5M2TT DXpedition Liberia 2011
In front of a huge barbeque at Gino’s (IK2RZP) house, welcoming the approaching winter we were watching the DVD of the last Togo dx expedition. Guess what, we were looking for a new destination, once again.
We are familiar with West Africa, we have been there several times and all the possible destinations are well known, as well as the relevant rank in the most-wanted list. We already gave up the idea of going to Ivory Coast, owing to the unsafe situation there, but Liberia seemed interesting, as it had not been seriously activated for a long time. The country is not within the 100 in the most-wanted but we experienced the ranking lists often does not represent the real need of many OM.Immediately we started our investigation work to verify the feasibility of a dx expedition there. Surfing on the net we discovered that the elections were planned within the end of 2011; as we know that election time could be rather “hot” and turbulent, it was better to anticipate the operation at earliest to avoid to come across some problem. March is still a good period, as the temperature is still good for us, no heavy rain and the nights are still long in the Northern hemisphere, which helps for the propagation. The solar spot is still unknown, due to the transition period toward a high solar activity. Having good friends around the world is always a good thing. We met Massimo (IZ0EGB) during the Sierra Leone dx expedition in 2008 and now it is the good time to contact him to get the right suggestions to get the license and the necessary authorizations.Massimo was very kind to support us, it is very important to find somebody on site who can spend some of his time talking with the authority and paying the visits to the various offices. We are sure he will remember for a long time how we have stressed him with our mails and telephone calls! We found, surfing on the net, a resort in which all the basic requirements for our activity are suitable: independent bungalows, electric power, internet connection and a nice and attractive swimming pool. Just an issue, the resort manager, after understanding what we intended to do there, sent us a short and drastic reply “broadcast in the resort is not allowed”. Massimo has been immediately involved and thanks to his politeness and diplomacy we finally got the permission. Unfortunately no rooms were available before the end of March, therefore we planned to postpone our trip by a couple of weeks.
Now we are happy and quiet: we found the right place where to stay, the path to achieve the license is in progress, the season is the right one, as it is far from the rain season… what else? While waiting for the Liberian Communication authority to release our license (in words, they said it is a formality, just a matter of getting the final signature), we booked the fly to Monrovia. After a few weeks the fee payment request for the license arrives then, euphoric for the imminent releasing of the callsign, we take care of buying the air tickets, in order to avoid any inconvenience at the departure. As per the previous expedition in West Africa, the route is via Casablanca, leaving from Milano Malpensa. The operative phase of the expedition preparation starts: we need to optimize all the details to save time in the stations set up, Stefano IK2HKT is in charge for setting the rigs and the software, Silvano I2YSB, starts to fit all the equipment into the relevant packages, taking into account the size and weight limits imposed by the Royal Air Maroc. Vinicio IK2CIO works to get the new laptops and to contact the sponsors, which always supported us to afford the innumerable expenses. He managed to obtain the VISA from the Liberian Consulate in Rome, thanks to I0JBL for his help. Angelo’s (IK2CKR) van have been overhauled and ready to get us to the airport. Marcello moves to get candies and diarrhea tablets, as in those countries it is normal to spend some hours “meditating” in the bath room. At the end, everyone has a specific duty and all are moving for the best organization of the dx expedition.
Due to family and job reasons Alfeo (I1HJT) and Carlo (IK1AOD) will not join us. Ok, having 4 stations ready and being 5 operators only, we know it will be a heavy job; nevertheless we will go ahead. Apparently all was going on as smooth as glass, too smooth… and in fact, just 10 days before our departure unexpected bad news arrive: we are informed by the resort manager that no bungalows are available for all April.
After the initial discouragement, we started to stress Massimo to find a solution, as we had already paid for the license and the air tickets (not refundable) therefore the expedition could not be cancelled without wasting a lot of money. Luckily, by surfing on the net, Angelo and Silvano discovered a further resort, which seems suitable even if it looks not as big as the previous one. When we call Massimo we realise he was right back from visiting the same place we found! There is not land enough to lay long receiving antennas for the low bands (DHDL or beverages for 160m). For this reason, and thinking the season is not the best for 160m, we decided to renounce to operate on that band, concentrating our efforts on the high bands including 6m, which is a new one for many dx’ers Thinking also of the restrictions imposed by the Royal Air Maroc, renouncing the 160m band and operating on 6m, means to stay within the allowed weight, without the need to pay for some overweight. For the “magic band” a quad antenna may perform very well, Silvano invented 2 kg heavy 3 element quad to try to put in log at least some qso, funny is that in the end we had in the log more than 800 qso on the magic band!
After some mails and telephone conversations with the manager we could settle the conditions of our stay in the future base camp and we are finally ready for our departure. We expected a boring trip even though the flight time is not so long. We entered Malpensa airport by early afternoon on March 30th. After a long transit in Casablanca, we could land in Monrovia at 04 am. GMT the following day. We were surprised by the Customs operations, which were unexpectedly fast. Thanks to the documentation we carried from Italy, the Customs officers, all women, could release all our stuff (10 packages for more than 300 kg of material), almost immediately. We will never know if it happned because we submitted them the proper documentation or if it was due to the large smiles and winks addressed to the ladies….
Truth is that, for the first time in the last years, we could enter the country so easily, getting in the resort after half an hour only. In spite of that, we were tired by the trip, we were too excited to sleep and at sunrise we were ready to commence the set-up of the radios and erect the antennas. The team is knit together after so many operations, then we can optimize the time and the 5M2TT callsign is on the air in CW at 15,53 GMT.
