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S04R: Braving the Blazing Sands

Fabrizio Vedovelli, IN3ZNR/WHØQ

A European team defies the Western Saharan desert for a second trip to Tifariti.

Where in the World is Tifariti?

After a successful activation of Rwanda as 9XØR in 2008, the “Tifariti gang” set about the task to decide “Where to next?”1 I would never have imagined that search would end up with me writing an article about Western Sahara. I had already operated from Western Sahara with the team of “SØ1R” and to repeat an operation there in 2009 was not in the plans. Unfortunately, after some months of preparation, I learned the news that 1 month before our planned activation of a different target country, there was another group activating the same DXCC entity.

With so little time to choose a new country, we knew that we would have to avoid an overly complicated activation. In the end, Tony, EA5RM (our team leader) and I, reached an accord on our new objective — a return to Western Sahara. We had good knowledge of the place, knowledge of the necessary logistics, good contacts with the authorities of the Arab Democratic Sahara Republic (RASD) and support from the Saharawis was assured. With all of this, we were able to significantly shorten the preparation time and were certain to be ready for our planned departure date.

The local authorities gave us assurances that we would be granted our operating license without any problems. Hearing that, we proposed to Democratic Arabic Republic of Sahara authorities that, if possible, we be issued a license with a suffix never before activated: “SØ4R, Sierra Zero Four Radio.”

Not too many people know that there exists in Africa a country called Western Sahara. This DXCC entity exists in a zone where it is difficult to live. Imagine an expanse of stones, sand and some bushes of brambles on a flat earth interrupted here and there with a rare hillock and sometimes showing the stains of green from a rare spring February rain. The Western Sahara corresponds to what in the 1970s was known as Spanish Sahara. At the end of the colonial era the Spaniards left the territory, Morocco occupied 4/5 of it while the RASD with its Polisario Front, controlled the remaining part. This part is on the border with Algeria and Mauritania, and essentially is pure desert. A garrison of UN troops is present in the territory with a peacekeeping mission called “MINURSO.”

The journey through the desert to our destination is an arduous one. The trip starts at Alicante airport, Spain. From there we always fly to Oran, North Algeria. Then, without deplaning, we fly on to Tinduf, a city in the extreme South of Algeria. Awaiting us there is an 8 hour drive through pure desert into the “free territory” (so called by Saharawis, the native people of Western Sahara).

This last part of the trip can only be done in a four-wheel-drive vehicle because of the ruggedness of the terrain. The location of the operation was the same as our previous activation, the village of Tifariti. Not too many miles from this village lies one of the larger bases of the United Nations. On a low hill sits a barracks that was once occupied by the “Spanish Foreign Legion” (a special Army Corps). In the village of Tifariti, you can see only one or two thin trees. On the hill where our barracks sit there are only stones, sand and spent cartridges of various weapons, including artillery casings. We cannot forget that here there had been a war for many years.

For this new adventure, our team was almost the same as the one that activated Rwanda in 2008, the veterans of the desert and Africa: Tony, EA5RM, team leader; Roberto, EA2RY; Manolo, EA7AJR; Bernard, F9IE, and Fabrizio, IN3ZNR. In addition there were Agustin, EA1KY; Alain, F6ENO, and Valery, UT7CR.

Equipping a Radio Safari

About transceivers, in addition to our normal rig, we chose to bring along an Elecraft K3 to be devoted to the Top Band. For this DXpedition we decided to eliminate aluminum from all of our antennas. The materials we used were fiberglass and wire — our first attempt to lower our antenna weight.

On the bands from 10-20 meters, the choices were a Spiderbeam and a Hex-Beam. For the lowest bands, we opted instead to build verticals with the usual fiberglass mast. These consisted of a quarter wave ground plane and four raised radials for 30 and 40 meters, while for 80 and 160 meters we planned to deploy an inverted L. For the lowest bands we put down as many radials as possible, obviously laying them right on the ground. Our final antenna layout also allowed us to include a simple inverted V dipole for 80 meters and two antennas for listening on the lowest bands.

In the end, the list of equipment, gear and material that each one of us had to stow in the airplane and bring along, exceeded the usual 20 kilogram per person limit. We had hoped to travel light, but fully equipping three to four stations with amplifiers and antennas for all bands caused us to reach the overweight amount of 350-400 kilograms.

