From October 15th till 30th 2007, the radio amateur expedition to Gambia, being the greatest Slovak DXpedition of its kind ever, took place. This is the story of seven radio amateur operators who had the possibility to fulfill their dreams about a great expedition for the period of two weeks in the small country in West Africa.
Preparing the expedition
After several more or less holiday-like expeditions of smaller extent (SV9, SV5, IB0, 3B8) I started to play with the idea of organizing a great DX expedition to one of more infrequent countries, preferably somewhere in Africa. Sometimes in November 2006, immediately after returning back from the expedition to 3B8/OM0C, I started investigation in which country we could expect least problems with the licence, choise of a suitable QTH, accomodation, transport etc. An important factor in choosing the QTH was also its strategic location reagarding the fact that during the planned expedition we intended to take part in the SSB part of the CQWW contest. Therefore I took the results of CQ contests from the last few years and the result were some callsigns, eventually countries. Immediately I started to gather all possible information and after considering all „pros“ and „contras“ the result was Gambia. „Nothing special“ – I told to myself, nothing extraordinary rare, but an interesting location, mainly for 160 metres and maybe also on the digital modes. My choise was influenced by the fact, that at present there is only one active radioamateur, Noz, C5DXC in Gambia. I addressed him immediately and asked him for his help in handling of formalities, choosing the QTH etc. Already the next day Noz informed me about the list of documents being necessary to submit for the application for issuing a licence.
Standing from left: Dan OM1NW, Bob OM1KW, Roman OM2RA and Jan OM2XW
Below from left: Joe OM5AW, Rich OM2TW and Norbert OM6NM
Finally, after receiving a promise from the authorities regarding issuing the licence, I had to reveal my intention and I had to start looking for operators. During a couple of days I succeeded in persuading the first adventurers – i.e. Joe OM5AW (being the least problem of all), Bob OM1KW, Norbert OM6NM and Roman OM2RA. After a short time another operator, Dano OM1NW joined the team. All the time I was dealing with a problem – to offer a new country to a possibly greatest number of hams on 160m. After several weeks I found the right one, Jan OM2XW, belonging to our best operators on the topband, who also joined the expedition. Our team became complete and the preparations could be commenced. In the meantime, in January 2007, the application for issuing a licence was sent to the competent authority in Banjul and there was nothing else to do than to wait for the result.
Until now nobody of us has got any experience in organizing of similar „megaevents“ this is to say, that we had to overcome a huge number of problems. Needless to say, in organizing of an expedition of greater extent, probably the most serious problem is where to get the money needed. One has to take into consideration not only the fixed fees, but also any extra costs, which are in this part of the world nothing special. For this reason we addresses not only individuals, but also companies and foundations with our plea for their financial and material help.
At the same time our fantasy started to work intensively and gradually we could put together the overall picture about what to take with us to Gambia. Our plans were ambitious, our goals were high. No modesty at all. Virtually we composed the setup and following weighing of the equipment and adding everything together as a result we obtained nearly 400 kilograms. However, the only possibility how to transport the whole equipment to Gambia was the air cargo transport.
Problems with cargo
On pronouncing the word „cargo“ I will feel frisson on my back for a long time. It proved to be a nightmare and the most critical part of the expedition. It began by measuring of dimensions and weiging of all those boxes and transceivers, power amplifiers and other equipment. In the second phase it was the manufacturing of wooden boxes for the equipment. Fortunately, we managad to get two of them cost free, but the third one had to be manucatured. Because of the fact that this box had to accomodate two power amplifiers OM2500 and two FT-1000MP´s, it could not be of any subtile kind, but on the contrary, it had to be of a very massive construction. Finally, the weight of this case turned to be 197 kgs (empty approx. 40 kgs). The further two cases contained two PA´s AL811´s from Ameritron, approx. 700 m coaxial lines and a rotator, filters Dunestar, LAN-components, wire antennas, power supplies etc...
On Prague Ruzyň – airport our cargo showed a remarkable weight amounting 439 kgs, whereas the antenna poles, antennas and two transceivers were still at home. On Friday, October 10th 2007 our cases set our for their three days long air journey to Gambia. We were sure that Noz, C5DXC will take over the cargo on Friday, or at latest on Monday and we will come and will meet our equipment in Gambia. We were wrong again. On Friday and on Monday nobody worked in Gambia because of the end of ramadan and so our cargo had to wait for us.
