<![CDATA[VK3MRG   Amateur Radio - Blog]]>Mon, 11 Jan 2016 02:11:09 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[New Year SOTA Adventures]]>Wed, 31 Dec 2014 23:29:52 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/new-year-sota-adventures
The operating position on Briarty Hill with the kids in the background
Briarty Hill VK3/VC-029

Activated across 31 December 2013 and 1 January 2015

With a small window of opportunity to get away for some SOTA activating in the new year, the plan was set. My two daughters had no option but to come along for the adventure as my wife had to work. The initial plan was to work Briarty Hill both sides of the UTC New Year and then head off to Bald Hill and then set up camp in the vicinity to also activate Mt Terrible Spur and Mount Terrible the following day. After these summits, we could also knock off a few more easy summits if lucky, with gentle persuasion and cooperation from the girls who dreaded the idea.

Camping gear and equipment were all packed in the Triton on New Years Eve to enable a smooth getaway in the morning. After breakfast we were on the road at 7.30am. Deserted roads meant we had an easy run with the kids nodding off in the back seat due to lasting well past midnight on New Years eve. We arrived at the car park with plenty of time to walk to the summit without annoying insects and heat of the day upon us. We walked a very pleasant trail that switched back and forth through a shaded gully up to the summit. We soon reached the road along the ridge and with a further 15 minutes walking were in the activation zone. We selected a site within 100 metres of the tower and strung the doublet across the road. An occasional waft of diesel fumes from the generators powering the mobile phone and various communications infrastructure was noticeable whilst operating.

I tuned up on 40 metres and logged my first S2S contact at 2253 with Compton VK2HRX on VK2/CT-012. I then moved up to 7.100 Mhz which was clear and started calling. Within seconds I was swamped and worked summit after summit along with other portable operators at favourite campsites, national parks and so on. Contacts were quite constant after the initial rush and quietened down for about 15 minutes before the UTC New Year.

Once the New Year arrived, I held my frequency and worked 10 SOTA stations straight in as many minutes. The following 30 minutes settled down to a comfortable pace with seven more S2S stations worked.

I packed up after almost two hours of continuous operating with some very satisfying results. I worked 41 contacts before the New Year with 18 unique summits. Two Andrews (VK1DA and VK1NAM) being the only two operators I worked from the same summit of VK2/SM-049.

When the New Year rolled over I worked a total of 29 contacts with 16 unique summits.

As we were walking back down to the car, the heat of the day was kicking in and the weather forecast looked like it was going to live up to expectation.  So I negotiated a deal with the kids to spend the next couple of days camped by the Big River, instead of dragging them up and over hills in dust and heat in the strange pursuit of other SOTA activators. Two days of Total Fire Bans and the obvious dangers of this sort of weather made the choice easy. I was able to keep the radio monitoring and was able to work SOTA stations as they appeared with ease, taking a dip in the river, staying cool and playing with the kids. The drive home on Saturday began with a final swim at our campsite after we were packed up. We then drove in the vague direction of home, via the Acheron Way and Warburton where we stopped for lunch at the bakery. This was followed by another swim in the Yarra, the lure of many SOTA summits passed on the way, not enough to entice me to alter course.

Much credit goes to my two girls that accompanied me on this expedition with little choice. They weren't keen initially but did end up enjoying the time we had. The enjoyment for me this time was not from hitting as many summits as possible, but to sit back and relax a bit. The fact that I only activated a 1 point summit on this trip did not worry me. The number of S2S contacts and the pleasure of portable operating more than made up for any perceived lost opportunities. Thanks to all the other SOTA operators and stations worked.

<![CDATA[Mt Vinegar revisited]]>Mon, 22 Sep 2014 00:21:07 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/mt-vinegar-revisited Mt Vinegar VK3/VC-005

Activated 21 September 2014

This was my second activation of Mt Vinegar with much better weather this time around compared with my first activation of this summit back on 2 June 2013.

A small group of EMDRC members led by Andrew VK3BQ activated nearby Mt Donna Buang VK3/VC-002 as a club SOTA activity so I decided to drop in to see them on the way. After socializing with the group andmaking one personal S2S contact with Mitch VK3XDM on Pyramid Hill VK3/VN-005, I set off along The Acheron Way to the intersection of Mt Vinegar Rd. I parked here and continued by foot to the summit. Once I had some elevation and within a few hundred metres of the summit I was able to make patchy simplex communications with the group on Mt Donna Buang on 2 metres with the handheld but I was still not within my activation zone. By this stage they had packed up their BBQ and the HF gear and were getting ready to head home so I quickly made my way to the summit and logged them,Andrew VK3KIS, Andrew VK3BQ and Greg VK3ND before setting up my HF gear.

As soon as the FT-817 was set up, my first contact on 40 metres was an S2S with Rod VK2TWR on VK2/ST-020 and then worked a steady stream of chasers until my last contact with Amanda VK3FQSO. All up, not a bad activation with a total of 25 contacts logged.

