S9OK story – Sao Tome

São Tomé is the capital island of the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe. It is oval in shape (45km long, 30km wide) and lies in the Atlantic Ocean, almost on the equator, about 300km off the coast of Gabon. It is quite mountainous, with the highest mountain rising more than 2,000 metres above sea level. The island has a population of just under 200,000 and Portuguese is he main languagethat is spoken there.

We first started talking about the expedition to Sao Tomé before we left for our previous successful expedition to San Andrés (5K0K, 2019). It was agreed that it would be our destination for 2020. We were aware that its position in the „most wanted“ on Clublog was not high, but we still hoped that there would be enough interest in working us. After all, HK0/A was not high either, and there was a lot of interest. After looking at all of the accommodation options, which as usual were limited to begin with, we chose a QTH on the northern tip of the island (LOC JJ30HJ). This was one of the few places that could accommodate 8 operators and promised reasonable space for antennas. The QTH is open across the ocean to NA, EU and AS and over a slight climb to SA. The situationwas the worst to VK/ZL due to steep climb in this direction. Since the island is mountainous,  some directions will always be shaded.

Unfortunately Covid thwarted our plans (as well as the plans of other DX-pedition groups around the world), so we postponed the expedition to 2021. We cancelled the booked QTH with the agreement that we would definitely come when the pandemic conditions allowed. What was worse was that the license with the call sign S9OK expired. After a year we had to apply and pay for a new one. The issue of a new license was unexpectedly complicated. The confirmation of the S9OK call for 2021 took over five months.

During the summer there was a gradual vaccination of all operators. Everyone hoped that it would work out at leastby the end of 2021, even though autumn is usually riskier than summer. We divided the tasks for rig and antenna preparations among us. We planned to build eight stations. Five would be equipped with 1kWPA. At the beginning of September there was a pre-expedition meeting, as usual at Petr OK1FCJ’s place in Ritka, where the last details were fine-tuned and 4 bags with antennas were finally packed. The fifth bag was still waiting for the completion of the new antennas for 6m and 15m from OK2ZI’s workshop and therefore it was finished by our „Moravian gang“ a few days later.We also tested the computer network and set up the loggers. 

Our teamwhich consists of Petr OK1BOA, Palo OK1CRM, Petr OK1FCJ, Pavel OK1GK, Ruda OK2ZA, Luděk OK2ZC, Karel OK2ZI and David OK6DJ met on Friday October 1st at 5 PM at the Václav Havel airport in Prague. This was preceded by a complete doubleCovid-19 testing of the whole team. We aimed to arrive on the island with the testbeing less than 72 hours old, as commanded by the local legislation. The flight from Prague to Lisbon was delayed, so the short meeting with CT1BOH did not take place. Pity. We stayed overnight in Lisbon in an airport hotel and on Saturday morning we took the next flight to Sao Tomé with a stopover in Ghana. The journey was uneventful and on schedule. At Sao Tomé we went through customs, passport and health control. After checking our suspicious baggage (we were carrying 500kg of material, which we fortunately didn’t even have to unpack in the end) we got into thehiredcarsand drove to the QTH which was located about 20km away in the village of Morro Peixe. Arriving in deep darkness, we met Claudio who was the local chef and a sort of „night manager“ at Residencial Tamarindos, which became our home for the next two weeks. In the morning the property manager showed us to our future ham shack. It was fantastic. A large pergola 7mby 12m, bricked on three sides and the fourth wall was a large insect net. We immediately set about unpacking our baggage. It was clear that we wouldn’t build the antennas that day, norwould we survey the terrain, but we were able toset up the stations on the tables. There were two stations equipped with K3+JUMA and two with IC-705+JUMA. The fifth one was equipped with SUNSDR2DX+JUMA and three TS-480s, which would be used on 60m/6m and also for FT4/FT8.

In addition to the ham shack we have rented an apartment house, which contained four modest little apartments, each one room with a narrow double bed and a bathroom. Everything looked exactly as it did in the photos and as promised by the manager, except for the Internet. It worked somehow, but very slowly and with major outages. We postponed finding a solution for later though. We were very tired, so we split up in pairs, went to bed and fell asleep immediately. 

