by Phil Whitchurch G3SWH
I had been considering a DX-pedition to the Solomon Islands since 2010 but for a number of reasons, primarily to do with finding somewhere from where to operate, had decided to go elsewhere. However, after the 2012 operation as 3DA0PW with John EA5ARC / G3OLU, Jim, G3RTE and I were keen to go somewhere together in 2013. Other destinations were considered, such as American Samoa, Rodriguez Island and the Marshall Islands, but around May 2012 I discovered that Bernhard, DL2GAC was planning to visit the Solomons again as H44MS between October and December 2012. A quick e-mail to him produced a host of useful information, including the e-mail addresses of the head of the new Telecommunications Commission of the Solomon Islands (TCSI), which in 2009 had replaced the government’s Spectrum Management Department. He also provided details of the guest house in the capital, Honiara, from where he usually operates. Unfortunately, whilst this appeared to be quite good from the radio perspective, it was not air-conditioned and was really a bit too Spartan for a couple of oldies like us. More research on the Internet revealed several apparently quite comfortable hotels on the main island of Guadalcanal, the Iron Bottom Sound Hotel being the best situated on the northern coast, right on the edge of the ocean. Our joint attempts to contact the IBSH by e-mail, fax and telephone proved difficult if not impossible and we initially abandoned this location in favour of the Pacific Casino Hotel, which was also right on the edge of the ocean. Jim was more successful in getting a response from the PCH who indicated that they would be happy for us to put up antennas and operate from there. Unfortunately, there were no trees within the compound, so we were faced with the prospect of having to take antenna supports of some sort with us. We also considered the Rain Tree Café, which is some distance to the west of Honiara itself and who were also responsive to e-mails and our proposals.
Jim also managed to make contact by e-mail with Ralph, H44RK, who is an ex-patriate Australian working in Honiara and persuaded him to go and speak to the manager of the IBSH and obtain reliable contact information, but again, responses were not forthcoming. Ralph was also most helpful taking a short video of the PCH but he and Bernhard declared the Rain Tree café to be unsuitable for amateur radio. He did manage to find and video a superb location on the ocean nearby but it consisted of bungalows on long-term lease but none were available during our proposed dates.
By the time that Bernhard arrived in Honiara in mid October, we were getting desperate to make decisions. He also visited the ICBH, spoke to Vivian, the Filipino manager and possibly explained in a bit more detail what we were planning as he appeared to get a slightly better response, but still no e-mails. He also got some photos of the site that showed some well-placed trees on the beach and more details of the accommodation blocks than was available from Google Earth. In desperation Jim finally telephoned the IBSH and spoke to Vivian, who was actually very helpful once communication had been established. Jim was allocated Room 106, close to the trees overhanging the beach and I was allocated Room 502 in a separate single storey block set about 20 metres back from the beach. Both rooms were very comfortable, air conditioned and with private facilities. The two rooms were over 50 metres apart and as we would be operating from them we hoped that this would minimise any inter-station interference.
There are traces of human habitation on the islands dating back some 30,000 years but they were first “discovered” by the Spanish expedition of Álvaro de Mendaña in 1568 but attempts at colonisation were unsuccessful.
Missionary activity then started in the mid 19th century and European colonial ambitions led to the establishment of a German Protectorate over the Northern Solomons, following an Anglo-German Treaty of 1886. A British Solomon Islands Protectorate over the southern islands was proclaimed in June 1893. German interests were transferred to the United Kingdom in 1899, in exchange for recognition of the German claim to Western Samoa.
Guadalcanal is the largest island in the group. The name comes from Guadalcanal, a village in the province of Seville, in Andalusia, Spain, birthplace of Pedro de Ortega Valencia, a member of Mendaña’s expedition. The main highway through Honiara is still called Mendana Avenue.
During 1942-43 it was the scene of bitter fighting between Japanese and American troops, primarily over possession of the Japanese airfield, now known as Henderson Field. Iron Bottom Sound is the name given by Allied sailors to Savo Sound, the stretch of water at the southern end of The Slot between Guadalcanal, Savo Island, and Florida Island because of the dozens of ships and planes that sank there during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942-43. Prior to the war, it was called Sealark Channel.
By the end of the war, Honiara had been developed by the American forces and became the new capital of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. Independence within the British Commonwealth was achieved on 7 July 1978. Between 1999 and 2003 there were a series of ethic conflicts until an international peace-keeping force drawn from other South Pacific countries, particularly Australia were deployed. The peacekeeping forces have been successful in improving the country’s overall security conditions. However, the government continues to face serious problems, including an uncertain economic outlook but the situation remains unstable.
