Last updated 2016-08-29
'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) in "In Memoriam AHH", 1849.
'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have lost at all. Samuel Butler (1835-1902) in "The Way of All Flesh", Chapter 77, 1903.
'Tis better to be a has-been than never to have been at all. Chris R. Burger (1964- ) on zs6ez.org.za, title page, 2010.
I've always been interested in electronics and radio, and probably played with a Morse key and a buzzer before I could write cursively. At the time, the minimum age for a ham radio licence was 16, so I didn't get around to doing anything about it until around my fifteenth birthday. At that time, my father introduced me to a colleague, who was presenting amateur radio courses. On Wednesday nights, I would make the 20 km trip by bicycle. I passed the theory and Morse exams before my sixteenth birthday, and made my first VHF contact as ZS6BCR on the big day.
Two days later, I made my first trip to a real amateur radio station, to my Morse code mentor's shack. Jimmy Momberg ZS6APS stood by and supervised my first few contacts. From the start, I understood the importance of QSL cards. I collected my first card in person from ZS6ALG--again by bicycle--that same day!
My own station consisted of a borrowed FTDX100, a straight key and a trapped vertical antenna for the first year. During this year, I made around 1000 contacts with 100 countries on Morse code.
I later discovered that the transmitter was only running about 10 W due to soft final tubes, and the hand-me-down feedline introduced over 6 dB of loss, and that roof-mounted verticals actually needed radials. It didn't seem to matter much, though; at the peak of Solar Cycle 21, I worked many stations after local midnight on 28 MHz!
I started DXing around that time, and became aware of single-band DX scores around 1983. I spent several years chasing DX actively, but as other commitments kept escalating, DXing has faded into the background. In the Eighties, I did some of my DXing from neighbouring countries, and over a dozen DXpeditions resulted. Callsigns included 3DA0/ZS6BCR, 3DA0Z, 3DA6Z, A25/ZS6BCR, H5AYB, V51Z, ZS0Z, ZS3Z, ZS9Z, ZS9Z/ZS1, ZS6BCR/A22 and a guest operation as 7P8EN. The Penguin Island expeditions were big multi-operator all-band efforts producing around 56 000 QSOs jointly, but most of the others emphasised the more exotic bands and modes. Much time was spent on RTTY, CW, low bands and WARC bands. Out of a total of well over 100 000 contacts, probably less than 10 000 were made on 14 and 21 MHz.
I also did some DXing from home in the Eighties. On my wall hangs an assortment of certificates and plaques, including 5BWAZ, 8BWAS (3,5 to 28 MHz), 10BDXCC (1,8 to 50 MHz), Top of the DXCC Honor Roll (Mixed and Phone), 50 MHz WAC and a few others. The 50 MHz DXCC was perhaps the hardest. It's hard work from this part of the world, as there's virtually nothing to work within 8000 km. We also have the lowest incidence of Sporadic-E propagation on earth. However, Cycle 23 produced some fair propagation, and with enough time and with some well-placed alerts from the other die-hards (notably ZS6WB) not too much slipped from my grasp. Mine was the fifth in Africa, after two ZS6 stations, an EA8 and an EA9.
A list of my awards can be found elsewhere on this Web site.
These days, much of my involvement in DXing revolves around generating activity and supporting other operations. I have provided equipment for several DXpeditions and resident operators, including 3DA/G3SXW, 3DA/G3TXF, 3DA/G4FAM, 3DA0CA, 3DA0Z, 7P8D, C82DX, V5/W0YG, V5/W8UVZ, ZD9ZM, ZS8D, ZD9IR and ZS8IR. I also acted as liaison for 3DA0CA and ZS8IR, handling email and other correspondence and acting as advisor for their low band activities. The NCDXF has always provided invaluable support, including the printing of over 100 000 QSL cards and a pool of equipment kept locally to support expeditions in this part of the world. Examples included two ZD9 operations. ZD9ZM's amplifier plans were thwarted by a delay in factory shipments. An FL7000 amplifier was shipped from Pretoria to Cape Town at short notice, to await Bob's arrival from Europe. ZD9IR was very active, and repeated his impressive ZS8IR performance from this new location.