Sunday started with breakfast, finished with a bowl of local fruit. Then we did a quick tour of the terrain and suggested antenna placements. The build went quickly as we had already tried and practiced everything from previous expeditions. At noon Claudio called us together for a delicious grilled fish. At that point three beams for 6m were finished, all three five-band Spiderbeams were half finished, eight radiators for the 30m and 40m bands were assembled, and one for the40m band was even in place on the hill above our QTH. The multiband vertical was also complete. The 80m vertical was assembled but still lying on the ground. However, the radial network, which is the most time consuming piece, was finished. The weather outside was clear, the temperature was around 30°C and the humidity was around 90%, so one could imagine how sweat was pouring off of us. After lunch the construction continued and by evening all of the Spiderbeams were up as well as  the 80m vertical and 2el. beam for 40m tothe US. We also assembled the 2el. yagis for 17m, 15m and 12m on a lowered mast close to the ham shack. It was already dark and we didn’t want to risk erecting the mast in the dark. By the afternoon the S9OK call was on the air, activated by David OK6DJ as in tradition. All evening we were working simultaneously on five bands and gradually we found out when which band started opening. At night only some of us went to sleep. Most of us tookturnsat the stations. The pileups were unexpectedly big. After a long period without DX-peditions because of Covid-19 our expedition excited the ham radio community around the whole world. We were glad that there would be plenty to do.

On Monday just after dawn we continued working on the antennas. We erected a vertical for 160m, anotherone for 60m and a trio of 2el. yagis. During this, the rest of the team took turns at the rig on allbands. They madealmost ten thousand new QSOs. It wasexcellent considering the amount of time we spent on the antennas. There were also several power outages. As it turned out later, these outages would be the order of the day. Claudio made sure we were not hungry and prepared more delicious fish for lunch and dinner. At night we tried 160m. Although the vertical can normally be used for RX only to a limited extent, a lot of big-gun stations were calling so the absence of receiving antennas basically didn’t matter. The log showed the first 197 contacts on 160m including a couple of stations from the USA.

We worked all night. The upper bands were open until midnight, then the lower bands until morning. We tried to „keep the air full“as much as possible, so there were always at least five stations on the air. Operators slept only 3-4 hours in rotation to accommodate the pileups of callers. During the day we went in groups to try the local sea. It was warm, clear and calm. Walking through the village, it was obvious at first glance that S9 is a very poor country and the people live modestly on practically nothing. In the afternoon, the 10m band opened up nicely, so part of the team rampaged on the upper bands and we also activated another station on the 6m. The remainder set off, equipped with machetes, long pants and sleeves, to haul two beverage antennas into the jungle in the directions JA and USA. In the meantime the facility manager arranged for fibre optic internet to be set up; an unprecedented thing by local standards. No one believed it, but in the afternoon the technicians really arrived and started to work. Hats off, it couldn’t have been done this fast even in OK. In the early evening there were 20,000QSOs in the log. We were excited to see how the log was filling up and we watched with interest how our friends in OK and OM were gradually „checking” the boxes on Clublog. The only band that didn’t have any checks, yet, was the 6m, but we believed that this would come, too.

The night shift was busy on the lower bands, so the day shift always came before dawn. On the 40m VK and ZL were coming by the long path. We gave them the maximum space, as the QSO would be particularly difficult for them. On the other hand, the upper bands (10m,12m and 15m) worked very well to JA right after dawn, so again we used these openings to the maximum and only gave the EU space when the sun set in Japan. It was cloudy all day and we wanted to take advantage of this, so part of the team did outdoor activities. We managed to set up another beverage antenna to the EU through the valley and built a 2el. vertical system for the 30m directed to JA. Unfortunately, one of the TS-480 which was used on the 60m and 6m, broke down in the afternoon. It left us with no other choice but to borrow one from the FT8 setup and limit the traffic on this mode. We also received several requests from our Japanese colleagues to slightly adjust our bandplan due to the collision frequencies on the 80m. We have also had some saddening reports from VK/ZL that we made very few QSOs  to their area. We were aware of this, but the location of our QTH was unfavorable for this direction. No one was calling us during short path openings over the mountainous terrain, and therefore virtually all contacts had to be made via the long path. We even set up a Facebook chat with several leading DX-men from VK/ZL who provided us with information about when our signal was passing through there and when it made sense to stop pileups and just focus on that area. This information proved to be very useful and helped increase the number of stations from Oceania in the log.