Tuesday, October 16th 2007. Our nervousness raises to the exterme. In the morning we met in Bratislava, from where our friends took us to the airport in Vienna and at 10:35 a.m. we will proceed for Frankfurt. We passed the check-in counter smoothly problems even having slightly „overloaded“ luggage which disappeared in the airport labyrinth. The antennas and antenna poles had to be handed over to the „bulky luggage“ and also here went everything very smoothly. Well, let´s go! Until now everything went very well. The short flight to Frankfurt we enjoyed in high spirits.
But as always, the problems had to come. The Frankfurt airport is a really huge facility and there is no problem to get lost. And exactly that happened to us. Roman, looking for toilettes followed the „gentleman´s symbol“ on the doors, mistakingly left the Eurozone and suddenly he became separated from the rest of the expedition team. Luckily he had his mobile telephone on him, otherwise we could not imagine how to find him again. Without his flight ticket it would be obviously very difficult for him to get out from there. After nearly an hour he happily met us again and the adventure could continue.
After „refuelling“ ourselves in the taxfree shop we boarded our plane, this time having the final destination the airport Yundum, Banjul in Gambia, West Africa ahead of us. But again, our pleasure proved to be premature. After a couple of minutes, the Captain appologized that due to a defect on the plain our departure would had to be postponed. During the endless waiting for the spare parts for the defect plain we were already thinking of offering him the spare parts from ther OM-Power shop. After a two-hours delay we finally took off and nobody was in doubt about the fact that we will really arrive to our final destination though our confidence regarding trustwothiness of this certain unnamed airlines suffered a serious damage.
At 9:30 p.m. we finally landed in Gambia. Getting out from the plain was the first shock for us. Even at this late evening time, the temperature was high over 35°C and the humidity could be compared with a Turkish steam sauna. After our entering the airport arrival hall, dozens of porters mutually quarreling in an unknown language, attacked us immediately. However it was more than obvious that they were quarreling about who will transfer our luggage to the cabs, waiting for their customers at a distance of about 30 metres. Overthere Noz, C5DXC waited already for us, who succeeded to get another cab in order to be able to transfer all our luggage to the Radio SYD. We were informed in advance that in Gambia there are at least three people necessary for everything. One of them works, the second one helps him a the third one is a „manager“. Of course, all of them wanted to get a bakshish. This phenomenon accompanied us during the entire time of our expedition. At that time we started to feel as a mobile cashomats.
Starting the expedition
The first day was in accordance with our scheme. Arriving to the Radio SYD, where we happened to meet Benny Holgerson (radiostation´s co-owner, originating from SM) and after a small welcome drink we started even bigger welcome drink together with George, (local citizen, originating from the UK) where we succeeded in violating the first rule to be observed during travelling through Africa – not to add any ice into drinks. But who would be willing to drink a warm whisky?
Later, further welcome drinks followed and after emptying all suplies of bottled mineral water we re-filled water from the local water supply. The welcoming ceremony extended nearly to the early morning. Among other things, the first night meant to make aquintant with the local insects spreading malaria. Mosqitos made our life very bitter during the whole expedition and our repellents were obviously absolutely inefficient against them.
In the morning, immediately after the sunrise, together with Roman and Joe I rushed to the airport to get our cargo. In meant again endless „bartering“ with the airport clerk, paying an enormous sum of money for customs procedures and finally for transporting the cases to the QTH of the Radio SYD.
Arriving there, we unpatiently started erecting the first antennas and operators´working places. The first one the vertical for 40 metres appeared on its place. However, at that time the propagation conditions on this particular band were not the best ones, therefore we continued with the second antenna, mounting the 5-band Spiderbeam on a 9 metres high pole. Finally we were able to start the operation on the frequency 21.230 MHz. We tuned the OM-Power to its full power. I set down to the radio and my hands shivered, as if I made the first radio contact in my life.
On October 17th 2007 I succeeded to make the first QSO under the call sign C52C with Steve, OM3JW. We finished this first contact in a terrible pile-up, suddenly appearing on this frequency. Among the first ones also Gitka, OM5MF succeeded in making the contact. And then, a roundabout started, to which we were looking forward for months. We were „on air“ and it was really very dramatic.
We continued in erecting another antennas. Working in the extreme temperatures demands some breaks, which we mostly spent in the Benny´s bar, or swimmig in the Atlantic ocean. Well, needles to say, swimming was a very good refreshment, though it was difficult to explain, what we were swimming in. Our location was in a 35 kilometre wide estuary of the river Gambia and not everytime the water happened to smell like the Atlantic ocean. But anyhow, the water was salty and unbelievable warm.
