2009: Sierra Leone Planning

The following article appeared in the Chiltern DX Club members’ Digest

Nine-Ell Recce (By Roger G3SXW)


Fred G4BWP, Vince K5VT and Roger G3SXW drove from Conakry 3X to Freetown 9L and back. The 9L licence will be no problem. We found two suitable hotels for our QTH. The biggest problem will be transportation of our gear. The road is too rough for our usual bus. Here are the facts, followed by the ‘interesting’ anecdotes.

The Journey

We can split the road between Conakry and Freetown into four sections. The first 100 miles to near the border is on mostly good roads with repaired pot-holes. The next 60 miles are very VERY rough, taking five hours to traverse, mostly at bone-shuddering walking-pace. The next 100 miles (all distances are approximate) into Freetown is in excellent condition, very fast. The last 10 miles to cross the city to reach Cape Sierra took 1.5 hours due to congestion and streets filled with wall-to-wall pedestrians. Total 13 hours. That middle section is unlikely to be improved. A ‘new’ parallel road was graded some time ago, not completed or paved and is already falling apart. It is too rough for our usual bus plus one tonne of equipment to traverse and anyway would take more than one day of daylight. There is only one ‘hotel’ on this whole route.

Freetown Hotels

From Google Earth we know that Cape Sierra (8° 30’ North, 13° 17’ West) has fantastic sea take-off in all directions. We checked out a half dozen hotels and found two possibles:

Cape Sierra Hotel: good for antenna flexibility, clear take-off in all directions, but close-in salt-water only to West and South. Problem: they expect it to close in Jan 09 for one year of refurbishment. We need to keep in touch as this is Africa and it might not happen (as with the Camayenne Hotel in Conakry). Location: 8° 29’ 37.30 N, 13° 17’ 46.30” W. Normal pre-discount room-rate $100 per person per night. Looks rather run-down but would be adequate.

Bintumani Hotel: where we stayed for two nights. Perched on a 100’ hill-top, sloping down in all directions and sea some 500-900 feet away in the important directions on all sides, except land to SW/S/SE. The main usable flat roof will be too small for all five beams and gardens for the Titanex rather difficult. But wire slopers off that 70’ high roof would be fantastic. The hotel is Chinese owned. We met two BY managers, Marketing and Maintenance and await their draft contract by e-mail. The hotel is very visible on Google Earth, the centre of that main roof is at 8° 29’ 51.48 N, 13° 17’ 21.20” W. We paid $118 ppn but this would be group-discounted next November. The Bintumani is more up-market than Cape Sierra, maybe two stars against one star.

Fred will circulate a more detailed site-recce report of these two hotels a little later.

The Licence

We know that the Italians 9L1X and Germans 9L0W obtained licences, we have the forms, not problematic but we need to go through the bureaucratic system. We met Mr Senesie Kallon who issues the licences, Director of Engineering and Technology Services at NatCom, studied in Birmingham, England, and we quickly established a good relationship with him. We submitted our request letter to Mr Bash Kamara, Executive Secretary who opened a file for us. Senesie will now officially e-mail us the application forms (which I already have!) and we can start the process. I assume that call-sign choice (9L5A) will be no problem. We didn’t get into details about time periods (suggested as 12 months) or fees (maybe $120 each?) or group licences, frequencies etc. That can all follow and can all be fixed. According to Zbig anything is possible!

Local Contact

We met Zbig, 9L1BTB, SP7BTB. He showed us his house and we entertained him to (Chinese again!) dinner. He is on short-term contracts with U.N. and has been there for 5-6 years. He’s always uncertain of his future but we suspect that he’d quite like to stay there. Fingers crossed because he would be a valuable contact (eg licensing and storage of the stock-pile). His job is to manage, maintain and sometimes fly the two remaining UN helicopters. (He is retired from the Polish air force where he used to fly Mig jets, see his web-site). He even offered us a commercial contract for bringing our gear from Conakry by helicopter, see below. There used to be 22 helicopters but they are now down to two, another reason for future uncertainty.

Shipping the Gear

We have discounted our usual accompanied bus, it couldn’t make it across those rough roads. There are no boats plying that route. The hovercraft service is only for the airport, across the (very wide) river. The pirogues (dug-out canoes) can be large enough to carry our stuff but highly unsuitable for people! There seem to be only two possible solutions:

Helicopter: Zbig quoted about $5,000 for two tonnes. It’s about 45 minutes flying time each way. At $500-600 per person this is possible, compared to our normal $200 approx for the bus. But this pretty much depends on Zbig still being in Freetown next November, which may only be 50-50.

Truck: Karel tells us that trucks do make this journey, frequently. We didn’t see any on our two 11-hour transits but he reckons they use back-roads. We would not need to accompany it and the drivers know how to circumvent customs problems, with small bribes. This all sounds rather risky but Karel was very sure that this could work. It would need flexibility, transit to Freetown taking some 24 or 48 hours.

Next November

So, either way we would not need the whole team to make the journey from Conakry to Freetown. Two or three of us need to be in Conakry to set up and supervise loading of the helicopter or truck, then fly to Freetown. The rest would fly straight to Freetown.

We have to face the possibility that this just might all fall apart. If so, what would be the options? To stay in 3X is the easiest solution but I’m sure we really don’t want to do that. Move the stuff back to TZ, again a rather poor option. Change our target to J5, possible but with very similar problems as 9L with extremely bad roads, long-long journey and without the benefits of a recce. Do a small-scale operation with only fly-in luggage – not our style! Until something comes along to entirely kill off this 9L project we will hang in there and intend to make it succeed. But it is more tenuous at present than we usually secure from these recce trips.