There are two „pure“ SSB operators in our team, Petr OK1BOA and Ruda OK2ZA. Although they tried their best, they could not compete with six CW operators. We noticed remarkson the Internet that the number of SSB QSOs compared to other modes was relatively low.So we decided to make an“SSB day“ on Thursday and assigned more people to this mode. From lunch all afternoon, evening and night, until the early morning hours, 5 stations consistently worked on SSB only. The number of QSOs was increasing nicely, but the pileups were interrupted by power outages. We couldn’t continue this way. We knew there was a backup generator at QTH. Before using it we tried to arrange with Claudio to check out their local power lines. The supply seemed strong as there were countless air conditioners on the facades. Our consumption must have been lower compared to them as they were off. We also found out that the coaxial leads from some of the antennas had voltage on their shield. It was clear that there was something wrong with the grounding of the power network there.

In the early evening, when the temperature dropped a bit, we equipped the EU beverage antenna with radials, for which we had no time before. We also built another antenna – 2el. vertical system for the 30m directed to the USA. In the evening we hit the 40,000 QSOs mark. We logged – mainly due to brisk SSB traffic – more than 10 thousand QSOs in one day. At night, most of the tired operators went to bed. We were working mostlyon 160m and alternately 80m, 60m and 40m. Again there were several power outages.We had to wake up Claudio to ask him to turn on the circuit breakers. The switchboard was in the kitchen to whichwe had no access. However, the 160m went well, the beverage antenna received well, and thanks to the experience of our low-band operators we added another 400 QSOs to the log. However, in the morning the power went out again. Running out of patience, we insisted on starting up the generator. We used it all day Friday and all night Saturday. During the day we also troubleshooted problems with Clublog, which was duplicating some FT8 QSOs. The culprit was a misconfiguration of the MSHV program and a different way of processing imported links on Clublog from a ADIF file generated by MSHV and from the Livestream link. We managed to resolve the problem, even if it meant deleting the complete log on Clublog and uploading it again in parts. We then rotated all of the upper bands during the day. CW traffic was brisk and from the feedback we received via FB, emails and DX Cluster the amateur community perceived our operation very positively, which of course made us happy. This day was also the first time the 6m band had opened and we made several QSOs on that band as well.

We used the generator all ofSaturday night. It was very noisy, but we just needed the power. Using it would make the expedition a little more expensive, though. It had been seven days since we had been on the island, so we set one station aside as it would be operating mainly on RTTY. There is not so much activity with this mode nowadays, FT8 and FT4are much more prevalent. After lunch, the next benchmark was to hit 50,000 QSOs. We were getting a lot of compliments via FB, especially the JA stationsappreciated that we were patiently attending to them every evening on the lower bands and every morning at dawn on the upper bands. The pileups had not faded at all. It was clear that we were wrong to think that the DXCC country,160th place in the „most wanted“ list, would not be in demand. In the afternoon we had another radio failure.The PTT output of the new IC-705 didn’t work. We could only use it on SSB where the PTTs of the radio and PA are controlled simultaneously with the pedal. It’s a complication, but solvable by switching stations. Again, the 6m had opened up. We could log further stations, but again only from the southern EU. In the early evening there was a moment when we were exactly halfway through our expedition. At that point there were 54,000 QSOs in the log. It became clear to all of us that the previous CDXP „record“ of HK0/A was about to be broken and the optimists among us started to dream about hitting the 100k mark. We knew that the packing of the antennas would go much faster than the construction, and that what we had been building for two days would be taken down in four hours. If everything went well, it might work.

