Imagine taking a vacation to an exotic paradise island, checking into a
five-star resort and ordering room service to bring you a top-of-the-line
new rig with a linear to boot. You then plug the rig into the coax feeding
an antenna farm, including a tri-band yagi, up on a hill overlooking the
ocean. You flip a few switches and youíre QRV with a vanity call from a DXCC top 100 most-wanted country.
The scene is no fantasy. I got to live it recently and so can any ham who is willing to do a bit of traveling, but is short of the money or stamina to organize a full-fledged DXípedition.
Iíve traveled to 40 countries in connection with my broadcasting work, but, despite being licensed since the age of 13, Iíve only operated from a half dozen or so nations. Most of the time licensing procedures, lack of baggage room for gear and antennas and little free time have made hamming difficult.
A while back, while contemplating a business trip combined with a family vacation to the Republic of Palau, combing through the pages of Japan's CQ Ham Radio magazine, I read that a hotel there was offering a rental shack . In a mutual effort to promote tourism and showcase new equipment, a Tokyo tour operator, with support from several equipment makers, including Yaesu and Force 12, has put together a tour package for visiting hams from Japan.
With 800,000 hams in Japan, where an urban environment and QRP on HF is the norm, the Palau DXípedition package has great appeal. The package even includes handling the licensing procedures, something I did on my own.
Anyone contemplating operating from Palau, whether in the rental shack or on their own, is advised to apply many months in advance for a license. Palau's bureaucracy is typical of that of tropical nations and there are no automatic reciprocal privileges for foreign hams in Palau, which only has a population of 15,000 (thatís total population, not the ham population!). Licensing is handled by the country's Ministry of Commerce, using an application form left over from the KC6-prefix days of the U.S. Trust Territory administration. (My application was a copy of a completed previous form on which the data entered had been erased with white-out.)
In practice, foreign hams with proof of current licensing will usually be granted a one-year license and a vanity call with their initials, if available. (I got T88SH). In reality, Palau, independent only since 1994, which foreigners primarily visit for its world reknown scuba diving, has virtually no amateur radio regulations. Hams who operate there are on the honor system as the governmentís sole radio communication technician is a Japanese Peace Corps type volunteer with no radio to monitor the HF spectrum. He is, however, a ham (JR7XDO) who is eager to help Palau codify its regulations. I told Shiroto Yasutaka, who I met in the Ministryís communications department as I picked up my license in person, that I would send them a copy of the FCC U.S. amateur radio regulations. I also plan to donate an HF receiver to the Ministry so that Shiroto-san can become the Riley Hollingsworth of the South Pacific.
One of the attractions of Palau for Japanese hams is most hold a fourth-class license limiting them to 20 watts on HF, but Palau has yet to codify restricting such visiting hams to QRP status.
"We are a bit worried about a wave of Japanese coming here operating with a linear for the first time with limited HF experience of any kind and no English," said one official.
When I arrived at the Palau Pacific Resort on Arakebesang Island, about a 30-minute slow drive (and everyone drives slowly in Palau) from the airport, I couldnít wait to get my hands on the rental shackís VL-1000 linear.
Much to my surprise when I checked in to the room, I couldn't see a trace of anything ham-like in Room 214 (the designated shack). It took a call to the front desk to get the rigs delivered (there had been a mix-up on my arrival date). They also told me to look carefully in the closet where I found the feed lines hidden beneath a false bottom.
About an hour later, I had hooked up the two sparkling new HF rigs (a 1000-MP and a FT-920), had the linear plugged into the 200v AC feed, wired up the antenna rotor control box and matched the coax lines to two of the four incoming feeds (the HF yagi and the muti-band dipole, leaving unconnected the WARC-band dipole and the 6-meter beam).
The rental shack also comes with two stuffed toolboxes, extra coax and connectors, soldering iron, maps and instruction books. The only thing youíll need to bring from home is your straight key or bug and logbooks (bring a lot of them, I ran out much quicker than I expected).
