After the very successful trip to Niue in 2017 I was truly bitten by the expedition bug. Niue had been fantastic both as a holiday destination and as an IOTA activation. This established my desire to do it again in 2018. After consulting the calendar of known events for the year and considering that my daughter was starting school in 2018, we decided to bring the trip forward to the April school holidays. This didn’t leave much time to pick a destination and get our bookings in place.
Where to go?
In November 2017 I commenced my search, looking across the Pacific for islands that had the sorts of facilities I was looking for. I had two objectives to satisfy, the first being to find a base for a comfortable family holiday with our 5 year old daughter. The second was to support my amateur radio operations, preferably away from large population centres.
Naturally I started with Clublog, looking at the DXCC wanted status of potential destinations. Various options were considered, including Western Samoa, the Solomons, American Samoa, Fiji, Lord Howe Island and even the Chatham Islands off New Zealand. After talking to some friends in VK4, the idea to look at Vanuatu was raised. I knew there wasn’t a lot of activity from there, and also realized that it was relatively cheap to reach from VK5. It also appeared to offer plenty of opportunities to fulfill the desire for a South Pacific family holiday destination.
After mulling it over with the family the decision was made – off to Vanuatu we would go. Thus the next adventure began…
The easiest place to land in Vanuatu was the capital city, Port Vila, on the island of Efate. There are regular airline flights to and from Australia with multiple carriers to chose from. After initially looking to go with one airline, I was discouraged when I had them decipher their excess baggage policy. In short, beware of airlines flying code-share routes as their excess baggage policies break down when you change carriers. This threatened to derail the whole trip with a baggage charge of over $4000 (AUD)!
Looking around further, I found that Virgin Australia Airlines also flew to Port Vila. Whats more, they offered a connecting service from Adelaide. Their excess baggage policy was also completely reasonable. The best part was, we now were flying through Brisbane and could avoid the horrors of transferring in Sydney. Happy Days! (Top tip – if you can at all avoid it, don’t try and do international transfers in Sydney. Melbourne, Auckland and Brisbane are much better).
Finding suitable accommodation was my next challenge, in particular, explaining what I was looking to do to agents and owners who had never heard of Amateur Radio before what I was hoping to do. Identifying a location that doesn’t have terrain screening problems, has the right water take offs and just how much room is around it and what is near it are all important steps, and are never easy when you cant visit and location scout beforehand. With only satellite and agent’s photos to go on, you really are flying blind to an extent. In this case, the location I chose was about 25 minutes south east of Port Vila in a holiday rental chalet. They were great to deal with and were happy to give me approval for my temporary antenna farm once I had explained what I was looking to achieve.
Reciprocal licensing between Australia and Vanuatu was relatively simple. You can arrange for your license though the “Telecommunications and Radiocommunications Regulator” in Port Vila. I had to provide a copy of my Australian Amateur Advanced license and complete the necessary forms. Payment was cumbersome from outside the country as it had to be arranged through Western Union. If you would like further details of who I contacted in TRR please drop me a note.
Once I had completed the paperwork I received an email copy of my license valid for 12 months. I was now the holder of YJ0AG (and licensed to 1kW as well!).
The next hurdle was customs and immigration. Australians visiting Vanuatu can do so under a temporary tourist Visa granted upon arrival so no issues there. The issue of temporary export and re-importation of high value equipment, however, still had to be dealt with. On the Vanuatu side, it was arranged with the help of my contact within TRR and went very smoothly.
On the Australian side, that was another matter. For countries that are signatories to the international Carnet system it is easy enough. For countries like Vanuatu who are not, it is a whole lot more complicated on returning to Australia. I made multiple visits and phone calls to Australian Customs trying to work out the correct forms so that they would recognize I had left Australia with the same equipment I was returning with so I would not be subject to GST on my return. The stumbling block appears to be that the equipment would be travelling with me on the airline as baggage and was not being consigned as freight through a freight forwarder. I could fill out forms prior to departure, but customs could still take possession of the equipment on my return to Brisbane until they had internally verified that it had indeed been taken out of the country in the first place. That of course was not acceptable, given we were only transiting Brisbane on our way home at that point.
In the end, it was suggested I go through a customs broker so that the required online records could be created (something an ordinary citizen can’t do it turns out) that would enable the gear to be immediately cleared for onward travel in Brisbane. It took nearly 2 months to fathom this out. In the end, it did work but my oh my, the bureaucracy and confusion made it touch and go for a while.
On Our Way
Finally our bags were packed and the day of departure arrived. We got to the airport and got everything checked in without issues. As the first flight out of Adelaide for the day (6:00am) we were pleased that everything pretty much went on time, as we only had 90 minutes to transfer between terminals in Brisbane. For some reason, the airlines will sell you connecting tickets with very short windows changing planes. They are fine if everything goes smoothly but can be nerve racking when things go wrong. As luck would have it, everything went our way this time and we arrived at our gate in Brisbane International with about 40 minutes to spare.
After another ~2.5 hours in the air we caught our first glimpse of Vanuatu as we came into land in Port Vila.
On Arrival in Port Vila, all our bags appeared and we made it through customs without issue. We then picked up our hire car and were hit with something we were not expecting. Europecar required a bond of over 164000vt (about $2000 (AUD)) for the vehicle on top of the hire fee. If like us you were not expecting it, it can be a bit of an imposition! The bond was returned when we left, but it tied up funds we had planned on using for other things unexpectedly. Something to watch out for.