Sunday was a bit disappointing. We expected that the bands would be full of stations on the weekend, but it didn’t happen. After a poor Saturday came an even poorer Sunday. It seemed that propagation conditions were not bad, but fewer stations were calling. It was probably because another two expeditions, 3DA0RU and J5T/J5HKT, went out in Africa, so the pileups were naturally spread among the three expeditions. We took advantage of this to shut down the stations, disconnect the power supply and thoroughly inspect the wiring. We found several botches. We fixed them and hoped that it would solve our problems. It did, but not completely. The electrical grid in Sao Tome is not in tip-top shape. The outages still continued to occur, but they were village-wide outages that were not related to the local wiring. In the evening we started working on the 60m SSB. This mode had never been activated on S9 on this band before. 

Monday was a special day for us. We completed our efforts in the non-radio amateur area, namely giving gifts to a local school and kindergarten. It all started a few weeks before the expedition when we were approached by Zorro JH1AJT, the patron of the FGC (Foundation for Global Children). We agreed that he would provide a sum of money which we would use to purchase items for the local schools. Upon our arrival on the island we explained the matter to the manager, who then arranged not only the exact lists of what the schools might need, but also how much it would cost and where we could buy everything. On Monday, two of the team went on a big shopping trip and, accompanied by the manager, began a 5-hour shopping marathon. Upon returning to the hotel, we divided the gifts by destinations. One part went to the local primary school and the other to the kindergarten.There werenot only computers and their accessories, but also plates, cutlery, light bulbs, balls, papers, pots, scoops and finally a TV with antenna and one large freezer. Visiting both facilities was an incredible experience for us. We could see the joy and happiness on the faces of the children. We were very happy that this goal of our amateur radio mission was also successful. Once again, many thanks to Zorro JH1AJT and the FGC Foundation.

Later in the afternoon the whole team returned back to the QTH and resumed operations in the usual manner. Everyone found the mode and band that suited them and so the station rotating schedule was more or less natural. In the evening, another benchmark was reached – 70,000 QSOs. We were very encouraged by this. The propagation conditions were exceptionally good on all the upper bands, including the 10m being open till midnight. We made the most of it with two stations working on the 15m on CW and SSB continuously for many hours. When the bands were closing, we activated the FT4 mode. The great thing was that even on the lower bands the propagation was good and on both the 80m and 160m we managed to make more JA stations that evening.

In the morning, when dawnhad broken and the traffic on the lower bands ended, there were several power outages again. It was very annoying. We were also worried about the PAs as the power outage during the operation may damage them. We remembered the situation at HK0/A where several PAs broke due to outages and undervoltage in the  power network. Fortunately, nothing similar happened here. Only one PA showed some problems with the reflectometer protection, but was usable after disabling it. The remaining four PAs worked without any problems. Propagation conditions were below average this day and night, but we were still able to make some QSOs. Despite the poor conditions, the 6m band briefly opened again, this time also to the central EU. We even made one single QSO to our home country with Ivan OK1PI. We read on the Internet about a big flare on the sun which might impact the propagation. We were terrified by that as there were almost 80 thousand QSOs in our log and still almost three days of operation ahead of us. The 100,000 mark was really close, but if we were „obstructed“ by the deteriorated propagation conditions it might not happen. The food didn’t help our mood, either. Although Claudio was a really great cook, there was either fish or sometimes chicken for lunch and dinner every day. It was clear to us that there was probably nothing else to be found on the island, although there were goats and pigs running around freely. We were just tired of ten days of the same food. And to make things worse, another TRXbroke. One of the K3s stopped producing power. It had to be shut down and decommissioned.