I have also been, as ZS6P says, nagging many people into being active on the bands, with interesting results. My most efficient nagging device was the Southern African Band Country Survey, which I maintained to encourage DXers to pursue competitive DXCC scores on each frequency band. Overseas surveys are not much good around here, as we face very peculiar challenges, very different from what a major population centre would present. We have high static levels, lousy propagation in our winter season, and above all, all DXpeditions beam away from us and deliberately avoid the optimum times for propagation to us! However, during the existence of the Survey from 1996 to 2012, the scores skyrocketed. The sustained growth rate seems to indicate that there was still much room for improvement.
I discontinued the SABCS at the end of 2013, once most participants have applied for single-band DXCCs on all bands. DXCC had become easy and affordable with the introduction of LotW, and the extra effort in soliciting inputs for the Band Country Survey seemed unnecessary. Besides, the third-party scrutiny provided by DXCC introduces a desirable level of rigour into the process which a survey cannot provide.
Around 1994, I also assembled a list of "firsts" on 50 MHz in South Africa. Compiling such a list is not an easy undertaking. If you can provide any information, please let me know.
My Web site includes the ZS Rogues' Gallery, including DXCC, contest, WAS, WAZ and other awards records for South Africans.
In the late Nineties and the Zeros, I still occasionally worked some DX, but my emphasis had moved into contesting. I was introduced to contesting around 1983, when I met Hal Lund ZS6WB. He'd been a contester since the Sixties, when he spent a year on Ascension with Jim Neiger N6TJ. Of course, Jim has retained his links with the island to great effect! It was from Hal's station that I managed my first successes in contesting, and it was from his library that I learned some tricks of the trade that I couldn't learn by example, isolated as I was in southern Africa. Hal later lived in the second house on my farm near Pretoria for a few years.
Other contributors to my develoopment included Tom Gregory N4NW and Roland Mensch DK3GI. Both spent tours of duty in South Africa. Tom was the first to show me the tools of the trade, including rigging hardware, decent feedlines and amplifiers. Roland operated ZS1CT extremely successfully, and re-wrote the paradigms of what was possible from southern Africa. No-one had previously considered the possibility that one might be able to make 4000 contacts from here in a contest. At the time, as far as I'm aware, no-one had yet exceeded 2500! Finally, there was Greg Smith ZL3IX (then ZS6BPL and later ZS5K). Greg did more than anyone else to show that it was possible to work stations below 14 MHz in a contest, if the right hardware was available. Greg built a two element full sized Yagi for 7 MHz, and showed the way towards the low band scores that were to follow a decade later.
In 2016, James Brooks 9V1YC enticed me into a two-man DXpedition to the Spratly islands. Despite very stormy solar conditions, we managed to make almost 11 000 QSOs between the two of us, using two radios and two verticals. The trip defiintely awakened a desire in me to do a few more DXpeditions in the coming years!
Southern Africa is not the greatest place in the world for contesting, as we're too far away from the major population centres to create a major presence on the low bands. However, we can certainly kick up some dust on the high bands. We're probably not quite as well off as the South Americans, as their trans-equatorial propagation extends into both Europe and the US, but we can do better than most.
During the Nineties, I put in several consecutive Single Operator All Band efforts in the CQ World Wide DX Contest on CW, but never managed to place better than 12th in the world. The worst placing was 15th, though, so we're not too far out of the ballpark.
My most competitive efforts have been in the single band categories:
Several of these efforts included memorable experiences. Working all forty zones on 14 MHz CW in the 1988 contest, and then repeating the feat on 28 MHz SSB in just 21 hours in the 2000 contest must certainly rate as highlights. Smashing the old world record in the 1999 CW contest by almost 10%, only to be beaten by ZX5J (N6TJ) by 1% was a real disappointment! However, anyone who has operated from Zone 38 will probably agree that the 1996 contest season was the most challenging, and the most gratifying if one ignores the world-wide ranking. Forty is a difficult band from here, with thunderstorm static in the contest season, short nights, and with a long way between us and the population centres. It's really tough to compete with the northern hemisphere on the low bands!
