TJ3TT … or rather TJ2TT – Cameroon 2018
Afters the end of our Dxpeditions, Silvano usually asks me to write down a report on our activities for our sponsors and ham magazines wishing to publish it.
This time, however, I am writing this account already in the morning of Mach 26, in Cameroon, the Dxpedition still ongoing. Owing to almost nonexistent propagation conditions, I am so “busy” with the pileup (and demoralized) that I begin my storytelling in advance.
In the first place, I shall start by describing how we got to the decision to activate Cameroon and the ensuing licensing process, a perfect example of the complexity and uncertainties to be faced when organizing a Dxpedition to countries where the very notion of radioamateurism is practically unknown.
The story begins in February 2017, during our Dxpedition to the Central African Republic. Following contacts with Father Federico, our local contact, we became aware of the presence of the Discalced Carmelites Order in Cameroon. They might be of help in the proceedings of licence application and related administrative steps. At the time we had already planned our subsequent destination, the island of Bubaque in Guinea Bissau, for the month of November of the same year. So, I initiated without haste the first contacts in May 2017, with a view to operate from Cameroon in March 2018.
The first step towards a licence was to contact a ham who had already operated from this country. I emailed Daniel TJ3PD, who had lived in Yaoundè for about 2 years, but in the meantime moved to Congo. His reply, reported below, was somewhat disconcerting:
I have been resident in Yaoundé for nearly two years and spent 18 months attempting to get a TJ license. I found it to be nearly impossible, with countless trips to various government offices to pay hundreds of dollars' worth of fees. The local TJ IARU society was of almost no help. In the end I learned that there are three different application processes that must be done in sequence, in three different offices.
In spite of this email, after consulting with Silvano, we take up the challenge and decide to go on.
After years of experience, I know quite well the bureaucratic issues to be faced when trying to visit an African country, carrying along radio equipment. Confident in the long time available, I decide for a different approach by applying directly to the relevant Ministry.
The first issue was to find a location suitable for our purpose. After some attempts, we discover with Silvano a hotel on the Atlantic coast, south of the city of Kribi, about 6 hours from the Capital city Yaoundè. Unfortunately, besides providing us with all the necessary logistics, the manager could not help with the licencing process. At any rate, with at least a local address available as a reference for the licence, I started to plead by e-mail all possible Ministry offices, but received no replies. I then opted for a more direct line of action by sending numeous faxes, again with no replies. Lastly, I spent hours on telephone calls: no effect. We had the logistics, but not the licence. At this point enters our friend Father Federico: with great caution he begins an action of accreditation for our group with the catholic Mission of Nkoabang, a suburb of Yaoundè.
We were relaxed since I thought we had time, but time was passing by. In December 2017 we had our first contact with Father Dieudonnè, parson at Nkoabang, who offered to help us with the authorization.
I get forms to fill out, in which we state as our destination the initial address identified on the Atlantic coast of Cameroon. Father Dieudonnè cares about the application and, to our surprise, we get the first approval in January 2018. The call will be TJ3TT. We phone Arturo – IK7JWY, who circulates the news to all DX bulletins through our official Dxpedition forum (www.hamradioweb.org).
The licence would be issued by the Frequencies Regulation Agency (ART), but, having the approval of the Ministry of Telecommunications, we expected hardly any formalities and a quick turnaround. I was wrong. Father Dieudonnè was confident too, but in addition ART required also the agreement of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. No licence otherwise.
Father Dieudonnè takes it easy: the Minister is a lady who attends the parish and lives not far from the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites, a real strike of luck. Both Father Dieudonnè and the Minister ask for a “technical-practical” demo about radio and the usefulness of telecommunications for the children attending the parish school, somehow implying that it would be desirable setting up the station on the premises of the monastery in Nkoabang. Google Map shows an internal garden large enough for all our antennas, and we are offered a complete set of grid power, generators, internet connection and sleeping quarters. We are now at the end of February, and we gratefully accept to abandon the prospect of Atlantic beaches and fall back to the outskirts of Yaoundè. Needless to say, it will take the usual African delays, but with the support of the Minister we proceed to booking flight tickes and requesting entry visas to Cameroon. We plan our dates together with Mac JA3USA, who will join us for the second week, and prepare luggage and equipment. We shall be leaving on th 14th, returning on the 30th of March.