On Wednesday, it rained heavily all day with streams of water running down the garden. We monitored the A and K indices. The A was 45, which bode ill for the propagation. The conditions were really bad. We tried CW and SSB regularly, but it didn’t work. After many futile CQs weswitched toFT8 or FT4. However, closer to noon there was a reversal, even though it was not noticeable outside and the rain was still intense. The propagation conditions improved dramatically. We started working on all of the upper bands, some with two stations. The EU and NA were coming in surprisingly strong. Five of our stations were running SSB and two FT8. The rate climbed to 30 QSO/minute and 900 QSO per hour. We were thrilled, our mood quickly improved and we started dreaming of the 100k again. With a 900 QSOs per hour rate it would be easy. The upper bands faded after midnight, but the lower bands still worked decently. We tuned the 80m vertical from CW to the SSB segment and for the first time we activated SSB on that band. There was a lot of interest. The operators on the lower bands had a really tough job. The top of the highest mountain on the island was permanently in the clouds and thunderstorms swirled around the mountain several times a day causing huge QRN. Copying the weak signals in it was very tiring. Unfortunately, the discipline of the callers didn’t help, either. Although we called directional calls very frequently, the callers did not respect that. This also applied to OK/OM stations, who, knowing they were calling their friends and hoping that we might somehowfavor them, often disrupted pileups of weak stations from distant locations. This was extremely annoying and debilitating. We were thinking of teaching them proper manners – but how? 

However, it was not only a lack of operational discipline and minimal sleep (we usually slept 3-4 hours a day) that contributed to operator fatigue, but also the „physical wear and tear“ on our bodies. There were big wooden chairs in the ham shack, and after ten days of constant sitting, literally everything hurt and we did not know how to sit down at the station. Some CW operators solved this by broadcasting standing up for a while. It was very uncomfortable and inconvenient, but still better than sitting. Bruised ears from headphones are commonplace on an expedition, and when you add swollen legs from the knees down, it’s a far cry from physical comfort. It was the last day of full operation, so we had no choice but to grit our teeth and hang on. The SSB operators were starting to have voice problems, but they were giving it their all. That six-figure mark was within reach. However, we have to admit that a gang of eight guys, who went on a 14-day „vacation“ in good shape and full strength, would all come home complete wrecks. OK2ZI got stuck by a hedgehog in the leg, OK2ZC got bitten by a centipede that got into his shoe during the night shift. OK1GK got a puncture in his foot while building the 160m vertical. The reward, however, was open bands when strong signals came through and the operator managed to „orchestrate“ the big pileups. This was also helped by the fact that all of our antennas worked flawlessly all the time and generated decent, strong signals. We already had a lot of QSOs on all modes, so today we activated the last one – PSK. 

With Friday came the gradual end of our expedition, but just before a miracle came true in the morning – 100,000 QSOs were in the log! We opened a bottle of gin and toastedour success. Afer finishing the breakfast, which was good, but just like before, we had to go to the hospital for Covid-19 tests. The whole trip to the capital took about three hours. S9OK could not be on the air during this time of course, so on our return, we started the operation right away. As they say, the appetite grows with the food. We had to come up with another mark and we set it to105,652 QSOs. By that number, we would be in the top 20 most successful expeditions of all time according to the list maintained by GDXF. In the afternoon we had to start packing some antennas according to the prepared schedule. We took down one Spiderbeam together with the 6m yagi and made only single verticals from all of the vertical twins for the 30m and 40m. Departure from QTH was scheduled for Saturday at 16:30 hours and everything had to be packed perfectly by then. For dinner we got fish – again delicious, but fish again… After dinner we gave our full attention to the lower bands to make the most of the last night. Anyone who didin’t work us now wouldn’t have another opportunity on the lower bands. The antennas would go down in the morning. On this last night in particular (for the first time during the expedition) the conditions were great on  the 160m. It started with an opening to JA, with about a hundred new JA stations suddenly appearing on CW. Unfortunately, due to their lack of discipline and problematic reception in the equatorial QRN conditions, only 36 QSOs could be completed. This was followed by strong European stations and then a number of North American stations including several W6/W7 in the morning. On this last night, 277 CW QSOs were made on the 160m out of a total of 2,167 contacts. FT8 did not get a turn at all that night. How glad we were that we decided to keep the 160m antennas up for the last night.