I guess contest trophies generally don't come as a surprise. One enters a category, works hard and expects to do well. Sometimes one gets pipped at the post, but normally one knows up front whether one is in the running. However, occasionally an unexpected honour comes one's way. The Araucaria DX Group's Certificate of Merit was such an honour. The ADXG is based in southern Brazil, and includes the likes of PY5EG, N5FA and PY5CC. I was amazed to learn many years later that award number 36 had been issued to me in 1993. The certificate didn't get to me at the time, and I was blissfully unaware of having won it until I stumbled across a list of winners in a magazine! The Group further extended the honour by electing me as a member during 2002.
Other highlights included being invited to and participating in the World Radiosport Team Championships in San Fransisco in 1996 and in Slovenia in 2000.
WRTC 1996 in San Fransisco was the first formally-organised WRTC, after the trial run that coincided with the Goodwill Games in Seattle, after the Iron Curtain came crashing down. Jan van Niekerk ZS6NW, then in the process of settling down in the USA as N3NW, was my teammate in Team Africa. This contest was my first exposure to offshore contesting, with loud signals, unlimited pileups and lots of contacts, despite the modest antennas and power.
At WRTC 2000 in Slovenia, teammate Bernie van der Walt ZS4TX and I made up Team Africa. Once again, WRTC was a wonderful experience. We spent more than a week socialising with other high-powered radio amateurs, and enjoying a relaxed time in the Alps. WRTC is definitely worth taking in.
WRTC 2002 took place in Finland in July 2002. Bernie and I also attended, under the heading "Team Africa". The bad news is that it did not go well in the contest. Given the repeatable performances that the top few teams have managed to produce, very few excuses can hold, so we're not offering any!
Anyone who dabbles in DXing and contesting will have noticed that the Finns stand tall in competitive amateur radio, and they certainly managed to live up to the high standards set by previous organisers. Socially, the event was a lot of fun, and their cellphone network ensured that spectators all around the world could see how teams were doing, as scores were updated every hour through an SMS server. WRTC was, again, organised to coincide with the IARU Radiosport Championship in July. All WRTC participants were provided with similar locations, similar antennas and similar callsigns, so as to ensure the most equal conditions possible. The teams remained anonymous and competed only among themselves, as the scoring system was different to that used for the IARU Radiosport Championship.
Team Africa was watched by Lee Volante G0MTN, himself an experienced contester. We had something over 1700 QSOs in the 24 hours, using a tribander, a dipole and a 100 W transmitter.
I missed WRTC in Brazil and Russia while raising my daughter. However, I'm looking forward to acting as a referee at WRTC 2014 in New England. I'm hoping to use the opportunity to operate from Zone 2 before the contest.
The 2000 contest season was possibly the most successful ever. I decided to stick to 28 MHz, and did a lot of antenna work. The 80 m beam came down, and was replaced by a long boom 7 element monobander for multiplier spotting. A total of five beams and multi-receiver capability proved well worth while. The station grew between the RTTY and CW contests to multi-radio capability with simultaneous multiplier spotting in the same band while calling CQ. A separate vertically-polarised spotting beam was used for this purpose.
Despite software problems, the CQWW/RJ RTTY contest resulted in a new world single band record, very close to double the old mark. SSB was less successful, but still resulted in a second place behind ZX5J. The CW contest was plagued by problems, but resulted in a world win, with a score just slightly below the world record. The season concluded with another world win, this time with JM1CAX piloting the station with the club callsign, ZS6Z, to take the honours in the ARRL 10 m Contest. The score appears to be an African record.
