Marion Island ZS8

Last updated 2014-04-03

The Prince Edward islands are South African territory, but are considered a separate DXCC entity because of their distance from the mainland. The group consists of two islands, Prince Edward and Marion. As Prince Edward is uninhabited, Marion is the DXer's only hope of a contact with this country.

Marion is home to a weather and research station. It is manned year-round, with crews staying for a year. The annual supply ship comes around April and stays for a few weeks to take care of resupply and base refurbishment. The trusty supply ship, SAS Agulhas, was retired in 2012, and replaced by the more modern and larger SAS Agulhas II. The new ship is a custom-built antarctic research platform, while the older ship was a generic light ice-breaker modified for antarctic research work and training.

The island is administered by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, the agency responsible for weather services in South Africa.

Amateur Radio on the Islands

The ZS2MI Era

During the Sixties, the club station ZS2MI on the island could be operated by anyone. The station was on the air daily, as there was little other entertainment available. The station used the huge Rhombic antennas, and was easily workable around the world. At least one personal callsign was used (ZS6ZU/2), so I assume there may have been others.

I'm told that the Seventies brought a restriction to only licenced amateurs, and the station suddenly became very rare. Only if a licenced operator happened to be on the crew would there be any activity. All the operators during this period continued to use the club callsign ZS2MI. It was clearly important to retain a single callsign, as all other ZS2 callsigns were on the South African mainland.

The ZS8MI Era

1989 brought another dispensation, when the ZS8 call area was allocated to the Prince Edward Islands. The block was no longer being used for Bechuanaland, as this entity had become a separate country as Botswana and had been given the A2 callsign series. The way was now open for individual callsigns, but for some strange reason, the first three operators of this era continued to use the club callsign ZS8MI.

Petr Sykora ZS6PT used ZS8MI from 1989 to 1990. He used Dave Burstein ZS5E as a QSL manager. He was very active, and made around 17 000 contacts. He operated CW, SSB and RTTY. He also had considerable success with 50 MHz, working almost 500 Japanese stations on this band. After Petr's return, he handled his own QSL cards via his home callsign. He now lives in New Zealand with the callsign ZL1CX.

Gerard Everett ZS5AEN was next, taking over from Petr for 1990 to 1991. He continued Petr's success on 50 MHz. His activity was mainly confined to SSB, but he did make some contacts on RTTY and CW. His mother handled his QSL chores, via his home callsign. Gerard no longer appears to be active, but he holds the callsign ZS1GTE.

There was a short pirate operation by Jannie Groenewald ZR6AOJ. He was actually on the island, but did not obtain permission and would in any case not have been authorised to use HF with his restricted VHF-only licence. He is said to have made a few hundred contacts during a changeover. I believe this changeover to have taken place in April 1992.

Christie de Kock ZS1CDK came next, on the 1993 to 1994 crew. He made 9000 QSOs, with around 800 on CW. His parents handled his QSLing chores via his home address. He is now ZS6CDK in Pretoria.

The Post-ZS8MI Era

The first ZS8 operation was a low-key affair by David Hartzenberg ZR1BCE. David had a VHF-only licence, and could therefore not activate ZS8MI on HF. However, he did have a VHF radio and made three 50 MHz contacts with stations in South Africa, apparently via Sporadic E, using ZR1BCE/ZS8. David would return later to do things on a grander scale.

When Chris de Beer ZS5IR asked me to be his QSL manager for his 1996-1997 stint, I agreed on one condition: That he get his own callsign. I had been QSL manager for many other stations, and was getting a steady trickle of requests for ZS8MI QSL cards. The reason appeared to be that there was considerable confusion. The practice of periodically re-using a callsign with different QSL managers is not common, and few knew exactly where to send a request. It also appeared that some of the QSL managers had lost interest in answering QSL requests. I was not prepared to become entangled in this mire of never-ending work, and Chris obtained his own callsign: ZS8IR.

