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A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa

from Ulrich Steinberg on September 24, 2014
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A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa

If you still have the June 1980 issue of QST handy, on pages 65/66 you see pictures of a much younger yours truly, about half my current age, operating with a Heathkit HW8 running on a lantern battery and a dipole strung between palm trees in the Kingdom of Tonga. That was my first vest pocket DX expedition as A35US. My wife and I love traveling to remote and unusual places, and fortunately she is very supportive of my attempts to combine our shared hobby with my passion for ham radio, although she is not a ham.

Our last extended trip, in early 2014, was to southern Africa. We had been to the Kingdom of Lesotho before, where I am 7P8US, (thank you Mamofolo Kobeli!), and we loved it so much that we decided to go back for another look at the more remote parts of the country, and combine that with a tour through Botswana and the Kingdom of Swaziland (seems that I have a knack for Kingdoms ;-). My application for licenses in Botswana and Swaziland met with great support from the licensing authorities, and I was promised A25US in Botswana and 3DA0US in Swaziland, so nothing could hold me back after that ;-)

Back in 1980 it was not easy to find a good portable radio for a venture like that. There was no Internet to compare and buy equipment, and the selection of portable budget radios was fairly limited. Today you have quite a few compact radios that are specifically designed for portable operation, and I have used several of them over the years. For me choosing the radio was easy ever since I had seen and touched an Elecraft KX3: I think it has one of the best receivers in any radio, and at 10Woutput it packs about 5 times the punch of my old HW8 With a little bit of additional protection from Side KX it travels well in a pouch that was designed for a professional flash.

During these adventures I am, of course, a single operator who not only has to run the pile ups which often develop if I can be heard, but also do the logging. Since I often don’t have electricity to run a computer, and I don’t like the idea that it could crash, leaving an electronic log unreadable, I have developed my own keyer which does the logging. It keeps the log in crash proof flash memory and it automatically collects all the information for the log from my transmission – all I have to do is to run my QSOs. (That keyer is sold as the Begali CW Machine, and you’ll find several articles here on eHam which trace its development from a near-impossible idea to a viable product). Also, my friend Piero Begali, with a little help from me, has developed a superb paddle that attaches to the KX3, the Begali Adventure. A very quiet switching power supply, a Samlex 1235M, delivers DC power wherever I can get electricity. Radiosport RS20S headphones make sure that I never miss a dit.

Antennas for this kind of operation have to be simple and portable, and still reasonably efficient since I can’t just kick in the after burner to make up for antenna deficiencies – 10W CW is all I have if I am lucky enough to find electrical power, or run the KX3 off my car battery, less if I have to use the internal batteries. I have experimented with dipoles, of course, and with delta loops. But a dipole needs two support points at decent height, which is not always feasible in the bush (and I am past my palm tree climbing days. and I know from experience that some immigration authorities are squeamish about huge sling shots ;-). A delta loop still has a considerable footprint on the ground, and it is not always pleasant to crawl through thorn brush to hammer in a few stakes - it can also easily end up as a tangled mess in your travel bag.

I still have delta loops as a potential backup, but my main antenna is the PAR HF Omni Angle. Actually I have two of them, usually configured for 20m and 15m, which I prop up on 31’ Jackite poles. You often see that antenna deployed horizontally, but it can be tilted up without evident reduction in performance - in that configuration the center of gravity is close to the fiberglass pole, and the electrical center is about 1’ higher. The best part, however, is that the fiberglass poles with that antenna configuration usually don’t need guying – I just tie them with bungee cords to something that is vertical. When the antennas are disassembled the longest pieces are about 46” long and fit neatly into a travel bag together with the Jackite poles. This antenna has turned out to be an outstanding performer that is easily deployed by a single person in almost any situation.

Many tourists to Botswana fly into the northern part of the country where the Okavango Delta offers some unique landscapes and wild life. The luxurious lodges, however, can easily cost you $1500 per night or more – something that this crusty old traveler would never dream of paying. So, we flew into Johannesburg and took a leisurely and interesting drive up north to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, where my license was hopefully waiting at the BOCRA office (the licensing authority in Botswana). If you have been to African countries other than South Africa and have preconceived notions about cities in this part of the world, then Gaborone is a shock: a clean modern city with dozens of glass and steel high rises, beautiful hotels, a university, large shopping centers, and perfect roads. Since we couldn’t find the BOCRA office, we went into one of the smaller and least intimidating looking government buildings to ask for directions (English is one of the official languages) – it turned out that this was the Office of the President … The guards at the entrance told us that BOCRA had recently moved to a new building and was not easy to find – but one of them would go off-shift in a couple of minutes and escort us there. The license was actually waiting for me as promised, and I left as A25US. (Thank you Tebogo "TK" Ketshabile!)

