A35V/A35X  2014   DXpedition

Tonga 2014 - the story of A35V and A35X - 4th April to 18th April 2014

Following our very enjoyable DXpeditions to Niue as ZK2V and ZK2X in 2011 and to Cocos Keeling as VK9CZ in 2013, in the autumn of 2013 we set about planning another DXpedition. But where to go? The top 50 'Most wanted' countries are mostly not feasible for a 'two-man', time-limited DXpedition, or are just plain inaccessible!  Many of the top 50 to 100 'Most Wanted' countries are still tough – probably why they are at the top of the list of course. We considered quite a few different locations before deciding on Tonga.  The decision was influenced by several factors, the main one being Keith's holiday allocation for this year and the availability of suitable flights. We knew that the first 2 weeks in April was too late for LF propagation to Europe, but we did not have too much choice of dates (apologies from Keith!).

We identified the Heilala Holiday Lodge resort as a suitable QTH. It had been visited before by several DXpeditions, and is on the extreme N/NW corner of the main Tongatapu Island. The fales (cabins) seemed reasonably close to the beach.  The owner of the resort, Sven, was extremely helpful and offered to remove the beds from one fale to allow us to set up our radio gear there, while we slept in its neighbour.

We had planned to pay for extra baggage, so we were able to take about 130kg of radio equipment and antennas, and about 1kg of clothes!! Every single item on our inventory was weighed, which helped us decide how to pack the suitcases so that each one was as close to 23.0kg as possible.  

    Keith GM4YXI / A35X at Auckland Airport with our luggage

The Tongan licensing official, Mr Finau Hufanga, was also very helpful and agreed to our requests for short callsigns and permission to operate on 30m and 2 spot frequencies on 60m. We were issued with the licenses before we left Scotland, on condition that we visited his office on the first Monday of the DXpedition to collect the licence documentation. We are now agreed that it would have been better to just have one callsign instead of separate callsigns - we were unable to network our PCs and therefore missed the fun of trying to 'out QSO' each other during pile-ups. However I think many people enjoyed the challenge of trying to work us both.

The DXpedition got off to a bad start - stepping out of the taxi at Aberdeen Airport, the strap of Chris’s carry-on bag broke, plunging his K3 onto the concrete!  We looked at each other in disbelief - surely the K3 would be damaged. It was wrapped, but not really protected against such a fall. Luckily it appeared physically undamaged, so we just had to wait until it was switched on in Tonga to see if it was OK electrically.

It was a long journey – 5 flights and an overnight stay in Auckland, multiple airport security checks – our radios attracted attention!

  Waiting at Sydney Kingsford Smith airport

We arrived on Tonga just after 9pm on Friday and Rick was waiting for us with the Heilala minibus. As we drove (slowly - the speed limit is 40kph) to the resort, we were surprised that there were houses, small shops with metal grilles, churches and halls almost everywhere along the route, with only small patches of bush in between. 

   Welcome sign at Tonga airport

Defying the jet lag, we jumped up at dawn on Saturday and were presented with our first problems. The edge of the beach was further away (60m) than Google Earth implied, there was extremely dense vegetation between us and the beach, there was a 1.6m high barbed wire fence at the resort edge of the vegetation, and we were warned about 'paper wasp' nests in this vegetation (we saw them!). We immediately realised that we could not hope to recreate the very convenient antenna layout that we had at VK9CZ the previous year and that we would need every cm of coax that we had brought. We had left behind a remote antenna switch due to weight issues.

We endured torrential rain for the whole of our first day - we were exhausted, totally soaked and surprisingly cold. We installed two 60m long feeder runs through the fence and thick vegetation, having identified several small gaps in the vegetation on the edge of the beach where the Moxon antennas could be set up. Sven has asked us not to put any antennas actually on the beach, because it was used by visitors.  

   The 15m 2-element vertical Moxon at the edge of the beach

The next day, with improved weather, we installed the remaining 3 Moxon antennas, giving us 5 Moxon antennas in a line along the edge of the beach - 20m, 10m and 17m were near to one Aircell7 feeder while 15m and 12m were near to the other Aircell7 feeder. Changing antennas meant unplugging the antenna's 5m or 10m coax tail from the feeder and connecting the feeder to another antenna. This was not an ideal arrangement, making band changes a 20 minute process involving a long walk to the gate in the fence and then back along the soft beach sand. This antenna layout also limited the band combinations we could use at any one time, but it was the best we could do. The palm tree you can see in the photo above was about 16m high and would have been ideal for our 80/160m antenna, but sadly was inaccessible among the thick vegetation.

Nearer to the fale, using available palm trees and two 10m poles, we installed 5 more antennas - a 40m vertical with 2 elevated radials, a 30m vertical with 2 elevated radials, an 80m vertical with 2 elevated radials, a 17m vertical with one elevated radial (to give us more HF band options) and an FO0AAA receive loop with ICE preamp. Keith's Rig Expert AA30 antenna analyser was very useful for checking all our antennas, all of which had been used before but some needed slight adjustments.

   Our shack - all the coax feeders exited from the rear RH window

Before we left home, several people had told us 'there is no demand for Tonga' - completely wrong! From day one the pile-ups were intense, especially from Europe. We still did not get much interest from North America, perhaps demand was less, our location was less favourable in that direction, maybe we were looking at the wrong times.