The next trick was finding our way to our accommodation. The maps we had were “fairly basic” and Port Vila, it turns out, is a complicated place to navigate. There are few straight roads and LOTS of traffic! Cars and vans (which it turns out were buses) are everywhere moving seemingly at random. To make matters worst, there are one way streets everywhere and no street signs! We didn’t yet have a GPS (and discovered on arrival that we didnt have data roaming on our phones despite what we had been told to expect). Needless to say, it was a bit more nerve racking than it should have been.
Eventually, we found our way across the city and out the other side, with more than one wrong turn along the way. Then, after driving another 20 minutes east of Port Vila, we turned down a dirt road that seemed to align with our map, wondering if we were even heading the right way. Several kilometres further on, we stopped and rang our hosts feeling quite lost. It turned out we had actually driven about 1km past the gates so we were close. We then turned back and were greeted by Rema our house keeper and contact person, exhausted but happy to have reached home for the next 2 weeks.
Having woken up back in Australia at 3.00am everyone was feeling tired and a bit irritable at this stage. It was now ~5.00pm and too late to start building the station. Night fell shortly afterwards. It was much more important to get the family settled in and to take on the challenge of finding something to eat this far out of Port Vila. Amateur Radio could wait…
Setting out again after unloading the bags we headed for a restaurant we had been told about only a couple of km away. After driving down dirt roads for what seemed like ages our navigational luck hadn’t improved. We were about to turn around, swearing that we had either driven past it, missed a turn off or missed a sign saying where it was when we stumbled across another resort. Hungry, tired and breathing a sigh of relief, we had found somewhere for dinner (after working out we had traveled about 6km past our planned destination). The food was great but as we had been warned, everything was very expensive. It steeled our resolve to find a supermarket the next day so we could cook at home for much of our stay. As for the restaurant we were looking for, it turned out it wasn’t open on Mondays. We would never have found it that night…
Getting on the Air – Day 2
The next morning arrived welcoming us with with great weather. It was time to settle in and get on the air. First up, after planning where everything would go, I set up the multi-band vertical. This took about 2 hours of rigging in the early morning heat. This antenna is a home brew arrangement that will tune in various configurations from 160-10m. Based on a 12m Spiderbeam fibre glass pole, it is a pure quarter-wave on 40m and up, a folded 1/8th wave monopole on 80m and an inverted L on 160m. After rolling the radials out (and having to shorten some due to the property boundary fences) it was time to head into town for supplies so we could eat! It would have to wait until later in the day to find out if it had survived the trip from Australia.
Supermarkets in Port Vila
The next task was to get ourselves properly established with provisions for our stay. So, after loading the GPS with local maps and bundling the family into the car, we ventured back into Port Vila to find a supermarket. This time we at least had “Marsha”, our talking GPS, telling us where to go. It didn’t help much however as the map data seemed to have problems and she went silent a number of times leading us astray. Even with modern technology navigating Port Vila was still a challenge! After several more wrong turns we ended up at the super market we passed on the way in from the airport. It certainly didn’t have everything we wanted however. What we did find out was that not every market in town stocks the same things, and so our next target was to go and find “Bon Marche Number 2” – at least that’s how we heard it the first time 🙂 With that mystery to solve we headed home, getting lost again in the maze that is Port Vila.
Back to Setting up
Upon arriving back home, I was ready to head inside and set up the main station. As always, finding a suitable table was a challenge. In the end, as occurred on Niue, I re-purposed the outdoor table setting as the radio bench and hauled it inside with help from Sharon. These tables are always sturdy and large enough for the job, although I am sure it raises the eyebrows of the hosts each time I have done it. Once the station was built, I nervously powered up all of the equipment and was relieved to be greeted by live band noise. Some quick tuning checks showed the antenna was working fine and I was set. The first calls from YJ0AG went out on 40m FT8 to VK2YE. With that confirmed, I headed back outside to make a start on the beam.
Setting up the hex beam single handed is not easy either. The first challenge was to pick a location where the mast could go given coax cable length constraints, guy positioning and available space. Unfortunately the only real space was quite close to the house TV antenna. This was going to be trouble. Work then proceeded with setting out the tower, and assembling the beam. It was already late into the afternoon when I started, so it wasnt any real surprise when sunset caught up with me, leaving a half finished beam on the ground waiting till morning. It was at this point that I started seriously thinking, I need to find someone to start coming with me on these trips. Solo is very hard work!
First Night on Air
After dinner and getting the family settled, I settled down in front of the radio and gave a couple of test calls on 40m SSB. First reply was Paul VK5PAS, a good friend back home. I then switched back to FT8 and worked Japan and Brazil before returning for some more SSB. Next I wanted to give 80m a try, so I headed out and reconfigured the antenna. I then made a series of SSB contacts before switching to FT8 where I had a good run before calling it quits at 1215z (nearly midnight). A long day…
Day 3 – HexBeam Erection Complete
The next morning I headed outside once more to complete assembling and raising the HexBeam. Determined to get it in the air today I worked at it for about another 4 hours. The hardest part is pushing the mast up and adjusting the guy ropes at the same time. Doing this single handed is really only able to be done in light winds and by inches at a time. A very laborious task. It became clear that I also needed to address some issues with the bottom mast anchor. Ultimately a light weight rotator the mast can sit in would be ideal – but the weight of a rotator and control cable would have taken me to an extra bag. Instead, I had to put up with manually rotating the beam as the bands shifted. Once completed, it was time to head back into Port Vila with the family. I would get to find out if everything was working later in the day.
