By the Quake Contesters
After the successful trip to Vanuatu in 2014 it didn’t take long for the Quake Contesters to start talking about where they wanted to go next.
The criteria hadn’t changed i.e. it had to be reasonably rare, in the Pacific and XYL friendly. After a long debate Norfolk Island, being 95 on the Clublog most wanted list, was settled on for two weeks from the end of September 2016. The team comprised of Vanuatu stalwarts Phil ZL3PAH, Geoff ZL3GA,Paul ZL4TT with Mark ZL3AB coming for the first week and Don ZL3DMC for the second, as well as Maggie and Francie, Phil and Geoff’s XYLs respectively.
Flights are weekly from Auckland so the focus soon became how much gear we could take while staying within baggage limits. Luckily Francie and Maggie helped with being able to carry extra gear so we ended up taking two Yaesu FT- 450Ds, two Elecraft K3s and three Elecraft KPA 500 amps. We also took four fibreglass poles to use with ground planes, and two hex beams along with the associated coax, wire etc. We soon became experts in how much you can fit into a bag and stay within weight!
Norfolk Island is approximately 1100km north west of Auckland and 1400km east of Brisbane in the South Pacific Ocean. It has had an interesting and at times brutal history.
There is evidence of Polynesian settlement in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries but the fate of that settlement is a mystery. The first European to discover Norfolk Island was James Cook in 1774 and he named the island after the Duchess of Norfolk, although unbeknownst to him she had died soon after he had left England. It was settled in 1778 and at one point had 1500 people living there. The lack of a natural port hindered its development and the settlement was eventually abandoned in 1814 as it was considered too expensive to maintain. A second settlement occurred in in 1825 for the worst of the worst prisoners from Australia although the scant records that remain suggest many prisoners were in fact first or minor offenders. Life was tough and punishment brutal for anyone who fell foul of the various governors. This settlement was gradually wound down and in 1855 finally abandoned.
When the Pitcairn Islanders faced starvation from over-crowding, Queen Victoria magnanimously offered them Norfolk Island as a replacement. They traveled there in 1856 and despite 17 returning to Pitcairn in 1858, and 27 a further five years later the rest stayed and the descendants still live there today.
An independent territory of Australia, recently Norfolk Islanders have been in the news protesting Australia’s move to take back administrative control which they did in July 2016. There was plenty of evidence of the protests to be seen while we were there.
We arrived on 25 September 2016 and were met by Wayne the owner of the Anson Bay Lodge, our home for the next two weeks with a small pickup truck and our rental car. No sooner than we arrived at the lodge we set about organising the shacks. We had the use of three units so we set up the two K3s and amps in one unit for CW and RTTY and a Yaesu FT-450D and amp in a second unit for SSB with the other Yaesu FT-450D which we used as a 6m beacon. The third unit was used for meals and a break away from the radios.
By the end of the first afternoon we had set up ground planes for 30m, 40m and 17m and one hex beam. The ground planes were basically verticals on fibreglass poles with two raised radials. The hexes were two element folded beams and covered 20-10m.
After an evening meal in the main settlement of Burnt Pine we hit the airwaves in earnest around 0800z. Our first QSO was with K6LL on RTTY. The first couple of days were great with good pile ups and plenty of band openings. However geomagnetic disturbances meant the A index had started to rise rapidly and by Wednesday had hit 45. The impact on the bands was noticeable with signals a lot weaker. This slowed our rates down as we struggled to pick calls out of the noise. Signals from some parts of the world, notably Southern Africa, Scandinavia and Western Europe were largely non-existent.
The plan had been to concentrate on using SSB and RTTY and looking for Europe as that was where the demand was. However because of the conditions it soon became apparent that CW was going to be the most effective mode (and which was good as we all love CW). This was illustrated clearly when Mark ZL3AB called CQ on 20m SSB long path to Europe late one afternoon. Normally that is a very reliable path but after 15 minutes with no takers he switched to CW and generated an instant pile up. By the end of the first week we had 11,500 QSOs in the log of which around 8000 were CW! The A index remained over 20 for most of the first week and only started to settle down during the last three days of the trip.
Despite the conditions we very quickly settled into a routine of operating and we were constantly checking for band openings to try and maximise QSOs. 10m was a great case in point. In the first week it was quite unpredictable. Some days it hardly opened but on a couple of others we had good openings for several hours. 12m constantly surprised and we had a fairly regular opening to JA and NA during our morning and sometimes past lunchtime.
80m/160m were a war of attrition. Thunderstorms combined with the poor conditions meant 80m suffered from high QRN during the first few days of operating. Even strong signals were hard to pick out in amongst the static crashes. We activated 80m at sunset each day for the first week and stayed on into the evening to pick up the grayline enhancement when the sun rose over North America. Paul ZL4TT would get up and do the (very) early shift through to sunrise.
40m and 30m while open regularly also suffered with weak signals but often there was a regular pile of callers.
The team put a multi-two entry into the Oceania SSB Contest during the middle weekend. Conditions were frankly awful and we struggled to generate anything like a decent rate. It was so bad Mark ZL3AB left the country and was replaced by Don ZL3DMC for the second week.
We had many requests for 160m. The plan was to modify the 80m vertical with top loading for 160m and it performed very well. We worked 20 DXCC entities on 160m and 237 QSOs in quite poor conditions. In comparison 80m provided 59 DXCC entities and around 750 QSOs.
We knew that Norfolk Island was needed by many on RTTY and we made over 4,200 QSOs using this mode. Phil spent much of his time on RTTY – we let him do this as otherwise he gets pretty boring reminiscing about the good old days of Creed 7Bs, the smell of the oil, the noise and the skill in keeping the machines going. Nowadays it is very different and with the Multi-RX facility on MMVARI we normally had 16 channels running in the audio passband which was just like shooting fish in a barrel. Just don’t tell him there is no skill involved …
Equally Norfolk Island was needed by many on SSB and we made over 4,700 SSB QSOs.
When Don arrived for the second week he was thrown in at the deep end. This was his first DXpedition. 40m SSB in the evenings with huge pile ups from Japan could hurt anyones ears and so we sent Don off to the SSB shack and pretty much left him to it. He came out with ears ringing but lots of QSOs.
Conditions gradually improved during the second week. It was a pity Mark had already left as we really had a ball. We were amazed by the way 10m and 12m stayed open for much extended hours. The difference between our home QTHs in the South Island and being that much farther North and closer to the equator was striking. But the money bands were 40m, 30m and 20m with 89, 84 and 88 DXCCs worked respectively.
Shutdown was 11am on Saturday 8 October 2016 to allow for pack up before flying out the following day. Our last QSO was with JA0DCQ and we finally stopped Paul 2 minutes after official QRT time. If we hadn’t pulled the plug he could well still be there. We had made over 20,000 QSOs which considering the terrible conditions we considered acceptable.
In summary we had a wonderful time and despite the low ranking on the most wanted list we had plenty of callers over the whole of the two weeks. We all learnt something during the time we were there and we are sure we all came back better operators. But the DXpedition just reinforced for us all how much more fun amateur radio is as when you are part of a group.
We are most grateful all our sponsors for their support. And to our wives for coming and cooking and keeping us company. They still don’t know why we do what we do but they are very accepting and we are grateful. And all those amateurs around the world for providing so much fun with some huge pile-ups. We hope you all had fun too.
Now we are home and the QSL card is being printed, the QSLs requests are flowing in. Hopefully by the time you read this the cards will have been dispatched. We have already posted the logs to Logbook of the World.
The Quake Contesters will be back with a new destination in a couple of years. We can’t wait.