Seychelles & Mayotte DXpedition Report, September 2003.

By John Warburton, G4IRN (S79IRN and FH/G4IRN)

Following my previous year’s DXpedition to The Gambia, I was looking for something more challenging for this trip. After lots of deliberation, about nine months before departure my mind settled on Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. It has the advantage of being a French offshoot: French speaking (I speak a ‘un peu’ myself), currency is the Euro but most importantly it falls under the CEPT agreement, meaning that I could use my own UK callsign prefixed by FH/. A quick chat with Roger/G3SXW, who had visited Mayotte in 1998 with Nigel/G3TXF and I was convinced this was a feasible project.

 

I then started looking at potential travel dates. My investigations found that the only easy air transport into Mayotte from Europe is via Reunion or Seychelles (Mahe Island). For some unknown reason my first choice date for travel to Mayotte, the first week of September, was completely booked up on both routes (and this was over 6 months in advance!). Knowing that obtaining a licence for Seychelles is relatively easy so far in advance, I preferred for the Seychelles route and managed to book BA to Seychelles and Air Seychelles to Mayotte as follows:

 

12/09/03          London Heathrow – Seychelles (Arrive 13/09/03)

16/09/03          Seychelles – Mayotte

23/09/03          Mayotte – Seychelles

27/09/03          Seychelles – London Heathrow (Arrive 28/9/03).

Whilst booking the flights, I had also been juggling with accommodation bookings. Roger had recommended hotels on both Mahe and Mayotte at which he and Nigel (and other hams prior to that) had stayed. That made things easy for me and after finding the establishments on the internet, I made the reservations.

With the flights and accommodation all booked and by now the S7 licence applied for, I had to clear the trip with my XYL, Janet. This is, of course, one of the most challenging aspects of a DXpedition and needed to be carefully planned and thought out. This was particularly so, as I had mentioned after my previous DXpedition that the next one would be ten days. I had just booked a trip for 15 days! Fortunately for me, I got away with this by treating Janet to a long weekend in Jersey with her friend. In the interests of maintaining a happy marriage, I refrained from suggesting that if she waited until I got back from Mayotte, I could go with her and run a mini DXpedition operating from GJ!

The trip approved, I started to think about equipment. The antenna is a key component on a DXpedition and travelling alone brings headaches with weight and manageability. Roger/G3SXW kindly lent me a Cushcraft R7000 and assured me that it could be put up by one person, however I felt uneasy about it. It seemed a bit too top heavy for me so I looked at alternatives. The SteppIR vertical covering 40 to 6m seemed to provide the answer, so I placed an order for one three months before departure.

After a period of increasing unease, the antenna thankfully arrived just two days before departure. I should point out that the UK distributor for this product was excellent and was in constant contact; he got it to me as soon as it arrived in the UK, however it has to be said that the manufacturer was rather slow. Fortunately the two days, although shorter than I hoped for, was long enough to set the antenna up in the garden and get used to the controls.

Having invested fairly heavily in transport and accommodation costs, I really didn’t want to be let down by either lost baggage or equipment failure. For that reason, in my packing list I doubled up on all the major pieces of equipment: two switched mode PSU’s, Kenwood TS-50S and Yaesu FT-857 transceivers, Stepp BigIR Vertical plus a doublet antenna and ATU. I really didn’t want to take any risks; indeed no similar items were in the same bag. I could lose any one bag or have any item fail and still get on the air. The only disadvantage to this was the weight and potential excess-luggage implications.

The last minute packing of the SteppIR antenna forced a change of plan because it wouldn’t fit into the ski bag set aside for it. Fortunately, my windsurfing sail bag, although too big, provided the solution. In fact I managed to get all the cables, a PSU, antenna controller and various other bits into it. My suitcase held a PSU, transceiver and backup antenna and then my hand luggage, a small rucksack, containing laptop and transceiver.

With my airline ticket stating ‘Max. 23Kg’ I found myself with the following dilemma: Rucksack: 8.4kg; sail bag with antenna etc: 18.8kg; suitcase 22kg. Roger/G3SXW kindly took me to Heathrow and in an attempt to reduce the excess baggage charge, he waited with my laptop and Yaesu FT857 in the bar whilst I checked in. Unbelievably, the 40kg-plus checked in attracted zero excess costs. Result!

The flight was uneventful, the usual sort of thing. A two-hour stopover in Nairobi provided an opportunity to stretch the legs and text a message back home. The arrival in Seychelles was a bit more difficult with a full search of the bags, an explanation of amateur radio, a denial of any involvement in commercial or government operations etc. The issue was escalated to a more senior officer who was quite happy to view my S7 licence and wave me through. Fortunately I obtained the licence in advance rather than arrange to collect it on arrival.

I arrived at the North Point Guest House on Mahe in the rain and erected the antenna (in fact it rained constantly in The Seychelles). The location was a couple of hundred feet above the sea with clear views from the west to the north west and then tree interrupted views from the north west to the east. The antenna was erected on a mound behind my chalet with twelve 10mtr radials.  I set up the FT857 (which only had a dozen QSO’s under its belt) only to find that the shaft of one of the front-panel knobs had broken in transit. I was rather annoyed about this, to say the least. I had molly-cuddled the transceiver in my hand luggage and protected it with bubble-wrap to avoid this happening. Fortunately, with careful positioning of the remaining parts I could still use the transceiver. I had the spare any way, just in case.