Our First Excursion – Vanuatu National Museum
Day 3 was really our first chance to start exploring the island. We also wanted to find the second supermarket we had been told about to get more supplies, so it was decided to head back into Port Vila.
The first stop was a visit to the Vanuatu national museum. The museum, which is located opposite the Vanuatu Parliament house, had been subject to some good online reviews, but it was nowhere near as large as we expected. Having spent 30 minutes there, we were done and so off to lunch we went at a French inspired bakery down the road.
After lunch, we found the supermarket we were looking for around the corner. Called “Bon Marche Numbatu” (which we then understood was Bislama for “Number 2”), it was much better stocked than the first one we visited the day before. If you are staying in the Port Vila area and want to self cater, this is your one stop shop in our experience.
Now fully provisioned, we headed back to the house, only taking a couple of wrong turns (we were finally figuring out the layout of Port Vila). The family then headed out for a swim in our lagoon in front of the house.
First Time for the MW0JZE Portable HexBeam on the Air
After the swim it was time to hit the airwaves. The beam, considering it’s weight and trans-portability, was fantastic. Ant MW0JZE makes a great product that I couldn’t be happier with! From a performance perspective it certainly made the difference on the higher bands, particularly on the non water paths.
On the first day, I opened up on 20m around 0830z. One of the first contacts I made was with LA9VFA on 20m SSB – a real surprise. Next I was swamped with the expected JA pileups. I always enjoy working Japanese amateurs as they are always orderly and listen closely to who is being called and wait their turn. A real credit to the operators of that region.
About 30 minutes after my first EU station I heard a few more in the pile. While asking the JAs to stand by I worked 12 countries in Europe on SSB in about 40 minutes in among a mix of JA and VK stations. This was loads of fun, making the effort of getting the beam in the air worth it. I continued on 20m SSB until it was dinner time and the sun set very happy with the results.
Time to give CW a serious try
One of the modes I am least experienced at, but one I am rapidly falling in love with, is CW. Those that know me can now pick themselves up off the floor – yes the Limited Call of 30+ years ago (I was originally VK5ZWI) who swore he would never do CW, has discovered it really is loads of fun and greatly satisfying. However, in an expedition setting it is also a bit terrifying. Having chased CW expeditions I knew something of the madness that can become a poorly controlled CW pileup and I was nervous that I would look very silly if my CW operation was anything but ‘professional’.
The problem was, I hadn’t been learning CW for very long and could only read CW by ear at about 5WPM at about 80-90% accuracy. There wasn’t enough time to practice before leaving. Considering this, I thought “well the only way to learn is to do it”. So, with heavy computer decoding support, using N1MM and MRP40 software on the microHam Keyer II, I set off calling CQ at ~16wpm to see how I would go. I had tried this 6 months before on Niue and gave up after a handful of QSOs. This time I was determined to stick at it for at least an hour. If it wasn’t working, well I could always go back to digital and SSB modes.
I picked a frequency on 40m down at 7004kHz (too low for the general US stations it turned out – sorry about that – I worked higher up the band later in the trip) and started calling CQ UP1. I figured I would start with split operation straight away as if I generated any sort of pile it would be chaos otherwise. I also made the point of letting people know on the blog that I was a beginner and not to expect too much. Well, what can I say, that first night on 40m CW was the most fun I have had on the radio in years! My pile grew to about 3-4kHz wide yet I was still able to keep up a QSO rate of about 40-50/hr. I was very careful to ask for repeats and verify I had callsigns as correct as I could. I know I mangled some however so, to those stations, I apologize. To those who also sent me emails of encouragement or mentioned my CW activities later during SSB QSOs and offered words of support I sincerely thank you. The good will I was shown for having “given it a go” was overwhelming and that first night set the scene for me making over 700 CW contacts while in YJ. By the end of the trip I was up to ~22wpm and relying a lot less on the computers. In short, I had a ball. Next goal – to be able to read 22-25wpm by ear – that will be by the next expedition hopefully.
Day 4 – TVI threatens Operations – but we manage a happy ending!
As with all of my island trips so far, these are firstly family holidays with radio added. One can’t forget the family and their needs always come first. So you can imagine when my heart sank a few hours after starting up on the beam when the dreaded tap on the shoulder came telling me that I was wiping out the TV with RFI – even with the linear offline. This set off a new round of experimentation and fault finding trying to work out how to block the RF from causing what was simple RF overload – of everything – including the DVD player!
The beam’s proximity to the TV antenna and lounge room didn’t help and almost led to me pulling it down and trying to site it on the other side of the house – but that wasn’t something I was keen on due to the suspected underground power services on that side, and didn’t want to hit anything pegging the tower down. Initially the DVD was least affected and by steering the antenna away from the house a lot of the problems could be minimized. However, after 48 hrs it was clear something had to be done. Fortunately I remembered to pack a spare balun for the beam and – low and behold – it had a FT240-43 ring torriod in it. On stripping that down, I wrapped the AV and RF cables between the TV, Set top box and DVD player around the core with about 4 turns and plugged everything back together again. On giving it a test it was clear it had improved but not cured it. I then added more turns until I reached a point where you could barely notice the noise lines in the picture. Sharon and Amelia were then happy and I could resume operating again. Phew!