European pile-ups (a.k.a. the Zoo) are always fun but at times it was tough when propagation made the fluttery signals coming over the North Pole blend together into a seething mass. It was particularly satisfying one day to sense the 20m SSB EU pile-up running out of steam (well OK maybe the band was fading out, hi)             Click here to download an audio clip of an A35V CW pile-up (5m20s = 2.4MB)  Note the poor sending by Chris when he had to use the paddle at times.                                               Click here to download an audio clip of an A35V SSB pile-up (5m20s = 2.4MB). These two audio clips are good examples of what the Eu pile-ups were like.                       Click here to listen to an audio clip of Keith A35X on 15m SSB, recorded by JA0RUG.

Two disappointments for us were the poor propagation on 80m and our inability to install an effective antenna for 160m. The surrounding dense vegetation caused the resonant frequency of the 80m antenna to move 200kHz lower overnight when the vegetation was wet, returning to the correct resonant frequency when the vegetation dried during the day.

Our choice of bands was limited by availability of antennas, although we did have some slight inter-station QRM at times but a full set of band pass filters this time served us well.

        The A35V station                                                                          Keith operating the A35X station  

    Most of our BPFs, except for the 160m and 12m ones

After a couple of days we had settled in to an operating pattern of sorts, with conditions very good on most bands. 40m and 30m were quite noisy, but the higher bands were outstanding with reports of 59+ from Europe at times. We noticed that some openings favoured Western and Northern Europe which are often disadvantaged to the South Pacific. We found that we often had to leave good band openings because we had to eat at times which suited the resort restaurant. We had hoped to buy food locally (which we did for lunch) but this proved very difficult. As expected, we received a few of the usual 'QRT just when band peaking' messages on the reflector because of these enforced operating breaks.

There are many differing opinions about how many operators you need to keep one DXpedition station operational 24/7 - some say a minimum of 3 operators are required. We took the decision to try to keep one station on the air all the time, by having a shift system overnight, with both stations being as active as possible overall. Both Chris and I really enjoy working stations, neither of us like the idea of not being able to operate if we can!  We tried where possible to balance time spent on CW and SSB - towards the end of the DXpedition we added in RTTY.

Luckily we only had one equipment failure - a Samlex SEC1223 13.8V switched mode power supply died, for no apparent reason. The two Watson WM-25 SM PSUs are very good and seem relatively immune to mains fluctuations.

60m - after many sunset and sunrise sessions calling CQ on 80m and hearing absolutely nothing we changed the 80m vertical to a 60m vertical, resonated on 5380kHz (our 2 available TX frequencies were 5371.5kHz and 5403.5kHz) As soon as we listened on 60m that evening we knew that we would not work anything - both frequencies were blanketed by S9 OTH radar QRM - the same QRM that we heard on Niue in 2011. On a couple of nights the QRM was less on 5403.5, but many CQs resulted in no QSOs. Disappointing.

    SWR sweep (too wide a range in this pic) of our 60m vertical antenna

Any DXpedition is a physically challenging environment and A35V and A35X were no exception. With only 2 operators, you spend a lot of time in a haze of tiredness, which inevitably degrades your efficiency as an operator. Air temperatures up to +32oC most days and humidity approaching 90%, with no air-conditioning in the shack, also reduce your concentration when operating. Chris suffered from swollen feet and ankles - poor venous return as at VK9CZ last year - this is really uncomfortable and makes putting your shoes on a 5-minute exercise. Chris was also a favourite of the local small mosquitoes (brings back memories of ZK2) - despite maximum strength 'Jungle Formula' repellent (useless - the locals reckon 'Aerogard' is the only one that actually works) so my legs and feet were in a real mess by the end of the 2 weeks.

    A35V (excluding RTTY QSOs)                                                                         A35X

We uploaded our logfiles as often as possible to ClubLog and to LoTW during the DXpedition. This was a daily routine for me which took about 30 minutes in total, including updating the website 'Latest News'. I think our instant LoTW uploads are a popular idea - I don't like DXpeditions who try to get every last cent out of everyone before uploading to LoTW 6 months after the DXpedition ends. Our QSL Manager Steve N3SL tells me that LoTW uploads during the DXpedition make no difference whatsoever to the number of paper QSL cards requested. We had 50MB internet vouchers, which generally worked well but sometime ran out in the middle of the night when we could not get more.

Despite all the daily distractions which reduced our operating time, we were pleased to make 29442 QSOs, with 15568 (53%) Unique callsigns. This included 1045 QSOs on RTTY. This exceeded our VK9CZ total (26138 Qs) which was a surprise since Europe was easy to work from VK9C. Keith made 17288 QSOs and I made 12154 QSOs.  A35V first QSO = EI4KF on 17m CW, last QSO = SP8GEY on 20m CW.  A35X first QSO = JK1JXB on 12m SSB, last QSO = LU5VV on 15m SSB.

The high band conditions were, in retrospect, outstanding and we now (in 2019) know that our visit to A35 coincided with the (modest) peak of Solar Cycle 24. We were very lucky. I (Keith) need A35 on several bands and I have never heard anything since our visit!

Keith GM4YXI / GM5X