ZS6EZ Web Site: Chasing DXCC

Last updated 2009-11-25

This narrative is not an attempt at bugle-blowing. It is an attempt to show how fate sometimes plays a role in DXing, and how the issuing sequence of awards certificates is not always an exact reflection of who came first! I guess this narrative is a natural next step for a proven has-been, to record the events of the distant past for posterity... Chris R. Burger ZS6EZ

The Eighties proved to be an exciting time for DXCC. The decade started with only a few certificates: Mixed, Phone, CW (which had only been introduced in 1975), Digital (1976), 5 Band (1968) and 1,8 MHz (1976). The concept of a single-band DXCC had not made it into reality, except for Top Band.

This situation was pretty much what I first became familiar with. I started DXing around 1980. There were 315 countries at the time, and the collapse of the Iron Curtain and a succession of DXCC rule changes were about to start adding countries at a rapid rate.

5 Band DXCC

The South African DXer of the 1980s had a fairly standard station. A large tribander like a TH6DXX at about 20 m was pretty much standard. At about this time, the TH7DX also appeared. HyGain was well-represented in the country, but there was an assortment of other antennas too. The odd Mosley or KLM (KT34A and KT34XA) could be found, and some amateurs even had towers taller than 20 m. Believe it or not, one or two individuals even had monoband Yagis, generally for 14 MHz.

I started dabbling in DX around 1980, using a trapped vertical and about 100 W output. I worked just over 100 countries in my first year. Virtually all my DXing had been on 28 MHz, at the peak of the solar cycle. Around 1982, I saw a series of log entries in ZS6TL's station log. I was incredulous, as according to those log entries, Tinus had worked about a dozen South Americans on 7 MHz SSB that morning. These entries did not make lots of sense, but I decided to investigate. The following morning, I was on 7 MHz at sunrise. Sure enough--there were loud signals from South America. I was hooked. I immediately strung a low dipole for 3,5 MHz, and even started hearing the odd DX signal on that band.

Low band DXing (I included 7 MHz in this category, and had no radio covering 1,8 MHz at the time) offered a meaningful challenge. I spent many a night on the low bands, working an assortment of stations on all continents. The first operating goal was 5 Band Worked All Continents, something that was quickly achieved. A natural next target was 5 Band DXCC. I started working towards the magic 100 countries on each band. By this time, the higher bands were already in the bag.

At the time, there was only one 5BDXCC in South Africa. Bert Lausecker ZS5LB had achieved this milestone in 1972. In more than a decade, no-one else had made it. However, Bert had grown a small band of merry men around him, with both Bill Smith ZS5BK and Franz Taschl ZS5MY actively in the fray.

Later, it started becoming obvious that 5 Band DXCC was not going to be that difficult, and I started chasing 5 Band Worked All Zones. Unlike DXCC, WAZ requires coverage of the entire globe, including elusive destinations like Alaska and New Zealand that hide behind the aurora curtain. As I looked for those last elusive zones, the band-country count kept climbing.

Around the same time, I started shifting my emphasis to contesting. The CQ World Wide DX Contest was my main target. I tried to work CW and SSB each year, and around 1990 I also added the RTTY contest to my schedule. Routine DXing started becoming harder and harder as other commitments started making demands on my time.

By early 1985, I had worked all the required countries on 3,5 MHz. I still needed a few cards, though. The process of getting these cards was time-consuming, as I didn't have the wherewithall to order all the cards by direct air mail. I was still a full-time student.

By October, I had all the cards in hand. I sent my application by registered air mail. A few months later, I received my QSL cards back with a note, saying that the cards had been sorted incorrectly. I had sorted the cards alphabetically, while Don Search W3AZD, the DXCC administrator at the time, apparently wanted them sorted by band. There were no instructions to that effect on the application forms. I was not pleased, as I incurred two-way postage that represented a month's income.

However, I was even less pleased when I discovered that ZS5BK had received his 5BDXCC in November, just a few weeks after ARRL had received my original application. He had therefore jumped the queue, and had become the second South African to make the grade.

Around March, before I had received my cards back from ARRL, Franz asked my friend Tjerk Lammers ZS6P at a DX convention whether he knew if I had the cards for 5BDXCC. Tjerk responded that he didn't think so. This event also proved decisive in the history of South African 5BDXCC.