Next day we continued in erecting the antennas. Working in that terrible heat proved to be a very hard job. The midday temperatures rised significantly over 45 °C and it was possible to work outside only in the morning, or in the very late afternoon, when the sunshine intensity decreased. The beer consumption raised rapidly and the emergency supplies of Benny´s bar seemed to be endangered. We were alternating between the bar and swimming.
Now the second Spiderbeam antenna became its position on the pole and in the evening also the LP5 with rotator, which we had because of the multiplying operating place. We rotated the Spiderbeams manually. We needed to erect also antennas for 80 metres and 160 metres, but our energy was abviously completely exhausted.
Also first problems with electricity supply appeared. The switches, which obviously „forgot“ what they were originally designed for, fell out one after the another. By means of their combination we tried to reach the necessary voltage on all operating places. But, unfortunately, our pleasure did not last very long. Like on purpose, one phase fell out repeatedly. Wat was happening? It seemed to be a break down on the power supply to the building. Benny phoned to the power distribution centre and in a couple of hours one black young man started jumping from one pole to the another looking for the fault. Finally, the problem could be solved and we enjoy the power supply again. Well, such situation can appear, in case such things like clamps seems to be unknown somewhere.
Fourty hours of operation passed and 6500 QSO´s appeared to be recorded in our logs. Again, there were some total black-outs, however they luckily did not last very long. This day was dedicated to the tuning of low band antennas. We erected also a vertical antenna for the 30 metres band and immediately after the first call on the frequency 10.104 a pile-up took place, which spread on the whole band. By the way, the 30 m band is actually very narrow.
The turn for antennas for both lower bands has come, i.e. a 20 m high pole with a vertical antenna for 80 m band and a 22 m high pole with an antenna for 160 metres, all of them being erected only a few metres far from the Atlantic ocean beach. At that particular moment, the tuning „crew“ consisting of Dano, Rich and Jano commenced their work. An accurate tuning of the complete vertical antenna by means of a phantastic antenna analysator with a graphic output on the notebook screen ( this was the work of Dano, OM1NW) made our work considerably easier. It was enough to place 10 radials for every band to the sand, to tune-up the condensers and the coil for 160 metres and the work was completed. Fortunately we took a sufficient number of condensers with us. The vertical antenna for 80 m used to be fed directly, only for CW operaton a serial coil proved to be necessary. In the evening we already could tune-up on the frequences 3798 and 1825 kHz.
On the 80 m band the pile-up was literally terrible and it spread up to the width of 20 kHz. A terrific number of stations calling us uninterruptedly as well as a strong local QRN made our operation on the lower bands not easy. Despite this unfavourable circumstances, during the first night we succeeded in completing 371 QSO´s on 160 m and 622 on the 80 m band. During the next days we concentrated mainly on completing the receiving antennas.
During the the night shifts in addition to the QRN we encountered serious problems with mosquitos. Sometimes they bite us so ruthlessly, that we had better to go to the radiostation and to work because there was no sense to try to sleep.
During the first weekend on Saturday we successfully exceeded the limit of 10.000 QSO´s. But our pleasure was again destroyed by a more that one hour lasting black-out in the whole area. During the weekend the black-outs repeated again maybe for 5 times.
The island Bijol
On Saturday we made the phone lines to the foundation Wildlife „red“, because solely they were authorised for issuing a permission for entering the island Bijol, AF-060. The ornitologist Clive Barlow, who examines the birds life in Gambia and Senegal, helped us in getting this permission. In late evening hours we got the permission and immediately started organizing the trip to this rare IOTA location.
On Sunday morning together with Joe, OM5AW we set out for Brufutu, where the National Park rangers waited for us as to transfer us to the island. Immediately after our arrival there a fisherman addressed us with his offer to sell us „Bob Marley cigarettes“. This kind of business is very common in Gambia though the legality of such bussines is really questionable.
The Bijol Island has been situated approx. 3 kilometres from the coast and using a fishermen´s boat the passage lasted half an hour. The permission itself had been issued only for 30 or 40 minutes and authorises the visitors only for birds´ watching. We must not forget that as everywhere also in Africa the saying „Everything for money“ applies exactly.