ZS8IR was the first personal callsign to be issued for use from Marion Island. Chris was hampered by poor high-band conditions, at the bottom of the sunspot cycle, but managed over 18 000 QSOs. Around 6000 of these were on CW, with over 600 on RTTY. He also made a significant effort on 1,8 MHz, with over 350 QSOs in the log. Chris is now ZS6RI, and has operated from ZD9IR, 5H4IR, 5H9IR, 9G5CB, EL2RI and 9J2RI in the intervening years. He has also lived in Saudi Arabia and Cameroon without being licenced. He was a member of the 1997 DXpedition of the Year, ZK1XXP from the North Cook Islands. Most recently, he commutes between his home in Centurion, where he is active as ZS6RI, and temporary assigments all over Africa.

Chris's departure saw the end of an era. The HF backup link had been replaced by satellite, and the huge Rhombics were torn down. The island sports a unique variety of bird life, and the Rhombics had been killing birds throughout their existence. With satellite facilities, the Department decided to scale down the HF facilities to a single dipole.

During the period after Chris's operation, I continued to receive hundreds of requests for help with ZS8MI cards. I eventually obtained the logs from the three QSL managers, and obtained assistance from the Northern California DX Foundation (NCDXF) to have cards printed. I have subsequently handled several hundred requests for ZS8MI cards, both directly and through the bureau.

Deryck Yelverton ZS6DIY was next, on the 1999-2000 crew. He made around 2000 contacts as ZS8D, with less than 50 on CW. I was the QSL manager. Deryck has subsequently returned to the island for another year, but elected to play with pirate CB rather than with amateur radio.

Deryck's stay marked the first attempt to get permission to erect a personal amateur radio antenna on the island. Considerable research led to a proposal that was presented to the Environmental Management Committee. The avian specialists from the Fitzpatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town, who maintain a full-time researcher on the island, agreed that the trial was well-conceived and supported it, but the Department unilaterally turned it down. Unfortunately, other factors made it difficult to pursue the issue further with the Minister at the time, and I decided to leave the effort for when the next operation happens.

During 2004, I was phoned by Ludwig Combrinck ZS6WLC. He had proposed some space geodesy experiments to be based on Marion Island, and would be going down for the changeover. He had taken the callsign ZS8MI into the custody of his department at the Hartbeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, and was going to operate the radio during his off times. He declined my offer of equipment, and instead took antique radios with no split-frequency capability, and wire antennas. He was unaware of the problems with bird life. I explained the confusion around ZS8MI, and strongly recommended that they select a new callsign. I even made arrangements with the regulating authority ICASA so that the callsign could be changed within a day. However, Ludwig insisted that they would retain the old callsign. Indeed, he started a propaganda war against me by stating on his Web site that I had masqueraded as the QSL manager for ZS8MI and that I was not the official QSL manager for ZS8MI. They also indicated that they would demand $ 5 for direct QSLs from ZS8MI to "cover postage", and $ 2 for ZS6WLC/MM QSOs. Presumably the postage would somehow be less for the /MM cards. At least this demand subsequently became more uniform, with $ 2 being demanded for all QSLs.

I find this behaviour strange, as I had proposed that we cooperate to ensure that there would be a minimum of confusion. Ludwig had had little exposure to DXing, and clearly underestimated the confusion that would result.

To put matters into perspective, I need only refer the reader to my QSLing policy, where I explain the situation exactly and certainly do not pretend to be the manager.

Ludwig made only 2034 QSOs, with only 190 on CW. The confusion around QSLing was even worse than I'd predicted, due to a confluence of events. The QSL route was ZS6M. The callsign had only belonged to the manager for a few months, so all Callbooks in circulation showed an incorrect address. To make matters worse, the manager died less than a year after the operation. Ludwig has asked for QSLs to be redirected to him, but very few replies have been forthcoming. I'm afraid we're back to the confusion of the 1990s, and I'm getting numerous requests for help with cards for Ludwig's operation.

All misdirected QSLs for the 2004 operation were returned to their origins with an explanatory note.

Fortunately, during 2014 Ludwig provided me with an electronic copy of the logs. I can now again provide QSL cards for all ZS8MI contacts.

Petrus Kritzinger ZS6GCM was there in 2008/2009, and was licenced as ZS8T. The DX world had high hopes, given Petrus's brief showing some months before from Bouvet Island as 3Y0E. However, Petrus made virtually no contacts, as his duties involved very little time in the base. His QSL manager was LZ3HI.