<![CDATA[VK3/VE-178]]>Sat, 23 Aug 2014 00:12:14 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/vk3ve-178
View of the Happy Valley from the summit of VK3/VE-178

Activated 23 August 2014

This summit is situated about 8 kilometres East of Myrtleford in a logging area. There are several well formed logging tracks that traverse the area which are normally closed to private vehicles but which provide relatively easy access by foot if you want to stroll for several kilometres. I chose to access the summit from Carrolls Road, parking near the intersection of Road 16. This was about the closest to the summit that I could reach by car with a steep walk to the top. The weather was unseasonally warm and most of the route was dry and dusty. The sun was strong and sunscreen was a must.

As the summit levels out, a water tank comes into view in a large cleared area. I set up the radio in the shadow of the tank with views up the Happy Valley towards Falls Creek and fired up on 40 metres where my first contact was a S2S with Peter VK3PF on VK3/VT-013. Over the next hour I logged a total of 21 contacts. This was a good activation for S2S contacts – 5 in all including Ian VK1DI on VK2/ST-017, Rob VK2QR on VK2/SM-038, Brian VK3MCD on VK3/VE-090 and Peter VK3PF appearing on another summit VK3/VT016.

<![CDATA[Mt Emu revisited]]>Fri, 22 Aug 2014 00:02:40 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/mt-emu-revisited
The view of Mt Beauty township from Mt Emu
Mt Emu VK3/VE-061

Activated 21 August 2014

This was my second visit to Mt Emu, the first being a memorable joint activation with Allen VK3HRA on 6 Otober 2013. This time I was solo and working once again promoting our Skike products at the Kangaroo Hoppet, Australia's premier Cross Country ski event.

 After checking in to my accomodation at Mt Beauty and setting up our display at the Hoppet registration office, I headed towards Mt Emu for a quick activation. Driving to the summit I parked and loaded myself up with my gear and headed off by foot along the The Eskdale Spur Track in the direction of Mt Yorke. It didn't take long to descend quickly out of the activation zone and I was soon able to turn around and head back up. The weather was kind to me and was unseasonally warm, considering the best ski and snow conditions for many years that the Hopppet entrants were experiencing at Falls Creek. The views over Mt Beauty and the Kiewa Valley and beyond to Mt Buffalo were spectacular.

A solidly constructed wooden picnic table was a new addition to the summit that was not here on the last visit, possibly constructed by hang gliders who launch themselves from the site. I set up my radio on the table and logged 13 contacts over the next 35 minutes on 40 metres, the first being an S2S with Phil VK2JDL/1 on VK1/AC-026.

<![CDATA[Mt Ritchie Revisited & Observations of The ILLW]]>Tue, 19 Aug 2014 11:41:18 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/mt-ritchie-revisited-observations-of-the-illwPictureNear the summit of Mt Ritchie
Mt Ritchie VK3/VC-003

Activated 16 August 2014

With a rare Saturday free to escape and do some SOTA activating, I jumped in the Triton and headed for Warburton and the Acheron Way. I arrived at my parking spot on the hairpin bend near gate 15 with the promise of clear weather which was a great improvement over the conditions endured on my last visit to Mt Ritchie over a year ago. It is a nice walk on wide fire trails with nothing too steep most of the way to the summit. This time however, several trees had fallen across the tracks along the route slowing progress a little.

As I ascended to the summit patches of snow started to appear for the last 500 metres or so. From this point on I was also able to get into the VK3REC repeater on my handheld radio and have a couple of chats prior to setting up the FT-817. The sun was out and there was no wind and the ambient temperature was warmer than I expected. On arrival at the summit I surveyed the area with no shortage of well spaced trees to string the doublet.

It took me longer than I was hoping to get the antenna up but once it was up I had trouble getting the SWR down to an acceptable level. The main reason for this seems to be the length of the 300ohm ladder line feed which has been getting progressively shorter and shorter after continual stripping back. One disadvantage of this wire is the lack of copper strands to connect to the tuner which break off frequently in use. In the past I have lengthened the feed another metre or so using heavier gauge wire and a twin terminal block but this is only a temporary measure. With too much movement or tension on the terminal block, the wire soon weakens and breaks so most activations require a little careful wire stripping and reconnecting.

Giving up on the doublet and wanting to get on the air I turned to the vertical HF antenna that was up and running in a few minutes. I have the coil tapped on this antenna for 40 metres most of the time and the SWR is usually close enough to jump straight on air, saving valuable time when weather is harsh and you don't want to spend too much time thawing out whilst operating. I set up the radio next to a large tree and rolled out my plastic sheet and sat amongst clumps of snow to operate. With the sun on my back I was quite comfortable.

Once again I ventured out when It was probably not the best weekend for SOTA. I only logged one other SOTA contact, Nick VK3ANL on nearby Mt Donna Buang. There didn't seem to be the regular number of chasers or activators around and 40 metres was fairly busy with lighthouse stations and RD Contest stations.

