Sierra Leone 9L1X

9L1X DXpedition Sherbro Is.

Once again a new page is added on our DXpedition book. We had been waiting for some hours in Djibouti airport for the fly to Italy just after the completion of the expedition to Moucha Island on February 2007 and we were already talking about where to go for the next one. Yes, the disease we suffer from is cureless, once you try the pile up from the “other side” it is no longer possible to renounce to live the same emotion one more time. The theme is still the same, we know very well where we “would like to go”. 
The point is that it is not possible to go any place we wish to, because the low propagation discourages moving to the Pacific Ocean or because in some countries it is not possible to go. The most wanted list reflects perfectly that situation: the more one country is close to the top, the more difficult it is to get there.
Nevertheless we had been working hard for a long time to penetrate in one of the closest countries, and we were so close to the target in spring 2008 that we did not consider an alternative. Unfortunately, just a few weeks prior to our departure, all the project was stopped. We were used to go somewhere in the first part of the year and as it did not happen, somebody was already asking us what was going on this year.
To invent a “last minute DXpedition” is not easy and after scrolling the DXCC  list and looking around with Google Earth, we were attracted by a country which was not on top of the most wanted ones, but it was in West Africa and surrounded by some islands. 9L, Sierra Leone, was around 100 rank but much to our surprise we discovered Sherbro Island, the biggest and closest to the mainland, to be confirmed by the 2,8% only.
It was Stefano’s IK2HKT duty to look for the information and contacts.The island is located in Bonthe region, in the south of Sierra Leone and separated by Sherbro river in the eastern part. It is 50 km long and 24 large and the surface is 370 square km.The southern part of the island was used, till the last century, as the Freetown harbour. The island was also used as the departure harbour for the notorious slaves trade from Africa to America. 
Now all the structures are abandoned and partially destroyed.Nowadays 9000 inhabitants live on the island, they are from different ethnic groups and religions but they are used to live together in peace with themselves and nature. There are no cars and no paved roads, the people live just on fishing and the sole structure suitable for guest visitors is the Bonthe Holidays Village, a nice resort composed of 6 bungalows, each with 3 independent and comfortable rooms.
Inside the resort there is a restaurant and a congress room.
The resort is mostly used by foreigner guests who use to come in that area for deep-sea fishing, as the Sherbro lagoon is very rich in fish.
It is not so complicate to reach the Bonthe Holidays Village by email: the owner, a nice and efficient lady, is immediately enthusiastic about our project and she assures us that there is no problem to get on the island.
She was nice and we were optimistic, even though we then learned that when somebody in Africa says that there is no problem… be sure you must be prepared to face up to a number of them!
This time was not an exception to the rule.
First priority was to obtain the radio amateur license. For a country that is close to the 100 rank you could expect it is just a formality. Not in Africa!
Time was running and we were in trouble to find the right contact, even after dozens of e-mails and telephone calls. 
Finally we got the right contact but it was April already and because of this delay and wanting to skip the rain season that is very uncomfortable in that part of Africa, we decided to put off our expedition to early 2009, leaving enough time for the bureaucracy. Even though, it was not sufficient to overcome all the problems. We were imposed to apply an expensive license for any operator, later our folder went lost, the officer who cared about our procedure moved abroad an no one else was aware about us. Then we were forced to restart the process with another officer and, finally we received the licenses without the callsign!
We involved in the problem Max, formerly 9L1MS, who is Sierra Leone for business, is spite of his efforts sending some of his friends to the PTT Ministry, he could not come to a solution.
We can not count the mails and the telephone calls we exchanged with the PTT Ministry, finally we received the revised licenses! 
But our saga has not finished yet: the licenses expire by Dec 31 2008.
To prolong the date is a big risk, it was so hard to get the license in that way. To postpone the date we were required to apply again, probably to pay again the fees and to face further unpredictable problems.
No other choice than confirm the expedition before the end of 2008.
We are common people with all the relevant problems. It means that for some of us it was not possible to leave job and family for two weeks with such a short notice. For others, being the period not far from Christmas and the end of the year, it was not possible to be away from home. The compromise was, in the end, to leave by the second half of October. Due to some religious feast in the Muslim world and to the fact that Sierra Leone is not a country served by a wide range of carriers we were forced to accept the date imposed by the travel company as no seats were available in other days.
Unfortunately for Alfeo I1HJT and Carlo IK1AOD it was not possible to join us. Despite being really very sad for that and hoping to have further occasion in the future, they pushed us to confirm the expedition anyway, since the risk was to cancel it.
The time was very short, to arrange all the stuff in a few days, to get the VISA, we were in a rush but finally we were in time to Milan Malpensa airport on October the 9th to catch the Royal Air Maroc flight to Freetown via Casablanca. 