Of course, several local „sea officers“ joined our expedition, wo spent with us up to nine hours and of course, they wanted us to pay them for their „service“. Actually, they have eaten all our foodstuffs. Luckily, at least enough water left for us.
We reached the island of Bijol about 09:00 UTC. The island greeted us by a huge number of birds, bad smell of their excrements, lost feathers and temperatures over 45°C. Immediately we started building the radiostation and at 09:30 we already appeared on 14.260 kHz. At this point it is necessary to „praise“ the Eurpoean stations, which, after our emerging on the band, behaved in a shocking way. We have not experience such a madness never before! They simply did not allow us to say anything. The only possibility was to get accustomed to it. After returning home, during our re-writing of logs we found out that many QSO proved to be duplicate.
Operation had been really very demanding inside a small tent, having legs somehow folded and in an unbearable heat. We worked only SSB mode on 20m, 17m and finally also on 15 metres band. We postponed the closing of our operating time as long as we could and we disembarked on the shore already in the twilight. Tired, hungry and dirty. This proved to be the most difficult day of the expedition. But, thanks God, we were able to achieve 1400 QSO´s from the AF-060.
Days passing by
Immediately after the weekend we commenced to erect our next „weapon“. This was the 4square for 40 metres. Thanks Béla, OM8AW, who has rich experience with this type of antenna and rendered us instructions, we were able to avoid all beginners´ troubles, accompanying the tuning of this type of antenna. Unfortunately, we failed to get any possibility to test the above antenna in Slovakia, because the Comtek hybrid coupler arrived only four days before our departure. However, everything started to work already at the first attempt – but to tell the truth - such things happen very seldom... The directional function of the antenna was literally unbelievable. We were looking forward to the night and to the expected effects. Needless to say, the effect was excellent. Joe OM5AW experienced a huge pile-up on 7 MHz, which could be compared with the yelling football stadium. At the sea shore it proved to be extremely good antenna, comparable with a directional antenna. An important feature of this antenna available is a quick switching between the directions without any need of using a rotator.
After five days we managed to build up all working station:
October 24th happened to be marked by misfortune. One of the power amplifiers Ameritron did not withstand the permanent load on RTTY and passed to the „happy hunting grounds“ with all accompanying visual and acoustic effects, not unlike a playing rock band. As as soon the smoke scattered, I started with the repair work. The supressors´ plate on the anodes, separating condenser inside the anode circuit and blocking condenser in glowing burnt down. The spare parts supply in Gambia is equal zero, so that I decided to explore where such a pí-network components could be missed less than in a pí-network. After approximately eight hours the PA was in workable condition again, however showing a bit bouncing, but what was important for us - it worked.
On the contrary, the linear amplifiers OM2500 from OM POWER worked despite extreme temperatures and practically nonstop operation perfectly as well as the microKeyers from MicroHAM, which we used for RTTY.
Jan, OM2XW was working on the topband every night. It proved to be a very hard work. In this part of the world the QRN was in effect permanent. We succeeded to produce a strong signal and we made contacts also with stations from Europe and from the USA using a power of 100 W and LW. Finally, we managed to do some QSO´s to JA, which were between C5 and JA and one QSO to ZL. The USA West Coast and KH6 were on 160 m absolutely fantastic, and the QSO´s became almost routine.
Friday was the last day before the CQWW SSB contest. We were not sure in which category we will be participating. Finally, after a thorough consideration, we have chosen the M/2 category. This a very difficult category with a lot of competitors. Finally, AO8A (QTH EA8AH), TS6A ( the champions from 2006), HC8N, PJ4E, PJ2T are the best ones in the world.
The CQWW contest
The midnight approached. One of the goals of our expeditions, the CQWW SSB Contest 2007 started. The nervousness culminated. Our team member, MUDr. Moravanský (Norbert, OM6NM) prescribed one ration of gin with tonic as a preventive measure and the next one for courage. But to be honest, there were taken also more rations without prescription...However, it was a good help, because the nervousness decreased and this was very important before commencing the contest. We started in rather high speed. On 40 m Joe OM5AW and on 20 m Norbert OM6NM opened the activity. Within the first hour we had almost 450 QSO´s in the log. The pile-up was terrible and to take the station as they were in the queue, was very difficult. It was a real „trial by fire“. We changed the bands and the operators rotated in regular intervals. In the morning the 10 m band opened and the European stations roared with strong signals. This was maybe the one advantage in comparison to the stations in the Northern Africa, which have the EU stations very near on lower bands.
