TY1AA … The expedition with unexpected records !
When we considered a Dxpedition to Benin we could not even imagine our final results, with numbers exceeding expectations and, for us, real records.
As always, all began with one of our discussions in the Italian DXpedition Team, at a dinner on the hills not far from Pavia. Some of us were skeptical about this TY proposal, it being a country quite exploited from the ham viewpoint and therefore of little interest. Some investigations, however, were pointing to the contrary, even if Benin does not rank among the first one-hundred most requested ones.
After choosing the months of October/November as the best period for our activity from Benin, we instruct Arturo, (IK7YWY, our pilot station) to advertise our plans on all DX bulletins by means of our official forum on HamRadioWeb. Unfortunately, work commitments for some members of our group, and organization duties of the Asian Pacific DX Convention (APDXC) in November for Mac (JA3USA), forced us to a change of schedule. As a consequence, our flights were confirmed only at the last moment, just in time for packing, and we could announce the shift of schedule only a few hours before departure. Also, this change forced Alfeo (I1HJT) to give up this “round” because of conflicts between his QRL and the long period of stay, 16 days, in Benin. Too bad, since he had taken up in detail all the heavy work of securing licences and organizing the logistics, and in the end he could not enjoy the outcome. We thank him deeply for his contribution, and promise that on the next round he will find everything already done!
As spelled out in the title, this was a record Dxpedition.
One of the first records to be broken was about birthdays: three out of seven operators in the Team celebrated their birthday while on the Dxpedition, starting with Vinicio (IK2CIO), followed by Gino (IK2RZP) and finally by Stefano (IK2HKT). In our Team stile the celebrations were moderate, but without missing the traditional cakes and sparkling wine (for what can be found in Africa!).
We departed Malpensa airport on 10 September for Cotonou, via Istanbul. For the first time we flew Turkish Airlines, which turned out to be a very good choice: minimal check-in formalities, not an issue for both our main and hand luggage, very comfortable planes and fares cheaper than other airlines flying to Cotonou.
Arrived at destination at 20:00 local time on the same day, we begin to figure out how to face customs enquiries about our bulky equipment. We look forward to the long time to be spent explaining our aims in Benin, and we try to figure out all possible related complications with customs procedures.
At this time, however, another record gets surprisingly broken: the customs official stops us, enquires about the content of our boxes, we answer “electronics equipment, we are radioamateurs” and to our great surprise we receive a “ Bien…. Vous pouvez aller” (all OK, you may go through).
With the documents folder in his hands, ready to show licences and assorted permits, an unbelieving Silvano (I2YSB) hastens to put back all papers in his suitcase and within seconds we exit the airport with all our precious equipment. This is our twelfth Dxpedition to Africa, and we never experienced such a quick and easy procedure. Basically no customs procedures, a real record!
The trip from Cotonou to Gran Popo, our final destination, is not easy. The travel spans about 70km of dirt track, often on sandy paths. There exists an asphalt road, which is however under repair and unusable for about 90% of its length. We must trust the experience of our driver, who can drive on almost nonexistent paths with reassuring confidence.
It took almost 4 hours (one flat tire included) to reach the Awale Plage at Gran Popo. At the end, around midnight we could enjoy some rest before beginning to mount our stations.
Our setups included 4 stations (CW, SSB, RTTY and 6m), 2 Spiderbeams, a 2-element multiband Yagi, 2 verticals for 30/40/80, an inverted-L for 160, various antennas for the low-bands RX, 3-elements cubical for 6m and all the high-performance AC7Plus coax cables by Messi & Paoloni, now an integral part of our equipment.
This year we also tested a new amplifier, kindly contributed by RF Power. The top performer of their line, the HLA1K3, was used in the CW station.
Unfortunately, the shocks of the bumpy road on the previous night had caused problems to one of our stations, thus limited us to only three stations and forced a rescheduling of its use, mainly for 6m, RTTY and other bands according to needs.
At 13:16 UTC on 11 September TY1AA is on the air with the first CQ. By now we have quite an experience of African pile-ups, and we realize at once that we are going to face a lot of demand. Within 24 hours we then become completely operative on all bands and modes. Adrenalin at its maximum and a craving for pile-up push all operators to significant QSO rates since the very first hours of operation.
It is customary for the whole team to gather at breakfast, lunch and dinner for reviewing the situation and exchanging impressions. For good luck we make no comments on current achievements, since we never plan for a specific target on our Dxpeditions: too many variables are at play. This time, in fact, we had to face sudden power blackouts lasting from minutes to hours. Long discussions ensued with the hotel manager for powering the emergency generator, which invariably happened only on our pressing requests (apparently in Africa a power shortage gets almost undetected, even at night !).
Day after day, band after band, those who were originally skeptical and afraid of a possible flop realize that their fears were wrong. Around the middle of our stay, we are already well above 50% of our record QSO count which was achieved in Ivory Coast as TU2TT in 2011. A tacit longing for exceeding our past records spreads in the air. After the first week our friend Mac (JA3USA) arrives. It is the first time he joins us on the second week, he always spent the first one on the expedition. After recovering for a few hours from the jet lag, he starts calling, concentrating on 40 and 80m and on working mainly his JA countrymen. With him a new and exceptional shot of adrenalin is injected in the operations. At the same time Gino (IK2RZP) returns to Italy because of work commitments.