We landed to Lungi Airport early morning, an employee from the  Bonthe Holidays Village was waiting for us and thanks to his help the customs operations were fast and simple. Without him, we would still be there explaining to the officers the content of our luggage.
To get to Sherbro Island we needed to sail for 5 hours after waiting for the sunrise to load our equipment on a boat and ourselves on another. Travelling on roads is also possible but they are very bad, and it was the end of the rain season so they were almost not usable.5 hours by boat is a minor price to pay when we were so enthusiastic about being near the target.
Once we landed on the island, we began immediately setting up the first station to be ready at earliest on SSB. It was 16,45 after rising the first Spiderbeam, and 9L1X is on the air, Alfeo I1HJT is waiting for us from Italy, he knew we landed in Freetown but no news arrived since we were on the boat. Just a few words, some sadness for not being with us, then the pile-up starts. Who said we should have expected a minor interest to contact a country which is around the 100 rank? You could not have believed how the pile up is, are the hams attracted by the island rarity?
The stress after a long journey imposes us to have some rest, tomorrow we have to set up the rest of the equipment and to face a huge and unexpectedly heavy pile up.
The following day, just after sunrise, we begin to assembly and erect the second Spiderbeam for CW, the verticals for 40 and 80m and the multiband vertical for the backup station, which will be used just for RTTY on 20m. Finally, we raised the inverted L for 160m and a couple of EWE for receiving on the low bands.
The site where we are located is not very large and to lay enough radials under the 160m antenna is a problem. We have to turn to the Italian creativity and to connect the antenna bottom to a bulk of abandoned steel barbed which made an excellent job. 
Just after 30 hours from our landing on the island we are fully operative on all bands with 3 stations. There are no interferences between the three stations in spite of the fact that they are close to each other and transmitting with 600 W and 1K. We can operate with 3 stations on 20m at the same time without suffering from the interference.
We start to operate and we begin to learn the propagation and to refine where to beam the antennas.  
The season is not the best one for our purpose being the end of the rain season. Every day we have a storm, normally at noon and late afternoon. During the storm the propagation goes down, no sign at all on our rigs.
Sometimes the storm rises during night time and the low bands are getting so noisy as to make impossible to work on SSB. Something better by CW even if the static noise makes our life difficult. There is nothing we can do but to hear just to the strongest signals, in spite of the excellent performances granted by the ELECRAFT K3 receivers.
Apart from the inconvenient of the static noise all is working perfectly and no major problem occurs.
All operators are motivated and in good shape, Vinicio IK2CIO runs perfectly the CW pile up and he finds the way to say hallo to his friends without interruption on the qso rhythm, Angelo IK2CKR is able to catch the weakest signal buried in the noise and reaches impressive QSO rates in CW, Silvano, I2YSB wisely exploits the “grey line” to assure the “new one” to many hams at the antipodes, Marcello IK2DIA looks for JA at any possible occasion. And finally, Stefano IK2HKT, which could infringe his velocity score reaching the impressive rate of 230 QSO in 30 minutes during a fantastic opening on 12m,  as is convenient to an experienced “contest man”.
Those, who know what these figures mean, may understand which sort of pile up we were facing, pure adrenalin!
Internet is an essential part of our life even in this far part of the word but the connection via GPRS were so slow and took 1 hour to upload the log on line data every day. Great job from our pilot station Arturo IK7JWY and Gianni IS0VSG who drove us to exploit at the best the propagation and to collect the comments and the “skeds”
In spite of the log on line we had a number of “dupe QSO” and we decided not to insert them in the log. Often it was necessary to recommend do not replicate the QSO to make lighter the pile up.
The final score exceeds 41,700 QSO and 17,350 unique, without considering the dupe. Many friends sent via SMS their thanks for the contacts and sometimes their congratulated with us.
The breakdown is shown hereunder 
The inbound trip was not so relaxing. 20 minutes after our departure from the island, the engine of one of the two boats crashed therefore we had been sailing for 3 hours more than expected. 
At the airport we were identified as those to be exploited, so they charged 3kg extra weight each, and they claimed 300 USD cash from us!
Boring and long customs control: 8 times they inspected our luggage!
And finally a crowded flight, the aircraft full of people of every race and colour without mentioning the variety of smells.
Much better to stay at home, comfortably sitting in our arm-chairs, to swear against the dx’speditionners, because they do not contact you on PSK31, or in 10m between 12 and 13 Z as it is your free time… and complaining if they ask for the reimbursement for the QSL. 
But this is an old story….and our disease is cureless and we are already talking about where to go next….
Thanks to all the supporters who believed in us,
Thanks to Funk Amateur, GDXF e DL9RCF.
73, 9L1X team