Licensing was relatively easy although the people at the newly formed TCSI were obviously not very familiar with amateur radio. There was the inevitable form to be completed and copies of passports and UK licenses to be provided. I tentatively requested the callsign H44G but was very firmly told that this callsign series was reserved for aircraft, so we settled on H44KW, which had not been previously issued. The biggest obstacle was paying the SBD 200 fee (about £18.50) as the TCSI didn’t accept credit cards or PayPal. Fortunately, Bernhard introduced us to Greg, H44GP who agreed to make the payment in return for a cheque for £25 drawn on a UK bank, which was duly sent by snail mail in August 2012. The formalities completed, the licence was issued on 14th September and sent to me by e-mail. I was then horrified to find that it did not include a 30 metres allocation and was limited to 100 watts on all bands. After a further exchange of e-mails, I received “special” authorisation for 30 metres but no increase in authorised power.
Bernhard’s existing H44MS license granted him access to all amateur bands with 1,000 watts but had been issued by the now defunct Spectrum Management Department and was due to expire on 31st December 2012. Consequently, he must have spent a lot of time negotiating with the staff at the TCSI’s office in Honiara as he arranged for the German team led by Sigi, DL7DF and who were to follow us to Honiara in early March 2013 to be allocated H44G from Guadalcanal and H44T from Temotu with full HF privileges and 1,000 watts. You can imagine my annoyance! However, I was pleased to be issued with a revised H44KW license with full privileges a few days before we left UK, which was just as well as we had both purchased Elecraft KPA500 amplifiers specifically for the DX-pedition.
We planned to be active from 18th to 28th February 2013 and our Singapore Airlines flight to Brisbane via Singapore left London Heathrow on 16th with a change of aircraft in Singapore, arriving in Brisbane on the evening of 17th. On the outward journey we were met at the airport and stayed overnight in Brisbane with our old friend Greg, V85GD, our host at V8JIM in 2004 and who is now VK4PG before a further 3 hour flight the following morning with Solomon Airlines, arriving at Henderson Field in Honiara in bright sunshine at 13:45 local time.
Clearing Customs and Immigration was no problem and we had just started to look for a taxi to the hotel when I noticed a local lady holding up a sign that read “JIM G3RTE, PHIL G3SWH. TWO ENGLISH MORSE CODEMEN”. Quite unexpectedly, we were presented with garlands of flowers, bundled into a taxi and taken to the hotel. Along the way we learned that the lady was in fact Maggie Koi, H44MK, one of only two ethnic Solomon islanders to hold an amateur radio licence, the remainder being either visitors like us or ex-patriate residents.
Hotel check in formalities completed, we were shown to our respective rooms for a quick change of clothing before investigating antenna locations. Jim had decided to use vertical dipoles as close to the ocean as possible, and there were several suitably located trees that he could use as supports, although they were not as high as he had hoped. Using my catapult, it was a simple matter to put halyards over a couple of branches and for Jim to hoist up his antennas with Maggie’s help. These were wonderfully sited, literally on the water’s edge with a clear take off to the north.
Bernhard’s photos had not shown any suitable trees as close to the ocean for me to use, but had shown a very tall palm tree reasonably close to my room. Getting a halyard over this tree was not so easy and resulted in the loss of several weights and lengths of fishing line before I was successful in pulling up the centre of my doublet as an inverted vee. The take off to the north was not the best as it was shielded from the ocean by one of the two storey accommodation blocks.
By the time we had the antennas erected it was almost dark and we invited Maggie to join us for dinner at a nearby restaurant. After dinner, we finished assembling the two stations and prepared for the pile-ups.
We elected to plan our DX-pedition in the middle of the wet season, which runs from mid-December to mid-May when monsoon winds come from the west or northwest bringing higher temperatures, humidity and rainfall. Short, sharp, torrential rains are followed by bright sunshine. Honiara’s annual rainfall is about 215 mm, which is drier than most of the rest of the country. Some areas on Guadalcanal’s south coast, receive as much as 12.5 metres of rain!
Daytime coastal temperatures vary through the year from 27°C to 32°C falling at night to around 19°C. The humidity can be oppressive and is highest in the morning, regularly reaching 90%. The weather for the first few days was sunny and not too humid and we were treated to some flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder most evenings, but the QRN levels were surprisingly low. However, towards the end of the DX-pedition, the weather deteriorated to almost continuous heavy rain.
On the air.
We had agreed between us that Jim would operate on 12, 17 and 30 metres and I would operate on 10, 15, 20 and 40 metres. We would share any 80 metres activity between us towards the end of the DX-pedition. We experienced no inter-station interference.