During April, I received my cards from ARRL, re-sorted them and re-mailed them by air mail. I did not know at the time that Bill had already been allocated his award. Some weeks before Franz, thinking that I wasn't ready to apply yet and that there was no time pressure, had mailed his application by surface mail. Mine got there before his, and I got the third 5BDXCC in South Africa in April 1986. Franz got his exactly a month later, in May 1986.

So who was the second South African to get 5BDXCC? Bill Smith, of course. However, had a bureaucrat at ARRL not treated my application with such contempt, it could have been different. Who was third? Again, Franz mailed his application before my second attempt. However, his choice of surface rather than air mail cost him the advantage.

The quirks did not end here. The next application was from Bernie van der Walt ZS4TX, who got his award in 1992. Four years later, Hal Lund ZS6WB and Hans Kappetijn ZS6KR applied for 5BDXCC almost simultaneously. Hans's application arrived on 1996-09-23, and Hal's three days later, on the 26th. However, the registration department made an error in Hans's application, not recording the fact that he had applied for 5BDXCC in addition to his other endorsements. As a result, Hans got certificate number 4242, while Hal got 4231. Hans's date is earlier, but Hal's certificate number is lower!

Clearly, the fickle finger of fate has much to say about the order in which 5BDXCC certificates are issued.

A few years later, it would become evident that the same finger is also very much in the 1,8 MHz pie...

Single-Band DXCCs (first round)

In the mid-Eighties, the ARRL took the decision to widen the appeal of DXCC by introducing single-band DXCCs on some of the other bands. The bands chosen were the "fringe" bands, as the "vanilla" bands (14 and 21 MHz) were the mainstay of DXing activity and were fairly impervious to the effects of the solar cycle. Most DXers were already very active there. The single-band DXCCs would offer an incentive to become more active on the other bands.

Starting in 1988, the ARRL introduced single band DXCCs on 28 MHz (1988-07-01), 3,5 MHz (1988-11-01), 7 MHz (1989-05-01), 50 MHz (1990), 144 MHz (1990) and 430 MHz (1990). The first certificate on 50 MHz was issued on 1990-01-02 to K5FF. The first 144 MHz certificate went to W5UN on 1991-01-11. As of 2010, the first 430 MHz certificate has not been claimed.

The easy bands (28, 3,5 and 7 MHz) were all organised in the same way. Each award would be issued on a specific start date, with an application window of a few weeks before that. On the start date, the ARRL would evaluate all received applications. The applicant with the highest score would receive Certificate Number 1, with the following certificates allocated in order of the number of countries confirmed.

Obviously, because there was little advance notice, no-one had the opportunity to chase DX specifically for the purpose of obtaining a low certificate number. Either you had been chasing band-countries for your own purposes, or you would have to start essentially from scratch. For this reason, many of the salted DXers were left in the dust.

However, many DXers had been chasing band-countries for some years, and many applications were received on the start date. I was lucky, as I had discovered multi-band DXing (and specifically low-band DXing) around 1983. I was very active in those years, and managed to work a fair assortment of countries on each band. I also chased QSLs aggressively, albeit almost exclusively through the bureau. I was a university student, and money was in short supply.

When the start dates came around, I applied for each award. I was fortunate to receive relatively low certificate numbers (160, 131 and 120 respectively) for each of the three bands. Those numbers are now nice to have, as the respective numbers have now reached 35 000, 5000 and 2000. No other South Africans applied on the start date. The next applicantions only came in 1989, 1996 and 1995 respectively.

Incidentally, from 1988 to 1992 I ran a series of expeditions to neighbouring countries (3DA, 7P, A2, H5, V5, ZS0, ZS9). Our major aim on all these expeditions was to cover the "exotic" bands. We generally only operated 1,8, 3,5, 7, 10, 18, 25, 28 and 50 MHz. Most of the single-band DXCC chasers' callsigns became very familiar indeed! The only expeditions where we worked 14 and 21 MHz significantly were from Penguin Island, because of the rarity of this DXCC country. However, because we were at the peak of the solar cycle, we still made the majority of our contacts on 28 MHz.

