo Hi Power had promised Hartmut, to sell us the first two units of their brand new HL-550 amplifiers off the production line. Together with Hartmut’s HL-1.1kfx, the predecessor to the HL-550, we had three solid state Tokyo Hi Power amplifiers for our three stations. In addition, the HL-550 now also covers 6m. When our two amplifiers with serial numbers 1 and 2 arrived in January, Hartmut shocked me with reports of his testing them: He disconnected the antenna at full output power. Transmitted into short circuit and high SWR. Nothing happend to the ampliers. His rude operation of the amplifiers simply actived the safety curcuits. When the red LED is lit just switch the amplifier off for reset and continue operation. Hartmut insisted an amplifier would only qualify for DXpedition use if it put away such rough handling. Quite right: Not a single problem with the three amplifiers throughout the complete 13 days of the expedition, even not during the RTTY contest.

Immediately after the initial QSO an incredible pileup had broken forth. It is amazing to see the effect of DX-clusters at the other side of the pileup. During the first days the pileup was so huge that we couldn’t help it spread more than usual. We realized the scope covered to grow up to more than 10 or 15kcs, sometimes even 20kcs. However the only way forward to operate at a reasonable rate was to spread up callers by changing the receiving frequency for every qso.

Everybody not busy operating the station helped to complete more antennas. At the equator dawn is very sharp, it takes just a quarter of an hour from bright daylight to darkness. We knew we had little time left to erect verticals for the lower bands, at least for 40m. Our SteppIR BigIR covers 40m to 6m. In the housing is a motor driven beryllium band that runs within the vertical tube to adjust the antenna to any frequency between 40m to 6m for a perfect match. The SteppIR vertical To speed up work we erected the first verticals a little further behind the beach in temporary installation. The manager agreed with all our plans for further antenna construction over the following days but asked us to keep clear from the beach the next two days. There was a speedboat event on Saturday and these boats would land right at the stretch of beach next to our shack bungalow. On Sunday we moved the vertical to their final position. The TheTheafajdlf– and the 160m vertical that we setup on the next day – both stood on the beach. Perfect position for low angle dx radiation. We refrained from the water no further than necessary to make sure the flood at night would not reach the feeding point and cables. The 160m vertical was a L-shaped vertical using an 18m glass fiber mast by Spiderbeam. Some of the radials even ran into the sea.

But at 4:00z S9DX was on the band again. Rolf was one assiduous operator in the night shift crew. 160m and 80m were a hard job. In the first place because of the strong tropical QRN usually around s9. In other words: Callers with signal strengths below s9 had little or no chance to get through most of the time. Only two nights made a difference: With much less QRN a good number of qsos made their way into our log. Rolf was always busy long after midnight and Ulli served the night shift until early in the morning to make S9DX available during greyline openings. Unfortunately there was not enough space for a beverage antenna to improve lowband reception. This is also because we had to keep the walkways free of crossing cable or other obstacles that would have created a risk for other hotel guests or their children to stumple.

The holiday resort is a wonderful place to relax and enjoy life. There is a real big seawater pool – the management claim it is the largest in Africa – and invites guests for a relaxing swim. There is life besides amateur radio – even on a DXpedition!

A 10-minute walk is part of our daily routine: Breakfast and dinner are served at the north-east tip of the little island on a wooden canopied terrace with a marvellous view over the sea and across to the main island. Meals were provided as a buffet with lots of local fish and fruit. The way leads past warnings, « Beware of falling coconuts. » Though: What can I do to « beware »? Should I walk constantly looking up to the treetop? Obviously, getting hit by a coconut could have serious consequences. There lay many coconuts on the ground but we never actually watched or heard one falling.

Klaus (DK1AX) is an enthusiastic CW operator. But whoever seas and hears him working SSB pileups realizes that he developed a new passion for himself. Also, he was one of our photographers – on his walks he always had the eye for the perfect shot. Robin (DO2XX) works sideband pileups in such an experienced and calm manner that you had never guessed he was the youngest operator in the team. Probably a bit misleading to call him a rookie. Being the son of René (DL2JRM) great talent has undoubtedly been passed on to him. He is the one with next to no accent in his English. René does all his QSOs by hand – no « keystroke qsos » as he derogatorily calls it recalling preset memories. CW is his life. I don’t recall him doing many qsos in other modes. His experience of numerous activities from various other spots worldwide were invaluable to the team. Just remember his sucessfull activity as VU3RYO in New Delhi in April this year.

