SØ7WW : Journal of the August '98 trip

Journal of an eight day trip in the Western Sahara and Mauritania

SØ7WW and 5T5WW, by Mark Demeuleneere, ON4WW.

Half September 1998. Almost on my way to Ivory Coast, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. I expected to prolong my contract in Algeria for another period, far into 1999, but I am being sent further down South, to TU-EL-3X and 9L.
As my second trip into the Western Sahara might be the last one for me, I thought sharing the momenta of this second trip also with you.
Two months ago we set off for a six day trip, the trip of which you might have read the article on.
I remembered, amongst many things, that if I were to do this kind of trip again, I would have to keep one thing closely in mind. Dose your forces, don't overdo yourself, the desert is very beautiful, but very harsh as well, especially during summer. It took me up to two weeks after the first trip to recuperate from the efforts done, workwise and amateur radio besides. That trip was 900 km, this new one yielded 2200 km in total. One third of that I haven't seen any landscape, because for work I was taking down data constantly on my laptop. On the way back, the beauty of it all struck me again. What follows is a day by day journal of ham radio activities during the trip.
Before we left, I was nervously trying to locate my Saharui friends, to provide me their radio, as they had done on the first trip. I still didn't get my own equipment in, so I had to rely on their kind help. Nervously, because I couldn't get hold of them. I sent a message of to Julio, EA5XX, but he also couldn't locate them. One week before take off, luck was on my side. One member of the S0RASD operators was found, and told me where the equipment was. A date was set to pick it up, after that was done, I started testing the equipment. Using CT as logging software, I prefer to operate CW from the keyboard. During the previous trip, I experienced serious problems at one stage, with, what I thought was the interface cable, so that I had to switch to manual iambic keying. This time I had brought my own interface cable, the problem persisted : the parallel port was at fault. Wonder if Compaq is going to give me warranty on this one too. I'm using one of the VK0IR laptops, which I bought after their famous DX-pedition. In the course of my previous trip, the screen hinges had broken. When at home for a holiday in July, I phoned Compaq Belgium, yes, they had the spare parts, and yes, they would repair it immediately. When asked for the price for repair, the man turned the laptop upside down, looked at the serial number, said '1996, thus warranty'. Euh ? 'Yes, three year warranty'. Even without the sales slip at hand. Half an hour later, I picked up the unit, repaired. Talking about service ! So, wonder if this warranty will also cover the faulty parallel port.
Finding a DB9 connector in my 7X location, seemed to be impossible. Luckily I found a 'spare cable' somewhere, and converted the interface cable for use on the serial port. All systems go.
August 25, departure, 340 km to our first destination in the Western Sahara, an eight hours desert drive. At arrival, the 9m telescopic mast was put up, supporting a broadband dipole for 10-80m band, and the inverted-L for 160m. The summer is supposed to be near to its end, but it was not so as yet. At 1744z, RK3ZZ was the first station logged on 15m CW. This run was stopped at 1840z, yielding 128 Qs. Amongst them was DJ5MN, he must be satellite freak number one, chasing me from 9X4WW, now SØ7WW. Bernhard asked for a sked as previously agreed by email, and passed me the window for that night, uplinking on 15m, downlink on 10m. We would try in cw. So at 1840z, I went for a quick dinner. When I came back, Murphy had visited. I wanted to start on 17m, no output. I thought of what I had done previously, nothing but 15m cw. This was bugging me. I felt and also was really exhausted, and thought, keep cool, relax, think. It was obvious I had done nothing besides operating the equipment, turn it off, go for dinner, switch it back on. The output had gone on all high bands, 10 to 17m, and 20m couldn't be tuned anymore by the automatic antennatuner. It was hot, extremely hot, I was sitting outside under a bash, no air-conditioning. The heat must have done it. This trip I had my tools with me, so I opened the unit, in the hope of finding any obvious fault, loose connection, whatever to find a solution to. Nothing. OK, then it will be low bands only in cw. At 2209z I started again on 30m, where I had full output. Twenty meter I didn't dare trying, with the tuning problem.