I logged a few lighthouse stations and was hoping for a more. The ILLW weekend seemed to get quite a few chasers on the air as several lighthouses that I monitored had pileups to work through. Once again I noticed a higher percentage of stations that sounded over compressed and over driven than usual. It seems to be event weekends like this that attracts them.

One of the lighthouses I contacted was seemingly only interested in talking to other lighthouses and not non ILLW stations that were interested in chasing him. I thought this was odd as the lighthouse weekend is not a contest, nor are there any prizes or awards for making the most ILLW to ILLW contacts. I responded to his call after he had put out a number of calls without a response. I would have thought that most lighthouse stations would be quite happy to make contacts with any station as indeed most others were. Maybe some ILLW stations need to review their reasons for going portable and operating in the event as it is quite obvious that the majority of chasing stations are not lighthouse stations but regular operators who enjoy the extra activity on the bands and want to log as many lighthouse stations as they can over the weekend for their own enjoyment and nothing more. As a SOTA operator, I'm glad for any contacts from anyone as they all count for my goal of activating the summit under the rules of SOTA, particularly when I'm freezing in snow or rain, trying to keep my logbook from flapping away in the breeze.

What can sometimes be lost in events like ILLW or contests is the excitement of working another station that could be working under interesting operating conditions. My most memorable contacts are not under contest conditions, trying to bust through the pileup that is usually no more than a numbers game, but contacts that clearly stand out as different.

Many of my most memorable contacts have been when I have been portable myself. A VK3 to DL summit to summit SOTA contact QRP both ways, or a bicycle portable contact with a pedestrian portable contact in the UK. Or another occasion with me portable in VK7 talking with VK0KEV on Macquarie Island, both on battery power and QRP creating a pileup with stations in the US where we both worked DX stations non-stop for hours one evening. Someone sailing solo around the World, the list goes on. Quality not quantity.

<![CDATA[A Top Range HT for SOTA or a $600 Hand Warmer?]]>Wed, 23 Jul 2014 02:46:14 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/a-top-range-ht-for-sota-or-a-600-hand-warmerI love having a hand-held radio with me whenever I go cycling, hiking, camping or SOTA activating. I often carry one when strolling around on weekends. I like to carry one around major public events, using it like a scanner to listen behind the scenes. Like a classic RF geek, I have listened to race crews communicating with their drivers during the F1 Grand Prix and spoken with other amateurs for hours in Bass Straight whilst maritime mobile. I've communicated with people while flying in light aircraft and used satellites and IRLP to talk around the world from relatively remote places. All of this from a little radio that fits in the palm of my hand. Simply remarkable. Although an HT is not the answer for everything, I'm still amazed at what can be done with a cheap radio that can be clipped on my belt or hidden in a pocket. Next to my FT-817ND, for portability and maximum usefulness when out and about, there is no doubt a half decent HT is the next best thing.

I have been considering the purchase of a high-end brand name hand-held transceiver for a while. I think some of the additional features available on some more expensive models could be very useful for my SOTA activations and regular wanderings into remote areas. But is the substantial additional cost of these rigs versus the brilliant value from some of the Chinese HT offerings worth it? Maybe, but we need to assess our use and needs and play with some of these radios to see if the value is really there.

I'm no stranger to dual-band hand-helds. The first one I owned was a Wouxun KG-UVD1P. This unit was a fantastic first radio. I treated it with no respect whatsoever. It was dropped, scratched, booted about, left outside in the rain and thrown around for over 4 years without much love. It continued to work reliably even when the display would fog up with condensation in extreme weather and I couldn't see what frequency I was using. Other than a breaking the original antenna, nothing stopped working other than the built-in LED torch. After years of torture the display finally died before my eyes when using it on a SOTA activation. I still have this radio and it is still usable without the display. I have all VK3 and VK7 repeaters programmed into the memory and can simply put it in scan mode until it finds a repeater. The female voice option still tells me what channel I'm on an her strong Asian accent. She now lives as a spare in the car just in case. I reckon that the original purchase price of about $130 was a steal and this unit has served me extremely well.

I also own a Baofeng UV5R purchased online from Hong Kong for under 50 bucks. An amazingly small price and a worthy contender against my first Wouxun. With a higher capacity battery and a solid feel, it is almost the perfect throw-away HT, however two major things let this radio down. The stock antenna as supplied isn't the best performer. The receiver also suffers from a lack of selectivity. The squelch opens and it frequently farts, pops and comes to life with interference from various unwanted sources, even in some remote areas where such noise would not be expected. On the positive side, it's tiny size and reasonable TX and RX audio quality are very good.

When the display on my original Wouxun died, I considered much pricier radios to replace it such as the Yaesu VX-8R and the Kenwood TH-D72A, but I'm glad I held back. After much deliberation and wanting to stay on the right side of my wife who fails to understand why I need such an expensive HT, I purchased another Wouxun, a KG-UV6D this time. Accessories such as the speaker mic and the batteries from the other one were interchangeable (but not the antenna as the SMA connector is reversed).