Koji's win was not the first success by a guest operator at ZS6Z. DK3GI had pulled off a second place on CW in the 1999 WAE DX Contest.
For the 2001 contest season, I was planning to rearrange the station for some single-band action on 21 MHz and a possible All Band effort on CW. However, my rotator was only shipped from California around the end of October, and did not arrive before the end of the year. For the first time in 20 years, I completely missed the CW contest.
Unfortunately, from about 2000 to 2013 other commitments took their toll. I did not work a single contest between 2000 and 2014, except as an operator at WRTC 2002 and as part of the Multi-Two crew at ZS9X in CQWW Phone 2008. Most of my energy went into my daughter, my studies, my work and my flying school.
Around 2014, some of these commitments started winding down, and I finally had the opportunity to play with my radio again. Since then, I have attended WRTC in New England as a referee, operated from places as varied as Labrador, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. I was also invited to a fun multi-multi from AA4HP for the 2015 IARU HF Championship. Apart from stellar hospitality by Hank and Stephanie Phillips and Chris Plumblee WF3C, I savoured the opportunity to operate a good station in a real contest again. It certainly whetted my appetite.
In 2015, I took a trip to operate the CQ World Wide CW DX Contest with PJ2T in Curacao. It was a delightful experience. Working 28 and 3,5 MHz, I had one of my most exhilirating contesting experiences ever as I finally saw for myself why the Caribbean is a prime contesting site. Running Europe on 80 while picking up the multipliers on the second VFO was quite unlike anything I've ever had in southern Africa!
I started building a big contest station on a ridge outside Pretoria in 1996. The station was never quite complete, but several pieces of noteworthy hardware were in operation at times. The station produced a handful of competitive scores. Examples include a world 7 MHz record in the CQ/DJ World Wide RTTY contest, and a world-record-breaking effort in the 1999 CW CQWW DX Contest. Unfortunately, I ended up getting beaten in this contest, but the thrill of handsomely breaking the old world record in a very competitive category will not easily be forgotten.
The pictures were taken in 1998, when several new towers were in the process of springing up. At the time, I lived in the small house, while Hal Lund ZS6WB lived in the big house for several years. We had some spectacular mutual interference when we were on the same band, but fortunately Hal was mainly a VHF guy and I seldom got on the air. Some of the pictures were added after DK3GI's visit in 1999.
The station eventually included several antenna stacks, including a three-high stack on 28 MHz, a two-high stack on 21 MHz and a single beam on 14 MHz, all on a rotating tower. The tower is still up, but most the antennas are not. The 14 MHz beam is at 42 m (138'). It was a wonderful performer. Everything between 17 and 45 m (56 and 148') rotated. This tower was used for the primary stack on 28 MHz in the 2000 contest season. I used WX0B's switch gear to switch the stack and to connect the various antennas to the two radios. The audio was done with ZS4TX's Super Combo Keyer.
I used the Yaesu FT1000MP as my prime HF radio, and the Icom IC746 as a secondary HF and prime VHF radio. Both are wonderful machines, with a level of performance that was barely imaginable when I was licenced. Unfortunately, a lightning strike destroyed both radios some years ago, and a charlatan convinced the insurance that he could repair the radios. After numerous trips to and from his workshop, the radios are still inoperable, and I'm confined to my little IC706.
My logging computer was a simple machine running DOS, and TRLog and WF1B software. Someone came and collected it one night when I was not home. I'm sure they were hoping for more than a 386 running DOS, though...
During 1997, my daughter was born. During 1999, I joined the South African Air Force Reserve as a volunteer pilot. In 2003, I started a flying school. Around 2008, I started working on a PhD. These hobbies have consumed all my spare time to the extent that ham radio is but a fond memory. I tried to maintain my position on the DXCC Honor Roll, but missed several new countries. My contest records toppled one by one. DX scores have risen meteorically since the advent of spotting networks, and it's just a matter of time before my callsign disappears off all the records tables.
