Vanuatu FlagConducted by myself 43DA001 Darren and 43DA234 Tom, 197DA/0 from Vanuatu’s beautiful Aore Island commenced on January 1 and concluded 2 weeks later on January 14, encompassing both weekends of the 2010 Oceania Contest.  It was the first time in 11 years that this small independent nation in the southwest Pacific Ocean had been activated on 11m and, according to the Islands Data Base Online and Cluster dk Archives, the first time EVER for this particular island! [Note: Previous activities by RC, AT and TR had been conducted on Efate and Espiritu Santo].

Vanuatu MapReferenced as OC-035 and part of the New Hebrides Group in accordance with the Radio Society of Great Britain’s IOTA Program, Vanuatu has some 65 inhabited islands in a loose, volcanic chain approximately 1300 km long.  Behind the capital Port Vila on Efate Island, the second largest town is Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo—a town we became very familiar with during our 14 day stay.  Through World War II, Luganville was an important QTH for Allied naval forces fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.  This is also where we landed in our Air Vanuatu Boeing 737 plane on a direct flight from Brisbane in Queensland, Australia.

The Planning Phase

Our preparation for a major venture into the Pacific area to coincide with the 2010 Oceania Contest (See http://11mdxactivitiesoz.com/node/1555 ) was initiated more than a year ago with the ultimate aim being to cover all angles and leave no stone unturned.  At this time, research into past DX activities undertaken from a number of Pacific Ocean DXCC was carried out so as to establish which DXCC qualified for a /0.  Basically, all those DXCC which didn’t qualify for the /0 were ruled out and those DXCC which did qualify remained on the list.  Ultimately, the decision to activate Vanuatu was based on the number of years since its most recent activity, as well as its accessibility from mainland Australia.

In February 2009, we settled on activating one of Vanuatu’s never-been-done-before islands and immediately moved full steam ahead with preparations.  First we began gathering data about possible island DXstinations in Vanuatu through remote reconnaissance using a variety of mediums—the most valuable being information and images downloaded from the internet—as well as statements from accommodation staff, and written accounts of DXpedition experience on the same island from visiting hams. 

Air VanuatuAfter settling on Aore, and then the Aore Resort as ham friendly accommodation, we next paid deposits on lodgings for 3 persons with VISA CARD, organised passports and travel visas, booked airfares and transfers, and also started accumulating equipment suitable for the trip.

At this time, a comprehensive full-colour 22 page DXpedition Planning Document with comprehensive information about the country, including its history on 11m, the island and IOTA group, culture, customs, accommodation, transport, callsign details and much, much more, as well as an equipment matrix, was also published and distributed to interested parties within the club for perusal via email or hardcopy.

Our In-Flight MealIn March 2009, still 9 months out from the proposed activity, Tom and I also set about finding a third person for the team (DA-RC or non-DA-RC) by advertising on the internet and various other forums and mailing lists.  The search continued until the day of our departure but unfortunately, due to various constraints such as work, family or proposed costings, we were unable to draft anyone.  This is disappointing, still we hope that by creating such an incredible stir on the band with 197DA/0 that it will inspire other hobbyists in the Pacific area to do the same in the near future—regardless of which club they might be associated with 🙂

The Aore Experience

The 2 weeks hidden away on a tropical island in searing temperatures and humidity, tucked behind a radio in a small, non-air conditioned bungalow proved to be both a unique experience for both Tom and myself, not to mention a rollercoaster of emotions…

Pekoa International Airport, SantoFirst there was the nerve-wracking ordeal of getting our radio communications gear through Customs checkpoints at Brisbane International Airport, and then through Pekoa Airport on Espiritu Santo.  At Pekoa, this process took almost an hour and caused us to miss our contact in the airport car park with whom we’d arranged delivery of hardware for construction of a mast.

For some reason, Tom was held up at every checkpoint by zealous security personnel checking for drugs and other contraband while I, much to his amazement, walked through with barely an eyebrow raised.  Apart from rummaging through his luggage with a fine tooth comb, Tom was bombarded with a thousand questions, ranging from what his intentions were when he entered Vanuatu, did he have any illegal substances in his possession, who he was going to visit, how much money he was carrying, if he was going to work and WHAT were those concealed items in his bag taped up inside his clothing?!?!

Aore Ferry“No it’s NOT a bomb, Sir……it’s a radio……and this is an amplifier……and this is a power supply,” became a regular utterance from Tom’s mouth and this seemed to ease the fears of Customs who feared we were either terrorists or bringing appliances into the country for sale without declaring them.  Actually, the fact Tom avoided a cavity search from one of the towering islander Customs guards was a situation we soon came to laugh about once we eventually made it through!