In the hotel resort we lived on the bright side of life. This came clear to us when we walked past the resident’s housing area. They live in simple wooden shelters without electricity or water taps. The little church, probably build by the Portuguese while São Tomé was their colony, is the only concrete building beyond the hotel resort. 80% of the Sao Tome citizens are catholic. The hotel operates a powerful generator for their own power supply. During our stay electricity was interupted only once and for a short moment. But we may have been lucky: One guest reported the generator had broken down the week before and all guests had been evacuated to a hotel on the main island for the weekend while the generator was replaced with a new one. In contrast to the shelters, our hotel accomodation was pleasant and clean. Also, there was air condition available.

In preparing the expedition Rolf and Hartmut had contacted the teams of VP8ORK and TJ9PF to coordinate our preferred working frequencies. This keep pileups apart from one another and to avoid confusion on the bands. It also helped callers to find the expeditions on the band when waiting for potential band openings.

The west coast of Africa is an excellent place for a DXpedition because of its similar distance to Europe, North and South America. When bands are equally open to North America and Europe at the same time, the pileup actually becomes twice as strong and demanding to handle. Our antennas on the beach had an excellent free take-off for North and South America, Europe and also Asia. But the hill behind (south of the antennas) meant a big abstacle for contacts to Australia, New Zealand and Oceania. Given the topography 64 VKs and 15 ZLs  is still a good result.

I remember my shift on 40m cw at Valentine’s Day from 22:00z with strong signals, most s9+ from Europe and Stateside. Stations were calling in a spectrum of 10+ kcs. The pileup was so dense that it was real hard to pick up individual calls, or sometimes even meaningful fragments. The only way forward was to sharply concentrate and focus on one caller. I tried to return with full callsigns whenever feasible. And I was glad to even pull out a couple of JAs who were calling below the loud majority of callers. A demanding shift but also an outstanding experience.

The island of Rolas provides two touristic highlights.

One is the landmark marking the crossing of the Equator with the Prime Meridian. It is within walking distance uphill from the hotel compound. The tiles on the ground around the column illustrate the continents, the Equator and the Prime Meridian. However, Hartmut’s GARMIN desecrates the landmark: though the Equator in fact runs across the island of Rolas, the Prime Meridian intersects somewhere in the open Atlantic. Anyway, we are pretty close to the virtual « center » of the world – and at its landmark on shore. It feals great to put one of your feet on the north and the other on the south hemisphere.

The other « must see »-excursion is the so called « blowing whole » at the opposite coast of the island.

A guide leads us through the tropical forest across the island. The shoreline here consists of black vulcanic rock. The « blowing whole » is a whole in the vulcanic rock linked with an extended system of connected caves. When the waves of the upcoming flood crash against the shore, water vapor is blown up.

During our stay the temperature was in the end-20°Cs most of the time. But there are clouds at times and the sun does not shine always. On two days there were sudden rainfalls. They did not last too long but were heavy. After the rain humidity increased and there was fog of damp. This is typical for the rainy season. Positive aspect: During the nights after rainfalls there is less QRN.

A closer look at our antennas: The SteppIR BigIR vertical and the 160m L-antenna stood on the beach in the best place available. Reports and feedback received indicate that they worked as perfect as you would expect from a vertical with ground water right below the surface. Behind them you can see the 80m vertical. It is fixed to a 18m Spiderbeam glass fiber mast as is the 160m L-antenna. Effective and easy to build. Lightweight and ideal for a dx-expedition with a transportation length of only 1,70m (abt 5 ft). To the 80m vertical we added a radiator for 40m. This allowed us to work on 40m while the SteppIR vertical was in use for other bands.

More flexibility was gained by triple leg antennas for 17m and 30m and a vertical dipole for 10m. These antennas were particularly useful during the weekend of the WPX RTTY contest when one antenna was reserved for RTTY and thus unavailable for the WARC bands. Siggi and Hartmut contributed strongly to the over 9,000 RTTY QSOs (2,000+ during the wpx) of S9DX. This offered a fair chance to everybody to work S9DX on RTTY.