After receiving the first 577, 595, 555 reports, I knew enough. This was working with the remains of a rig, close on the edge of a permanent failure. I apologised for the bad tonality to those who indicated the problem, and continued logging the Qs. At 23z I announced going to 160m, no Qs made. Back to 30, until 2327z. Listened to DJ5MN, calling me on satellite sked. Frustration, frustration, he was solid copy, and I could not transmit on 15m. At 2333z, I lost his signal and switched to 40m band. Someone who drew my attention to the bad tonality on 30, immediately reported that the tone on 40m was ok, OK ! With the problems that rose that night, I was relieved to hear this positive comment. At 00z only G3KMA was logged on 160, and 80m afterwards. Back to 40, with a good opening to the Americas. At 01z nil again on 160. Between 0119z and 02z some more Qs were made on 30-80-40. Bedtime after 427 hard earned Qs.
August 26 led us from Western Sahara into Mauritania. Thanks to all who responded to my email request on licensing for 5T. After a couple of telephone calls in July from home, to the Office des Postes et Communications in Nouakchott, I was requested to send a fax with an explanation as to my request. Done so, and have tried during the rest of my holidays to contact the person who I had sent the fax to, without luck. Finally, less than two hours before boarding my flight back to Algeria, I got another name of a person to speak to. Quickly called him, 'Please call back in 10 minutes'. Nerve wracking. Plane to catch. Ring, ring, 'Hallo, yes, have found it, should be no problem, please contact me tomorrow from Algeria'. It was three days later I could phone this man, and yes, 5T5WW callsign would be assigned, as requested. Talking about a smooth and co-operative Administration, well, this is one pearl in the dark. The licence was in my possession two weeks before this trip started !
After 170 km, and a four and a half hour drive, we reached our destination, and were welcomed by the chief of the village. Reception was very heartily, as is the habit in those deserted areas. I asked the chief permission to operate from his grounds, and showed him the licence. He started to ask me a lot of questions about ham radio. He had heard about it before, but had no clue as to what it all was. I tried to explain as best as I could, he kept on firing questions. And was suprised to hear that there are actually ham operators in Nouakchott, the capital. In the end, he thanked me for all the answers to his questions, said he was no wiser on the subject whatsoever, bursted out in laughter together with the rest of the crew, and said, nevertheless, I had all his blessings to operate from his town ! Guess I know how to operate radio equipment, but can someone teach me to bring the message of ham radio in a better way to ham-ignorants ? Hi...
Well, this town had its own generator, and produced exactly 3 hours of electricity per day for the community. Not worth setting up the antennas. I decided to use another radio that I had at hand, which only had sideband possibilities. As such, I would use the car battery and be able to run the motor from time to time, as to enjoy the air-conditioner. It was hot, damn hot.
My old friend Fernando, EA3KU, was the first one in the log, on 15m at 1807z. We met near Barcelona in 1993, when I was making a presentation of the 3Y0PI, Peter One Island DX-pedition, for the Lynx DX Group. At 1853z, DJ5MN managed to break through the unruly pileup. I explained him what happened the night before, and we arranged a sked for 23z, this time on sideband. Also for the next day, when I would be active from S0 again, at 2327z. At 1944z, 17m band, and at 2019z, 20m band experienced their unruly ssb pileups of the day. This rig I was using, could be used for split operation, but only on one frequency, no second VFO or RIT available. I mentioned this several times when I was trying to get some order in the EU pileup, because it was too big for a 1 frequency only split. But than again, I would not use 'by numbers', checking occasionally continent by continent, or North Europe versus South...Not really to my surprise, but nevertheless disappointed, two or three times someone put a carrier on my QSX frequency when I asked Europe to stand by...At 2256z some 421 contacts were in the log, and one more happy smile on the satellite front at 23z. I almost forgot about it, thought I had correctly set the alarm on my AH1A DX-pedition watch, but hadn't done it properly in the dark. I proudly received this watch from ON6TT, for being the first pilot station for a major DX-pedition, and it's still joyfully 'ticking' away.
I decided stopping at 23z, because everybody went sleeping early, close to the car I was using as a powersource. As one of my colleagues still reminds me, almost every day, he will remember me as '.....Whisky Whisky, five up'. What must they have been thinking...? So down I went too, on a mattress, in open air, counting the stars, undergoing the hot wind, shaken up by the shout of someone who got bitten by an insect, thought it was a scorpion, luckily it wasn't...tough nights those are.
