1999: GHANA (9G5AA)
QTH: Oyster Bay Hotel, Elmina, Ghana, West Africa.
Zone 35; Latitude: 5º 5′ North, Longitude 1º 23′ West.
The 9G5AA team in Ghana for 1999 were:
9H1EL - Jeff Morris
G3SXW - Roger Western
G3XTT - Don Field
G4BWP - Fred Handscombe
G4PIQ - Andy Cook
KC7V - Mike Fulcher
KF7E - Jim Henderson
Rigs: Seven TS930s and Alpha amplifiers.
Antennas: Five beams, seven verticals, dipoles, beverages.
Claimed score: 14,072 QSOs, 196 zones, 7`3 countries = 38.1m points
Note from team: The team is very grateful for assistance given so readily by the Ghana Amateur radio Society (especially Ralph/9G1RQ), the National Communications Agency (especially Mr. Codjoe and Philip/9G1PB) and James and his entire staff at the Oyster bay Hotel. Their friendship is cherished.
The following article was written by Don Field/G3XTT and appeared in the Chiltern DX Club’s Digest in January 2000:
A Rookie in Ghana
(Roger G3SXW was well-prepared for any suggestion that an article about 9G5AA would be very welcome for the CDXC Digest. His answer, in essence, was “well, you’re a journalist, write it yourself!” So, here it is.)
Windsor, the HF Convention, already October and I was still without a destination for CQWW CW. But, of course, the nice thing about amateur radio is that it’s one big family, and by the end of the weekend I had not one but three invitations to operate the contest. Now I had a different dilemma! All the invitations were attractive, but I had followed the activities of the Voodoo Contest Group (perhaps more commonly known as the “VooDudes”) in West Africa for a number of years, knew most of the guys personally, and it was a part of the world I had always wanted to visit. So 9G5AA it would be.
The nice thing about coming into an operation like this almost at the last minute is that most of the hard work had been done! Roger G3SXW kindly invited me to an evening at his QTH to get up to speed with what was what, and about the only other preparation I had to make was to organise my visa and the necessary medication (a Yellow fever certificate is mandatory, and anti-malaria prophylactics are a pretty good idea too!).
The VooDudes have operated from 9G, TY and, for three years, as 5V7A, always multi-multi and, during that time, have accumulated a substantial stockpile of hardware, currently stored at the QTH of Ralph Quist 9G1RQ, the driving force behind GARS (the Ghana Amateur Radio Society), and a typical Ghanaian in that he is self-effacing but intelligent, generous, friendly and incredibly willing to help in whatever way he can.
Given this stockpile of hardware, which includes antennas, towers, rigs and amplifiers, Roger told me that all I would need to take, apart from the odd T-shirt and pair of shorts, was a keyer, headphones and a laptop PC. Of course, life is never that simple, and I also ended up hand-carrying the transformer for Andy G4PIQ’s Titan amplifier, with the rest of the PSU in my hold baggage. Andy himself took the RF deck. Believe you me, not only is a linear transformer quite heavy to carry in a PC carry-case, but it looks a little odd on airport X-ray machines too! And as I travelled out with Roger, Jeff 9H1EL and Fred G4BWP via Amsterdam, that meant that I got stopped at two airports on the way out and two on the way back! Not that there were any actual difficulties; just some raised eyebrows (and a young lady security person at Amsterdam who will probably never try to pick up a passenger’s laptop again!).
I’ve mentioned the four of the team who travelled via Amsterdam. The remaining three, Jim KF7E, Mike KC7V and Andy G4PIQ travelled from London on BA, their flight landing just minutes after ours, so that they appeared in the arrivals hall even before the rest of us had cleared immigration. Two other would-be 1998 VooDudes, Cris G4FAM and Vince K5VT, failed to show at the last minute, Cris due to some medical problems and Vince because a major family crisis developed literally as he was on his way to the airport. Our thoughts were with both Cris and Vince, but their absence left us with less than the critical mass for a proper multi-multi operation, which requires six bands to be manned, along with at least one multiplier station. What was also to transpire later was that, along with the missing bodies, was various kit, including a transceiver and some other vital goodies, that they were due to bring with them. Of the seven ops., four (9H1EL KF7E G4PIQ and I) were VooDude rookies, so we were relying on Mike, Roger and Fred to show us the ropes.
Accra and Onwards
Walking out of Accra airport is quite an experience, though exactly as I had imagined West Africa to be. The heat, the smells and the teeming mass of humanity. After the journey and the immigration formalities, it was a relief to be whisked off to the Paloma Hotel where the Dudes have stayed before, where we quickly retired to the Sports Bar for a local beer (or three).