It is not worth saying that the pile up was immediately very intense, which reconfirms that very often the “most-wanted” ranking does not represent the real needs of many radio hams.We would like to continue in the set-up for the other stations but the high temperature and the humidity, together with almost 72 hours without rest, recommend us to “charge our batteries” and we allow ourselves to take some rest.
After spending the first night in Liberia sleeping, we are ready to face the following day under a good omen. Along the day the final set-up is ready, including the station for the phone, the digital mode and, finally, for the 6 meter. It is usual to suffer of a bad internet connection in Africa but, thanks to the “miracle and incomparable” software written by Giacomo IH9GPI, the on-line log update is ready to work perfectly for the whole expedition duration. It is just 36 hours from our arrival in Liberia and all the 4 stations are on air simultaneously. We have to underline the suffering which affected the digital mode station. Due to the huge mass of signals coming at the front end, the whole band like a unique sound, it is impossible to decode the mark and space signals. Of course we suspected, at the beginning, some fault in the PC sound blaster or some noise or external interference, but finally we realized it was because so many signals at a very high level crossed one on the other while calling.
Silvano, who operated 99% of the qso in RTTY, sweated a lot, and not only because of the temperature, to put some callsign on the log. We hope everybody will understand us if we were boring, asking several times to repeat his call: unfortunately our ears are not yet so efficient to decode the RTTY signals, we needed to trust on a digital machine which gave us some handicap.
Nevertheless we are proud of almost 2000 qso in RTTY, living to many OM a mode new one. Most of the qso are in 20m in spite of our will to cover more bands. Unfortunately after 2 days a wind storm destroyed the multiband vertical, then we have been forced to use a wire dipole for 20m, which we could lay at 30 m above the ground.
After the physiological initial inconveniences all seemed to run properly, but being in Africa, any unexpected surprise is possible. We realized soon that the main power generator was running sobbing and we needed to run a spare one. And it is the beginning of the electric power Calvary: 10 power cuts a day is too much! The situation is getting better along the following days but often the power failures occur unexpectedly.
We are worried for the amplifier tubes which suffer strong thermal shock at every power failure, but, thank God, they survived to this stress. Internet connection gets crazy sometimes, we are connected to the main provider in Monrovia through a 5 Ghz link which often fails. Many of our “customers” are used to find their last qso on the log on line within a couple of minutes, when the link fails the updating is suspended and we received a number of mails in which they claimed the missing contact. Obviously they missed to check the last uploading time, without thinking that in Africa internet connection is all but reliable.
The main purpose to update the log on line is to avoid double qso,even hough still numerous are the hams who are logged twice or more times on the same band and mode. A further feature is the possibility to correct the inevitable mistakes. It is Silvano and Stefano’s duty to spend a couple of hours to check the mails and to scroll the log and make the corrections.
A special thank goes to Arturo (IK7JWY), our pilot station, who checked all the mails before forwarding us just the more interesting. The time is running and, when we are in the middle of our expedition we have 31,400 in the log. We are confident that some important figures could be achieved at the end of the expedition, but no one wants to guess a final number, out of superstition. Of course not all is running without accidents; two aircons went out of order and the temperature in swim the CW and RTTY stations reaches 42 °C with 95% humidity, a very uncomfortable situation.
During the week end Massimo and Dickson (EL2DT) decided to pay us a visit. Dickson is a good CW operator, then we are happy to leave him the keyboard for some time and we take the chance to go for a swim in the Atlantic ocean without the concern of not being on air!
The day after the week end we realise that Murphy had already finished his holidays, in fact the generator stops to work for 3 hours. We suspect the blackout is not casual as a complicate negotiation begins with the resort manager to get a new spare generator. All seems settled, but soon the generator is again out of order. It is only after a further negotiation and the relevant increasing of the cost for the fuel etc. that the generators miraculously restarts to work. Finally our activity may restart as well.
The propagation in the high bands is sometimes very good, with openings during the light hours and often at night as well. We know that some time should be dedicated to operate on the low bands in the night, but unfortunately a heavy noise generated, we suppose, by a military radar pursued us round the clock on 40 and 80m bands. There is no way for the SSB station to work signal not so strong to overpass the noise floor which is often 9+20 db.
On the dark hours we can just operate on CW with both the stations, renouncing to exploit the SB. Being 5 guys only, we cannot make miracles. We need to rest, a turnover is necessary when the pile up is heavy, to keep high the attention, we often are requested to increase the operation on some bands, to operate on RTTY in some specific time to privilege some countries, to beam the 6 m antenna toward South America and so on.. We try to make everybody happy, we did our best but for the miracles we are not equipped yet. To check if the operation has been homogenous on the different bands and modes, towards the end of the expedition we sent the log to Giacomo IH9GPI, who forwarded it to Arturo, our pilot station, to make some analysis and comparisons. The results reconfirmed that our strategy allowed us to cover in a homogeneous way most of the countries according to the propagation and boundary conditions.
We are sure that somebody will not be happy, as they could not contact us in 80m RTTY or for the missed qso in 10m CW but, looking at the figures, we are proud of the results to give Liberia country to many hams.
We have more than 57,000 qso in the log, it is a fantastic result thinking that we were 5 operators only, we are proud and happy for that, thinking of the physical and economic efforts we faced to get the result.
We want to thank all the guys who supported us, in particular Massimo IZ0EGB for the logistic support, Giacomo IH9GPI for the fantastic software to manage the log on line updating, Arturo IK7JWY who handled hundreds of mails coming to his mailbox, and finally all the sponsors which allowed us to afford the many unexpected expenses we needed to face.
You may find hereafter some statistics, split by band and mode. Further details are available by visiting the web pagewww.i2ysb.com
73, 5M2TT Team