August 27, back into the Western Sahara, 262 km, six hour drive. Early start, going down South. Hot, HOT ! Once arrived, we were told that all week long there had been sandstorms. Not that day. As soon as it got cooler, already well in the dark, we put up the antennas. I managed to take a shower, although, have you ever taken a shower with salty water, and whilst you take the shower, you sweat ? Well, we all did in that place, and also the day after, further down South. It is an amazing feeling, altogether far from pleasant. I remember that night operating from a little tent, sandstorm setting up, no air-con. I was using the alt-N function in CT, jotting down notes for Ghis, ON5NT, to read once he gets the logs. Here are some of those remarks :
the sweat is pouring out of me
have taken showers last two days in temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius, hell this is !
the sweat is pouring down of me, dripping into the laptop keyboard
went to get a bottle of cold water, it got hot, drinking hot water now
I also remember one afternoon, when we had to stay with two in one room, I was having a nap, air-con on. At one stage the electricity (and air-con) went off. My roommate told me that within 5 minutes I woke up. And indeed I woke up, of the instant heat and starting to sweat immediately. Quite amazing. Outside we had over 60 degrees Celsius...remember K5OVC telling me one day about the heatwave that struck his area, but when I told him of the temperature we were exposed to, no comment...
Anyway, started up with the satellite sked at 2327z, DJ5MN was there, I couldn't correct the Doppler shift effect because of no second VFO/RIT, so he was a bit high pitched. So was his brother, DK5MV, who made it as second and last station into the S07WW satellite log. They sounded like... 'The Satellite Sisters'(instead of brothers). Were these firsts ? After that, I started on 30m, from my hot little tent. At 00z ten Qs were made on 160 in a half hour run. Not bad with 70 Watt output, and the low inv-L with only 6 radials of 16m each, on a very sandy soil (that's the least one can say). Back to 30m, at 01z nobody showed up on 160m, 0104z off to 40m, couple of Qs on 80m at 0112z, back to 40 for a mixed EU-NA run until 0316z. Some more 80, 160 and 30 until 04z, when finally 4 NA made it on 160, with K1ZM being the first and having the most outstanding signal. Bedtime, after only 235 Qs. Couple of hours sleep.
August 28, 153 km further down South, a bit more than 3 hour drive. Unfortunately, it was big hammer time for me, so went down for a nap in the afternoon, and some computerwork afterwards. No way to set up the antenna system, the promised sandstorms were present. And it was damn hot. Sweaty shower again. Did the ssb pileups, first time I did this from S0. First trip I only did about 70 Qs on 17m ssb. Started on 15m ssb at 2055z, went on to 17m and 20m to end at 0050z, with 546 Qs that evening.
Luckily for some, ssb-only operators, the cw rig broke down on the high bands. Otherwise I probably would have stuck to the much more disciplined cw scene (to my dismay, even in cw, some guys start to send 'two last letters' of their callsign. FYI, you never made it in the cw log). This brings me to something I brought up to ON4UN a couple of years ago. I really think there is a need for IARU Societies, to come up with a joint document on Operating Procedures, and implement this as a matter for preparation towards the examination. Governing bodies should be approached by National IARU Societies to incorporate this into the exam. All bits help, they say...and maybe this could be the bit that helps some people to not make the rare DX-station to shut his radio down in despair ? As I sometimes said when the pileup got too 'excited', this is a simple game, extremely simple. But if you don't play it the right way, lots of time and contacts get lost. Just my thoughts...
August 29, we stayed overnight at the same location, but did a 220 km round trip in the morning. I had hoped to be able to put up the antennas and do some low bands, but the heat and sandstorm made it impossible. Thanks to that, the only opening to Japan I encountered, was fully exploited. Started up on 12m ssb at 1721z, through 15 and 17m to 20m at 2146z. In between a 40 min break for dinner. At 2157z, JA8EAT (who else ?) broke the EU-NA pileup, and I started listening a bit later for JA only. Discipline. Not only the Japanese. After some explanation to EU and SA, they started to get the picture and stood by. The opening was finished at 2231z, with JA6COW the last JA in the log. Four continents at the same time, it is not easy to satisfy everybody. Reminds me of when I was going continent by continent, there was always this guy calling 'SOUTH AMERICA, SOUTH AMERICA', when I was listening for Asia, Africa, Oceania. And when I said, 'South America, go ahead', there he was again : 'SOUTH AMERICA'...szut.
