ZS9Z: The last operation from Walvis Bay

Last updated 2012-04-16

Notice: © 1994 Donald I. Field. This version published on the ZS6EZ Web site © 1994-2012 Chris R. Burger. This document may be reproduced as required for personal use, and may be freely referenced from other Web sites. However, publication elsewhere requires express written permission from the copyright holders.

This story was written by Don Field G3XTT, who joined me on the ZS9Z and V51Z DXpedition in February and March 1994. It was originally published in the CDXC Digest of the Chiltern DX Club. I have long intended to write the story, but when I found it on Don's Web site, I decided to let his eloquent account suffice. I have just added metric units to all Don's imperial measurements to make sure that non-British subjects can also follow.

How it started

Although some CDXC members would not think in terms of DXpeditioning, for fear they might miss some rare DX while away, the majority of us probably harbour dreams of being rare DX. Over the years I have had the opportunity to operate from both GJ and GU, as well as from a number of relatively rare IOTA spots. However, none of these could really be classified as serious DXpeditioning. At the same time, with family commitments and a full-time job, I have never felt able to offer myself for a VK9M or 3Y0 type of trip. Some day maybe ...

The nearest I came to going on a DXpedition was two years ago when Chris, ZS6EZ, who I have corresponded with since the early 80s, asked me to join him on a trip to Penguin Island. Unfortunately this would have taken place over the Christmas/New Year holiday, which would hardly have gone down well on the domestic front, so I had to decline. Then late last year Chris told me he was hoping to put on an operation from Walvis Bay before it ceased to exist as a separate country, and was hoping that this time I would be able to join him. The dates were still very open and in the end I had all of about ten days notice that the operation would actually go ahead in the last week of February. This was definitely the last possible chance to activate ZS9, as Walvis Bay was due to be formally handed over to Namibia on 28th February. The flip side was that this would enable us to operate briefly under a V5 callsign as well without ever have to move QTH!

All this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. ZS9, and even V5, were rare enough to give me some useful DXpedition experience, but accessible enough that I would be away from home for less than two weeks. Some rapid negotiations at home and at work enabled me to clear my diary and get the necessary permissions, while a call to Thomas Cook revealed that the Worldís Favourite Airline had a special offer to Johannesburg during March, which made the trip rather more affordable than I had anticipated.

The critical path appeared to be licensing. Would it really be possible to get reciprocal licences for both ZS and V5 in the space of a week? Fortunately Chris has good contacts in the licensing departments in both countries, developed over many years, and was assured that if I was able to FAX out copies of my UK licence and passport details there should be no problem. At this stage I was running out of excuses, it looked as though I really was on my way. The only complication was that John G3WGV and I were committed to an ARRL CW Contest effort from Jersey on 19/20th February, travelling back late on the Monday, and I would be flying out to Johannesburg on the Tuesday night, which didn't leave much time for contingencies.

Walvis Bay's History

A word about Walvis Bay and Namibia at this stage. Walvis (Whale Fish) Bay is one of the few natural harbours along that stretch of coast and has been used as a fishing port since the 19th century. There is no other reason why anyone in their right mind would build a town right in the middle of one of the world's most arid deserts! The early settlers came under occasional attack from natives, and asked the British Government for protection. Early this century, when the Union of South Africa came into being, the British government handed the administration and protection of Walvis Bay over to the South Africans, where it has remained ever since. After the First World War, Germany was stripped of its overseas possessions, which included South West Africa, and South Africa was asked to administer SWA as well. However, although Walvis Bay is surrounded on three sides by SWA (and by the Atlantic Ocean on the fourth side), for most of the subsequent period SWA and Walvis Bay were administered quite separately by South Africa. When SWA gained its independence in the 80s and became Namibia, this is no way affected the status of Walvis Bay, which continued to be run as an offshoot of Cape Province.

Nevertheless, the Namibians eyed Walvis Bay with interest. Many of their imports and exports were going through Walvis Bay, and the Walvis Bay economy, while small by South African standards, was worth about 10% of Namibiaís economy (Walvis Bay has a population of about 25 000. Namibia has a population of about 1 million, but many of them at subsistence level). To South Africa, with all the political turmoil at home, the cost and effort of administering Walvis Bay (and, to a much lesser extent, the Penguin Islands) was less and less justifiable, and they eventually agreed to hand over the territories to Namibia.

Incidentally, although that handover has now taken place, there still remain some outstanding issues about ownership of assets, particularly telecommunications and power assets which the Namibians believe should now be theirs but which were privately owned (as in the UK, telecomms and power generation in South Africa are privatised). However, there is nothing to prevent the ARRL deleting ZS9 and ZS0 from the countries list. Indeed, Ian Sutherland, V51C (ex-ZS9A) who we visited while we were there, told us that the South African licensing people had written to all holders of ZS9 licences, telling them that as from 28th February their ZS9 licences would no longer be valid and they would have to take out V5 licences.