Top Band DXCC

The 1,8 MHz band was not a mainstream choice for DXing in the 1980s. Several navigation systems operated close to the amateur frequency allocation, resulting in regional restrictions on operation on this band. In many areas of the world, no activity was allowed on the band at all. In other areas, low power limits were enforced. Few radios had any coverage of this band at all, and the ones that did generally had low power output. Most of the amplifiers of the day (Yaesu FL2100B, Heath SB200 and SB220 etc.) did not cover this band.

As a result, activity levels were low and few countries were available. W1BB's Top Band DXCC in 1976 was therefore a tremendous achievement. Most of the DXers on this band were specialists, who did not operate on other bands.

After obtaining 5BDXCC in 1972, Bert Lausecker ZS5LB turned his attention to 1,8 MHz. It would take 15 years before Bert added DXCC on this band to his already impressive collection.

I actively started chasing DXCC on 1,8 MHz in 1996. I had become quite fond of the band during a series of DXpeditions some years earlier. We would take a Battle Creek Special vertical on these expeditions, and work DX all over the world to provide DXers with a new country. However, my home station never had enough space for a serious antenna. I just dabbled on the band on a few occasions.

In 1996, I acquired some hilltop land outside Pretoria. I started building two houses and a contest station. I still lived in the city, but drove to the farm occasionally to work on the station and maybe even make a few contacts. My prime objective was to work 1,8 MHz DXCC.

DXCC is not a very difficult target to achieve. However, on 1,8 MHz it takes considerable perseverence. I estimate that working DXCC on 3,5 MHz takes more effort than the other four bands for 5BDXCC (7, 14, 21 and 28 MHz), and that 1,8 MHz takes more effort than all the bands for 5BDXCC combined.

Over a period of a few months, I continued to work new countries almost every week. I worked around 140 stations in this period, bringing my score of worked countries to just over 100. At the same time, I actively solicited QSL cards to prevent a recurrence of my disappointment with 5BDXCC.

A secondary goal was the pending annual DXCC deadline at the end of September. If we could get the applications in by then, our callsigns would be reflected in the annual list for 1997.

At the same time, Bernie van der Walt ZS4TX was also getting very active on 1,8 MHz. Bernie had the advantage of taller towers, so he could string better antennas. He also had the advantage of being at his station every day, so he could work more stations than I could. On the other hand, I had a better score to start with.

As the magic 100 country score approached, both Bernie and I became very secretive about our scores. Neither wanted the other to know exactly where we stood. I knew that Bernie had worked more countries than I had, but I also knew that I had a head-start with the QSLing. Eventually, I had something like 105 worked, and just needed 101 or so to be able to submit my application. I hounded several stations for QSLs, even to the extent of sending telegrams and making a phone call to Europe to expedite the paperwork!

When I finally had the cards in hand, I sent an express mail package to the ARRL. I had barely enough time for the annual deadline, as it was now late September. After mailing the parcel, I phoned Bernie and casually asked if he was going to make the deadline. He answered that he had mailed his application the previous week. It felt almost like a repeat of the 5BDXCC history. I was disappointed, but still secretly hoped that my express parcel would beat his air mail parcel to the ARRL.

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. A few days before the end of September, Bernie phoned me to tell me that his parcel had been returned by the Post Office. Someone had sent an oil can by mail. The can had burst in the mailbag, contaminating Bernie's parcel. Fortunately, he had wrapped the cards in plastic, so there was no damage, but there was now no hope that he would make the deadline. Despite some minor schadenfreude, I emailed my contacts at ARRL to explain the circumstances. They agreed to accept Bernie's parcel and date the certificate on 30 September, even if the application arrived a few days late. Bernie sent his parcel immediately.

Today, the 1,8 MHz DXCC list reflects the outcome: I got certificate 698 on 1997-09-27, and Bernie got certificate 711 on 1997-09-30. See, fate has its fickle finger in the 1,8 MHz pie too!


50 MHz is another specialised band, where most of the DXers are specialists who do little else besides. The race again proved interesting, but for different reasons.

As solar cycle 23 rose, 50 MHz DXers benefitted from a tremendous rise in activity. On the one hand, most of the TV channels that had operated in the amateur band had been decommissioned, and many countries were finally getting access to the band. On the other, equipment was becoming available to mainstream amateurs as MOSFETs started offering good performance into this range. In fact, many HF transceivers suddenly included 50 MHz coverage too, allowing "normal" DXers to get their feet wet on the band.

