VK3ARR's SOTA Blog

Ego loqui ad viros super montes

Month: December, 2013

Activation: Unnamed Summit VK3/VC-032

My wife had expressed a strong desire to spend up big in Daylesford post-Christmas. Daylesford is a charming town, but I must admit I either spend my time in the Book Barn or the bookshop in Vincent St, or following my wife around through many and varied shops, some interesting, others boring. But, with the Andrews activating Mt Kosciuszko VK2/SM-001 with the special callsign of VI100ACT, I figured I had an out, maybe 30 minutes of activating I could throw in the direction of VK3/VC-032, an unnamed summit about 10-15km south east of Daylesford.

There are two ways of getting to this summit from Daylesford, either by the Spargo-Blakeville Road to the south of Daylesford (coming off the right of the Ballan-Daylesford Road that leads to the Western Highway from Melbourne), or via the Daylesville-Trentham Road heading east of Daylesford. As you can see, there has been plenty of thought gone into naming the roads around here, and it should be of no surprise that the highest point in the area has no name. I personally took the Daylesford-Trentham Road. It’s marginally shorter (a minute or two) according to Google Maps, but also worked nicely for me as I could drop the family in Daylesford and keep going out on the same road.

After about 8km, you turn south onto South Bullarto Road, then stay on that until it becomes Camp Road. The road does veer a few times, but you just stay on the main bit and eventually it becomes Camp Road. Camp Road rapidly turns into a forest road, complete with a sign warning you that it’s a forest road with blind corners, blind crests, slippery road surfaces, etc. In short, don’t do 100. Having said that, my family car had no problems; I just did about 60 for most of it. I found the car was a little squirrely going into a few corners, but I never felt out of control. I had to physically restrain myself from using the handbrake to drift around a few of the corners though. Vintage rally country. I took it a bit quicker on the way back and still had no troubles. Just the constant desire to use the handbrake.

The summit is about 5km down the road, or a bit over 9km from the turnoff onto Bullarto Rd, if you are using your odometer or following along at home. You will pass a number of tracks on both your right and your left as you drive along the road. This is the Wombat State Forest, and has many nice walks in it. I’ve spent a bit of time on the Blackwood side of the Forest, but less so on the Daylesford side (this was my first trip in that area).

Close to the destination, on the right, you will come to Balt Camp. This site is the remains of a camp set up for Baltic immigrants that came to Australia in the 50s as refugees, back when we put them to work, rather than just locking them up on a small Pacific Island. All that is left is two chimneys and the foundations.

Balt Camp, or the remains thereof.

Balt Camp, or the remains thereof.

Balt Camp (and this section of Camp Road) is on the Lerderderg Track, part of the Great Dividing Trail, and this track passes right over the summit we are about to activate. We could park the car here and walk into the activation zone easily, but instead, I drove further, out of equal parts curiosity and laziness. Eventually, you will reach the Pumphouse Track on your left, Pine Track on your right and will be able to see the Great Dividing Trail heading off in a south east direction to your left. As you crest this hill, there is a good area off to the left hand side to park the car.

This whole area is within the activation zone, so I grabbed my gear and continued walking along Camp Road to clear the activation zone. I used a copy of the Vicmap 1:30000 Topo series to work out where the activation zone is. According to Vicmap, the summit is 878 metres. I walked down the road until I encountered Bannerman Track (signed). This is at below the 850m contour, and therefore outside the activation zone. I recommend heading south on Camp Road as the other approaches all require longer walks to clear the activation zone. (If you aren’t aware, you can buy $2.50 A4 1:30k Vicmaps online, delivered as a PDF. Very handy if you prefer your sources canonical)

Once back at the top of the hill, I headed north. There is a track that leads up to the Lerderderg Track. The high point is along this part of the track, according to Vicmap (by a whole metre). I found a track marker that was beautifully set up to attach a squid pole to, and strung up the dipole. By this stage, I had taken about 45 minutes from Daylesford, and it was almost 20 past 11. I’d told my wife I’d be about an hour and a half, so I had, by that measure, about a minute to activate. Fortunately, I’m terrible at maths when I need to be.

I found Marshall VK3MRG on VK3/VG-001 for my first contact, a summit to summit. I also heard him working Ron VK3AFW, but I wasn’t able to work Ron. That would come later. Trying to find a free frequency on 40m at that point in time was hard. There were many activations going on. I tried 7090 first, which, although silent, was occupied by Rod VK2TWR setting up on VK2/SM-022. We swapped reports, and I realised I’d chased two 10 pointers for my first two contacts. Nice, beats chasing from home.