Getting There

So it was I made my first trip south of the equator, and was met at Jan Smuts airport by Chris ZS6EZ. Incidentally, although I had been corresponding with Chris for so long, we had only once met in person, during a brief business trip to the UK which Chris had made last year. However, Chris has twice hosted Dennis G3MXJ in recent years (Dennis operated as ZS6FOC to great effect in the FOC Marathon from Chrisís station), and provided significant assistance to G3TXF G3SXW and G4FAM during their foray to Swaziland.

On the way to Pretoria from the airport we passed ZS6DNís impressive station. It is on a hillside overlooking the motorway and I counted at least 15 towers showing above the treeline. The high towers support vee beams, the lower towers support a multitude of Yagis. It's a pity he isnít more active.

I will spare you the rest of the travelogue in these pages as CDXC is a DX-oriented club. Suffice to say that after a day of packing gear and antennas, and a 25-hour, 1400 mile [2200 km] drive (towing an 18ft [6 m] trailer with all the antenna hardware), with a brief stop in Windhoek to collect my V5 licence (Guest Licence No.8 - guess them haven't been too many visiting hams in Namibia since independence), we arrived late on the Thursday evening in Walvis Bay.

The most difficult problem which Chris had faced in arranging the trip had been finding accommodation in ZS9. During a previous ZS9Z effort he had hired an empty house in town, but with lots of visiting dignitaries and hangers-on expected for the "independence" celebrations accommodation was at a premium. Eventually we settled for the hire of a caravan (at an extortionate daily rate) in a campsite outside town. In the event this proved to be a good idea. The campsite was not too busy, and there was plenty of open space in which to erect our antennas. Each of the pitches had its own electricity supply, so power was no problem.

On the Air

The first night we managed to erect the Battle Creek special (hopefully, by now, everyone knows what one of these is - this particular one has been used at 8Q7AH and 3Y5X, but in recent years has been on long-term loan to ZS6EZ and has been used from 3DA0, 7P8, V5, ZS9 and ZS0). Unfortunately the SWR was high on 160, and we were too tired to try and find the problem, but all was well on 80 and 40, so I elected to operate through the night on those bands while Chris caught up on his sleep as be had done the bulk of the driving. It turned out to be an excellent night on the LF bands, the only night of our expedition when the QRN was almost non-existent. Pity that 160 was out. Anyway, it meant a good start, with something like 700 LF QSOs in the log by the time Chris appeared with breakfast.

Then it was my turn to sleep while Chris started putting together the HF antennas (an A4S with 40m extension and an A3WS for 12/17) and towers (two Rohn 42ft [13 m] towers which are also veterans of several expeditions). Chris's philosophy, which I wholeheartedly endorse, is to make an effort to put out a big signal on DXpeditions, even if it takes some time to get everything set up. The high QSO rates later on more than compensate for the time lost, and give even the most modestly equipped DXers a chance to make a QSO.

By evening we had everything assembled, and recruited some local help to walk the towers into the upright position. Chris then did his steeplejack impression, putting up the A4S in the dark (or, at least, by the lights of the campsite), becoming quite an attraction for a number of the campsite inhabitants who clearly thought we were totally mad. During the day we had also fixed the problem with the Battle Creek Special - the toroid transformer which is used to achieve a match on 160m is supported in its box only by the soldered joints which attach the winding to the co-ax connectors. The vibration of the journey had led to fatigue failure of the joints - clearly the one weak point in what is otherwise a very well put together antenna.

It was time for another night on the LF bands, followed by installing the A3WS atop its tower as soon as 40m had died after dawn, so that we were all set to roll (remember, it is now Saturday morning, and we want to be able to operate round the clock during the weekend to satisfy the demand from those of the waiting masses who have to work for a living during the week).

I quickly fired up on 17m CW working Europe while Chris caught the tail end of the long-path opening to Japan on 20 CW, and we were away. Or so we thought. After a few hours of the biggest pile-ups I had ever experienced (which is, after all, what I had come for), the power went off! It turned out that there was a municipal strike, and power was off to the whole of Walvis Bay. The dispute was about pay and pensions. The Namibians had offered to take on all the municipal employees, but at about half the wages that they had been earning when under South African jurisdiction. Apparently there were some fairly heated demonstrations in Walvis Bay town itself, just as well we were a few miles outside. A radio expedition without power is a bit of a dead loss and after a couple of hours we were starting to consider where we might beg, borrow or steal a generator, but fortunately at that stage the power came back on and remained with us for the rest of the expedition.