On Saturday morning we were supposed to start packing right away, but we just couldn’t do it. The morning shift sat just as every day on CW on the 10m, 12m and 15m at dawn, and we made contact with everyone who called only with a slight preference for JA. The pileups were not as big as before, but there were still a lot of stations calling. If we stayed there another week we would still have a lot to do. After breakfast we split into groups and started packing up. Only the FT4 and FT8 operators stayed at the radio. The final QRT came at 13:44, with a sensational 107,505 QSOs in the log. No one had hoped for this number before departure. We didn’t believe we would even get close to the 100k mark. The packing of the antennas went as planned, without any major problems, after all we are already an experienced team. Everything was packed, weighed and foiled about an hour before the schedule. We went to the sea for the last time, but wewere only able to stay there for a short time. Then we waited for taxis to arrive. The trip to the airport was uneventful, there were some minor complications at the check-in, but nothing major that would upset such experienced hikers. Before boarding the plane, we joked that we could have been offered fish or chicken for our on-board meals, of which we were fed up. What was the inflight offer? The poor flight attendant probably still doesn’t understand how such an innocuous phrase „chicken or fish“ could cause such a huge wave of laughter from all 8 passengers in weird yellow t-shirts.

The total number of QSOs is 107,505 which is a very high mark. We are thinking about the next destination we would like to go to, but wherever it will be, it will not be easy to surpass this mark. Currently, the result puts us in 20th place in the official Megaexpedic ranking (https://gdxf.de/megadxpeditions/honorroll.php). With only eight people and a modest budget at our disposal, this is an extraordinary achievement. After the expedition ended, we received many congratulations and compliments on our operation, and on how we promptly changed bands according to the opening and used DX windows to difficult directions. We were active on CW, SSB, RTTY, PSK, FT4 and FT8, gave a large number of stations a band point and for many we were a brand new DXCC country. It is an encouragement to us to keep working. If the world health situation is favorable, you can look forward to another „carnival“ next year.

QSL cards are already in production, requests will be processed by David OK6DJ. All OQRS direct requests were confirmed on LOTW a few days after returning home.

We would like to thank all the stations that have made a QSO with us. We would also like to thank the sponsors, both the associations (SEISA, DX-news, Northern California DX Foundation, Northern Illinois DX Association, Far East DX Ploiters, Mediterraneo DX Club, CDXC, Clipperton DX Club, European DX Foundation, Southeastern DX Club, Lone Star DX Association, MASTRANT, GM DX Group, OH DX Foundation, Danish DX Group, Greater Milwaukee DX Association), as well as individuals, especially W8TOP, K9YC, JA1BK, JA4DND, JH1RFR, JJ3PRT, AC8L, OK1MY, OK5MM, OK1FPG, OK1VK, OK1VJ, RD4A, JA8UIV, W9EWZ, LA5IIA, HB9BAS, OM2RA, RM2D, LB5GI, LA7THA, K6VOX, EA3HSO, HI3SD, KI8JP, W0SZ, K7TM, DM2HK, DD2CW, OK2BTJ, W0CP, OK1MP, OK1DCS, OK1CSS, OK1PA, PY5EG, N7WS, OK2PDN, OK1PI, OK1DOL, OK2BZM

For detailed statistics see https://clublog.org/charts/?c=S9OK#r


2xK3, 2xIC-705, 1xSUN-SDR2 DX , 3x TS-480.


160m vertical with capacitive hat + 10x quarter-wave radials  

80m vertical + 10x quarter-wave radials

60m vertical + 10x quarter-wave radials

40m 2el. vertical phased system + 2×10 quarter-wave radials

30m 2x2el. vertical phased system + 2x2x10 quarter-wave radials

40m – 15m multiband vertical 

20m – 10m 3x 5-band Spiderbeam

17m – 2el. Yagi

15m – 2el. Yagi

12m – 2el. Yagi

6m – 3el. Yagi

RX antennas:

4x beverage 150m long (NA, JA, EU, VK+ZL) 

Written by S9OK team

English translation by OK1DIX