The KG-UV6D seems to work marginally better overall on both 2 metres and 70 cms than the other two units. It also has a higher IP rating to better resist moisture. Up to 200 memories can also be programmed rather than 128 memories of the others. Apart from cosmetic appearances, these three radios are all fairly similar in use and practicality. Should I lose or destroy any of these radios while out in the wild, I wouldn't be too upset for the money spent. It makes around $600 for a dream HT from one of the big brands look extravagant, regardless of the extra bells and whistles. Bang for buck from these Chinese radios are excellent and they all deliver the features I expect of a amateur HT with DTMF, dual watch, broadcast FM reception, wide band receive capabilities and more. The keys on all models are illuminated well and are easy to navigate. I can read the displays on all on all three without my glasses. The nice bright LED torch function is a useful additional feature on all three models, however it is a shit that these nice bright LED torch lights all died within the first month or so of ownership. Fortunately their primary function as reliable communication devices has never been an issue.

A while back I put these radios up against a Yaesu FT-60 and the results were surprising. Did the FT-60 perform twice as well as the others, considering it's price? Unfortunately not. The basic features, huge memory capacity and solid build were there but it on RX performance it was deaf outside the amateur bands. Whilst we could hear police, SES and CFA on both Wouxuns and the Baofeng, the FT-60 struggled. It also lacked the battery capacity and ability to receive broadcast FM, a nice feature to have if you want to tune to the latest news, weather reports, listen to Triple J or ABC FM on the way down from that SOTA summit.. Other than that, it was on par with the others but not worth the extra cost, especially if I wanted to buy any accessories at four times the price of of the others.

More recently I've been playing around with an Icom IC-91AD, kindly on loan from a member of my local radio club, the EMDRC. It has some features that I desire in the perfect HT. An exceptionally wide RX coverage from 0.495–999.990 Mhz. D-star capability is the major capability and selling point of this radio. As a D-star device it works as expected, apart from the quirky menu and initial programming and setup. I was disappointed with the display and the dim illumination of the keypad – all hard to read compared to most other hand-held radios I've played with. Maximum RX volume in D-star mode is quite low.  I appreciate a bit more punch from the speaker in some situations. It has a solid cast aluminium body and looks and feels the part for a high-end amateur HT but has little more to convince me of spending around $600 to own the current equivalent model, the IC-92AD, which is similar in most respects.

If D-star is your thing, fair enough. I have found the hype about D-star doesn't really meet my needs or expectations. That's not to say that I haven't found it interesting to play around and explore the possibilities of the mode. I find it thwarted by latency and dropouts, garbled and robotic sounding voices from time to time and barely worth the additional expense. There are current concerns here in Melbourne for the long term survival of the major D-star repeater and gateway. This is a worry for anyone considering the purchase of a D-star capable radio for the future. Sure, the ability to talk to others around the world is a bonus. But then again worldwide contacts via IRLP and Echolink are easily accessible through more repeaters on most handies at a fraction of the price and without any prior configuration by simply using the DTMF codes from the keypad. In my introduction to D-star, the mode seems to be quirky and awkward to configure in some radios. It is strange that I have spoken with more people using dongles plugged into their computers rather than a radio on D-star, possibly because the Internet is more reliable and has greater range than the local D-star repeater. Go figure?!!

The Icom IC-91AD has another unintended advantage in the snow or extreme cold. It is a wonderful hand warmer. It would be great on those higher SOTA peaks in mid-winter. Compared to most other handholds it gets very hot – almost too hot to hold comfortably if blathering away on long overs. RX also suffers terribly from intermodulation and interference on 2 meters – far worse than even the Baofeng at a tenth of the cost. On the upside, It is a strong and capable transmitter with good reports on audio quality and modulation in both FM and D-star modes.

Would I buy one?  No!   I expect a much better user experience and features for that sort of money. APRS and GPS capability built in to the radio would be a start. Some higher priced brand name handholds have these capabilities but often need an expensive plugin accessory to be fully functional. My ideal radio would need the highest available IP rating (submersible) as well as wide-band RX. These would be my minimum requirements for a high-end HT. My requirements therefore rule out several currently available high end models.

These additional features and their usefulness is limited by the type of radio a HT is. A HT is designed for use on the move, not just for when you've arrived at your destination or operating spot. In terms of coming close to broad band receive capabilities, put a Yaesu FT-817 or an Elecraft KX-3 with a few metres of wire for an antenna against any HT and the HT will fall a long way short. Most hand-helds lack sensitivity and cannot resolve SSB signals. Many lack an internal bar antenna for improved reception of the AM broadcast band. Like many compact 'do it all' devices, certain features like GPS will do the job but may disappoint in degree of usefulness when compared to a dedicated device like a Garmin or even a smartphone that can render your route, waypoints and current position on a map.