My arrival coincided with the WAE SSB contest and I thought I would give a few UK stations some points. However, conditions were poor and nothing was heard from the UK that night.  The second evening/night was the best in terms of contacts; the third night brought electric storms so I had a doze, only to awake and realise that I had to take the antenna down in the rain for the next morning’s flight to Mayotte. On leaving Seychelles, I left the ‘spare’ antenna: a doublet and ATU together with some survival equipment: beer and water, for safe keeping until I returned.  I was pleased to be leaving in a way as the chalet was self-catering and I’d been living on tuna and rice for three days!

I checked in at Mahe airport for Mayotte where I knew I was way over my weight allowance. Fortunately, a charm offensive paid dividends and I had to pay for only 15kg extra. As I flew over Madagascar I gave a thought for Phil/G35WH who I knew was down there (sorry, typo…G3SWH!) Arriving in Mayotte was fantastic after Seychelles. The sun was shining, the EU flag and French tricolour were aloft the flagpoles and the local gendarme was awaiting the arrival of the aircraft. No baggage problems here; straight through via the ‘EU residents’ channel to the transfer vehicle for the hotel. A short drive in the Renault van down the RN4 to the ferry proved to me that I might as well be in the south of France! The ferry took about 15 minutes to reach the main island and then about 20 minutes to the hotel. The main island was definitely more Africa than France and was waiting to be explored.

After checking into the hotel, I embarked on antenna erection. My chalet was on the beach so I mounted the SteppIR vertical at the high tide mark with its 12 radials spread around the 180 degrees of clear radio path.  I’d had three days warm up in Seychelles and was raring to go. It was Tuesday and in my limited experience of DXpeditioning, mid week is not particularly busy, however the pile-ups were enormous! In the evening, the sound of the 40mtrs S9 plus pile up was exhilarating. What fascinated me most was that the band was open to Europe, USA and Japan all at the same time with big signals from everywhere. I had what seemed like the whole world at my fingertips and was making a conscious effort to pick out the UK and weaker callers (often the same thing!).

The best thing about this hotel, particularly with it being French managed, was that I was eating decent food again. After a day or so I got settled into an operating pattern. There was a sunrise opening to the USA; soon after sunrise the bands became dead so I took the opportunity to take a dip in the ocean, have a doze or do some reading. Ten meters opened up on a few days at around 1200z, 15m and 17m were sometimes open in the afternoons and I found a 30m openings to west coast USA around my sunset time. Soon after sunset 20m was buzzing, then the lower bands opened up as darkness swept across Europe.

A highlight of the trip for me was contacting my dad, Derek/G4IRM on 17m SSB. He was over the moon for having made the contact with his 100 watts and doublet. We’d been trying a daily sched and this was the first one we’d made. This was also the last radio contact we were to have as on the Sunday evening, five days into the Mayotte session, I received a call from Janet to tell me that my father had unexpectedly died. This was the end of the DXpedition; all I wanted to do was go home. Fortunately I managed to get a connecting flight from Seychelles to Paris when I left Mayotte on the Tuesday.

Now that I’m back in the UK and have returned to ‘normality’ after the highs of the DXpedition and the lows of the bereavement, I’ve had a chance to consider lessons learnt and points of interest.

  • For me, once I found the openings to the west coat USA, it was worth forsaking easier openings to other areas, for the sheer thrill of picking out the weak and fluttery signals from the noise and giving them the contact. On a couple of occasions, KH6 stations popped up with incredibly strong signals. I assume this was because they are on a 99% sea path.
  • The SteppIR antenna works as a quarter wave vertical on 40 – 6m and will also work as a three quarter wave vertical on 15m upwards. Despite what the antenna modelling diagrams may show you regarding angles of radiation, there was no practical difference in performance between the ¼ wave or the ¾ wave, using 12 radials, from the Indian Ocean to the UK. (Comments from antenna experts please!)
  • I was getting faster run rates from European pile-ups than I did from my Gambian DXpedition last year. I am not sure if this is because operating techniques are improving in Europe or because I was a rarer callsign this year, but it was very heartening.
  • There were times when my run rates dropped really low. They all seemed to have one thing in common: Japanese callers. They could really learn a few tricks on how to speed things up.
  • The 40m allocation in Seychelles starts at 7.050MHz. Despite numerous CW CQ calls on that frequency (and a mention during a 30m pile-up that I was QSY’ing there), no CW QSO’s were made on 40m from Seychelles.
  • I thought my location in Seychelles, 200ft above the sea would be superb. I did a test with Kurt/S79MX and a Ukrainian station and the Ukrainian station reported Kurt as 2 S-points stronger.  Kurt was running 100 watts into a dipole. I came to the conclusion that either my angle of radiation was too low for optimum on that path, or the jungle-like vegetation next to my antenna and in the path of the contact was absorbing my signal.  My signals from Mayotte into Europe were several S-points stronger than from Seychelles; I believe this to be because the Mayotte antenna was mounted on the beach (the radials ran into the sea at high tide) and had a clear take off from North America, through Europe and all the way round to Japan.
  • The Kenwood TS-50S and Yaesu FT857 were very similar, receiver wise. However, the DSP on the 857 gave it a real advantage when listening to very weak signals.
  • Finally, never leave equipment in another country for collection on the return journey. If anyone is going to The Seychelles, please can you collect my ATU!

I have a sense of unfinished work in Mayotte, however other destinations beckon and thoughts are afoot for the next DXpedition. Indeed, I still need FH myself, so would rather encourage somebody else to go there! The stats below show how the QSO’s were spread.

(This was my article for the Chiltern DX Club Digest)