Early the following morning (Saturday, a week before the contest), I awoke to a phone call from Roger – could I join him for an interview at Vibe FM, one of Accra’s commercial radio stations? We met up with Ralph, took a taxi to the radio station and soon after I was making my first transmission from 9G, not on 14MHz CW, but on 91.9MHz FM! The rest of the day was spent buying local supplies, changing currency, organising an Internet account so that we could access the PacketCluster system via Telnet, and generally sorting out logistics. Mike and I also took a trip to the GARS station (9G0ARS) at the Accra Technical Training Centre, and made a few hundred QSOs on 28MHz (well, Mike made most of them while I nodded off at the other side of the shack).
Sunday was travelling day. After three successful years operating as 5V7A, the hotel that the VooDudes had used was no longer available, and Roger had made a recce trip earlier in the year to find a new site, this time in Ghana itself. He had lit upon the Oyster Bay Hotel in Elmina, 100 miles up the coast from Accra. The site is excellent, with plenty of space for antennas, both on the ground and on the flat roofs of the various chalets, and the management had been only too happy to accommodate us and all our eccentricities. Transport to Elmina was by way of a bus for the operators and rigs, plus truck for the antenna and tower hardware.
Accra is quite a sprawl but, once outside the city, the countryside is relatively empty except for the occasional villages alongside the road, very much as you would expect them to be, with fairly primitive dwellings (you don’t need anything fancy when the temperature is always high), lots of happy, smiling faces, and plenty of street-side vendors with a variety of local fare. Fred kept a watchful eye on the cellular signal (sad, isn’t he!), and we noted that coverage extended well outside Accra, then a gap, but started again as we came close to Cape Coast and Elmina. Apparently the service has been rolled out in the past year, and roaming agreements are very recent, but it certainly proved useful having the service available (four of us had taken cellphones). Indeed, the whole Cape Coast/Elmina area has obviously received significant infrastructure investment in recent years, presumably to encourage tourism (this is where the best beaches are, along with the best-preserved slave castles which have become a popular destination, especially for Afro-Americans wanting to trace their roots), and the road along that stretch of coast has been resurfaced to a very high standard.
The hotel had arranged for four local lads to be available to us for the next few days, so our job became one of directing and supervising while they did much of the legwork. Indeed, they tended to be offended if we tried doing labouring work ourselves. And not just labouring work. One of them had been an electrician in the Ghanaian merchant navy for many years, so was almost as much at home with what we were doing as we were. One of the others was a trained carpenter and another was a mason, so they were dextrous and quick to pick up what was required. As a result, by Sunday evening we already had the 15m beam assembled and in the air, and by Monday evening most of the beams were up (Force 12 monobanders for 10, 15 and 20, a Cushcraft 40-2CD for 40, a Force 12 C-3 and a Cushcraft A-4S for mult spotting). Tuesday saw most of the LF verticals installed (full-size homebrew vertical for 80, plus two Force 12 verticals passively phased; Force 12 vertical for 160, and a pair of 9H1EL-assembled verticals, to a G0OPB specification, as backup for 40). We also put up dipoles for 160, 80 and 40, leaving just the balloon-supported vertical for 160 to be flown shortly before the start of the contest.
While all this was going on, Andy was indoors assembling the stations, including the CT network, while Roger was organising all the local logistics. This latter came to be rather more complex than expected when various problems started to emerge!
In fact, it had all been going rather too well which, as any contester knows, is always a worrying sign. Probably the major concern, as the week went on, was the power supply. The local line voltage was fluctuating all over the place, and both Andy and Roger foresaw difficulties once we tried to run six linears simultaneously. In the event, the hotel brought in a generator over the contest weekend, which was just as well. We had been told that there had been no power outages for some months, but there was a 9-hour blackout on the Saturday of the contest, which the generator protected us from.
Another concern was that Vince’s absence left us short of a TS-930, and then Fred’s 930 also started to play up. Fortunately Ralph was due to visit us before the contest, and very kindly agreed to loan us, and bring with him, the GARS FT-990. Also due to the missing operators, we were short of a laptop, which required some urgent investigation to find a PC which we could rent locally. Apart from these, there were several minor concerns, such as a dearth of keying leads (again, presumably those from previous years had been taken back home). A local source was found for transistors – some nice big power regulator types, as it happens – and Jeff and Jim were able to build us some makeshift interfaces to allow us to key from CT.
Media interest in our activities continued with a visit from Ghana TV. The crew wanted some outdoor shots of the antennas, and indoor shots of the station being operated, as well as interviews with Roger, Ralph and myself. It wasn’t going to be ideal to demonstrate a CW QSO, and you can never find the right SSB station when you want one, that is to say one with a clear signal who will talk to the TV audience rather than in radio-speak. Fortunately Fred had a brainwave and suggested we pre-arrange a sked with a known entity. But who? Actually, the answer was simple – I phoned Neville, G3NUG who promptly came up on 10m with a cracking signal and did his usual smooth PR job. Roger and I also had one last radio interview, with the local arm of the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company (GBC) in Cape Coast. The gang back at Elmina were able to hear us on my Sony portable. The interview went well right up to the end, when the interviewer asked how much of our equipment we proposed leaving for GBC. We had to politely explain that amateur SSB gear would be of little use to an FM broadcaster!