The GPS units on some HT radios lack sensitivity or can be awkward and expensive in use, with an additional external unit that attaches to the radio. APRS coverage is by no means guaranteed everywhere, nor can it be relied upon any more than your mobile phone might work as intended in a remote area. D-star or any digital mode of transmission will only work when in range of someone else with the same capability or a repeater capable of the same mode. Using these extra features will chew through your battery much faster than a radio without these fancy bells and whistles.  

Out of the latest HT radios on the market, I'm most interested in the newest offering from Yaesu, the FT-1DR. From my research it seems to have everything I desire of such a radio. It costs around the same as all the other top range units from other manufacturers and packs APRS, GPS, wide-band RX and can stand the adverse weather and moisture well. The new digital mode may not yet have the following of D-star or be compatible with DMR or P25 digital protocols but in time may find acceptance in the market. It promises better audio quality than D-star and the ability to communicate in digital mode with FM analogue transceivers through repeaters equipped with the Yaesu Fusion digital system. Rumour says that Melbourne could have a Yaesu Fusion digital repeater operating in the eastern suburbs in the near future. All this while the future of the VK3RWN D-star repeater system and gateway is looking uncertain. Regardless, I don't see the digital capability of the radio as the selling point for me, just a potential bonus that the other top offerings in the market from Yaesu and the other brand names do not have. Before taking the plunge with purchasing a high end HT I'd like the chance to play with a few more models before making any choice. It's all too easy to send yourself crazy on the Internet looking at www.eham.net reviews, downloading owners manuals and specifications from manufacturers websites.

So is it all worthwhile? Sure, I guess if you're one that has to have everything, a yearning to explore new possibilities and you're not afraid of what your wife may think investing a decent amount of money in another aspect of your hobby. After all, exploration, personal discovery and satisfying our own jollies are some of the reasons we play with radios.  I would like to thank Susan VK3ANZ for the opportunity to explore and play with the Icom IC-91AD. I also welcome comments, opinions and reviews from anyone using any of the afore mentioned high-end HT radios. Are they really worth the extra loot or should I continue to abuse my cheap Chinese radios and marvel at the way they still work at all after the punishment I give them?
<![CDATA[Mt Torbreck and Bill Head revisited]]>Sun, 06 Jul 2014 02:18:16 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/mt-torbreck-and-bill-head-revisitedPictureThe prominent cairn on Mt Torbreck
 Mt Torbreck VK3/VN-001

Activated 22 June 2014

It was just short of a year since I last activated Mt Torbreck with the company of Peter VK3ZPF. Allen VK3HRA had been planning a trip to the area and enquired if I wanted to accompany him. I agreed and the plan was set but Allen had to pull out late in the week due to the winter lurgy going through his family. This time I did it alone after arriving the night before and camping at the intersection of Con Gap Road and Barnewall Plains Road. Rain earlier in the day made the camping area rather muddy and apart from the chill of the evening, the night sky was clear and fantastic conditions for star-gazing more than made up for not having a campfire. The only repeater I could hit from the campsite was VK3RGV with the FT-7900 from the car but that worked well. It has IRLP capability and could have spent the whole night dialing up repeaters world wide. I had a few conversations on the repeater including Ralph VK3LL camping overnight in the Wombat State Forest as part of the VHF/UHF Winter Field Day Contest with Damien VK3KQ. I then managed to work them simplex on 2 metres and then 70 cms and bolster their contest score. This was a surprise as I didn't think my signals would get out of the valley that surrounded me.

The following morning after a lazy breakfast I packed and started up Barnewall Plains Road to the summit enjoying the walk. Once I was past the gate to the summit walking track I was able to hear the WIA broadcast via the VK3REC repeater, come up on the callback and make a couple of simplex contacts with the HT on the trek to the summit. The weather was clear with a gentle breeze and low clouds blowing over me from time to time in the higher reaches. Views were great when the clouds weren't sitting on top of me and the surrounding valleys in the Lake Eildon National Park were a sea of fluffy fog that soon began to lift.

On reaching the summit I set up the vertical HF antenna after yakking on the VK3REC Sunday morning net and fired up the FT-817 on 7.090 Mhz at 0054z and got a S2S contact straight away with Fred VK3DAC on Mt St Leonard. Straight after Fred I bagged another S2S with Al VK1RX. I then parked myself on 7.095 Mhz and worked a steady stream of stations including another three S2S with Robbie VK3EK, Ian VK1DI and Bernard VK2IB/3. 40 minutes later I'd worked the throng and packed up to head down and back to the car for a coffee and something to eat before setting off for the next summit.