Right now, I only have a small tribander and a few wires for the low bands. My biggest amplifier is a small transistor job. I can put a signal on the air, but I'm certainly not a Big Gun.
Even this chapter will come to a close soon when my property is redeveloped with high-density apartments. The towers will come down and I may have to relocate to a place without antennas. Not having tall towers in the back yard will make it even harder to keep a finger on the DX pulse.
I long back to ham radio, and may make a comeback one day. However, for the moment, other priorities require my attention. I still occasionally browse the Internet for some news, still keep the DXing scores up to date on the Web and still keep in touch with several friends from ham radio. Until I do manage to stage a comeback, I'll just remind myself that it's better to be a has-been, than not to have been at all...
There is some light on the horizon, though. My daughter doesn't feel that she needs my attention any more. I've sold the flying school. The Air Force has not used volunteers much recently. And my PhD will probably come to an end one day, although it doesn't feel like it. I've bought some land a little further from Pretoria, and have gradually started developing a new station there. Stay tuned!
I've started compiling a collection of short articles with perspectives on various amateur radio issues. These are my perspectives, so you could dismiss them as biased opinions. You are absolutely correct with your classification, but dismissing them is not the idea. I'd much prefer if you could share your own perspectives with me, provided that they're reasoned and not just a knee-jerk reaction. If you try to justify something just because 'that's the way it's always been', please excuse the inevitable rather cold shoulder. However, I'd love to hear new angles if you have them. I might even add your inputs to my articles, or adjust my content to make use of the new insights.
This gallery is initially being created with only a handful of articles in it. It may grow with time. Growth rate is not guaranteed, but it's probably worth while checking back once in a while to see if there's anything new to disagree with.
Duping (2000-08): This piece suggests a way to handle the issue of duplicate contacts on bands with limited propagation. It's currently a hot item of discussion in the 50 MHz fraternity, while exotic DX opportunities appear at sporadic intervals.
The Dating Game (2000-12): A piece on date formats. Dates became a hot topic around the Y2K event, but most people seem set in their ancient ways. Could we be doing better?
Those Blank QSL Cards (2000-12): A piece on those blank QSL cards that we all receive from time to time. Or could it maybe rather be a perspective on the seriousness of DXing and amateur radio in general?
Electronic QSLing (2000-12): We'd all love them, and they're definitely on the way. Are the systems springing up now the answer? This article evolved over several months, with inputs from many role players. It is now somewhat dated, as it predates the ARRL's Logbook of the World, but it outlines all the important issues and includes links to cryptography tutorials. This article became compulsory reading for the LotW development team, and is recommended by the prime system architect as an outline of the relevant issues.
Assessing your DXCC Scores (2001-01): We all know that a score of 300 is better than 200. But by how much? This short article shows you a way to rate your DXCC scores on a scale of 1 to 10. The bad news: If you're on the Honor Roll, you're exactly half way to the top!
The Topband Searchlight, as seen from Southern Africa (2013-06), a narrative on low band propagation from southern Africa. Hopefully, we can put some myths to bed and help to create more reasonable expectations around low-band DX to this part of the world.
How to Cheat on DXCC (2013-06), a perspective on some of the nefarious tricks that cheats use to achieve DXCC glory...and maybe even some perspective on the meaning of DXCC glory.
This section has only just started. Let me know if you have any technical or legal reference material that might belong in this section.
50 MHz Band Plan for IARU Region 1 (2001-12): This band plan is endorsed by a number of operators' organisations world wide, and clearly is not reflected by common usage in South Africa in all cases...
Guest operations in South Africa (2002-01): After repeated requests by foreigners who wanted to operate from South Africa, and who had no joy working through the South African Radio League, I compiled this document to enable visitors to operate from South Africa. Despite initial indications that visitors could obtain local callsigns, the licencing authority has now decided that only residents qualify for this privilege. We're in the process of addressing this problem, but for the moment visitors can obtain reciprocal operating privileges (with a "portable" callsign) relatively easily.