A few days befor departure our licence is still missing: a zealous ART official had picked out some quibbles stopping the process. The Minister, acknowledging a request of Father Dieudonnè, sends her personal secretary to ART to sort this out. Days go by, and on the 14th of March Vinicio and I are standing at the entrance of Gate 17, Malpensa airport, waiting for Marcello IK2DIA, Angelo IK2CKR and Silvano I2YSB, and …. for our licence, still unaccounted for! Trusting Father Dieudonnè, I board the plane for one of the most anxious flights of mine, feeling responsible for a possible and dramatic “Dxpedition fiasco”, but not showing it to my fellows. We get to Yaoundè late at night, at 01:30 on 15 march. Father Dieudonnè is waiting for us; after so many mail messages he had become my confessor (and I his nightmare!). Embracing each other I realize that we are into the right hands. Custom formalities slip by, a boy from the parish who works at the airport asks for our baggage tickets and after 5 minutes delivers them on the parking lot, ready for the pickup to the monastery. Unbelievable! Behind the scenes, Father Dieudonnè had worked out the temporary import formalities and secured the licence for midday on the following day.
During the short stretch to the monastery he describes the Mission of which he is parson, his educational work for the benefit of about 200 children who could not get an education otherwise, and the constant presence of several friars who support many poors with discretion and without cultural or religious discriminations. A moving example of unselfishness and dedication.
After some rest, we wake up at 6:30 at the bell ringing from the tower placed in the middle of the parish (this will be a constant for all the 15 days of our stay !). In a sunny morning we start setting up stations and antennas. Father Dieudonnè leaves at 9 for the ART offices and at 10:30 my telephone rings: “I am the Father … we have problems”. For a moment I feel totally frozen, but he explains that the licence bears the call TJ2TT in place of TJ3TT, since the parish “is in zone 2”. A sigh of relief, and I confirm him that this is not a problem for us. I have just to reconfigure our computers and Silvano has to modify a page on QRZ.com… we send an email to Arturo (our pilot station) to notify all DX bulletins of our callsign change. It is early afternoon when we begin operating as TJ2TT; on SSB we inform of the change and, after some confusion, all starts for good.
Our setup for this Dxpedition consisted of:
SSB: Elecraft K3, 2 x KPA 500 with combiner (900 W out), Spiderbeam, Vertical 40/80 plus RX Diamond Loop.
CW: Elecraft K3, 1kW out linear, Spiderbeam, Vertical 40/80, top-loaded Vertical 160, RX Diamond Loop, 2 x DHDL
RTTY: Elecraft K3, KPA500 (500 W out), 2 elem. Multiband Yagi.
Obviously, problems popped up. The combiner of the SSB station does not work on 15m: two capacitors in the 2 x 500W combiner are damaged, probably during transport. No chance to find replacements in the country: we warn Mac who manages to find them, thanks to his acquaintances, just on the weekend before his departure. When he arrives Angelo is ready with the soldering iron for the repair. This having been fixed, the power sypply for the amplifier of the CW station quits and we are forced to revert to our classic setup: each station with just one KPA, 500W output. The SSB station will suffer the most, in particular on the 80m band, but – thanks to reasonable propagation conditions – we managed to log 3180 QSO (of which 1500 on SSB), not bad for this band! Gratifying numbers also on 40m, with almost 6000 QSO half on SSB and half on CW.
On the outskirts of a large city with plenty of non-standard equipment, the noise level on receive was very high. We tried several approaches, by displacing the CW antennas, then the one for RTTY. On SSB, with a wider bandwidth, little can be done. We then could put to good use the coax produced by Messi&Paoloni. According to Stefano Messi, one of the owners of this Italian firm, some electrical noise pickup can be attenuated by a well-shielded cable.
The first days were quite favourable, with good QSO rates in spite of poor conditions on 12 and 10m. The coexistence with other Dxpeditions raised “cohabitation” issues from time to time, but permanent internet connection, packet cluster and Band Map monitoring allowed us to constantly monitor the position of the other stations and adopt adequate frequency separations. In spite of this, at times we were overrun by pileups from other Dxpeditions not having a similar monitoring possibility. In these cases the simplest solution was to spin our VFO knob, it being easy for us to spot our new QRG. Ham spirit is also understanding possible difficulties of other operators.