The moral of that story is – always take a set of ferrites and cores as you never know what you might need to do to stay on the air!
New slots – 15 and 17m SSB then 20m Europe Short Path on CW
Day 4 was spent at the house and apart from some time out in the lagoon a lot of time was spent on the radio. Quite a few FT8 contacts were logged before I switched to SSB. Then in the late afternoon 15m sprang to life including openings to Eastern EU as far west as Greece. I then dropped down to 17m and the openings continued. Again the advantages of the beam were showing through – not the least of which was the fact it was multi-band. No having to laboriously retune the antenna every-time I jumped bands between 20-10m. The openings lasted from around 0600z through to 1000z when I stopped to prepare dinner for the family. After helping get Amelia to bed it was then back to the radio – this time on EU Short Path on 20m CW. As was the case on Niue, my first 20m CW contact was with Lada OK2PAY who has always shown me great patience on my CW learning journey. That led to 50 contacts in 80 minutes with the station closing around 1400z – very late indeed Vanuatu time.
Day 5 – The Reef Zoological Park & Mele Cascades
Day 5 began late with a short run on 20m SSB beaming SP North America. I then switched to 17m FT8 for a while before moving to 15m CW again beaming North America. The 15m CW paths were working well, but I could only stay for 40 minutes as the family were waiting.
This was excursion day and we were off to the Reef Zoological Park a short drive up the road. They have a fantastic array of Turtles and other wildlife and are geared towards conservation. My daughter had a great time interacting with the animals as the guides showed us around the park. This is definitely one attraction not to miss if you visit Efate, Vanuatu!
The next stop after the zoo was the Mele Cascades. This series of waterfalls was stunning and worth the trek across Port Vila to reach it. We hiked up to the foot of the main falls with our guide. Along the way he entertained our daughter with various local creations made from the local plant life, including a hat, some “sticker plants” and other gadgets. The following photos give you an idea of the cascades and what there is to see. Make sure you wear footwear you are happy to get wet however as part of the trip sees you hiking up the stars that are literally part of the falls. The cool water was certainly welcome as the humidity climbed in the valley. I can definitely recommend a visit if you are staying on Efate.
After our day out, I returned for an hour before dinner to 17m, running FT8 from 0700z. By 0800 EU stations started appearing. After dinner 17m had closed, so I switched to 40m and made 80 SSB contacts from 1030z to 1200z before moving for some planned activity on 80m.
Calls with Home – QSOs with members of AREG
As happened when I was on Niue, the monthly meeting of the Amateur Radio Experimenters Group (of which I am the treasurer) clashed with my trip. So the AREG members gathered together in the car park around a mobile HF setup so that they could get into the YJ0AG logs! Theo VK5MTM (now VK5IR) filmed the activity from their end. Thanks for the contacts guys – it is always special talking to friends back home from distant places!
Day 6 – On the bands – 160m Attempted….
Today was a radio day with nothing more than plans for a swim with the family in the lagoon. The day began with some good openings to South America and Japan on 20m before I moved up to 15m CW. After breakfast I switched to FT8 on 15m before giving 12m a go. A little later in the morning I struck the highlight of the day with a 10m opening starting at ~0320z to Japan.. I was rewarded with over 130 SSB contacts – mostly with Japan – in about 90 minutes. Later, around 0700z, I activated 30m CW and was rewarded with a long string of contacts into Asia before I took a break and had dinner with the family.
That evening was also my planned attempt at 160m. After dinner, I re-rigged the low band vertical into inverted L mode and got ready to give it a try. On stepping inside however my heart sank. The S-meter was pinned on S9+20 with some local RFI from who knows where. I went for a hunt around the house, turning off every switch I could find to no avail. Nowhere could I find the device that was blasting my receivers. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. A lot of effort had gone into testing and tuning the antenna for 160m capabilities and now it was useless. I did manage at least 2 contacts – one with VK4CMV and one with VK5SFA on FT8, but despite trying everything I simply couldn’t hear anyone else. Looking back at PSKReporter it was also clear I was being heard. That just added insult to injury. Even VP8LP in the Falkland Islands could receive me but I couldn’t hear anyone else unless they could beat S9++ noise.
I didn’t give up however. Radials from the low band array were “raided” to build a rudimentary receive loop antenna in the dark. Trying to throw ropes over trees at night is “interesting” to say the least and it took a lot longer than expected to achieve the desired result. 4 hours later and now nearing 11pm local time I went back in and tried some CW skeds with Luke VK3HJ and Steve VK7CW but to no avail. They were reporting booming signals from me but I couldnt hear a thing under the radiated RF rubbish I was being subjected to. It looked like I was going to be defeated, so I headed off to bed rather frustrated.
The next morning I started the great RFI hunt. I searched the house for anything that was plugged in or turned on. Stoves, fridges, security systems, TV sets, water pumps. Anything at all electrical was systematically turned off to see if it was the culprit all to no avail. I mentioned my problems with 160m noise to Daniel VK4AFU on 20m and he had an idea. He knew one of the two permanent amateurs living in Vanuatu in Ron YJ8RW and was able to get in touch with him. I then spoke with Ron on the phone and we arranged for him to drop by my station and meet up.