I went up 5 in search of a clear frequency and found Gerard VK2IO on VK2/HU-093 for another S2S and another point. I headed up another 5 in search of a clear channel and found Peter VK3PF on VK3/VE-025 for another 10 points. I worked him, and then Allen VK3HRA came on to work me. Allen was on the same summit as Marshall, so no extra points for me, but 4 more for him. No sooner had Allen worked me than Tony VK3CAT broke in to work me from VK3/VE-016. Another 10 points, and I was popular. I had qualified the summit at this point, all with S2S contacts, and I hadn’t found a clear frequency yet.

I jumped up another 5 and there was Ron VK3AFW, still on Mt Buller VK3/VE-008. He was chatting to a few people but once they cleared off, I worked him for one more S2S and another 10 points. 51 points in 20 minutes. Ron was about to move to 6m, so he kindly left the frequency to me and I put out the call. I worked 13 more stations, the usual crowd, plus a few new calls I hadn’t heard before. About halfway through, Phil VK2FPJR called for a Summit-to-Summit from VK2/IL-004. We gave each other 4 points. By that time, Marshall had come back thinking I was a new station, and we were all waiting for the Andrews to appear. I was running out of time, so I QSY’d up to 20m and put out a call.

I had hoped to work VK6, and I cranked the power to try get there. I was probably capable of 30W or so at that point on the battery, but I heard no VK6 unfortunately. Faint whispers of something in there, but that may just have been my imagination. Mike VK6MB posted a spot saying I was in the noise, but no joy. I might start on 20m next time to utilise the full battery power, and leave 40m to the end. I did work Nev VK5WG and Matt VK2DAG on 20m, as well as a random chaser, Neil VK5ZEE. Neil was portable in his front yard (!) escaping some QRM and heard my CQ.

I jumped to 15m briefly and heard a few JA stations talking. I understood about half of it when it didn’t fade to nothing; it seemed to be a regular sked between JA and a JA-native VK4. By this time, the clock was ticking and I didn’t bother putting up a spot. The antenna was also a little higher on SWR on 15m than on 40, so I knew I wouldn’t get as much power out. I packed up just as my wife texted me saying “Are you done?”

In all, I worked 20 stations on 40m, and 3 on 20m, 8 of those S2S. The S2S haul in particular was phenomenal. I wouldn’t have chased that many from home, so I was lucky. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to work VI100ACT or get some more Andrew-to-Andrew contacts. I missed them again over dinner, so that opportunity appears to have passed.

I can highly recommend this unnamed 4-pointer. I would like to propose a new name, one of either “Near Balt Camp”, to recognise the refugees that helped build the nation post-war, or the less romantic “Lerderderg Track apex”. Either is an improvement on VK3/VC-032, and should do more justice to what is an RF free site. Zero clouds in the sky, a sunny but cool day and no noise, people or cars, other than the gentle rumble of the odd aircraft passing overhead.

The dipole, strung out to some burnt out trees.

The dipole, strung out to some burnt out trees. You can see the track marker on the bottom right I attached to. Very convenient.

I basically lay down on the ground.

The station. I basically lay down on the ground. The occasional ant to contend with, but generally OK

Looking down the track at the high point

Looking down the track at the high point

This is looking up at the high point.

This is looking up at the high point.

Heading back into the activation zone, near Bannerman Track, there is a nice view to the west.

Heading back into the activation zone, near Bannerman Track, there is a nice view to the west.

Looking South down Camp Road.  The road is of similar quality the whole length.

Looking South down Camp Road. The road is of similar quality the whole length.

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Mt Warrenheip activation

Once a year or so, I engage in the royal and ancient Scottish art of Whackfek. It is not as violent as the ancient Lancashire martial art of Ecky-Thump, but is certainly, to quote Winston Churchill, a good way to ruin a walk. Once a year, an old high school friend of mine joins me on a untried Whackfek course and we hit a ball until it goes “Whack” and then watch it go where we didn’t want it to, as we say, with varying intensity, “Fek”. This year, we tried the course at Buninyong and 130 strokes each and about 284 swear words later, I packed the clubs up and pulled out the SOTA gear and drove up Mt Warrenheip.

Mt Warrenheip and Mt Buninyong are both the remnants of volcanic cones, unlike Flinders Peak, and look disturbingly similar and are disturbingly similar heights. The drive up to both is a narrow single lane bitumen road, in reasonable condition. The general consensus from my family from when we activated Mt Buninyong, and myself from activating Mt Warrenheip, is that you should take care on these roads. They are not dangerous per se, but a sudden vehicle appearing from behind a blind corner could have you spearing over the edge, which is quite steep. Should that happen, I’d aim for a tree, because there’s no way you’d stop otherwise.