Fortunately, our contact from the local hardware establishment was waiting at the BP Wharf in Luganville with the telescopic mast and accessories when our transfer arrived and we were able to make the purchase in Vanuatu currency (VUT) and proceed ahead as planned.  [Even if the two sections of telescopic mast, guys and various fittings did cost us hefty $700.00 AUD]

Aore Island ResortAlso waiting at the wharf amidst the crumbling buildings from World War II days when we arrived was one of the local islanders who, wreaking of alcohol, staggered onto one of the boats moored nearby and fell asleep.  Meanwhile, Tom and I waited a further 30 minutes for another sign of human life to deliver us to Aore, all the while studying the distant coastline but pausing momentarily to share the occasional chuckle over our drunken friend and his snoring.

[As it turned out, the drunken islander was the Resort’s Head Chef ‘James’ who was returning to work that afternoon—still suffering the effects of a massive New Year’s party at the Resort the night before.  No sooner had he arrived on Aore and showered and changed into his Chef’s outfit though, then the highly-regarded dishes of lobster, Santo beef and blue fish started coming out to hungry resort guests in great style].

43DA001 Constructing the MastAs if getting to our DXstination didn’t seem challenging enough, after setting up the station and conducting initial tests we were faced with a perplexing SWR problem with the Sirio SY27-4 yagi antenna.  This was late on Day 1 which meant that only the IMAX 2000 was used.  Still, this much raved about vertical antenna by Solarcon enabled us to work a handful of stations in the Oceania Contest before the band closed for the night—among them 43DA180 Peter who was first in the log for 197DA/0, closely followed by 172AT101 Philippe, 43WR137 Dan and 224IR001.

The next morning, in daylight, structural damage to the length of coaxial cable used to feed the antenna was discovered and after a simple swap for a new length of Belden RG-213, the SY27-4’s SWR was 1:1 on the IC-7000’s internal meter.  Now didn’t THAT bring a big sigh of relief from the DXpedition team!  Phew!

11m DX Activities Oz - Online MagazineFrom our tiny dot in the Pacific, the Oceania Contest again delivered a large number of participants with 70% of stations logged for 197DA/0 achieved on the Contest weekends.  In this exciting annual event, all OC DXCC worked have a ‘multiplier’ effect which made working 197 Division all the more rewarding for contesters.  As was the case in years gone by, a number of rare OC DXCC appeared on the band to participate in the Contest with stations such as 99DA016 Tony in Fiji attracting a sizeable pileup himself on 27.565 MHz and the Sugar Delta guys in French Polynesia chasing progressive numbers as well.    

The Antenna FarmOne of the most thrilling moments experienced during our 197 Division DXpedition was our first contact with Europe on Day 3 while working the Grey Line at 330 degrees.  I’m sure you can all imagine what the atmosphere was like in the bungalow at that time with Tom, who was on the headphones, screaming “I HEAR EUROPE, DARREN!  I HEAR EUROPE,” at the top of his lungs.  Then me frantically plugging in the second set of Sennheiser HD-280 PRO’s to hear Tom work 1AT325 Marcello with a radio report of 5/3 only moments later.  

There were plenty of high-fives and backslaps going on and beer being spilled all over the place, I promise you.  From what we heard upon our return to Australia, there were also plenty of verbal back slaps and warm words of congratulations on the Cluster.dk message board to Marcello who was over the moon with excitement at working Vanuatu for the very first time!  This is just another example of the great spirit and camaraderie in our DX community!

Sipping CoconutsThe exhilaration was almost identical a few days later when we scored our next opening with Europe in the form of a mini-pileup with southern-European stations from Italy (1), Bulgaria (178) and Malta (93); with stations from 14, 161 and 19 Divisions also heard in the mix.  The on-air behaviour from all guys during the pile-up was first-class, with all operators displaying courtesy for not just our DXpedition station but also each other.  There was no QSO chopping, no calling over the top of each other, no silly questions or time wasting, just plenty of careful listening and very professional radio operations.  This allowed young Tom on the mic to sort through the pileup with the precision of a surgeon!