I knew I would be shuffling my DXíing amid business appointments, playing with my son at the pool and on the beach and sightseeing with the non-ham XYL. In retrospect it probably would have been better to put them in an adjacent room as the perturbed XYL and fascinated son did not find the key clicks, the panel lights and humming of the linear fan conducive to dozing off. But with room rates north of $200 a night that was not an economical option.
Nothing in Palau is cheap. South of Guam and east of the Philippines, just about everything in Palau is imported from afar and the tourist culture, dominated by Japanese and Taiwanese tour packages, features Tokyo-level prices. The only tourism bargain I found was the moonshine in a local shop. The sign at the counter actually read moonshine and it came in a no-label tall beer bottle for $1.50. It actually fermented tapioca and downing a bottle will leave you in no condition for hi-speed CW.
Wisely eschewing the local brew, I fired up the linear to pump a kilowatt to the Force-12 C3 yagi at 45 feet overlooking the Pacific and beaming just off due north to Tokyo, I usually had a JA pileup within minutes on 10,15,20 or 40, regardless of time of day.
Disaster struck on the third day when following a long evening on both CW and SSB, I awoke to find my voice gone and my fist worn out. Not being an active contester, I realized I had put my body through the equivalent of a half-marathon without the proper training. In reality I had dehydrated and had caught a cold with the side effects of laryngitis and exhaustion.
Phone was out of the question, so I switched back to CW but found my fist as shaky as a just-licensed novice. My new call, T88SH, has a lot of ĎditsĀEon the end and even slowing down I just couldnít get it out smoothly. I admitted defeat and went to spend the day at the beach.
A monsoon-like afternoon downpour tempted me back in the shack and although the voice was still mostly gone I couldn't resist one of my true ham radio passions 10 meter FM DXng. I spend much of driving time in Tokyo (where I have a home) sitting in traffic with my 10-watt rig amid canyons of skyscrapers thrilled just to be able to have QSO with Japanese hams in the next prefecture.
Tuning up to 29 megahertz, at first I was disappointed to get a earful of what is usually heard on the band from Tokyo -- the voices of unlicensed Chinese yelling on just about every frequency. Finally I found a quiet spot at 29.26 and trimming the amp back to 500 watts, I soon gave JF3XDX in Kyoto his first T8, followed by DS5ICY in South Korea. Unfortunately, despite listening at various times day and night, I never heard any North Americans on 10-meter FM. Some days later, coming across Chris, ZS6EZ, in Pretoria on 10m SSB -- after he asked to try a QSO on 12 meters -- I lured him to 29.01 to bag South Africa on FM. Running 640 watts now and beaming to the southeast, he gave me a solid 59 -- the highlight of my room service DX'pedition.
When I had scheduled my Palau trip, I had not realized I would be there for the CQ WPX CW contest. About an hour after the test began I realized what was going on and despite a busy weekend of appointments I managed to spend just enough time on air to hopefully qualify for a top country score certificate.
There is apparently only one other active resident ham in the country and I got no indication he was participating in the contest. Ironically one of the very few resident hams in the country is the Japanese chief engineer at the Palau Pacific Resort, Sone-san, T88SS, but he told me his job keeps him too busy to operate.
When it was time to QRT, I had racked up over five leisurely days of operating some 604 QSOs with 49 countries. My secret goal, I am ashamed to admit now, had been 1000 QSOs and 100 countries, which I belatedly realized might have been possible had I not had a family in tow and had been willing to go without a couple nights of sleep. Nonetheless I intend to go back and get those 400 other QSOs and the 51 remaining countries soon. I also deliberately left until next time, six meters.
The hilltop tower is crowned with a six-meter eight-element rotatable beam which I'm sure will
thrill pileups of JA's when T88SH returns to the air.
Steve Herman (W7VOA, 7J1AIL, 9N7VOA and A52SW) is a veteran foreign correspondent in Asia.