Toward the Heart of the Sahara Desert

On Friday, April 10, 2009, I landed in Alicante, Spain. One hour later I was joined by the other members of the team, coming from France, Ukraine and northern Spain. After the meeting, we took to our comfortable beds for the last time to catch a few precious hours of sleep. Saturday morning, April 11, we did the last verification of our equipment, transceivers, amplifiers, antennas, computers and computer networks. In the early afternoon we transferred our 400 kilogram load to the Alicante airport. We used the same carrier we had for our previous DXpedition to Western Sahara so they were aware of our requirements. This allowed us to load our extra baggage in the Air Algeria plane without extensive discussions. We spent all of the first night flying to Oran and then to Tinduf, where we finally landed at 3 AM.

Luckily the Algerian customs didn’t ask too many questions about our transceivers. All of our equipment was unloaded and left on the square in front of the airport. We quickly recovered everything and then loaded it into the four-wheel-drive vehicles. By 4 AM we were driving on the road heading to Rabuni.

It was still a few hours to dawn when we entered the building of the Office of the RASD. We all got some sleep to recover a bit. Only an hour later, when a ray of sunshine struck the flat sanded square in front of us, we all immediately awoke with adrenaline pumping. We were ready to begin the last part of our hard trip through the desert.

We were at the doorstep of Western Sahara and our small caravan was ready to face the tracks of the desert with three four-wheel-drive vehicles loaded with our operators and all of our equipment. After a brief period of driving with a visible track, the path ahead started to be disconnected and very hard to find. After 8 hours, we finally entered the village of Tifariti on the afternoon of Easter Sunday. In few minutes we climbed a short road going uphill to reach our old “Fort Tifariti,” well built on top of the hill, in a place that was overlooking all the outskirts.

Fort Tifariti

As planned, the team immediately was divided into little groups, each with its specific assignment. Our plan was to have at least two stations active before sunset. We had available a principal generator that was also serving Tifariti village, but this one didn’t allow us to use our full output power. Moreover the voltage drop under our electrical load was deep, working the transceivers to the limit. Despite the fatigue from our long journey, our base camp in the “Fort” was quickly prepared and, as estimated, at 5:20 PM, the first “CQ de SØ4R” was heard from the heart of the Sahara. With our antennas up and operating on 30 and 80 meters, we were following our operations plan of providing emphasis on CW.

Just after sunset the antenna for 40 meters was also erected. We were very happy to find that the vertical with elevated radials was the correct choice. With only four resonant radials, we had a very strong signal and the receiver didn’t suffer too much noise from the vertical polarization. Just while I was running a strong pileup with the USA on 40 meters and the other two stations were grinding out contacts in CW, the principal generator of the Saharawis, without even a warning, left us in complete darkness around 1 AM. All we could do was to wait for the dawn when the generator would be back on again for feeding the normal activities of the outpost in the desert.

At dawn on Monday, April 13, the generator was switched on and our activity started again. On this first full sunlit day, we would continue with the setup of antennas. As soon as possible we set up the Spiderbeam on a tower used by the Saharawis Army. The Hex-Beam was erected on a pole exactly in the middle of a sizable square in front of Fort Tifariti. Before the sun got too high and brought the big heat, we were active on the 15-20 meter bands.

The signal of SØ4R was also on the air on the higher bands. You can surely imagine that signals from Europe were present at almost all hours of a day. Except in widely separated rare cases, we found the discipline of the Europeans to be good. For both CW and SSB we always work “split” (of course) but we try to keep a narrow listening window so as not to use too much frequency spectrum. Finally Monday afternoon a military truck of the Polisario Front arrived carrying a “portable” 15 kW generator. Now we could really operate to full power! Moreover, we could finally activate our fourth station to put RTTY on the air. The pileup from Europe was ever-present, but we knew that the Western Sahara was very much needed on the other continents.

Outside Europe, Please

When we became aware of openings to other continents, our operators asked always “outside Europe” or “only JA,” etc. The East Coast of the United States arrived well enough, having a path almost totally over the ocean. The inverted L for 80 meters, even without elevated radials, gave us a lot of satisfaction, allowing us to work hundreds of US stations, around 3.803 MHz and up.

There was no glass in the windows in the old Spanish barracks, only wood doors or window frames. When you took off the earphones, you were immediately greeted with the soundtrack that accompanied our stay in Western Sahara the gust of the wind between the ancient walls of Fort Tifariti. The wind never stopped blowing — a strong, constant and annoying wind that lifted quite a lot of sand. That our operating location was in an elevated position in comparison to the surrounding area only increased our exposure to the winds — never giving us a truce from its ferocity.