The game of Whackfek had taken longer than anticipated, so I was late, but I hiked down the hill about halfway and back up again, before setting up my station. There is a trig point at the top of Mt Warrenheip, but the trees are thick enough I doubt any surveyor has used it in the past couple of decades. I chose the high point behind the trig point that leads to one of the communication towers. It had a stump near the edge of the incline back down to the road that I attached the squid pole to, and strung out the dipole legs over some trees. I tied off using some hootchie cord to one metal pole near the trig point, and to the fence of the communications tower area.

I was on the air at 0439 UTC when Peter VK3FPSR responded to my CQ, followed one-a-minute by VK5CZ, VK5WG, VK5LY and VK5EE, which goes to show propagation to VK5 at that time of day is pretty good, and that it’s fairly easy to get a two letter call in VK5! I worked an Andrew-to-Andrew contact with VK2FAJG, VK2UH and VK1NAM, and a Summit-to-Summit with Perrin VK3XPT on Mt Square Top (VK3/VT-071). Perrin was using the Miracle Whip antenna but based on that performance, I can’t claim I’d go out and buy one. He was a very noisy and scratchy 3 and 3 with the preamp on. The worst result of the day by far (no one else received less than 56).  It may just have been his location, though.

I put out a final call after Andrew VK1NAM had called, and Ron VK3AFW came back. I had noted his absence to that point; he is usually one of the first chasers I hear when others activate. Another final call yielded Matt VK1MA, although my signal to his was fairly weak (31). Another final call then yielded Paul VK5PAS. It was great to be on the other side of the microphone to Paul for a change, even if my final call count was up to three! 🙂 One more call came back empty for a change and I packed up quickly.

I had intended to operate on 20m for the VK6 crowd, but I simply ran out of time. By this stage my wife had been at home with the children for many hours without my support and her tolerance was waning. I still had an hour to go to get home and so it just wasn’t feasible. By the time I’d arrived home, my wife had firmly declared that they were my kids, not ours, which is usually a good sign I’ve taken too long.

Mt Warrenheip’s proximity to Mt Buninyong suggests an easy pair of activations, and I can thoroughly recommend the Buninyong Golf Course, which was in immaculate condition. It should be conceivable for someone to play a round and activate the two summits within the day, should your interests lie that way. I too think I will be back sometime in the new year to activate these two mountains and swear profusely as a little white ball refuses to do my bidding.

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The SOTA station. A nice comfortable seat in the dirt sufficed.

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There’s a squidpole with dipole in there somewhere

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The SOTA station again, complete with hairy leg.

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The trig point. Pretty much invisible from any other location, because of the trees.

Mt Warrenheip, taken from Mt Buninyong

Mt Warrenheip, taken from Mt Buninyong

Halfway there.

Today was a good day chasing in the afternoon.  Peter VK3PF was out with a few unannounced summits which together added up to 12 points.  Not huge but highly relevant as I was exactly 12 points from 500 points or a half sloth.  Peter’s signal wasn’t strong but I had no trouble copying him and we made two QSOs to get the points.

It almost didn’t happen when Peter was about to QSY to 20 metres, which would have stopped any chance of working him.  Luckily he heard myself and another station and hung around a bit more.

To cap the day off, I made a CW contact with Wayne VK3WAM for a solitary point.  The point is not important; this is my first CW contact ever. The fifties called and wanted their mode back but I think I like it here instead 🙂

I had tried to work Wayne the other day when he did three 10 pointers but I was never sure I was getting a signal out.  Afterwards, I did discover that by default, the Icom 718 comes with morse Tx disabled.  Undocumented feature apparently.  I enabled it deep in the bowels of the radio and made contact today.

Hopefully some more points tomorrow and maybe an activation on Monday

Only 996 points to go

I approached her carefully. She had a toothbrush in her mouth, which, despite that rabid, frothy look that suggests a hint of madness, worked to my advantage. With her mouth full, I could always claim I misheard what she said. She spat. The advantage disappeared quite literally down the sink. I asked my ask, gently, delicately. The opening salvo of what promised to be a long and arduous negotiation. She agreed readily. Too readily. There had to be a catch.

