With work commitments to get out of the way on Saturday morning, I made my escape as soon as possible, passing via Flinders Peak VK3/VC-030 as a SOTA activation on the way. After parking the car, I rushed to the top as quickly as I cood and got on air shortly after the start of the JMFD. I initially made contact with VK3ER on Mt Cowley and Nick VK3ANL on Mt Disappointment on 2 metres FM with the handheld. I later set up the new 2 metre dipole horizontally and went to the lower end of the band and made a solid SSB contact with Ralph and Damien VK3KQ on Mt Horsfall, Max VK3WT, Andre VK3FASW and Peter VK3PH.
In between this 2 metre activity which was quite orderly, I tried 40 metres and the band was busy. It was great to hear a good number of portable stations out and operating but I was struck by the general mayhem, rigs with terribly overdriven and distorted modulation, extreme compression and a lack of operator skill and manners in some cases. Many of the contesting stations were running high power and also seemed to have trouble hearing clearly above the noise. It also seemed that many portable stations were hard of hearing too. I suspected this was because many were running QRO with generators, inverters and other noise producing equipment taken to an otherwise normally RF quiet site. Severe storm activity across Victoria on Saturday afternoon and evening also added greatly to the atmospheric noise.
I kept my activation of Flinders Peak brief. I could see the storm front approaching from the west and the wind started to pick up significantly. I qualified the summit and packed gettingt back to the car as quickly as possible with light rain falling and started for Mt Cowley. At Winchelsea the storm front arrived with torrential rain making driving visibility very poor and the wind bending trees and sending debris and branches across the road as I drove. I pictured the club station up on Mt Cowley swimming in the main comms tent and antennas blowing over but they were all OK and probably quite well protected by the surrounding forest from the full force of the front.
After settling in I took a shift on HF and the noise was terrible. QRN pegged the meter at times but the guys were struggling with S7 noise on average. This was worse than anything I normally put up with at home! They suspected that it was probably due to some of the comms infrastructure on the Mt Cowley tower being upgraded to digital but I wasn't so sure. Being no stranger to portable operating and not wishing to question the efforts of my fellow club members or their HF setup, we just had to press on with what we had. Stopping the show now to get the antennas higher and routing power cables away from antenna feeds, etc would have cost us time and points. The passing showers outside made the HF van a preferable place to stay anyway.
We worked away at our HF score steadily and I found myself frequently apologising to the other stations contacted for our lousy conditions and thanking them for their perseverence when we were able to confirm the contact after several repeated overs. More distorted overdriven contest stations, more inconsiderate stations announcing their callsigns multiple times to drown out others, splatter from adjacent frequencies - this wasn't much fun. Fortunately a few radio friends around sharing the load and joking around lightens up an otherwise disappointing situation.
And then an appearance from the saddest clown in the circus, a well known serial pest on HF and repeaters from the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Without announcing his name or callsign, he starts to interject between overs like a policeman of the air, insisting that everyone should use their names and that other stations may be CBers and not legitimate amateur radio operators. This clown probably highly fuelled by the grape or grain, interfered between several more overs before disappearing, to probably harass another contest station with his bilge.
Contacts to DXpedition, SOTA or contest stations or can appear to be quite impersonal at times but the point is to make and confirm the contact and simply move on. I don't consider myself to be an avid contester but I want to enjoy the event as much as possible when I choose to be a part of one.
Getting involved with SOTA has taught me a lot about portable operating, being efficient with equipment and working pileups so that everyone gets a go. People not involved with SOTA who have accompanied me on an activation to find out how it works are usually surprised that most SOTA chasers and activators are on first name basis already and that you can sometimes work 3 stations from a pileup a minute in an orderly and friendly manner unlike some of the operating demonstrated during contests.
Although I sometimes find contest stations and the general mayhem to be annoying at times, I acknowledge their right to be on the bands doing their thing. It is my choice to engage any station that I wish on air and sometimes busting through a DX pileup, working a pedestrian portable station in the UK from my bicycle portable station, or working DX SOTA with 5 watts seems so much more rewarding.
The final test for my weekend on Mt Cowley was to activate it as a SOTA summit which I did after assisting with the packing up of the club station and staying back once the others had departed for home. I grabbed my gear, walked well out of the activation zone and returned. I set up the doublet and jumped straight on to 40 metres. Surprise, surprise! Almost no noise. My fellow club members had neatly packed it all away and taken it home with them!
No problems on 40 metres at all. Twelve contacts in around 15 minutes with Peter VK3PF in Gippsland the first in the log, 5 watts both ways with 58, 59 reports exchanged. A steady flow of contacts until a light shower slowed me down alittle. I laughed when Matt VK1MA came up on frequency thinking that he may have missed out on a contact whilst I covered the equipment from the rain. He had a short conversation with Ron VK3AFW, while I wimped out in the rain. I played him out for a while and then came up from the covers to give him a contact.
When the shower passed I went up to 20 meters and had a listen. The band was wide open and busy with yet another contest. I found 14.290 Mhz clear and put out calls for several minutes to no avail. I returned to 7.090 Mhz and there was Allen VK3HRA on VK3/VC-032 for a S2S contact. I then put out the word again that I would QSY to 20 meters. This time it paid off. John VK6NU, Dave VK4OZY and then Allen VK3HRA once again.
And this time on flea power, quick set up and pack up, and my whole station in a backpack, the contacts were easily copied with virtually no noise or interference, The activation was enjoyable, flowed without mayhem and over distances we were struggling with at full power when the circus was on the air earlier.