Anyhow, ended that day with 573 ssb Qs. The high bands sure yield higher averages than the low bands.
August 30, return 'home' commenced. First overnight stop after 153 km. Finished was the sandstorm, and wonder o wonder, the temperatures dropped. Must have gone down to a 'comfortable' 40 to 45 degrees Celsius. Up went the antennas, and at 2045z I started receiving the usual 555, 575 and 597 reports on 30m band. Felt good somehow. After some more 40 and 80, I went to 160 at 00z. Waw ! The band was wide open. One of those nights it feels right. Stopped at 0112z with 46 Qs on 160 in the log. Great. Was there again at 05z for NA, nothing heard. Some more Qs on 40, and back for an hour sleep after 0532z.
August 31, longest day trip, 410 km. Underway we passed through 5T again, and 5T5WW was aired again, ssb only, with 69 additional Qs. We had to move on, an uncomprehensive pileup left behind, wondering...
This was the last night to come in S0-land, the antennas went up smoothly. Putting up the system could take between half an hour to an hour, taking down between 20 and 45 minutes, all depending on the meteorological conditions. At 1818z I started on the usual 30m band, until 2051z. Murphy decided it hadn't been enough. Also the low bands got affected now, and with slow cw transmissions, the output would disappear. Clearly a problem connected to the heat, but what to do ? I decided to use the other rig for some ssb operation, to let things cool down. Between 2102 and 2218z, 17m ssb was honoured for the last time but one. Back to the faulty rig at 2221z on 30m. Later on 40 and 80m, I had to be careful to keep transmissions as short as possible. I was fearing for 160. Some Qs on 160 at 00z, but it was getting awkward. Decided to give it a last go at 0530z for NA. Calling short CQs, K1ZM called me at 0547z to let me know he heard me. Eight NA made it on 160 at that go, signals were extremely good, unfortunately not any more stations were on the band. At 0615z the band closed and went to 40 and 30 until 0649z. A last tribute to honour the Western Sahara was made between 0837 and 0844z on 17m ssb, with ON4CGS being the last in the log. This is already September 1, and we returned, another 8 hour leg for the last 340 km.
The statistics :
SØ7WW : 2551 Qs in a total of 26.5 hours of operation, mixed cw and ssb.
5T5WW : 491 Qs in a total of 4.4 hours, ssb only.
Totals this trip : 3042 Qs in 30.9 hours of operation.

Back 'home', during time off, I opened the faulty radio. I found two resistors on the final unit board, to be a bit roasted. A message to Ghis, he came up with the values of the resistors. Though they were still 'alive', I replaced them. That was not it. The technician from Kenwood Belgium was consulted, his first thought as was mine, was to check the relays on the filter unit. Have taken all twelve out, and tested them. All ok. Now we sometimes get power out on 10 and 12m, sometimes 17 and 15, latest is power everywhere but 17m.
A friend technician has dismantled the whole unit, and came up with some other theories. Ghis has faxed some more diagrams, but helas, no solution has been found so far.
An unexpected additional day trip to S0 and 5T came up on 17 September. Gorgeous weather, most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. Some 400 km were covered that day, activating 5T, S0 and 5T again. Border crossings where carefully observed using a GPS, no border landmarks available. Only 12, 15 and 17m bands were operated in ssb, with an additional 281 Qs from 5T and 324 Qs from S0. Quite an experience that day. Happy I could hand out, unexpectedly, some more 'new ones' that day.
No need to tell you I am already dreaming about TU4WW, EL4WW, 3X4WW and 9L4WW. Although it was my ultimate wish to spend some more time with the Saharui people here, it is not to be right now. I never met Mulay, S01M, who made this operation possible. He wished to come and study in Belgium, my homecountry. Also that seems not to be possible nowadays. I hope we'll meet one day, my never 'seen' friend. Good luck to you and your people, always in my heart.
It is time now for me to go home and explain to my wife and kid, why and where I'm going next. Hope to catch you all from there.
73 - Mark - SØ7WW/ON4WW

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