Ulli’s versatile coverage of all modes and bands contributed to our desire to offer chances for contacts in as many bandslots as possible. With the slightly increasing solar flux we checked for band openings on the higher bands and tried to also pave asian callers their way into our log. We thank the audience in Europe and also America for their patience while we listened for JA and others whose bandopenings were short. Regrettably it only takes one impatient loud caller to destroy a QSO or to lengthen it to the detriment of everybody waiting. Lowbands were difficult because of the QRN level and the lack of space for beverage antennas.

We appreciate the big and favourable feedback from radio amateurs all over the world via the guestbook on our website http://s9dx.hkmann.de. There were far more than 5,000 entries on the cluster. It was part of our daily routine to read and consider your comments and your feedback on our website. In our team meetings we discussed suggestions received, our experiences and strategy. But there was no internet access in the shack. Operaters could not react on online requests for instant band changes. The reach of the hotel’s WLAN network was limited to the reception and foyer about 300m away from the shack. The foyer at the reception had soon become a popular meeting point. Particularly Ulli could be seen there frequently when he uploaded the log to

Everybody of the w hole team enjoyed the DXpedition very much. In the first place because of the positive atmosphere and friendship between all participants. Essential to the success of the DXpedition are of course the contacts you made with us and we would like to thank all callers for their patience and cooperation. Thanks to all of you who made our DXpedition a success and we apologize for those who did not make it into the log.

On the 17th of February the boat brought us back to the main island. On our way back we visited VOA – Voice of America in the outskirts of São Tomé. On request of Harmut the management had invited us for a visit. São Tomé is the home of their relay station for Africa. What we call coax cable in amateur radio at VOA is a tube as thick as a sewage pipe. Different league of dimension! Finally Hartmut had arranged for a guided tour that took us to a cacao plantation. Cacao is yellow – as a fruit! It was the first time for me to taste a piece of fresh cacao fruit. We learned how much effort and time it takes to produce the sweet chocolate of it that we know and enjoy. 93 % of São Tomé’s export is cacao.

 

Overall 66,697 contacts were completed within 13 days of operation. That is more than twice the number we had set as our goal before the expedition. Between the first and the very last QSO the average rate is 3.7 QSOs/minute. This includes streches of slow operation like lowbands at night or temporary interruptions during antenna works, team meetings or for other reason. The average number of QSOs per day was around 5,500. It dropped slightly during the RTTY contest at the weekend of 12th/13th February.

The top 10 DXCCs worked by S9DX reflect the excellent takeoff to America and Europe.

DXCC

QSOs

K

16,254

DL

8,258

I

4,963

UA

3,209

JA

2,998

SP

2,778

EA

2,613

UR

2,579

F

2,405

ROW

11,607

With more than 9,000 RTTY-QSOs – they amount to 14 % of all qsos (CW: 55 %, SSB: 31 %) – S9 should have made room for another country to move up into the TOP100 most wanted DXCCs on RTTY.

The number of QSOs on 20m was only slightly ahead of other bands because we tried to focus on the high oder low bands whenever they were open. Our efforts on 10m and 12m were supported by a slightly increasing flux towards the end of our stay. In total, almost 10 % of all qsos were done on these two bands. There were no workable openings on 6m and the outcome on this band was limited to few contacts to the Canary Islands. 160m was difficult because of the usually strong QRN and the lack of beverage antennas. With a view to these circumstances 763 QSOs – all in CW – are a reasonable figure.

band

QSOs

6m

4

10m

1,280

12m

4,776

15m

12,509

17m

12,042

20m

15,090

30m

8,227

40m

7,731

80m

4,280

160m

763

We are overwhelmed by the positive feedback received on our website and in comments on the DX-cluster. There were 5,266 entrys at the OH8X dx-cluster. We are particularly grateful the Chiltern DX Club CDXC for its donation towards the costs of the expedition.

We printed two versions of our QSL-card. There are many hams who worked us on more bandslots than can be printed on one card. They receive two cards with different photos. QSL-manager is Heiko (DL1RTL), also the manager of VK9XX, VK9XW and HS0ZII.

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