Not far from Gaborone we found a small nature reserve, Mokolodi, and were able to rent a large chalet by a lake, with 2 bedrooms, kitchen, a large patio and, important for me, electricity and space for my radio – all that at a real bargain price by any standard. In the evening the zebras and large antelopes came to the lake, in the distance lions were roaring, but they were only the pet animals of some large estates which border Mokolodi. The nearest human beings were miles away, we still had plenty of excellent wine from South Africa – what more can you want? Right – good propagation conditions and a Morse key at your finger tips. My antenna farm with two Omni Angle antennas went up quickly, and an hour later I was on the air.

Since the place was so perfect, we ultimately decided to stay for four nights, and I operated for a few hours on three evenings before and after dinner. I reached all continents and all call areas in the US – not bad for 10 watts (but then, the call sign is probably worth at least 15dB gain ;-) We joined the Friends of Mokolodi organization and will probably come back to this enchanting place one day.

Driving up north along the Limpopo River we eventually crossed back into South Africa, traveled eastward along the northern border with Zimbabwe and then southward along the border with Mozambique into Swaziland. The landscapes and animals and people we encountered along the way are far beyond my ability to adequately describe in words and would fill a book – I am lucky that this is not a literary website ;-)

In Mbabane, the capital city of Swaziland, my license for 3DA0US was also waiting for me. (Thank you Marvin Ngwenya!) Actually I applied for and was granted a permanent resident license which will be good forever – again, fantastic service by friendly people who went out of their way to accommodate me. My “residence” in Swaziland is the beautiful Mountain Inn Hotel, overlooking the picturesque Enzolvini valley. And down there in the valley we found the perfect spot for our needs in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Again we had a large chalet with all amenities, several bedrooms, a swimming pool and a restaurant within walking distance. The antenna farm went up again in no time, and 3DA0US was on the air for two leisurely evenings, logging almost 500 QSOs with all continents.

Driving through the Drakensberge mountains in South Africa opens vistas of unearthly beauty. To your west you will often have sheer cliffs rising up several thousand feet – and up there, just beyond reach, is the Kingdom of Lesotho. Only a single drivable mountain pass leads into that part of Lesotho from South Africa, the Sani pass. The drive up through breathtaking landscape is not for the faint hearted even if you have a 4-wheel-drive car with very high ground clearance. Once you have reached the top you are near the town of Mokhotlong in Lesotho. My wife and I had always wanted to go to Mokhotlong, the birth place of the king, and it had become almost a mythical place for us. The reality of that town turned out nothing to write home about, but we can say that we have been there…

The road from Mokhotlong to central Lesotho is winding over high mountain passes, some of them almost 11000 feet high, and is a beautiful drive. The road is well maintained since it leads to the diamond mines which are a major source of income for the country, in addition to the water and electricity that is exported to South Africa and comes from large picturesque reservoirs reminiscent of Lake Powell in the US. And on that road we had the most unexpected sight: a sign pointing to the AfriSki ski resort. At more than 10000 feet elevation, with ski lifts made in Switzerland, and log cabins made in Sweden, it could be anywhere in the European Alps except that it’s much higher. Since we were there during the South African summer, the place was almost deserted except for a few intrepid dirt bikers – but the outstanding restaurant was still open for business, and the log cabins were for rent. (at a bargain price) So, we moved into a spacious hut with four bedrooms, gas fireplace (it can get chilly even in summer) , dining room and everything you need as a tired skier – at a little over 10000 feet above sea level with a clear view around and balconies for the “antenna farm”.

7P8US made its fair contribution to the log book, again connecting with all continents, before the deteriorating weather conditions compelled us to leave after only two nights. This is a place that could well become ham radio heaven and it may not have seen the last of me.

So, what’s next on the agenda and the ambitious plan to make all semi-rare call signs ending with US mine? To make sure that I still can get out from even more remote locations when the sunspot cycle is at the bottom, I have just bought the KXPA 100W amplifier for the KX3 – the Samlex should handle that, too, without problems. My wife and I always wanted to go to central Sumatra, and YB5US has a nice ring to it and would go well with A25US and A35US and DJ5US. I think I’ll have to start writing a few letters to make that happen – we’ll see.