After a few days, we tried not to notice the wind. You sometimes felt some sand in your teeth when eating a piece of bread and nothing more. We were lucky to have warm meals every day, cooked by two Saharawis who had followed us. This helped a lot, because we were able to concentrate 100% on running the pileup. Anyway, we ate the meat of goat, camel and some other unknown meat, too! Being in the middle of Sahara desert, we cannot complain at all about food.

The last and most difficult band to put on the air was 160 meters. Considering the season (mid springtime), we had expected to operate Top Band exclusively in CW, because the band is extremely noisy. So, on Tuesday morning we set about the arduous work (in the ever-present winds) to raise the 18 meter fiberglass mast that would constitute the vertical part of the antenna. The horizontal part of the “L” would have to pass over the top of the house of the Chief Commander of Tifariti region, who was temporarily absent.

After a brief consultation among us, we opted for his tacit assent (silence gives consent, hi) and soon thereafter our antenna was swinging in the wind over his house. That night the signal of SØ4R was on the Top Band with good results and up to the last night, we happily satisfied many DXers wanting to put SØ in their logs. In the meantime as estimated in our operational planning, the rate of contacts (daily we were logging more than 6000) met our expectations. Definitely not bad for only eight operators working under difficult conditions.

We were in Western Sahara in mid springtime, an interesting season for those who love the higher bands such as 10 or 12 meters. Our location in relation to Europe was excellent for sporadic E propagation (Es) and we had just heard the news that some stations from the Canary Islands were audible in Europe with good signals. We immediately moved one of our stations to those bands. For 2 days from afternoon to late evening we had fabulous openings on 12 and 10 meters. Hundreds of European stations, from east to the west, put Western Sahara in their logs.

Leaving the Desert Sands

Six days goes by quickly when you have a lot of things to do and in late afternoon on Friday, April 17, we began to dismantle our antenna field. We left only two antennas standing for the last night. We worked hard that night to make our last contacts. At 5:15 AM April 18, we closed down the log of “Sierra Zero Four Radio” with 37,000 contacts in only 5 1/2 days of real operations. Before sunrise we were on our way across the Sahara for our last ride in the desert. In the early afternoon we were already in southern Algeria, just across the border. That night our charter flight departed from Tinduf on schedule. The arrival in Alicante, Spain was as usual in the heart of the night. After a really deep sleep, Sunday morning we all met together for a final lunch and to say goodbye to each other. By Sunday night everybody was safely at home. The final results of SØ4R are in the following chart:

Band                 CW                         SSB                      RTTY                        Band

10M                       0                          908                              0                          908

12M                   168                          905                              0                       1,073

15M                1,922                       2,234                              0                       4,156

17M                2,610                       3,176                       1,128                       6,914

20M                3,275                       3,812                          563                       7,650

30M                5,695                              0                          694                       6,389

40M                3,291                       1,862                              4                       5,157

80M                1,981                       1,445                              0                       3,426

160M              1,332                              0                              0                       1,332

Total            20,274                     14,342                       2,389                     37,005


We must thank all the people who, while not on the operating team, gave us all the support needed: EA5BZ our pilot, EA5CEE, EB5BBM, EA1CJ, UY7CW, EA5ELF, EA7EU, EA5RD, EA4TD, EA5XX. We also want to give a big thank you to all the sponsors who helped with our expenses: NCDXF, INDEXA, URE, Clipperton DXC, URE Spiderbeam, UFT, F6KOP, K7HC, W8OU and JA5XWB. Finally, thank you to Mahafoud, SØ1MZ, the Army of the RASD and its Chief Commander of the Second Military Region deserve recognition for helping to smooth the path for us. The online log, statistics and photos of the SØ4R DXpedition are still available on our website. Finally, I would like to thank John Scott, K8YC, for his help in preparing our story.

1F. Vedovelli, IN3ZNR/WHØQ, “9XØR: Rwanda 2008,” QST, Mar 2009, pp 56-58.

Photos courtesy of Fabrizio Vedovelli, IN3ZNR/WHØQ.

Fabrizio Vedovelli, IN3ZNR/WHØQ, was licensed in 1979 and operates primarily on HF. He likes DXpeditioning, DXing and contesting. Currently he holds 5BWAZ and is nearing DXCC Honor Roll. He owns an advertising agency and lives near Trento, North Italy. His shack is 3900 feet above sea level. He’s an Associazione Radioamatori Italiani (ARI) member and also belongs to the Carolina DX Association.


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