Bill Head VK3VN-004

I initially was going to head off and do Pyramid Hill next but as the car was already parked on Con Gap Road I thought I might as well attack Bill head from the north. In hindsight Pyramid Hill would probably have been easier. On my last activation of Bill Head I drove up Con Gap Road from the south and was able to park at a relatively easy access point to the summit. From the north the drive was OK but the road was awash in places and quite muddy and got progressively worse as I went on. A number of recently fallen trees across the road had been cleared and fresh sawdust surrounded large timber pushed to the side. Near the highest point of Con Gap Road I met a fellow and his partner sawing up timber and splitting it for firewood. His old Nissan Patrol was full fully loaded in the back and his trailer looked to be straining with the weight loaded on it. I carried on but parked a few hundred meteres further on where a fallen tree meant that I'd be walking from here on anyway. I bashed my way through the bush towards the ridge which was much clearer and easier to navigate the rest of the way to Bill Head.

I didn't want to mess around too much here, being the shortest day of the year and as soon as I found my spot, I set up the antenna and bagged my first 40 metre contact with Peter VK3PF at 0506z. For the next quarter hour I logged one contact a minute including two S2S contacts with Andrew VK3ARR and Ian VK1DI. Once back in the car heading back along Con Gap Road, the couple I'd met earlier were gone and for kilometres along the road I was finding lots of freshly split firewood that had fallen from their trailer on the way down. I was happy to jump out and pick it up along the way and by the time I was at Snobs Creek Road I had enough firewood in the back of the Triton heat our home for a week.

My operating position on Bill Head
<![CDATA[The VK Shires Splatter Fest]]>Tue, 10 Jun 2014 09:39:58 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/the-vk-shires-splatter-fest
Excuse my increasing cynicism dear reader, when it comes to various amateur radio contests that crowd the HF bands on many weekends.

With a long weekend there was the promise of some SOTA activity on Sunday morning. I took a strong coffee to the shack and flicked on the radios to catch some activators. Things started quietly and there were a few to pick off that were above the normally high noise floor of my home QTH. It wasn't long before the activity picked up on 40 metres with the start of the VK Shires contest and my regular noise floor was noticably increased by the long distance splatter of a portable operator in VK2 working 4 Khz up from some SOTA activity on 7.090 Mhz.

Now firstly, let me say that this operator's personable and cheery manner in operating his contest station was not in question here but his equipment and the way it was being driven was. Typical of many contest stations, this operator seemed to have his mic gain and compression settings wound up to the point of severe distortion. His signal here in Melbourne was off the scale. There was a distinct AC hum behind all his transmissions and the microphone sounded like it was being swallowed. A big signal for any portable station and most certainly impressive, considering I could hear spurious artifacts of his transmissions across most of the 40 metre band.

I monitored this guy for quite a while as well as others across the band. SOTA stations were working through the interference but comments both ways during contacts confirmed that I wasn't the only one who could hear this guy well beyond the normal 3 Khz bandwidth. At least one contact this guy had commented on his distorted signal and he then apparently made some adjustments to little effect. He then went quiet for a minute and I was secretly hoping that something had exploded violently or let the smoke out. Could he make adjustments to his linear amplifier, short himself out on the 700 volt rail and go quiet permanently?  I was hoping, but he returned to the frequency a few minutes later after at least one other station came up saying “where did the noise go?”

I took the trouble to look up my shire code, checked that my FT-897D was wound right down to 5 watts and gave the guy a call. He diligently responded and I gave him my report and increased his contest score. I also asked him to confirm my report and it was 59 in return. I then mentioned that his signal seemed to be severely distorted and over driven and that I could hear him over a wide portion of the 40 metre band and it was an impressive feat. I also suggested he could wind it back and he would probably still be heard easily by any chasers. He came back and politely thanked me for my report, sounding a little miffed. I then wished him 73 and then told him that I was only running 5 watts. I sat back and listened to his next couple of contacts. The splatter and distortion continued.

Now let's put a few things into perspective here without getting hung up on geeky techno-babble. I live a couple of kilometres away from some very large AM commercial broadcast installations. Several broadcasters transmit signals from this site continuously on an array of huge antennas. Most of these stations have an output of 5 kilowatts each and one of them can produce 50 kilowatts. They don't interfere with each other and receivers from many hundreds of kilometres away don't have splatter and interference problems. I have worked QRP portable within 200 metres of this site and had no issues of interference and an impressively low noise floor.

Radio Australia has a fancy array of shortwave antennas near Shepparton in central Victoria and 100 kilowatts that they can beam cleanly into the Pacific, Asia and Europe without blanketing the HF bands with splatter. Many thousands of people live and work within close proximity to these installations, yet wouldn't be affected by spurious interference across their listening frequency or band, even if they are listening on a shitty little pocket radio of the most pathetic specifications.

So how can it be that an amateur radio operator with an advanced licence running a station supposedly within the maximum 400 watt power output limit produce such a over-driven, filthy signal?  Contests seem to bring out the best (and worst) of the ham radio hobby and this sort of noise caused by badly adjusted transmitters is often most apparent when a contest is in progress. It is an international problem and in some respects we don't realise how lucky we are here in Australia with our relatively quiet amateur bands. We don't need to crank up the watts to be heard above others.