At the end of the first week we had collected 30k QSO, a sizeable result for 3 stations and 5 operators. Waiting for Mac to arrive as an additonal SSB operator to Marcello IK2DIA and me, we begin hoping for numbers that looked initially beyond reach given our location and overall number of operators. Unfortunately, after Mac arrived the propagation dropped, with full mornings spent continuously at calling and band changing in vain. Some openings did pop up but, besides some occasional CW QSO, our ten-year experience in Africa was to no avail. We were lucky to find good openings from mid-afternoons to the night on 17, 20, 40 and 80m and we could work sizeable numbers of European and non-European stations, mostly on SSB.
We were gratified with good numbers on 160m, where Angelo, Silvano and Vinicio managed to log 1281 contacts. We consider this an achievement, given the limitations arising from the noise level at our location, the limited space for receiving antennas and our limited power.
One day, during one of the long mornings spent on lone calls, Mac and I were discussing how to opimize our strategy. We settled on abandoning SSB and concentrating only on CW. Neither Mac nor I have the experience or the ability of other operators, but taking advantage of their advice and of “quiet” pileups we ended up with all of us working CW, with three stations on three different bands exploiting each and every opening, even minor ones. This strategy allowed us to log a good number of QSO, although below our usual standards. From time to time we called also on SSB, but CW was definitely more productive. With the passing of time, Mac was more and more like a veteran CW operator than a SSB professional, and he was managing USA ands JA pileups almost like Angelo, Silvano and Vinicio…Really unexpected of JA3USA !
At the end, here I am from where I started writing this story while hitting continuously the F1 key….hey! Someone is calling back: I shall complete this account from home!
Today, April 1st 2018, is a sunny day and, after a couple of days spent recovering from the sleep hours lost during the Dxpedition, I am proceeding to complete my account of our activities in Cameroon.
I am hitting the F1 key and the log shows almost 50k QSO. On the 28th, Mac must leave and we cannot celebrate with him the desired 50k goal. Only a few QSO are missing, but his plane does not wait. We greet him and set out at surpassing this number in the next 24 hours, a feat which seemed impossible to achieve a few days ago. A brief meeting defines our strategy: again everybody on CW. It is hard on me, and some comments on the cluster about my slow CW speed show it, but I push forward.
Angelo and Vinicio choose half-shifts to maximize effectiveness and high-speed rate, Silvano exploits the few available openings to USA and JA on RTTY (we have already worked almost all Europeans on this mode!). Marcello is the only one left free; apart from sporadic SSB openings, he enjoys the environment of the parish and watches endless football matches between the schoolboys. He has stated that on the next Dxpedition he intends to operate RTTY and maybe, perhaps, also FT8 (to be taken into consideration, given propagation conditions…)
We had problems, but what was right on this Dxpedition? Many things were fine. The Messi&Paoloni coax lines operated as “natural” Noise Blankers, the Elecraft tranceivers and companion KPA500 linears were perfect under heavy load as usual, our online log worked flawlessly for the entire duration of the activity (but for a minor glitch, fixed in no time by Giacomo – IH9GPI), the work of Arturo IK7JWY (pilot) constantly monitoring and forwarding sked requests from all over the world, our new earphones/microphones by TaoTronics for SSB, the stable and fairly fast (for Africa) internet connection, the grid power always available apart from a few hours of blackout from thunderstorms (rain season) and backed up by the generator, the excellent cuisine provided by the parish cook, the quiet and calm atmosphere of the monastry with the friendly amiability and conviviality of the friars, and, last but not least, the team spirit of the Italian Dxpedition Team. This last element rewarded us at 17:47 UTC on 28th March with 50k QSO…Well done, guys! With better openings on 10, 12 and 15m we could have got closer to our previous Dxpeditions , but we are happy anyway. We come to a close in the early afternoon fo 29 March with 51476 QSO, of which 30608 on CW, 18261 on SSB and 2607 on RTTY (20m only).
At the end we are left with packing up our equipment and in the evening a perfect organization smooths out our customs formalities at the airport, followed by our return flight to Italy where we land in the evening of 30 March.
Our deep thanks to Father Nkangu Dieudonnè of the Catholic Mission of the Discalced Carmelites in Nkoabang and to Father Federico.
Our special thanks are due to the Minister of Post and Telecommunications of Cameroon, Mrs. Libom Li Likeng nèe Mendomo Awoumvele Minette, without whose precious help this Dxpedition would have been impossible.
As usual, we are grateful to our sponsors, Associations and individual OMs who follow and support us in our African wandering.
73, Stefano IK2HKT