The alternation between Gino and Mac corresponds to a slight change in our strategy.
Gino had concentrated on RTTY (for our choice on 20m only); at this point the station was shifted to operations on 6m and on the higher bands. All team members took shifts at this station in order to profit from all possible openings during day and night. More than 2000 6m QSOs were our great reward!
At the end we finished our operations exceeding by quite a margin all our past records. With TY1AA we achieved 81,000 QSOs, the highest number in the Dxpedition history of IDT. In particular we surpassed our record of unique calls, with 26,191 radioamateurs worked in two weeks. Two more records proving the validity of our choices and of the skills of our operators.
On the negative side there is the still high number of double QSOs, 3144! We often scolded those insisting on working us multiple times on the same band and mode: the negative record was achieved by one of our countrymen with 7 (seven!) doubles on the same band. Admittedly, no rule forbids two or more QSOs, but it is to be stressed that this practice is a waste of time for us and prevents others from getting in our log. For this reason, we request loud and clear to refrain from duplicate QSOs, or at least to contact us at times when there is no pile-up and nobody is answering our calls. Besides, duplicating contacts in the middle of a pile-up may annoy the operator, raising irritated replies! We have a real-time log on our website: check it before further useless calls!
Anyway, all in all the callers were quite disciplined, which contributed substantially to our QSO rates on both CW and SSB. This time not just with USA and JA stations, well known for their correct behavior, but also with European stations.
The lion’s share was taken by USA stations, with more than 18,500 QSOs, followed by Italians with roughly 11,000 and Japanese with 7200 contacts.
Propagation turned out to be excellent on the higher bands and 6m, whereas on the lower bands we had to sweat to log the maximum number of contacts on 80 and, in particular, 160m. On every night there was a station active on these bands, either on CW or SSB, and we strived to aknowledge the many requests mailed to our pilot station for dedicated skeds.
Our on-line log worked flawlessly but for a small glitch on a Sunday morning, immediately fixed by Giacomo (IH9GPI) whom we contacted immediately by phone. The internet connection was somewhat poor and quite expensive. We could not acknowledge the many requests for putting the famous little “flag” on their QRZ.com page, since the connection was charged by kbyte and not by minutes, and we could not afford to waste the data volume dedicated to log upload and packet cluster. We recharged our internet card almost every morning, but since our service provider limited each amount we had to economize on its use!
We finished operations on 26 September at 10:16 UTC: the last QSO was a 12m CW contact with DL4IA. Immediately afterwards we started dismantling and packing our equipment. In less than three hours we were ready for departure.
The return leg to the capital city, as for the incoming one, was somewhat eventful. We were warned of a major storm over Cotonou which was causing a complete traffic stop in the city, implying for us a delay of about two hours in reaching the airport. Our driver then opted for a secondary road, the so-called Rue des Pêcheurs (Fishermen street). It was in fact just a dirt track skirting the beach between Gran Popo and Cotonou.
We have visual memories of isolated villages, inhabited by fishermen, without electric power and comforts, and of an Africa made of mud or shrub huts and poor people living in hardship far away from modernity. On our return trip we could see the two so-called hotels that we had considered before choosing the Awale Plage in Gran Popo. Our final choice had been a lucky one, since these locations were quite inhospitable: no mobile connection, questionable personal security and lack of grid power, with only antiquated and inefficient generators … it would have been a real disaster!
On the return trip we could note to what extent the local traditions are still deeply rooted in the population: we could see almost everywhere huge masks and furnishings used for Voodoo rites (Benin is well known for this type of belief), monuments in memory of the slave trade and, at times,
ghostly graveyards almost in open air. All this raised sad feeling of impotence: we often forget how much we are favored as compared to many others with no access to the prosperity to which we are so negligently accustomed.
We get to the airport on time, namely 3 hours before takeoff. Being the first in line we get quickly through check-in and customs. We had to open some boxes for a routine inspection, but without any complications. Not as speedy as on arrival, but very easily done.
In Istanbul we say goodbye to Mac, who will proceed to Osaka 11 hours later. We are better off, and after 4 hours we board the flight to Malpensa airport, where we land on 27 September at 14:00 local time.
As always, our thanks to all of you who made contacts with us, thus contributing to this Dxpedition as another success of IDT. Special thanks to the ARI Sections and Associations which offered their support, as well as to our sponsoring companies and individual radioamateurs. All of them, with their donations, foster and support this great IDT adventure.
Special thanks are due to Giacomo (IH9GPI) for his assistance with the online real-time log, to Arturo (IK7JWY), our pilot station, and Sergio (IK0FTA), pilot station for the 6m band.
At this point a frequent comment is “now you activated them all in this region of the world!”
Sure? Wait and see…