When holidaying in in Europe recently, I realised how many Hams there feel the need to out-gun everyone else to be heard above it all. This is simply not necessary here, particularly on the 40 metre band in a VK contest where a good beam antenna and as little as 5 watts could easily get your signal across the continent. We can almost always find a quiet frequency. And if you're lucky enough to live in an area with a low RF noise floor, or play portable without carrying your noise floor with you in the form of inverters, unsuppressed generators and other unnecessary crap, you could run your station on battery power and an efficient antenna,  probably hear heaps more and get a couple of good DX contacts to your surprise.

It seems a paradox but my portable QRP equipment gets me as many DX contacts as my fancier gear running 100 watts at home. This is primarily because of my enhanced listening capabilities when portable. Its not the power I can send up the antenna or the twisting of all knobs to the right in the mistaken belief that this will help me win the contest.

It is no wonder to me that the ACMA decided not to grant advanced amateur licensees the right to run up to 1 kilowatt of power. The recent high power trials seemed to highlight a general lack of knowledge needed to safely and effectively harness such power, even though it pales to what many commercial broadcasters can use without disturbing anyone else.  The endless pursuit of and obsession with trying to get the maximum performance out of a piece of radio gear seems to elude some operators in the most spectacular way and its almost a sport in itself picking out the signal you want to hear.  The word 'amateur' seems so appropriate for some ham operators.

<![CDATA[The Real Federation Range]]>Tue, 13 May 2014 05:56:09 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/the-real-federation-rangePictureNear the summit of Federation Range
Federation Range VK3/VN-029

Activated 11 May 2013

This was my first activation of the new Federation Range which I managed after the annual Lake Mountain Skike and Rollerski Event. I arrived at 9.00am before the road closure and drove to the top carpark to set up the Skike market tent and assist at the finnish line. For most of the event we were shrouded in fog and drizzle which kept visibility down to about 50 metres. We had to use the Lake Mountain walkie-talkies and dedicated repeater frequency to keep in contact with the start and spotters along the road.

After the race we had demo Skike sets available to try and this kept us busy for another couple of hours while the weather improved and the sun broke through after midday. After packing up this gave me the opportunity to stay back and activate the peak later than I was hoping for. I left the top carpark at about 3.30pm concerned that this was going to be insufficient time to activate before daylight faded. I made my way up the track and past The Triangle and kept to the left track at The Crossways until reaching Hut Trail and following this to the summit.

PictureThe operating spot on Federation Range
 I walked about 70 metres off Hut Trail where I set up the centre-loaded vertical antenna and found a nice large granite rock to prop the radio. My mobile phone didn't work here and I was unable to spot myself on SOTAWATCH but I was able to get into the VK3REC repeater in an attempt to stir up some chasers. Ryan VK3HRU was mobile and came back to my call. With mobile HF capability from his vehicle he tried to make contact with me on 40 metres. I could hear Ryan low down however he was not able to hear me coming back which was unfortunate.

The 40 metre band was quite busy with high powered DX rolling in and plenty of loud VK stations and after having no luck calling for about 10 minutes and aware that I was going to run out of time, I found Jim VK2QA calling and logged my first contact at 0648z. He then assisted in getting me a few more contacts over the next 10 minutes as daylight was fading and the fog was starting to roll in again.

Next in the log was Tim VK2AOS quickly followed by Carl VK2CRH. My fourth and final contact was with Tom VK4ATH and was the most interesting and unexpected contact of the day. Tom was using a 40 metre magnetic loop and 100 watts and reports of 57 were exchanged both ways with my standard 5 watts back.

In fading light and with four contacts successfully logged I quickly packed up and headed back to the car. Federation Peak would make an ideal SOTA activation by mountain bike. When snowed in it should be relatively accessible by foot for bonus points in a midwinter activation.

<![CDATA[ANZAC Day Activations]]>Sun, 27 Apr 2014 03:36:05 GMThttp://vk3mrg.weebly.com/blog/anzac-day-activationsPictureThe operating position on Mt St Leonard
Mt St Leonard

Activated 24 & 25 April 2014

With some last minute planning the night before, I set off early on Anzac Day with the intention of activating four summits. The weather forecast was looking good and there was no sign of rain on the BOM radars over the state.

My first stop was Mt St Leonard VK3/VC-006. On my last activation here was on 15 June last year and following my problems with excessive RF noise working HF from the viewing platform I opted this time to set up amongst the grass and rocks on the far side of the towers. This was as far away as I could practically get from the powerlines that I think were the main issue last time.

With the HF vertical antenna set up I turned on the radio and the meter showed S3 noise which was a massive improvement over last time. The only other noise to contend with was atmospheric crashes that were quite strong and making reception on 40 metres particularly difficult for VK1 and VK2 stations.