Member Comments:
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A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by LB1LF on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Thank you for a most enjoyable read.

I really like how you drive home that 'DXpedition' does not necessarily have to mean monoband yagis, quarter-wave verticals, kilowatts of RF power and the biggest, most expensive rig money can buy. (I realize I am exaggerating; the average DXpedition is probably closer to your end of the scale than my caricature - but there's no denying that the mere mention of the word 'DXpedition' conjures images of massive undertakings in my mind...) A reminder that things can be a whole lot simpler - but no less fun - is most appreciated.

Next time I go abroad, I'll bring my K1 and a couple of lightweight dipoles. Oh, and my CW Machine. :)

How about P51US - I hear they have got some nice beaches on the west coast!
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by WW4MSK on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Great article--when I go offshore to Frying Pan Tower the KX3 is the go-to radio. When traveling by helicopter you have to travel light and the KX3 allows room for other supplies for the trip out.

http://photos.fryingpantowerradio.com/GalleryFilmstrip.aspx?gallery=4477956&mid=89731089&mt=Photo&ci=008

Sure it would be great to have more power and optimal antennas, but sometimes it's just fun to use what will fit weight wise.

Wally (WW4MSK)
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N4UM on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Enjoyed the article and photos. I'm taking off for two weeks in a mountain cabin in NC tomorrow and will bring along my trusty IC-703 and collapsible 17 foot whip. I'll also take along a vest pocket DXpedition fantasy!
 
A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by AH7I on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
That logging keyer sure is nice! My new travel rig is tentec eagle and I would love to have that keyer living inside. It's still hard to beat the old yeasu ft101b for a travel rig.
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
The Eagle is a nice compact rig, but I would never have considered lugging a 35 pound rig with tube finals around with me in a suitcase (the FT 101B) ... ;-)
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by K9MHZ on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Nice!
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by WB4TJH on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Very nice, and I'll bet a lot of fun. But with all the dangerous diseases, parasites, political mayhem, and especially the Ebola mess going on, anywhere in Africa would be the last place I would pick to go for ANY reason.
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
You are missing an awful lot if you make fear the guiding principle for your decisions … A place like Cape Town is safer and cleaner than many places in the US, and you can go there any time, even if you are not an experienced traveler.
 
A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by W9ESE on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Great story Ulrich! Question: how from the top of the Jackite poles do you mount the OmniAngle matchbox to keep the pole from breaking?

Thanks,
Dale

 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
There are hardly any "breaking" forces because the antenna is mounted so closely to the pole. I use the mast bracket that comes with the Omni Angle and slide it down over the third section of the pole (counted from the top), and I use a piece of string to tie the top horizontal wire of the antenna to the mast, so that the antenna cannot tilt away from the mast. Although that may not sound like a robust arrangement, I never cracked a pole (although I carry spares of that crucial third section fro the top)
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 24, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
It also should be mentioned that the Jackite poles are made of an exceptionally tough material and that the Omni Angle weighs less than 3 pounds ...
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by W9ESE on September 25, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks Ulrich. I own an Omni Angle but have never actually seen a Jackite pole and assumed that they would be too flimsy to support it. I'm going to order one today, thanks!

Dale
 
A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by NV2A on September 25, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Thank you for a very informative and entertaining story. I can't do what you do and it's really nice to hear some of the details of how it all comes about. Good luck on your future projects, sounds like you're a guy who knows how to get things done!! 73's de NV2A
 
A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by KB2HSH on September 25, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
OUTSTANDING!
 
A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by JOHNZ on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!

Does anybody have any information about amateur radio operators operating in Africa in support of efforts to fight the Ebola epidemic?

Is ham radio supporting any of the deployed medical teams?

Many of the areas involved are very isolated, and ham radio would be a vital communications link?


 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
The medical teams that I have seen in many remote parts of the world use satellite phones ...
 
A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by K9IR on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Great article, thank you. What did you use to transport the Jackite poles and the antennas? I assume that luggage had to be checked--?
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Yes, that is an extra piece of luggage. I used a plastic gun case that I bought for $40 at a sporting goods store. It is quite sturdy and has the perfect length and space for everything.
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by K9IR on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for the info. I have a hard-sided golf bag when taking more/larger "stuff," but wouldn't want to use that on the sort of trip you took. I see Cabelas has a gun case at the price point you mentioned, 50" long and described as "airline approved." Seems that that would work.
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Yes, the one on the Cabelas site looks like mine. Explaining what this is to customs is always complicated, so, with the fiberglass rods and wires and cables, it has been "deep sea fishing gear" for some time without a problem ;-)
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by K9IR on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Another option is a fishing rod case (might also be more convincing with Customs ;-)). The rod cases get better reviews than the less expensive gun cases, which many complain are not up to airline travel. Available in 44" but the 56" is probably required.