From this point on we kept at least one station on the air the whole time until midnight local on the Monday (28th Feb) when the handover officially took place. Only then we did take a two-hour break before restarting as V51Z at midnight GMT (so as not to confuse the ARRL who only deal in GMT days). We had taken two complete stations - my IC-735, Chrisís IC735 and TL-922, and an FL-2100 which had been left with Chris by G3TXF et al. In practice there were only a few occasions when we ran two bands simultaneously. Whoever was not operating the main station tended to want to sleep, eat or have a swim in the sea. I only hope the DX community will forgive us such a selfish attitude! Nevertheless, we were able to put over 3500 QSOs a day into the log between us, despite making an effort to work 160 and RTTY, where the rates were much lower than on the other bands and modes. We stuck to our pre-announced plan to major on the WARC bands, LF and RTTY, on the basis that anyone who had already worked ZS9 had probably done so on 10, 15 or 20 and would be looking out for other bands and modes, and anyone who still needed ZS9 would be happy with a QSO on any band.

On this basis we decided to stick to 12 metres whenever it was open, to work it dry and give even the smallest guns a QSO, before turning to the other bands. To our astonishment it never did run dry and the pile-ups on there were quite large even to the end. We made several thousand QSOs on 12 (and a whole lot more on 17), and in one 5-hour session alone Chris made about 1100 QSOs on 12m SSB. Moving to 12m from 17m, we could have an instant pile-up following a single "QRZ de ZS9Z?". It would be interesting to know whether Baldur and friends on ZS0 had the same experience. ZS0 is probably rarer than ZS9, but as far as we could tell their signals were nowhere near as strong as ours on any band - we were frequently asked what had happened to them. We stuck to the pre-announced operating frequencies as closely as possible. G3TXF had obviously been taking note and was lying in wait to be our very first 12m QSO.

By the way, I haven't mentioned 30m. For this band we strung an inverted-Vee dipole at about the 25ft [8 m] level on one of the towers and found that we could easily work all continents (during the evening JA, Europe and North America would all be loud together), even running barefoot. A remarkable band!

For me the highlights of the trip were the sessions on 160m. We found 160m tough going over the weekend as the CQ WW 160m Phone contest was running. We were hearing some very loud signals, especially from the US, but couldnít raise any of them, presumably due to QRM in the States. I did manage an SSB QSO with EA8PP who sounded as though he had just fallen off his operating chair when he finally figured out who was calling him! Chris managed some CW QSOs through the contest QRM, but it was hard going.

The night after the contest I went on 160 at midnight but, although I gather we were being heard quite well in Europe and North America, the noise level at our location was high and I was only able to work ZD8M and a very scratchy QSO with KA1PE. Three hours later it was a different matter. Our local noise level was down to about S7 and I was able to work about 90 stations over a two-hour period, throughout North America plus a handful of Europeans. Interestingly I observed exactly the same phenomenon that Roger G3SXW had noted from ZD9 - there were never more than two or three stations audible at any one time (though I gather. subsequently, that the pile-up when heard from the European and North Arnerican ends was quite horrendous!). Apologies to those of you who were calling and didnít make it. I worked everybody who I could hear (apart from one K5 who clearly was calling blind and not hearing me, and an SM5, possibly SM5EDX who disappeared back into the noise before I could pull his call through). Interestingly, GJ3YHU, who has a very good location, was hearing me throughout most of the opening, and tells me that a number of Europeans were calling during my transmissions, so I guess copy at the European end was not always easy. However, I have heard a tape recording made by John G3PQA (one of only two Europeans to work us as both ZS9Z and V51Z on 160) during which we were absolutely Q5, but then John does have a Beverage for receiving. The story repeated itself in much the same way for the next two nights, when we were signing V51Z, and we worked another hundred or so stations on 160.

Throughout the operation we logged on paper, a rather novel experience for me! In practice this worked quite well, Chris has designed a log sheet which he used on previous expeditions, with 150 QSOs per sheet, which means that each sheet lasts for about an hour when running rate. Chris will enter them on computer in due course for QSLing purposes. One of the main reasons for taking this approach was that neither Chris nor I have a laptop PC. I had been offered the loan of one by a CDXC member, but didn't want the responsibility of taking care of someone elseís expensive machine during the trip. On RTTY we used an aged Tono terminal and I have to say I was very impressed! The filters in it put those in my PK-232 to shame, and we were able to pull calls out of the RTTY pile-up with ease and run at 60 an hour or better.

As far as the general operating was concerned, I really learned a lot from my first serious DXpedition. Hearing what the pile-up sounds like at the sharp end certainly puts things into perspective, and also makes a nonsense of a lot of the complaints which I have heard from the armchair DX chasers over the years. Everybody thinks they should be one of the first into the log, but few realise that they are just one of hundreds calling. The first time we went on 12m SSB the S meter sat at S9+ over 10kHz or more of the band due to the sheer wall of signals calling us. It would probably have taken us an hour or more to work that lot, even if no one else had joined the pile-up from then on.