A couple of days later we were able to arrange it, It was great to meet him and talk a little about life out on Vanuatu. He is an ex-pat Australian but has lived in the islands for 30+ years working as an electrician. Ron had also brought with him the loan 160m antenna to see if running a receive antenna further down the beach could help. Later that day, after more sweat out in the sun, the dipole was rigged in the trees 100m away from the house. I was ready to give 160m one last try. I went back inside to the radio, plugged it in and held my breath. Despite all my efforts, it was still a disappointment. The noise only dropped to S9+10dB. Clearly it was being radiated from somewhere further afield. Tuning around it seemed to peak around 2MHz (it was also impacting 80m but no where near as bad). I took the improvement on 80m as a blessing at least but ultimately was resigned to my fate – no 160m this trip…
Day 7 – On Air and a visit to Blue Lagoon
First up I started with some FT8 on 30m around 2100z where several EU stations were worked before moving up to 20m and some Pacific Rim action. I then moved further up the bands to 17m and fired up the CW again. I worked a further 50 stations in an hour, many from the continental USA. Then it was family time, as I wrapped up on air at 2335z.
Today’s excursion took us for an approximately 30 minute drive up the eastern coast of Efate to Blue Lagoon. This huge swimming hole is very popular with tourists but wasn’t so busy that you couldn’t enjoy yourself. Now I am not the biggest swim fan but my wife and daughter are and they had a ball in the crystal clear water floating and paddling around. There were several rope swings that people were queuing up to use as well. This is another of those must visit attractions when in Vanuatu.
Later in the afternoon I got back on the air again, and after working a few stations on 20m, I thought I would take a look at what 40m had to offer 1-2 hours before sunset. I was pleasantly surprised to capture some south Americans (Paraguay, Chile and Brazil) as well as Europe and the USA. Long path 40m FT8 was working very well indeed. I also managed to work some of my closer neighbours including FO5QS from French Polynesia, Phillip 3D2TS in Fiji and 5W1SA in Samoa. After taking a break for dinner, I returned at around 0900z initially on 17m SSB before moving to 20m, again managing to work some Europeans. At 1000z I switched to the low bands and activated 80m FT8 – this time with the better receive antenna. After working approximately 25 stations on FT8 I switched to CW working nearly 80 stations in 90 minutes before moving back to FT8. I think my record contact on 80m that night was with A45XR in Oman – not bad on a vertical from a Pacific Island in a portable setup! I finally turned in for the night at 1335z (12:30am) having spent 3.5hrs on 80m. A great night.
Day 8 – Meeting a fellow Ham Traveller
The next morning I made it back on the air around 2030z (8:00am) and started up on 17m. I managed a string of contact on FT8 into North & Central America before I moved back to 15m CW and made another 80 contacts in ~90 minutes this time mostly with North America.
Then it was time to head off into Port Vila to meet up with Chris YJ0CA (aka VK2YUS). Chris often visits Vanuatu and has a permanent radio shack available to him courtesy of VK2BXE who has a holiday home on the island. I had worked Chris a couple of times from Australia on 40m before I headed out, so it was great to meet up with him and spend a very pleasant few hours on Iririki Island Resort having lunch. The resort is actually located in the harbour just off the coast in front of Port Vila. Chris and his friend Nan were fantastic and Amelia (my daughter) turned on the charm. She was entertained by Nan while we sat by the water chatting for much of the afternoon. This really is what Island life is all about… We then took a bit of a walk around Port Vila before finally heading back to our house.
Europe Floods In
That night after dinner I returned to the radio and was welcomed by a wall of Europeans. Starting at ~0730z I worked a number of 17m FT8. Then around 0950z I switched to 17m SSB managing Poland, Spain and the Ukraine followed by Italy, Russia, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Finland and France. The band started to fade at ~1030z so I switched to 20m FT8 where the European openings continued with Hungary, Belarus, Netherlands, Scotland, Sweden and more. Contacts started to slow at 1130z so I then switched to 20m CW where in addition to countries already worked I was able to add Croatia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Germany, Lithuania, Austria, Estonia, Denmark and Norway. After a long day I signed off after midnight local time very happy with the evenings activities.
Day 9 – Under the Sea
Day 9 broke with great weather for a little sea journey. We were off to take a ride in a glass bottom boat to see the fish and coral that can be found on the far side of Iririki Island. The pier where we met our tour was again back in Port Vila. By now we were becoming familiar enough with the town that navigation was getting easier. You do miss not having any street signs, however, when you do take a wrong turn. We then found one of the rather rare car parks in the area before we boarded our boat. Our guides took us out into the local harbour to see a number of the reef formations there. Amelia even spotted “Nemo” the clown fish :-). I will admit, unlike Niue, the visibility wasn’t all that good at the start. As we rounded Iririki Island however conditions cleared and we were met with a wall of fish. Then the tour guides showed us how to feed the fish by placing bread between your toes. My daughter loved it, although she said it tickled as they swam around. Lots of giggling was heard across the bay…
After the boat ride, we visited the central market in town. Here we did some souvenir shopping as well as picked up some vegetables for dinner. There were many things in the market that you just don’t see at home. The joys of visiting somewhere unique in the world!