Had this beautiful lady, who somehow in a fit of madness (or low self-esteem) had agreed to marry me all those years ago, had she agreed to let me activate a summit? Over dinner time? An hour away from home? She had indeed. She had even suggested we turn it into a family affair – a picnic up a mountain. Perhaps that was the catch. Two children running around at dinner time while Daddy played radios would inevitably lead to boredom and nagging and we’d get a picnic, and little radio time. But still, she had agreed, and I wasn’t about to argue the point.

With Andrew VK1NAM suggesting a massive joint activation of VK summits to attempt DX into Europe, I had, for most of the week, been considering my options. The nearest summit is Flinders Peak, but that has locked gates that shut at sun down and I didn’t want to run the risk of being caught on the wrong side of that. The next two nearest summits are Mt Buninyong and Mt Warrenheip. Buninyong is easy from Geelong: it’s only an hour in the car, with a drive to the top. Perfect for what I was looking for, plus 4 times as many points as Flinders Peak.

Unfortunately, I do not own an FT-857 or a KX3 or any of the fine examples of portable HF radios that are utilised in the SOTA realm. I had considered buying one in Tokyo when I was there two weeks back, but to get a 50W 857 needs me to show a JA license, which I hadn’t bothered to organise this time around, and in any case, the suitcase was already full with the countless other things I brought back. That left me with the Icom IC-718. The entry level Icom HF transceiver. It is portable only in the Navy sense (“Anything is portable if it can be fitted to a ship and the ship moved around”). Still, it was what I had, and it would suffice. I could drive to the top, manhandle the thing down the hill and then back up into the activation zone, and get going from there.

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Portable in the Navy sense. Those 16 inch guns are portable because they’re on a ship that moves.

The second challenge was an antenna. This was more easily solved. A quick trip to Jaycar had me a toroid, an enclosure and a few binding posts for a 1:1 choke balun.
I cut two lots of 5 metres worth of Peter VK3PF’s ultralightweight Magic Unicorn wire, and over the course of the day, whipped up a 20m dipole. I’d call it a linked dipole, because ultimately that’s what’ll turn into, but for now, the links are non-existent, and so it is an unlinked dipole. On top of a 7m squid pole, it’s SWR is less than 1.1 across the whole 20m band.

The third challenge was to decide what to take up the mountain in the form of food the kids would eat and enjoy. A trip to the local Italian deli had that one sorted in about ten minutes, plus some yummy bacon for tomorrow’s breakfast (one of the advantages of having chickens is you always have eggs, and therefore always a need to have bacon in the house. This is a good problem to have).

The only thing left was to explain the whole “enter the activation zone unassisted” thing. My wife is inherently practical, and the idea of driving to the top of a summit, then getting out and walking down the hill then back up it would seem odd to her. I called it a quirk. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Just so you’re aware, there’s a quirk of SOTA”
Her: “You have to sing on the radio?”
Me: [puzzled look] “Um, no. You have to-”
Her: “do radio stuff in the nude?”
Me: [cough] “Um, no.”

The real explanation was rather humdrum after that, but I can see why I married her.

We bundled everyone into the car at 5pm local (0600 UTC) and headed up to Buninyong. We arrived pretty much on time, to a reasonably empty summit. The kids slept in the car on the way up, which worked out well. They bundled out of the car at the top fairly happy. I grabbed my gear, walked down the track to clear the activation zone and then back up. It took a bit longer than I’d expected, partly due to the fact the track was on the sun side of the mountain, and there were lots of lizards out getting sun. That means snakes are wanting to do the same thing. I didn’t see any, thankfully.

I set up, and tuned around the band, finding Andrew VK1NAM on his summit. I completed my first ever contact from on top of a mountain with Andrew, being also my first Summit-to-Summit and Andrew and my first Andrew-to-Andrew S2S. We swapped 51s. There were a few others around according to SOTAwatch, VK5s mainly, but I wasn’t able to hear any of them. I moved to 14.330, put up a spot on SOTAwatch and put out a few CQs.

After about 10 minutes of calling CQ, Gerard VK2IO came back to me. He was 53 to me, and I was 45 to him. I called CQ a bit more and kept hearing not much. Keeping one eye on SOTAwatch, I saw Peter VK3ZPF was active on 14.290 from Mt Tamboritha. I’d already chased Peter from home earlier in the day, but I called him up for a S2S again and I gave him a 41 to my 51 signal.

By this stage, I was three contacts down and only needing one more to qualify my first SOTA summit. I hadn’t scored any DX, but I’d settle for a successful summit activation after my Flinders Peak debacle a few weeks back.