For this activation I used AX3MRG/P, the AX prefix being permitted for use on occasions of special national or international significance such as ANZAC Day and Australia Day. First to answer my calls was Andrew AX2UH. For the next 45 minutes I worked a steady stream of chasers including a CW cross-mode contact with Wayne AX3WAM working from VK3/VT-018.

When things slowed down I decided to hang around for the UTC new day and maximise summit to summit points. I then worked Nick VK3ANL/P on VK3/VE-014 both sides of the rollover, followed by more s2s contacts with Mark AX3ASC, Nigel AX5NIG/P on VK5/SE-013 and Matt VK2DAG/P on VK2/NT-009. As soon as I worked Matt, I pulled the antenna down and packed up to head off to Mt Dom Dom.

PicturePhoto taken about half way between the road and summit of Mt Dom Dom
Mt Dom Dom VK3/VN-017

Activated 25 April 2014

It is surprising how quickly a recently logged forest can regrow. On my last visit here back ten months ago access to the summit was relatively easy. Most of the new growth was only waist high and traversing obstacles like burned logs and occasional rocks was not a problem. This time around however many of the new growth saplings were around 3 metres high and the undergrowth was extremely dense making for a real bush bashing excersise. For anyone contemplating doing this summit be aware that it is now a real challenge. Be prepared to bruise your shins on unseen logs as you push through. Wear long pants and sleeves as well as glasses for eye protection. I still received several cuts and scrapes on arms and legs despite being well covered.

It took me a good deal longer to get into the activation zone than anticipated and the going got even harder in the top third of the ascent. I arrived within metres of where I operated last time according to the GPS but it was not really recognisable. Not needing to bash through any further I set up the HF vertical antenna in the tightest operating position I have worked from to date. I was unable to spread the counterpoise radials out very effectively but still got on 40 metres and quickly worked four s2s stations in a row, Peter VK3PF, Rob VK3EK, Glenn VK3YY and Bernard VK2IB/3 sharing the same summit as VK3PF.

Because of the sub optimal setup, my signal was well down on usual according to most reports and reception at my end was also poor. Allen VK3HRA was also on a summit and we could both just hear each other if the wind was blowing the right way but it was not enough to log a s2s contact. All in all, eleven contacts logged before I gladly packed up to crash my way back to the vehicle and picking up a few more bumps and scrapes along the way. As this area is frequently logged, future activators will have an easier time if an adjoining section to the summit is cleared. Otherwise I would pick several nearby summits as alternatives.

The very cramped operating position on Mt Dom Dom

Mt Gordon VK3/VN-027

Activated 25 April 2014

After the hard slog on Mt Dom Dom, Mt Gordon was a breeze. Nothing here changed from my last visit apart from the weather which was much better. I parked near the gateposts on the saddle of the hill and quickly walked to the summit and set up in exactly the same spot with the same antenna and quickly picked up s2s contacts with Bernard VK2IB/3 and Peter VK3PF both on VK3/VE-029 and Rob VK3EK on VK3/VG-125.

Over the next twenty minutes I worked a total of 18 stations with much easier operating conditions and better reports. I didn't hang around here for too long as I was particularly eager to visit Mt Strickland and try working the greyline DX into Europe.

PictureThe summit of Mt Strickland
Mt Strickland VK3/VN-030

Activated 25 April 2014

After reading the blog of Glenn VK3YY on his activation of Mt Strickland I chose this as my final summit of the day due to ease of access and clear area to easily throw up the doublet for the chance of some 20 metre DX.

One can drive right to the summit and I drove to the top coming in the same way as Glenn had done and drove back down the other side outside the activation zone where I parked. Strolling back to the top I quickly worked out how to string the doublet broadside to Europe using a couple of dead standing trees in the edge of the clearing. My operating table was a stump and I pulled out my plastic mat to sit on.

I was on air at 0649z on 40 metres first with another s2s contact for the day with Rob VK3EK this time on VK3/VG-144. I quickly logged eight contacts on 40 metres before changing to 20 metres and tuning the doublet when I was aware that Ed DD5LP/P (VK2JI) was operating from DL/AL-169. I quickly found him on 14.310 Mhz as per the alert he had posted earlier and jumped in. He came back to me and I had my first s2s contact into Europe logged. With 5 watts from me it was my  prize contact of the day and most worthwhile hanging around and planning for. Thanks Ed!

After the short QSO with Ed I moved up to 14.315 Mhz and started calling for more DX as the sun was setting and the temperature rapidly falling. My calls were answered by Mike G6TUH who was pleased to log another VK summit. My last contact for the day was John VK4TJ and after a few more minutes of calling without a reply I quickly pulled down the antenna and packed up before it got too dark.

Thanks to all the chasers I worked today, especially Ed and Mike. With my first DX s2s contact completed and very few DX summits worked from home due to horrible RF noise, I'm very motivated to plan some more DX activations in the coming weeks and will certainly post my intentions on SOTAWATCH prior.