Action continues on the air
Back at our holiday home the action continued on air. I had activated 30m FT8 first thing in the morning around 2000z, landing Turkey, Azerbaijan and some more South American stations as well as Japan, Australia and North America. After the boat adventure, I returned to 40m FT8 for a while at 0600z where I landed the Falkland Islands (VP8LP) and Brazil before moving back to 80m FT8 at 0830z. FT8 on a holiday expedition is one of those modes you can run and make contacts on while still half interacting with family. Its not my favourite mode, but it is a good workhorse mode in some circumstances. Conditions tonight were not as good and I slogged away at 80m FT8 for about an hour before taking a break. I then returned to 40m around 1100z for some more North American calls which ended up with quite a mix of NA, Japan and SE Asian calls making it into the logs. At 1245z I decided to switch back to 20m and see if there was any EU Short Path propagation about. Selecting CW mode this time I was rewarded with Scotland, Poland, Hungary and more. I finally signed off around 1345z or nearly 1am local time with another successful stint on the air completed.
Day 10 – 30m CW is alive to Europe, 20m SSB is alive to the USA
I made it back on the air earlier today and hit 30m CW at 1930z (6:30am). After over 50 contacts , many from Europe, I switched to 20m SSB beaming NA and worked a combination of USA, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Australian stations through to 2245z. I then gave 10m another look. To my surprise it was open to the US and Japan, with a couple of contacts made to Australia off the back of the beam. From 2357z to 0111z I made about 50 contacts before taking a break to take Amelia for a swim in the lagoon. At 0300 I resumed on 20m SSB with a long string of contacts into North America, making around 85 contacts in 90 minutes. I then took a break to head back into Port Vila and meet with the TRR Radiocomunications staff who had helped me with my license. I always try and make personal contact and say thank you for their assistance. Amateur Radio is certainly not their core business, so the fact they accommodate processing awkward requests from international visitors is always greatly appreciated.
After dinner I returned to air, this time on 40m SSB where I worked many VK stations as well as NA and JA. I then decided to give 80m FT8 another go and was rewarded with an 80m contact to Brazil. I then packed it in early with the express intention of starting out on 80m before sunrise and trying to reach Europe.
Day 11 – 80m to Europe – Success – and we drive a lap of Efate
I finally managed to shift my sleep pattern today so that I could get up before dawn. I hit the airwaves at 1730z (4.30am) on 80m and called CQ FT8. I was rewarded with replies from Poland, Russia, Japan, Greece, Belarus, France, India and Germany on 80m setting a new 80m distance record for the trip in the process. At 1900z I QSYed to 40m CW managing to work Greece, Spain, Slovenia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa before I then followed the sun and moved up to 30m CW at 2030z. It seemed the whole world was open with contacts from South America, North America, Asia and Europe in a run that lasted until 2100z. I then took a brief look at 20m and was surprised and rewarded with a QSO to Togo in Africa thanks to 5V1JE on FT8.
The rest of the day was taken with a wider exploration of Efate. Amelia wanted to go swimming again, so we stopped at a beach we had spotted a couple of days before on the way to Blue Lagoon, for a paddle.
After swimming we continued heading around the island taking in the sights along the way. One of the stops (at a village I cant recall the name of now) we visited a look out and also a fish feeding area. On our way back to Efate we also stopped at the lookout at the top of the Mele Cascades where you can see all the way back down into Port Vila.
Mele Lookout towards Port Vila
After a full day we made it home just after sunset. There was lots more to see along the way, including the WWII museum and other kayak and caving experiences but with the time we had and with my 5yo daughter along as well, we saw enough to satisfy ourselves that Vanuatu is a beautiful place to visit.
Back on the Air
After dinner, I returned around 0730z to some more CW operation on 17m with a mixture of Asia and Europe. Then around 1030z I switched to 80m CW where I mostly worked Japan followed by a stint on 80m FT8 through to 1300z when I finally retired for the evening.
Day 12 – RTTY back with a Vengence
Day 12 began with a couple of sked requests for 80m from Spain at around 1930z. Fortunately we were able to make the trip to both EA1PO and EA3NW. After some more sleep I switched to 30m FT8 and again found it open to almost everywhere! I love 30m as it is always a band that surprises me. The number of times even from my home QTH in VK when it appears to provide simultaneous global coverage continues to surprise me, something I dont see on 40m or 20m.~40 QSOs later I stopped for breakfast with the family before deciding to give RTTY a try after all. My recent experiences of calling CQ RTTY at home in VK had not been all that profitable so until now I hadnt given it a try. Even so, my love of RTTY was still there so I figured what have I got to loose?
The first challenge was to get settled again running a RTTY pileup. I started slowly with some calls on 20m resulting in a small number of QSOs to the USA. I then QSYed to 17m and the flood gates opened! From 2256z I worked 174 stations in 3 hours or around 58/hr sustained rate on 17m. I then moved to 20m and from 0211z to 0414z I worked another 156 stations averaging 78 QSOs/Hr. RTTY was back with a vengence! Whats more, these werent all slot chasers – there were a number of ATNOs scattered in there as well – surprising considering the amount of time spent on FT8, CW and SSB the preceding 11 days.