Several of us managed to visit a couple of the slave castles at Elmina and Cape Coast. The castle in Elmina is well restored, a designated World Heritage site, and well-known from appearing in many TV programmes about the slave trade. It was certainly a moving experience to be taken round there, and to imagine what conditions must have been like. Roger, Fred and I also went on a recce to Abokwa Island, some 60 miles or so further along the coast. This one has never been activated for IOTA, and we were prospecting on behalf of Ken G3OCA and colleagues who plan to operate from there in March. On our return, late on Friday, we found the 160m balloon inflated and aloft. Sadly, it wasn’t to remain there for long, and was blown out to sea even before the contest started. Another blow! We had also been seeing electrical storms out to sea most days, apparently unusual for the time of year. This augured badly for the low bands and, sure enough, 160 sounded very noisy indeed.
As is often the case, the contest itself went by in something of a blur. With only seven operators, all but one were on duty through the night watches, and QSO rates in the first few hours were satisfyingly high, despite 160m being an almost total washout. 10m produced the expected long-path JA opening, 15 and 20 were buzzing nicely, the 40m Yagi was working very well indeed, and the 80m vertical appeared to be cutting through the pile-ups. Nevertheless, even at an early stage it was clear that CN8WW had a significant edge on the low bands. What we didn’t realise until after the contest was that they would also knock spots off us on HF too.
Roger had prepared a wall-chart with last year’s 5V7A hour-by-hour totals and as the contest progressed it was fascinating to see how closely we were matching them in both QSO totals and mults. Around midday on Saturday there was a brief blackout, which appears to have been noted by other operators too, presumably due to an SID. Otherwise the bands behaved pretty much as expected. I know Roger had hoped for 10m to be a lot better than the previous year, but I suspect that 5V7A’s equatorial advantage was exactly that. The improvement in sunspot numbers did little for us on the equator, but made a substantial difference to those at higher latitudes.
As expected, there were a few technical problems to be fixed as the contest progressed, with both rigs and amps being swapped between bands, but fortunately we had no major failures. The networking remained solid, and even the Internet connection stayed up for much of the weekend. This and some hot multiplier-moving (for which Andy, Fred and I claim especial credit as a consequence of our M6T training!!) meant that we ended with great mult totals on all bands, and a sweep of 40 zones on each of 20, 15 and 10m. 160m results improved as the contest went on, though the final tally was disappointing. A strong wind on the Saturday knocked over the mast with the C-3 and WARC antennas, but this had no direct impact on our activities, as we didn’t have enough ops to man a second multiplier position in any case.
The final tally is shown in the table. We felt it was a creditable performance, given the shortage of operators, the technical problems and the propagation.
Soon after the contest we showed up on 40m phone for a sked with the other big multi-ops: CN8WW, 4M5X, PJ4B, A61AJ, etc. Numbers were swapped and you could detect the collective intake of breath when the Germans announced their totals from CN. What a phenomenal score! Clearly they had enjoyed better propagation than us on all bands; a lesson perhaps that the equator ceases to be the ideal location at periods of sunspot maximum. The CN8WW team have certainly established a new paradigm with their Phone and CW results. Up to now it has been pretty much assumed that a multi-op world-record would always come from the Caribbean, but that now requires a major re-think. It will be interesting to see whether the PJ and 4M5 boys end up in 3V8 or 5A next year!
Some of the post-contest anecdotes are quite revealing. For example, W2GD, who established a new QRP all-band record from P4, worked CN8WW first call on 160m. Due to noise and our antenna problems, we had trouble working any Caribbean stations on 160, never mind QRP ones!
On the Monday it was a case of dismantling the stations and antennas and having everything ready to load on the truck first thing Tuesday. By Tuesday afternoon we were back in Accra. Unfortunately I had to leave that evening, but the rest of the gang stayed on for one or, in some cases, two days, to spend time at the craft market, visit the beach, and to socialise with the 9G gang, both the locals and also 9G5ZW (OK2ZW, who works at the Czech embassy) and 9G5DX (JH8PHT, who is installing some sort of radio links for the phone systems). The equipment is back in storage and, inevitably, the question will arise, where next year?
Was it worth it? Definitely. I know that some of the guys who have spent a year or two with the VooDudes have enjoyed the experience, but have chosen to move on to milder climes. But others keep returning to West Africa and I can understand why. The climate is hot and unforgiving, but it certainly beats trying to install antennas in, say, GU or GJ, on a freezing November day! The people are extremely friendly and welcoming. Once in West Africa, the cost of everything is ludicrously low. And it’s always nice to run those pile-ups as part of an efficient and competent team, even if you don’t come out with a record score.