A 46-48" length of 4" Sked 40 PVC also might work as a home brew carrier. But a bit heavier at 2 lbs/ft.
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by KE5KDT on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for the great article on getting things done. I have the KX3 and the Jackite pole and several portable antennas but the Par sounds like a great portable and base system. I contacted Dave Parfitt and with his help bought a setup that should work for me. He sent back an email and said there was an article on eham that used his HF Omni antennas. I told him it was your article that led me to him for the antennas and he should give you a rebate. Lets see if he does.
Looking forward to getting the antennas and putting them on the air. Thanks again for the interesting tour and first hand experiences with the antennas.
All the best. Bob

 
A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by WB2LQF on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Ulrich, thank you for such a stimulating and well-written article which demonstrates, as someone else has already observed, that a "DXpedition" does not have to mean high gain antennas and high power.

And to those who might argue that in such cases as the above, it's "the other station's antenna" that's carrying the load let me just add: I worked 7P8US and 3DA25US with my KX3 and my 44' attic doublet at 5 watts. 73, Stan WB2LQF
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by KK7GB on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
So very true!!! I have been to southern Africa twice, visiting South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. I felt safer there than I ever have when I was in Los Angeles, Chicago or Detroit.
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Thank you Stan! I am not dogmatic about power levels, but I have found that the 10W range of the KX3 is just fine in most situations, and it’s easier on the luggage than a higher powered radio. There are many factors which make a successful QSO, and power is by no means an assurance that you get through - operating skills and patience, using CW as your mode, and a little bit of luck sometimes, are equally important. On this trip I averaged about 1 QSO per minute - not the throughput of big gun DX expeditions, but certainly far more than could be explained by the other guys "carrying the load".
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by JOHNZ on September 26, 2014 Mail this to a friend!

@N2DE

Satellite phones? Oh, Oh, not much use then for ham radio in remote areas of Africa? Seems to be opposite of what we hear about how important ham radio is in remote isolated areas of the world?

 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by KF7DS on September 27, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
I discovered the Omni angle antennas from reading reviews on eham earlier this year. Never thought of deploying it the way you did-fantastic! Have not used wire while operating portable since buying an Omni angle with 15, 17 and 20m match boxes - Dale has done it again. Great article. Don KF7DS
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by KF7DS on September 27, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Ulrich.....question...did you notice any directivity to your signal by mounting the Omni angle this way?. Don KF7DS
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 27, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
It hard to tell if there was directivity because I could not turn the Jackite while listening to signals ;-) Dale tells me that his models show no pronounced directivity in that configuration, and I operated all continents without ever turning the antenna - so, I think that for all practical purposes, the antenna retains the circular radiation pattern.
 
A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by K6DBG on September 29, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
Great article, speaks strongly to things I might like to do. I'm curious about the side protection and cover you have for your KX3 - homebrew or commercially available?

VY 73 de chris K6DBG
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 29, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
The cover and side panels are a commercial product: just Google SideKX ...
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on September 29, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
... and for the pouch, Google: Think Tank Strobe Stuff. That pouch together with SideKX provides excellent protection and has room for cables and the paddle.
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by NO9E on September 30, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
I took K2 to South Africa around 2006, when the number of sunspots was much lower. Just a few QSOs including one US, Namibia, Antarctica, etc. When conditions are poor, 10W does not cut it. Unless close to salt water in the right direction.
 
RE: A Vest Pocket DX Expedition to Southern Africa  
by N2DE on October 2, 2014 Mail this to a friend!
I have been asked how I power the CW Machine when I don't have an electrical outlet. Since this may be useful for other accessories, too, let me explain what I did:

If you look at the first picture of the KX3, you will see a connector in the place that is intended for the 2m transverter antenna. This is a RCA phono jack, and I have wired it to the internal battery pack of the KX3, giving me convenient DC power for external devices like the CW Machine. (It is important that you only install the wire to the + pole of the battery!) This modification can, of course, be reversed if you want to install the transverter option. The minimal current that the CW Machine draws has no discernible effect on the capacity of the battery.
 
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