We were following the rivals, but the time passed equally for everyone. The 15m band worked all day long and on the second operating place we alternated only 20 m and 10 m bands. But „mr. Murphy“ proved to alert during the whole contest duration. Sometimes in the afternoon Roman and Dano set out running to the place where our vertical antenna for 160 m band was placed. Some cows from the herd coming to the beach three times a day entangled themselves in the anchoring strings of our vertical antenna and broke it down. Oh my God! The herdsman, who until that time communicated with us in English, reacted on the Romans statement regarding the compensation for the damage with words „I don´t speak English“. Fortunately, it proved to be enough to cut away a one meter long piece of pipe and the antenna (even a bit deformed) could be placed on its position again.
In the evening everything went well and without any problems and after the first 24 hours there were already 7000 qso´s in our log recorded. On Sunday the atmospheric loss appeared and the 20m band ceased to work, later also the 40 m and 80 m band. On the 160 m band we „chased“ the last multipliers from the Caribic area and we were waiting until the main working bands will be workable again. Well, a pile-up started again and the scenario from previous day repeated.The 10 m band was widely opened, the West Coast of the USA worked till late night hours. Almost 2000 QSO´s on the 10 m band confirmed this fact.
Straight on Monday morning we started dismantling and packing the antennas, first of all, both Spiderbeams and then the LP5 and 4sqare. Only the verticals for 160, 80 and 30 m bands were left so far. However, the weariness following the contest affected all of us and the last evening and in the morning only me and Jožo were transmitting. We intended to make at least a few QSO´s on the 160 m band, but just that day the tide was so high, that a certain number of our radial had been flodded and thus our antenna became detuned. Therefore we remained QRV only on 30 m CW and 80 m band SSB.
Many OM and OK station utilized the last possibility to work with C52C. We defintely closed our operation at 07:10 by the QSO with LU7DSY on 80m band. In our log there were 49.153 QSO´s (35.223 QSO´s under the C52C callsign, 12.226 QSO´s under the call sign C50C in the CQWW contest and about 1488 QSO´s under the call sign C50C from the island of Bijol, AF-060).
We started to pack the last antennas. At 12:00 hrs we transported our cargo to the airpor Yundum, where, like two weeks ago, bargaining about the price took place again. Anyhow, this time it happened to be not so dramatic, everybody of us was tired and wanted to be at home again as soon as possible. In the meantime the other team members were packing our belongings and at the same time they followed the section 3830 on the www.contesting.com website.
Following the last shopping of souvenirs we were transferred to the airport a started our flight home on the route Banjul – Praia (Cape Verde) – Frankfurt – Vienna. Well, not to forget, before taking off from the African ground, we had to undergo a wild checking of our luggage connected with confiscating of any possible things. Well, try to explain to somebody in Africa what a „paddle keyer“ means, especially in case when everybody of our team had it in the luggage. So all paddle keyers and one transceiver had to be repeatedly checked-in and stowed in the plain´s luggage room.
Finally we sat in the plain. Most of us slept during the entire flight in various contorted positions because of our being extremely tired. Suddenly we landed home and we became aware that the expedition definitely finished. It was a fantastic experience and I hope that it was not such only for us. I believe, that we gave a new country to many of our friends, radiohams from all over the world.
Finally, first of all I would like to express my gratitude to all hams, who took part in this project and were able during two weeks to work hard in very demanding conditions. I also would like to express my cordial thanks to Benny and Connie (the owners of Radio SYD) for their fantastic service during our whole stay in Gambia. Thanks George for his Irish music and the Chinese restaurant, Clive for his help in obtaining the permission to enter the island Bijol and, of course, to all of our sponsors, the companies, foundations, but also to individual persons, who supported this expedition and helped us to let our great dream about the great expedition come true.
Our special thanks belong to our general sponsor, the company K-Cero, whom we thank for their support. By a considereble part also the companies OM-Power, SunEd, MicroHAm, Spiderbeam, Swiss, ATT Plus, DDAmtek, gama Aluminium, DX-WIRE, Fujitsu Siemens Computers, foundations EUDXF, GDXF and NDXA as well as the individual persons like Rudi OM5FM, Dušan, OM1DA, Dano OM1DK, Braňo OM2FY, Ľubo OM5ZW, Jaro OM1II und Béla OM8AW, considerably supported our expedition and Juraj OM1LY for english translation of this article.
We are looking forward to hearing from each other from the next expedition. Where from? Let us surprise you!