The contact with 178TRC065 was actually made on 27.540 MHz after we heard Max’s call on 27.555 MHz at a solid 5/7 and followed him to his QSY frequency.  At this moment, we are still not sure if Max knows he actually made the log.  But the QSO then went something like this…

Darren: “178TRC065, this is 197DA/0.  You are 5/7 into Vanuatu, over.”
Max: “I think is 19…DA…0……..??????? I hear 5/7. You are 4/1.  Please what is your unit number?
Darren: “178TRC065, thank you for 4/1.  Negative on 19 Division.  This is 197 Division.  My callsign is 197DA/0, 197DA/0, 197DA/0, over.”
Max: “197 Delta-Alfa? Is this correct?”
Darren: “Yes it is correct.  We are 197DA/0…”
Max: “197 Delta-Alfa…..0?  No, I think this is mistake.  I think it is 19 Division from the Netherlands.  Sorry it’s very hard for me.  There is much QRM…”


Seaside Markets in SantoAs you can see, the radio report was confirmed 100% and the callsign was repeated 100% but doubt over the authenticity of the callsign then crept in as we were not on our usual operating frequency and their was much QRM.  Still, Max’s callsign was logged and without further ado we QSY’ed back to 27.580 MHz and continued calling.

Also ranking high in the area of excitement were our contacts with French Guyana (22), Mexico (10) and Costa Rica (69) in South America.  Unfortunately, these were limited to just 4 stations only, but a couple of the guys (ie. 22AT263 Bruno and 10/13SD141 Max) were able to say “hi” a second time and on different when it was obvious there were no others listening on the band at that time. 

10/13SD141 Max was a solid 5-7 peaking 5/9 for approximately 60 minutes on Day 13 but strangely he was the only station heard on the band, apart from some other low Mexicana voices heard on 27.455 MHz USB.

Another highlight of our 197DA/0 activity was working some remote and/or rarely heard islands and IOTA references in the Pacific Ocean area.  These totalled 25 and included:

  • Veti Levu in the Viti Levu and Vanua Levu Group (OC-016)
  • Tahiti, Tetiaroa and Moorea in the Windwards Island Group (OC-046)
  • New Zealand’s North (OC-036) and South (OC-134) islands
  • Kauai, Manana, Maui, Molokai and Molokini in the Hawaiian Islands Group (OC-019)
  • Negros Island in the Visayan Island Group (OC-129)
  • Taiwan Island (AS-020)
  • Australia’s Main Island (OC-001)
  • Honshu Island (AS-007)
  • Java (OC-021)
  • Grande Terre (Main) Island (OC-032)
  • Abaiang, Butaritari, Tarawa, Marakei, Nonuiti and Tabiteuea North and South in the Gilbert Islands Group (OC-017)
  • Fanning Island in the Tabuaeran and Teraina Islands Group (OC-084)

Darren on SantoAs you can see, there’s no doubt that our DXstination Aore was an IOTA Hunter’s dream with lengthy openings to the Pacific area and access to the thousands of tiny sand and coral cays on most days!

Outside of the Contest hours, the OC area was relatively quiet though with few stations heard or worked above the legal frequency allocation in Australia.  With openings to the Americas as rare as hen’s teeth too, our attention turned towards swimming in the crystal blue aqua waters off our bungalow’s front balcony, snorkelling the coral reef which surrounded the island, lying back in a recliner on the balcony overlooking the ocean while sipping coconut milk or local Tusker beer, or catching the boat across the Segond Channel to Santo every few days to restock on supplies from tjhe local markets and check the internet.

Aore ExplorationWe also played the occasional game of coconut bowls and went for the odd walk exploring the island’s natural untouched rainforest with its huge banyan trees, as well as its coconut and cattle plantations, to work off the bowls of hot chips and tomato sauce we lived on for most of the trip.  The island’s exquisite birdlife gave us plenty to focus our attention on as well when we weren’t partaking in these ‘mundane’ activities!

As the occasion was planned as a DXpedition—rather than as a holiday—Tom and I did not embark on any of the tourist tours on offer on the island such as bushwalking, bike riding, dive trips to the SS President Coolidge, SS Tucker, and MV Henry Bonneaud shipwrecks, or adventures to Champaign Beach and Million Dollar Point on Santo.  To ensure maximum radio time, we spent the majority of our day/evenings inside the bungalow, sitting or lying in front of the radio transceivers and listening for a possible band opening. 

Tom on Fishing TripWe did on Day 11, nonetheless, take one 4 hour fishing trip through the Alan Power Dive Company based on Santo on which Tom caught a big coral trout and I was snapped off by a 2m long Spanish mackerel which shot from the water and 3m into the air with my fishing lure in its mouth, only to snap its jaws shut and cut the line with its scissor-like teeth in an instant.

Fortunately, the fibreglass fishing boat took us past a number of picturesque small islands in the New Hebrides IOTA Group such as Bokissa, Malo, Malakula and Ambae with its active volcano surrounded by smoky clouds towering in the distance.  This boat trip also enabled us to capture some photographs of the Million Dollar Point and Chapuis Point Lighthouses which are together visible from the station on Aore.  Both lights satisfy the Visual Sight Rule in accordance with the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society’s Lighthouse On The Air (LOTA) guidelines and are therefore considered to have been worked by any station logged for 197DA/0!