The RTTY setup being used in this case was very similar to the following photo:
While I didn’t have quite as much screen real estate on the laptop and secondary monitor, I did have all of these decoders running. In summary the software setup consisted of (with links you can follow):
- N1MM – used as the base logging package for the expedition
- MMTTY – 2 copies running different decoder algorithms
- FLDigi – 1 copy for yet another take on decoding – and with a wideband receive audio chain it provides a more useful sub-band waterfall
- GRITTY – Enhanced RTTY Decoder
- 2TONE – another decoder with a different algorithm
- SDRConsole (being driven from the AirSpy HF+ receiver)
MMTTY is the main RTTY engine for my system and generates the FSK TX signals as well through my MicroHam Keyer II. This is connected directly to the Elecraft K3 for TX. TX/RX alignment is done through the CAT controls in N1MM. Signal selection out of the pileups is managed by using a very narrow filter on the primary K3 receiver while relying on the SDR to provide band awareness and tuning support.
All in all it was a very effective setup for managing the pile and keeping the QSO rate as high as possible. Messages were tailored to be as soon as useful while sticking to a regular format. I always found short concise messages helpful in controlling the pileup behavior. I also make a habit of not having long periods of silence. If I don’t get a decode or finalize tuning within 10-15 seconds I will call CQ again – just to keep the pile in check. If people start calling at random times it can quickly degenerate into a farce.
The other thing I was able to do was by regulating the QSO rate I could manage the amplifier temperature. I always keep the temp display up front and centre on the KPA500 when running RTTY and found that on Vanuatu (where I have the power limits to allow me to do so) I was able to sustain 500W of RTTY at ~80QSO/hr provided I held the duty cycle at ~50% with an over rate of 10-15 seconds. The amplifier would run at ~57-59degrees Celcius in 28degC ambient temperatures provided there was additional airflow over the top of the amplifier all day. All up I was very happy with it’s faultless performance. It does go to show, with the right fan settings on the amp and careful control and monitoring of temperatures in the PAs you can run 500W of RTTY all day with a K-Line setup from Elecraft.
Off to an Evenings Entertainment – The Beach Bar Fire Dance Show
One of the events we had been encouraged to go and see was the fire dance show at the Beach Bar in Mele village. We had been to a similar show on Niue but had been told this amateur troupe was very good. So we set off for Mele late afternoon with the idea being to arrive before sunset, have dinner and settle in for the show. Mele was about a 40 minute drive from our accommodation so we started early (to allow for any further navigational delays caused by crossing Port Vila again) Fortunately, by now, we had pretty much figured out which roads went where so that apart from the traffic, there were no hassles making our way to Mele.
One of the menu items The Beach Bar is known for is it’s Pizza. Until now I had struggled to find a good (to my personal tastes at least) Pizza on Efate. I was pleasantly surprised therefore to find it was pretty good at the Beach Bar – nicely wood fired with a good assortment of toppings available.
For the main show, the village community has come together to form this fire dance troupe. They are self supporting and make for a great evening’s entertainment down on the beach with a mix of fire dance, acrobatics and dance. Worth a visit if you are in Mele on a Friday night.
80m CW action continues…
After the late night out, we made our way home. I still had some energy left so back to the radio I went and on to 80m CW again. This time it was a run of Japanese stations starting from ~1100z before I switched back to try some short path EU 20m RTTY. After making a mix of EU and NA contacts I shut down for the night around 1215z (11:30pm) after what had been a busy day.
Day 13 – Winding Down – Last Full Day on air
The day began on air at 1830z with some 40m FT8 to Europe and Africa again (I managed to work TR8CA in Gabon on 40m). After an hour and approximately 40 contacts I switched to 30m RTTY. I expected to do well into Japan and North America but wasn’t expecting to also see Europe. Again 30m shows why it is the magic band! I started at 2012z and stopped at 2152z with 75 QSOs (50/hour) before I switched to 17m FT8. There I had a mix of USA and Japan with some Central American stations for over an hour. We then opened 15m RTTY at 0033z and made ~75 contacts in an hour before breaking for Breakfast. I then made another 30 contacts in 45 minutes before switching to 12m RTTY to see what was about. I was able to put another 42 contacts into the log over a further 40 minutes of operating.
It was during this operating period that I was reminded that we were out on the edge of the Pacific ring of fire! Everything started to shake, rattle and (not quite) roll! It turned out that we had a 5.1 magnitude earthquake about 100km south of Port Vila. It was certainly noticeable where we were. Fortunately what was going on didn’t register with my daughter as nothing fell off the shelves – but it was probably the first real earthquake I think I had actually felt – and recognized for what it was – ever.
After everything settled down, I then took a break and went for a final swim with Amelia before we went into Port Vila for some final souvenir shopping.
After dinner, I called into the 7130 DX net and made a set of contacts with friends back in VK before making another of those surprise contact with PY5EG gave me a call on 40m. Signals from South America were very good and it was great to get him in the log. I then did a final stint on 80m before switching to 20m RTTY at 1200z to participate in the Polish RTTY contest.
I didnt make a huge number of contacts in the contest but judging by the number of callsign repeat requests, the delays in responding to calls etc I have a feeling it was most unexpected to see a YJ call participate. Hopefully I handed out a few ATNOs in the process. Conditions weren’t great but it was a lot of fund. I labored until ~1500z (2:00am) and finally called it quits.