ZS8M was active during 2010/2011, by Pierre Tromp ZS1HF. Pierre requested QSL cards via his home call, with the paperwork being handled by his friend ZS1X. Pierre made 8623 QSOs, with just over 200 on digital modes and 21 on low-altitude satellites. He made no CW QSOs. This operation was characterised by a blacklist onto which all perceived offenders were placed, accompanied by long lectures about pileup behaviour. I hope someone listened.

On the 2013/2014 crew, there were supposed to be four licenced radio amateurs. Three made it onto the air. Few could ever have envisaged having several ZS8 stations active simultaneously!

David Hartzenberg ZS1BCE, the first ZS8-era operator who had subsequently upgraded to ZS, was licenced as ZS8Z, and was modestly active, mostly on SSB. David requested QSLs via ZS1HF. Half-way through his operation, ZS1HF was sent to Gough Island as ZD9M, leaving David responsible for his own cards. He intends to deal with the paperwork after his return in mid-2014.

Carson McAfee ZR6CWI was licenced as ZS8C, and became active a few months after David. He had his own antenna, and concentrated on skeds for SSB contacts. He requested QSLs to be sent directly to his home callsign, and started posting logs on LotW while the operation was still in progress.

Two other members of the crew were supposed to be licenced while on the island. Carson's girlfriend Nadia Hansa and Marius, the diesel mechanic, were supposed to take their licence exams while on the island. Neither appeared on the air during 2013. However, hope lived eternal.

During early 2014, Nadia Hansa ZS8A appeared on the bands, apparently only on SSB. She requested QSLs via ZR6CWI, and was attempting to register for LotW. Not much time remained before the arrival of the supply ship in April.

Summary of Known Operations

I know about the following operations from Marion Island. The list is based on personal notes accumulated over the years.

To my knowledge, all the operations up to 2009 took place around the base on Transvaal Cove. The original base was replaced in 2010 after a five-year construction project, but the locations are close together. The Maidenhead locator for both bases is KE83WC and the IOTA number is AF-021.

The early operations shown below are based on very limited information, sometimes only on a single QSL card that I have seen. In the 1980s and later, when I personally became involved in the island, the changeover normally took place in April, so most recent operations have either been a short operation in April/May or a 13-month operation from one April to the following May. I don't know whether this pattern also existed in the Seventies and before.

Any further details would be greatly appreciated. I'd love to make this table as complete as possible.

Callsign    Period               Operator                    QSL manager          QSOs      LotW

ZS2MI       1948-07              Harry Hawkins               
ZS6ZU/2     1953-01              Paul P. du Plessis          ZS6ZU
ZS2MI       1952-03 to 1953-02   Barrie Brokensha ZS6AJY
ZS2MI       1954 to 1955         Danny Oldewage
ZS2MI       1955-10              ZS6PN (perhaps ZS6FN?)      Home call
ZS2MI       1957-04              Ken R. Edmunds
ZS2MI       1958-05              James
ZS2MI       1962-02              Toby
ZS2MI       1963-12              Ray                         ZS1OU
ZS2MI       1964-04 to 1964-12   Wynand                      ZS1CZ
ZS2MI       1969-11 to 1970-02   Des                         ZS6LW
ZS2MI       1970-12              Fanie                       ZS6LW
ZS2MI       1972-09              Les/Leo?                    ZS6LW
ZS2MI       1973-09              Jan                         ZS6LW
ZS2MI       1975-05 to 1976-05   Pieter Swemmer
ZS2MI       1978-03              Gordon I. Procter ZS6AGV    WA4SSU             
ZS1TD/ZS2MI 1978-08              David Thornton              ZS1TD
ZS2MI       1979-07 to 1979-11   Johan Jordaan (ZS1SZ?)      WA2IZN
ZS8MI       1989-04 to 1990-05   Petr Sykora ZS6PT           ZS5E>>ZS6PT      17 072       Yes    
ZS8MI       1990-05 to 1991-05   Gerard Everett ZS5AEN       Home call                     Yes (mostly)
ZS8MI       1992-04              Jannie Groenewald ZR6AOJ    Pirate operation--no QSL
ZS8MI       1993-04 to 1994-05   Christie de Kock ZS1CDK     Home call         9 077       Yes
ZR1BCE/ZS8  1995-04 to 1996-04   David Hartzenberg ZR1BCE    Home call             3       No
ZS8IR       1996-04 to 1997-05   Chris de Beer ZS5IR/ZS6RI   ZS6EZ            18 155       Yes
ZS8D        1999-04 to 2000-05   Deryck Yelverton ZS6DIY     ZS6EZ             2 086
ZS8MI       2004-04 to 2004-05   Ludwig Combrinck ZS6WLC     ZS6M>>ZS6WLC      2 034       Yes (some)
ZS8T        2008-04 to 2009-04   Petrus Kritzinger ZS6GCM    LZ3HI               Few
ZS8M        2010-04 to 2011-05   Pierre Tromp ZS1HF          Home call         8 623       Yes
ZS8Z        2013-05 to 2014-05   David Hartzenberg ZS1BCE    ZS1HF           In progress
ZS8C        2013-05 to 2014-05   Carson McAfee ZR6CWI        Home call       In progress   Yes
ZS8A        2014-02 to 2014-05   Nadia Hansa                 ZR6CWI          In progress