Chaprius Light, Aore Point (VA-002)While the Chapuis Point Light (VAN-002) at the north-eastern corner of Aore marks the south side of the eastern entrance to Luganville and steers ships clear of nearby Cindys Reef, the Million Dollar Point light (ARLHS reference pending) on Santo marks the north side of the eastern entrance to the town.  History says that the promontory came to be called Million Dollar Point after the U.S. military sank a fortune in surplus equipment offshore at the end of World War II.  This underwater junkyard is now a very popular site for scuba divers—many of whom shared the resort on Aore with us.

During the trip, Tom and I befriended one of the local islanders whom we spotted wearing a grey Yaesu t-shirt when we first arrived.  Also an employee of the Aore Resort where we stayed, Mansen told us that one of the visiting ham teams had given it to him as a gift after he’d helped them erect some antennas a few years ago. 

Tom with Island PikininniFamiliar with the concept of radio communications thanks to his time behind the microphone of the Island Ferry’s VHF rig, as well as his monitoring of VHF marine frequencies at the base, Mansen was a natural behind the mic of the IC-7000, working 43SD136 Les in Darwin in the Northern Territory on 27.580 MHz with his first CQ call.

So impressed were we both with Mansen’s enthusiasm and willingness to learn about the hobby that Tom and I left him an IMAX 2000 vertical antenna, as well as a mast with guys and a bag of tools and other accessories to help get the antenna up on top of his home on Espiritu Santo Island.  Now, all Mansen needs is a radio transceiver and DA-RC’s newest member in the Pacific area will be on air as 197DA101!

197DA/0 StationIn addition to forming new friendships with the Vanuatu islanders, the most rewarding thing for us was providing such an exciting activity for our friends in the International DX Community; an opportunity for many—particularly those new to the hobby in the last decade—to work and confirm a ‘new one’.   To hear the excitement bubbling in some operators’ voices and to even hear them say, “Thanks for the new DXCC” or “Thanks for the new island, guys” was worth every cent.  Of course, one regret is that we couldn’t work more of our fellow hobbyists in Europe and the Americas but as we all know—such is the unreliable nature of our hobby and the infant state of Solar Cycle 24 at this time—not every dream is possible.

Darren in Santo Main StreetIn addition to experiencing a fascinating Pacific Island culture rich in its customs, traditions and history, as well as the tranquil island seascapes which quite often took our breath away, one of the main positives we took away from the 197DA/0 activity was the support of the International 11m DX Community.  Hundreds of kind emails, for instance, were received from members of all different clubs wishing us well. 

There is also a growing list of hobbyists keen to sponsor the special 197DA/0 QSL card and contribute towards the offset of carbon emissions caused by the DXpedition activity  (See http://www.delta-alfa.com/sponsors-for-197da0/ ).  With close to $7,000 AUD spent on conducting the activity and QSL card production and emissions offset costs still to come, you do the sums!

Our Bungalow BalconyWhile on the topic of support, Tom and I would like to say a big thank you to the owner/s of Cluster.dk for allowing us to advertise and promote our activity on their data base, as well as via the spot board where 197DA/0 was spotted 64 times.  The Cluster.dk service was invaluable for our DXpedition and we encourage everyone to show their support of this important service by making a donation and/or becoming a Lounge Member.

Also, to those who uploaded a link to the 197DA/0 activity article from the DA-RC Website to their own website (e.g. 4SD032 Mark, 1AT325 Marcello), or provided access to our station’s audio via live streaming, made recordings and forwarded them on to us, or even just helped us out with propagation checks or with relaying information back to the DX Community on-air—THANKS!

Monument in SantoIn summary, Tom and I had a wonderful time in Vanuatu and found the DXpedition aspect challenging, rewarding and extremely exciting.  As I mentioned before, 11m band conditions were sporadic at best during our stay on Aore with most openings outside of the Pacific area lasting barely more than 30 minutes.  100 stations logged, therefore, amongst them 22 DXCC or Divisions in 5 different regions (Oceania, South America, Asia, Middle East and Europe), 25 different islands and 13 IOTA references, is a very good achievement and one we will look back on in better times ahead with a great deal of satisfaction. 

Once the euphoria of 197DA/0 has died down, Tom and I will then set about planning for our next venture into the great abyss of ‘Most Wanted’ DXCC entities! 

Until then, good DX!

73’s from the 197DA/0 Team
43DA001 Darren and 43DA234 Tom