Jim got off to a flying start on 30 metres, making his first QSO with JJ1IRS at 0951 UTC on 18th February, but my amplifier refused to power up and, feeling very tired after the journey, I went to bed in a bad mood. Some tests the next morning showed that the mains fuses had failed and, with Maggie’s help, we braved the local mini bus to visit Greg, H44GP’s electronics shop to get replacements, which solved the problem. My first QSO was on 40 metres with OM4DX at 19:45 UTC on 18th, by which time Jim had well over 600 QSOs in the log.
The pile-ups were fast and furious and the QSO numbers racked up quickly, although it was obvious that I was never going to catch up with Jim. Then our first disaster struck: Jim’s amplifier failed and with the limited tools and test equipment we had available, we were unable to diagnose the fault. Jim was thus obliged to continue with 100 watts from his Elecraft K2. I thought initially that Jim’s misfortune would allow me to catch him up in the QSO stakes, but about 24hours later, my own KPA500 also failed, exhibiting exactly the same fault as Jim’s. E-mails were sent to Elecraft support, but there was really nothing we could do until we returned to the UK. However, it did give Elecraft the opportunity to ship some replacement modules to Waters & Stanton so that they could repair the amplifiers and return them to us as soon as possible after we got home.
Propagation was often peculiar. As is usual in the tropics, all the bands closed between about 11.00 a.m. and 3.00 p.m. local time but Jim found that 17 and 12 metres would be open when 15 metres was apparently closed. Likewise, 30 and 17 metres would be open when 20 metres was apparently closed. Jim’s vertical dipoles were obviously performing better than my doublet! Consequently, we decided to relocate the doublet so that it was closer to the ocean and clear of the two storey building, but it made little or no difference. We also decided to try a vertical dipole for 40 metres suspended from a catenary between two convenient supports. This certainly improved my 40 metres signal and even with only 100 watts from the Elecraft K2 I was able to hear and work many more European and U.S.A. stations long path on the grey line at our local sunset.
A few days after the amplifier failures, Jim noticed some intermittent high SWR readings. The cause was traced to salt water ingress into his not-very-weatherproof dipole centres. Replacing these solved the problem.
All too soon it was time to close down and we decided that we would actually close as close to midnight UTC as possible on 27th, which was actually 10.00 a.m. local time on 28th February. The bands were not busy that morning and I actually made the last QSO with W2QO on 15 metres at 22.20 UTC. We also managed to take down the antennas in a dry period between rain storms!
We made 16,100 QSOs with 120 DXCC entities during our 9 days of operating, including 7,804 unique callsigns. The complete log was uploaded to Clublog and my web site on a daily basis. LoTW uploads were tried but failed due to the slow speed of our Internet connection. A successful upload was made from Brisbane on 1st March. The final log is fully searchable at http://www.g3swh.org.uk/h44kw-log.html, showing the operator’s callsign against each QSO. Special, colour photo QSLs have been printed and are available either via the OQRS facility on my web site http://www.g3swh.org.uk/decision.html (recommended) or direct with SAE and adequate return postage. Bureau cards can also be requested from my web site and will be processed as quickly as possible. Cards are also available via the traditional bureau route.
Maggie had arranged to travel with us to the airport but I managed to get the departure time slightly wrong and we had to leave earlier than planned without her, making an anxious journey through the heavy traffic before arriving in good time for check in. Despite having received an extra baggage allowance from Solomon Airlines, we were charged for 10 kg of extra baggage. Maggie arrived shortly after we had checked in with some gifts for our XYLs and some farewell photos.
The flight back to Brisbane was uneventful and we were met once again by Greg, VK4GP and his XYL Trish who put up with us at their home for the next two nights. We had planned some sightseeing over two days in Brisbane, but unfortunately, it rained almost continuously the whole of the time we were there.
Greg delivered us back to the airport on the evening of 2nd March for the flight to Singapore and the connection back to London, where we arrived on the afternoon of 3rd March.
Our particular thanks go to our XYLs, Cheryl and Jan for allowing us to go; to Greg, VK4GP and his XYL, Trish for putting up with us in Brisbane and to the management and staff of the Iron Bottom Sound Hotel, Honiara for making this DX-pedition possible; as well as to all those individual hams who made individual donations and / or included an extra dollar or two with their QSL requests and our corporate and DX club sponsors: the Clipperton DX Club, the Nippon DX Association, Pacific DX-ers, Mediterraneo DX Club, DX Italia, Fort Wayne DX Association, OHDXF, GM DX Group, Swiss DX Foundation, RSGB, SEDXC, Singapore Airlines, Solomon Airlines.