Some of this information is based on QSL cards shown on the Web site of Les Nouvelles DX. Both their collection and this list grow gradually as we interact. Merci, Monsieurs!

Important note: Don't try to use these QSL routes for old QSOs. Most of them no longer exist!

Electronic QSLing

Bottom line: All ZS8MI logs, except for about 3000 QSOs, and all ZS8IR and ZS8D logs are on LotW, to the tune of about 55 000 QSOs.

During 1995, I placed the ZS8IR logs on LotW with the help of Wayne Mills N7NG, who was with ARRL at the time. During 2011, as part of a larger effort to get all my old logs onto LotW, I managed to post the ZS8MI logs for the ZS6PT and ZS1CDK operations too.

The ZS8MI logs from the ZS5AEN operation were on paper. I have manually entered these logs into a computer. Unfortunately, not all QSOs had time stamps. Where possible, times have been obtained from incoming QSL cards, allowing most of the QSOs to be time-stamped. Nevertheless, many QSOs still lack time stamps and have therefore not been placed on LotW.

I repeatedly asked ZS6WLC for his logs. During 2013, he finally responded. The logs are somewhat fragmentary, with most times being incorrect by a number of hours. The log has a very high error rate, with many callsigns being visibly broken. If you have not obtained an LotW match, please provide me with the correct QSO information. I may be able to use the information to correct problems with other QSOs too.

The ZS8D logs are in electronic form, but suffer from a high error rate. If you are not seeing an expected match, please send me QSO details so that I can research it.

During 2013, other Marion Island logs, owned by other QSL managers, have started showing up on LotW. The ZS8M logs have been posted, and ZS8C has started posting QSOs on an ongoing basis during his operation. ZS8A has indicated that she intends to use LotW too. ZS8Z is registered on LotW, and intends to upload his logs on his return.

The Future

With over 90% of all ZS8 QSOs ever made now on LotW, hopefully the QSL problems for recent operations are reasonably under control.

With no substantial operation since 1997, Marion has crept up the Wanted Lists. It hovers inside the Top 10 on most lists, and at Number 2 on ClubLog's CW Wanted list at least for 2012, 2013 and 2014. Only North Korea P5 has made less of a showing on CW than Marion has.

The spate of activity during 2013 and 2014 has helped to drive ZS8 down the Wanted Lists. The Clublog list shows it at number 25 as of early 2014. It is likely that it will rebound into the Top 10 later in 2014.

The demand is unlikely to ever be satisfied by resident operators. Apart from it being relatively unlikely that a hard-core DXer will end up down there for a year, the disappearance of the rhombics will mean that the operation will have to rely on limited antennas, dictated by the constraints of concerns around the impact on bird life.

During 1999, I made a concerted effort to address the situation. Deryck Yelverton ZS8D was on the island, and I attempted to get permission for him to erect the antennas which we had procured with the help of the NCDXF. The petition shows clearly that the concerns are misplaced, and that the bird strike risk can be managed. After meetings with the Department, I was informed that no permission would be granted. No reasons were forthcoming.

Attempts to organise autonomous expeditions to the island have also been thwarted by politics within the Department.

The situation may change within a few years when a specific individual retires. Until then, don't hold your breath.

A new base was commissioned during the 2010/2011 team's stay. Perhaps the old base can be used by a future autonomous operation. Only time will tell.

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