I called again and again, and edited my SOTAwatch spot to try coax some more callers out, but nothing. I tried to hear Rik VK3EQ and Allen VK3HRA, but couldn’t. Allen had been marginal on 40m earlier in the day and completely inaudible on 20m. Back on my frequency, a German station had come up 2 kilohertz higher than me and was causing QRM into 14.330. He clearly couldn’t hear me, so I moved down to 14.328 and put out another spot. By this stage, I’d been calling for 20 minutes to try to get that last contact. To my surprise, Marko OH9XX came back to me with a 57 report. He was a strong 59. He told me I was inaudible short path, but by using the long path propagation, I was very strong.

I had my summit activated, and I had my DX. I didn’t know where OH was until I got home. It was Finland! 15,200 km of DX, which I’m happy with, off about 40W out. My previous DX was to New Zealand, so that hardly counts! By now, I’d been on the summit for close to an hour, and the kids were still happy running around.

No sooner had I completed a QSO with Marko, when IA0MZ came up on my frequency. He couldn’t hear me and called CQ for a while. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t work him, as he appears to be in Antarctica. That would have been a novel contact for the evening.

Fifteen minutes later, and I knew I’d tried the patience of the family, and I knew I wasn’t going to get any more contacts. The insects were making a meal of any exposed skin. I’d tried breaking in on some Germans, but they couldn’t hear me despite their strong signals. I put out a final call at that point, and Ed VK2JI came back.

He was very strong, 58 and I was hitting him 57. I don’t believe I’ve worked Ed before. He’d attempted to activate a summit too, but had to turn back for safety reasons. It was good to make contact with him and with such strong signals. When Ed’s been doing VK2 summits he’s usually way down in the weeds on 40m.

After completing the contact with Ed, I threw out one more final call, and of course another chaser came out of the woodwork. Mike VK3XL had also intended to activate but had not been able to. Instead, he sat at home with 200W and a tribander and attempted to blow up my front-end from the opposite side of the bay :). 59 plus, and I was 55 to him.

After that, I began the pack up procedure, leaving the radio on to the last minute. I realised at that point I hadn’t taken (m)any photos, so took a quick one of the activation area, and threw it all in the back of the car. I took some photos on the way down the mountain, but the kids had been fantastic. No complaining, no moaning, just running around and then sitting quietly in the car while I packed up out of the way of the mosquitoes. So, 4 points down on the path to Mountain Goat, only 996 to go.

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The SOTA station. Squid pole dropped, attached to picnic table. The Icom-16-inch-gun behind it with LiFe battery and Magic Unicorn wire on the table and seat. Solar powered backpack in behind. It somehow all fit in there!

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Mt Warrenheip from Mt Buninyong. Next target perhaps?

A bushfire (controlled burn?) to the north of Ballarat

A bushfire (controlled burn?) to the north of Ballarat

A free weekend at last

Chasing has been slow again, largely due to sporting pursuits, but also due to a work trip to Japan and general busyness at work too.  I was stuck for quite a while on around 410 points until Ben VK3FTRV did a few 10 pointers which bumped me up to 435 odd.  I missed his 7 summit odyssey, unfortunately, due to being in Tokyo.  Today, however, a bye had presented itself in the tennis draw, and I had a good chance to be around the radio to chase a few points.  A lot of the usual activators were delaying their activations until 7pm or so in the evening so that they could participate in the VK/EU SOTA DX challenge.

My first contact was with Phil VK2FPJR, his first activation on VK2/SC-033.  My signal was fairly weak, 3 and 5, while his was fairly strong (with the preamp on), at 5 and 7.  I’ve since worked out that if I am working off the LiFe battery, I need to manually check power output, as the lower input voltage makes the RF Power setting on the radio over report its output.

Next up was Brian VK3MCD, on VK3/VC-032, an unnamed summit in the Wombat State Forest. Brian was 5 and 8 again with the preamp, and my signal was 52. Brian is extremely methodical with the way he works the pileup, and it is a joy to behold.

I heard Nick VK3ANL barely above the noise floor, but with QSB down into the muck, working Allen VK3HRA on Mt Stirling (VK3/VE-011). Allen was very weak, 4 and 1 at the peaks, and my signal to him was at first, “zero and zero”, but given as “3 and 0” in the end. Later inspection showed that I’d bumped one of the tuning knobs on the ATU so I was not properly tuned up.

Final contact for the day was Peter VK3ZPF on Mt Tamboritha (VK3/VT-011). He was 55, and I was 42 to him. By the end of the day, I was on 464 points. Only 36 points to the half-Sloth. I’m hoping there’s a rash of 10 pointers activated in the new year! 🙂