Day 14 – Last Calls
My last day on air started at 2100z with 20m FT8 and another lucky call with Africa (5T2AI) before I also worked Argentina and Brazil. By 2144z I had switched to 20m SSB for a final run towards Japan. At 2300z I switched to 30m FT8 for about 30 minutes and then gave 17m CW a final nudge with another ~50 contacts in the log. Last calls were then made with VK2FAD on 17m SSB and lucky last was Andrew VK5LA – a good friend of mine back home – on 15m SSB. YJ0AG then fell silent at 0046z on the 29th of April.
Pack up then commenced, and I bundled everything back into it’s travel cases and lowered the antennas. I can say taking them down is a lot easier than putting them up. A number of things I decided would also be easier to leave behind. All of the tent pegs in particular. I didn’t want any problems with quarantine in Brisbane on our return so it was easier to leave them in Vanuatu with our hosts (who might be able to use them for something).
I also packed up the loaned dipole from Ron YJ8RW which had worked really well as a secondary RX antenna the last few days and then made the trek over to Ron’s QTH to return his antenna – thanking him heaps for his help.
We then cleaned up the house and went out for dinner on our last night in this island paradise out in the Pacific.
Day 15 – The Journey Home Begins…
The next morning we ate breakfast, said goodbye to our house keeper / host (who had been fantastic to us throughout our stay) loaded up the car and headed for the airport. After a quick detour to fill the car with fuel, have brunch and drop off a wayward cable to Ron YJ8RW we headed to the airport and checked in to our flight home. We were going to take 2 days for the trip with the first hop being to Brisbane. We decided to do this to give us extra time to clear customs with the equipment. Finally we lifted off and our flight was smooth all the way to Australia.
On arrival, we made our way through the usual airport chaos, collected all our bags (thankful that we had all the breakable gear in pelican travel cases as it came out of the bag chutes unexpectedly) and then proceeded to clear customs. Armed with the magical clearance codes thanks to my customs broker we sailed through and made our way over to the airport hotel for the night. After dining in the hotel we went up and had a good night’s sleep.
Day 16 – Brisbane to Home
Finally our last day away arrived. The flight home left mid-afternoon so it was a lazy slow start to the day. We then picked up all our luggage one last time, hauled everything back to the airport terminal and checked in for the flight home. Everything went smoothly and we had an uneventful trip home.
So where did we work? These maps tell the tale!
Total QSOs : 3357
Total Uniques: 2234 (66.55%)
These were made in 85 hours of operating over 2 weeks across all HF bands from 160-10m.
The statistics of the activation also make interesting reading. These charts provide an insight into how we went.
As always it is something of an empty feeling to leave a place like that after having made new friends. I was pleased with the numbers of contacts made but this came at a price. While it was a family holiday, the amount of family time and more importantly relaxation time for myself was at a premium. Looking at the logs, it turned out I was on air for over 84 hours. Add to this the antenna setup, adjustment and tear down time, the time “on holidays with the family” had shrunk even further compared with Niue and was now teetering on an even 8 hours a day family, 8 hours a day radio and 8 hours a day asleep. As we were leaving Vanuatu I made the comment to Sharon my good wife that I didn’t think this formula worked. She understood and was supportive of the amount of effort it was taking to drag the station along, and that the point was to use it to help a lot of people get that country or IOTA into their logs, but it was clear to me that it wasn’t really fair on the family. We wont be doing another trip like that in the same format again…
So what is the plan now you might ask? Well, I do still want to keep expeditioning, but am now looking to partner up with another ham to help ease the load. If they have a partner who wants to come to, and the two families get along, then perhaps the radio work can be better shared leaving more family time in the process. Some of the planned expedition destinations will also be better off if my family don’t come along – as the available facilities are not that complimentary to a family holiday. I have had agreement that I will be able to do a “just radio” trip or two in the future as well. Out of these ideas I am sure will come a solution.
The other issue that is raising its head is the cost. So far each of the Pacific trips has cost well over $10K (AUD) and that is not including the new equipment that has been purchased to make the trips possible. Up till now I have not asked for nor expected any donations. However, I hope people will understand if in the future donations are solicited, at least enough to cover the equipment transport costs (which currently sit between $2000-$3000 (AUD) each expedition if I include the broker fees and excess baggage costs). You may be able to take radios to these places cheaper – but doing it with the antenna arrays and amplifiers I have adds a whole other dimension to it. The goal has been to make the station easy to work from the other side. Next time some help making that possible may be required.
Finally what is left to say? First and foremost I want to say a huge thank you to my wife Sharon and daughter Amelia who humor me and tag along with my mad cap adventures to strange places and put up with dads obsession with radios. I also want to thank Steve VK5SFA for his help building and testing the low band antenna array back home, Ant MW0JZE who did a special production run of his lightweight portable Hexbeams for me for the trip, Charles M0OXO my QSL manager and most of all I want to thank everyone who gave me a call while I was operating as YJ0AG. You are the reason I drag my station out into the Pacific so thank you for being there!
For details of how to obtain QSL cards from the expedition please visit these pages. The logs have now been uploaded to LOTW as well as Clublog and eQSL.cc
QSOs should now also be available for IOTA award program matching.