I suppose every DXpeditioner develops a favourite modus operandi as far as handling the pile-ups is concerned. I know I made a number of mistakes, especially early on. However, I quickly found that I preferred to stay on one listening frequency for as long as possible until the pile-up became too big and then I would move up the band slightly or announce a new listening frequency (so that those who let go of the PTT occasionally and listen would have an advantage). By tuning as little as possible I could usually pull out a complete call first time (hell and damnation to those of you who insist on using partial calls ...), which saves time as the calling station need then only send a signal report on the next over. I also found that once a rhythm is established people will not call interminably because they realise there is no point. Again, though, woe to the US station who called continuously on CW - it took me some time to realise that he was using full break-in and never was going to leave a break in his transmission. This is something that John G3WGV had happen to him on Mellish - I do hope it doesn't become prevalent. I didn't find the behaviour of the European stations in the pile-ups noticeably worse than that of any other stations, despite having feared the worst. Certainly if you let things slip it is easy to lose control, but if you keep the rhythm going and are clear in your instructions there are very few problem, especially on CW. I was particularly impressed one morning when there was an opening to JA on 12 metres. The JAs were much weaker than the Europeans, but rather than have the Europeans wait for an indefinite period I decided to work the two continents alternately, working ten stations from each at a time. I kept this up for about an hour and the only station to break ranks was a GW who called time and again when I was listening for JA. Sorry OM but if I had worked you that would have been an open invitation to the rest to break ranks ... Unfortunately I never heard him through the European pile-up, so he never did make the QSO.

I have to say, many of the UK stations are very weak indeed. The loud ones were those you would expect, but this included people like Rupert, G4XRV, who has a multiband vertical and John, G3WGV, who uses a dipole and no linear on the WARC bands. Many of the other UK stations were 20dB or more down on these guys. How is it possible to be 20dB down on 100 watts and a dipole? I don't know, but it must take quite a lot of effort. This phenomenon was much less noticeable with other countries: maybe UK signals get absorbed while crossing the English Channel?

We didnít try so hard on our final day, as V51Z. V5 will continue to be active on the bands, whereas for ZS9 it was a last chance. So we went into town and visited V51C (ZS9A), took some pictures, had a look at the dunes (the Walvis Bay area has the highest sand dunes in the world), and noted the Namibian soldiers everywhere. They were there to make a point - the following day we followed a convoy of them on the way back to Windhoek. Finally we went back to camp and took down the HF antennas and towers, leaving just the Battle Creek Special and the 30m dipole for our last night on the air. I operated throughout the final night while Chris got some much-needed rest for the journey back to ZS6.

The Aftermath

Back in Pretoria I had organised my itinerary so that I had three days for sightseeing before travelling home. Chris had to be at work to prepare for a business trip to Europe, but his parents were extremely hospitable, even to the extent of lending me one of their cars so that I could see the sights. Chris and I also had dinner one evening with Hal, ZS6WB, a long-time resident of South Africa. and well-known to 6m enthusiasts, though Hal has operated from many rare spots himself over the years, and is an American by birth (he recalls selling radio parts to K8MFOís father many years ago when he was a rep. for one of the ham radio suppliers). Hal and I also went off to Johannesburg on my last day, to go down a goldmine.

I was also able, briefly, to operate Chris's station in the ARRL Phone Contest, making just over 1000 QSOs. He has probably the most competitive contest station in Zone 38 (just look at how many Zone 38 records he holds), with two towers, one supporting a 4 over 4 M-squared stack on 10 and a 4 element M-squared on 15, with the other supporting a Hy-Gain 205BA for 20 and Hy-Gain 402BA for 40. The first tower is shunt-fed on 80 and 160. On 10 metres I felt like king of the band, and a number of stations I worked said I was the only signal audible on the band (Chris has a hill to the south of him, which made Peter 1st a difficult one, but it slopes away to the North and, of course, everything from Japan through Europe to North America is within 45 degrees either side of North). Several CDXC members called me on 10 to say hello, which was fine by me as I wasn't taking the contest too seriously. On 20 life was much tougher. Even with the five elements I had difficulty drawing attention to myself as most of the American stations were obviously beaming towards Europe. Thank goodness for the US Cluster network, or I might have been ploughing a very lonely furrow indeed. 40 played quite well from there, but 80 was very hard work indeed, and topband a complete write-off. ZS6 is, of course, well to the south and well inland of ZS9, and it showed.

By the way, the QSLs didnít take long to start arriving. The first was from G4RJ and arrived in Pretoria the day after we returned from ZS9.

All in all a great experience. Now, where do we go next?

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