I've made a start with assembling some tutorials for beginners and advanced operators alike. One day when I'm grown up I'll have more stuff on contesting, advanced CW operation and a few other topics, but for now there are just a few:
How to improve your QSL returns (2001-05): QSLing could be a relatively modest formality, or it can take over your life. Most DXers complain about poor returns, yet some seem to have almost 100% success. This article lists a few pointers that could put you on the road to success, and keep down the time and money that you spend on this chore. There are also several guidelines for using the South African QSL bureau.
How to apply for your DXCC in southern Africa (2001-05, rewritten 2014-04): With the introduction of LotW and the appointment of Tjerk Lammers ZS6P as a DXCC checkpoint, DXers in southern Africa now have absolutely no excuses to avoid applying for DXCC. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to do it!
How to make a Morse Code contact (2001-12): This step-by-step tutorial contains everything you need, not only to survive that first contact, but also to learn to enjoy Code and actually do it well. Even if you detested learning it in the first place...
During late 2015 and early 2016, I edited the SARL's study guide for prospective radio amateurs to bring it to full CEPT compliance. I also produced an Afrikaans translation. In the process, I produced a list of Afrikaans radio terms. These are all in use by SARL students, and are available free of charge.
I have always managed my own QSLs, as well as those of all my DXpeditions. I have also handled the cards for "offshore" operations by my friend Chris de Beer ZS6RI (ex ZS5IR), ZS8IR, 5H4IR, 5H9IR and ZD9IR. You can read about his activities as ZD9IR on the ZD9IR News Page. I also hold a complete set of logs for all previous ZS8 operations from Marion Island (ZS8MI, ZS8IR and ZS8D). I was never the manager for ZS8MI, but the NCDXF supplied cards to help those who could never confirm this callsign before. Unfortunately, ZS8MI became active again from 2004, and those QSLs proved as hard to obtain as some from the past. Chaos has returned.
I have sent over 220 000 QSL cards over the years. In principle, I confirm all bureau and direct requests. However, because of the sheer volume and the fact that I have not yet retired, I have made some policy decisions that may mean that the occasional bureau request falls through the cracks. If you've had no luck getting a card, you have probably been the victim of a mail problem or some other misunderstanding, rather than a malicious, buck-grabbing QSL manager.
On this Site, you can read my QSL Policy, a QSL Status Report if you want to see whether your request has been processed, and a list of Frequently Asked Questions about QSLing. Rest assured that every card will be processed, if it hasn't already been.
If you're looking for specific information on this site and haven't found it, here's an index to help you:
ZD9IR News Page: Chris de Beer ZS6RI spent a year on Gough Island in 2004, as leader of the meteorological team there. This page included updates on his activity, and provided links to the Gough Island newsletters.
ZS Rogues' Gallery: Includes operating achievements by South Africans both in fast and slow contests (i.e. DXing).
ZS6EZ Station Description: This section is where you will find some pictures on this Web site! There is also some narrative on two-radio operations and some of the custom-made parts in the station, and a thank-you to those who made it happen.
ZS6EZ QSLing Policy: Tells you how your QSL request will be handled, for ZS6EZ and other callsigns that I manage.
ZS6EZ QSLing FAQ: Hopefully answers some of the questions you might have about the policy document.
ZS6EZ QSLing Status Report: Tells you when a specific bureau or direct batch was sent, or when it will be if it hasn't already been.
ZS6EZ Contest and DXpedition Stories: A collection of contest and DXpedition narratives, including ZS9Z/ZS1.
About 50 MHz WAZ: An open letter from PY5CC and the WAZ manager's response. This exchange culminated in the introduction of a new single band WAZ for 50 MHz in 2001.
Guest operations in South Africa: How to obtain a reciprocal callsign, if you are not licenced by a CEPT signatory nation.
The South African Radio League (SARL). This page is unfortunately a tale of woe at the moment. Let's hope it will improve in due course.
About Marion Island ZS8, including recent developments around ZS8MI.
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