Combine this rise in activity with a spectacular solar cycle, and you have a recipe for a lot of fun. Several ZS stations became very active: ZS6AVP, ZS6AXT, ZS6BTE, ZS6DX, ZS6EZ, ZS6LW, ZS6OB, ZS6PJS (later ZS6NK), ZS6UT, ZS6WB, ZS6XJ, ZS6XL, ZS6Y and others were regularly heard working the TEP openings into Europe.

Because of the nature of TEP, being closer to the equator is a major advantage for a ZS. Pietersburg (now Polokwane) had a huge advantage over Pretoria, and even the short distance between Pretoria and Johannesburg proved decisive in some openings.

I chased DX on 50 MHz with a certain amount of enthusiasm, but also with a major disadvantage. Hal Lund ZS6WB, who was one of the most active 50 MHz DXers and who eventually won the race for the first certificate in South Africa, was living on my little farm at the time. Our antennas were separated by about 50 m. When he was on the band (and that was always when there was propagation!), I could not hear a thing. He occasionally gave me an opportunity to run some Europeans, and we often ended up calling in the same pileups. Having a short AGC time constant was a major requirement! Hal's presence had an advantage too, though, as we managed to exchange a lot of useful spotting information on our wireless intercom system (144 MHz FM). Hal became the first ZS to work each of 59 countries, while Ivo Chladek ZS6AXT achieved 35 firsts. Paul Smit ZS6NK was third with 22. I also caught a handful of firsts: ER, J2 and OK from this end, and 3DA, A2 and ZS0 from the DX end.

I was not in contention for the first certificate. That race took place between ZS6WB and ZS6AXT. Both were very active on both modes, with Ivo favouring CW and Hal favouring SSB. Ivo lived about 50 km further south, and was a VHF/UHF specialist with considerable EME experience. In the end, Hal's general DXing experience probably helped him, as he managed to harvest QSLs very effectively. He beat Ivo by about nine months. I was about two years behind them, locked in a race with Paul Smit ZS6NK (previously ZS6PJS) for the third spot. Again, Paul was a specialist with limited HF exposure. I applied in May 2001, and Paul ended up applying almost a year later (March 2002). To date (2010), Paul is still the last applicant from ZS. It is possible that another application will follow quickly after the new solar cycle opens up, as Ian Roberts ZS6BTE had worked exactly 100 countries by the end of the previous cycle. Perhaps the opportunity to work one or two new ones will enable him to get over 100 confirmed. Unfortunately, Ian is hampered by a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about QSL cards.

Single-Band DXCCs (last round)

Around 2000, the ARRL decided to introduce single-band DXCC certificates on the other bands, where thus far no certificates had been issued. The WARC bands (10, 18 and 25 MHz) and the "classic" DX bands (14 and 21 MHz) would be affected. These five awards were introduced between 2000 and 2002. They all had published start dates and application windows, but no certificate numbers would be issued for these bands.

No South Africans applied in the windows. Most DXers just submitted their normal annual applications, in some cases well after the start dates. In one case (14 MHz), the first South African certificate was not issued until nine months had passed! The issuing sequence for these awards is therefore more or less coincidental. The first stations to get these five awards were ZS6EZ, ZS6IR and ZS6KR.

So What?

As you can see, there is a certain amount of randomness in the issuing sequence of some of these awards. However, it is a fact that the early certificates in each category went to individuals who were chasing the countries without having the certificate itself as a goal. In most cases, the certificates did not exist until later, and when they finally came into being, they rewarded those who had been working the DX fields driven by their own goals. DXCC remains a prime motivator of DX activity, and there is little doubt that the multi-band activity that exists today was greatly influenced by the introduction of all the single-band DXCCs.

One word of advice might not be out of place. I would strongly recommend that you apply for a single-band or single-mode award as soon as you qualify. You can always get endorsements for a higher score later, but getting the peg in the ground will produce a lasting result.

If you don't, you might also get to be a has-been one day, and you may end up wishing you'd applied for some of the certificates earlier, or sent them by courier rather than air mail...

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