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W1HIJ's Visit to Bora Bora

Bill Scholz (W1HIJ) on December 29, 2000
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To all my friends in the DX and Contesting Communities ---

I promised a report on the trip to Bora Bora, and here `tis! It's almost impossible to describe in an email the joys and pleasure of the two weeks spent out in the South Pacific. I actually kept a journal (aren't laptops wonderful?), but now trying to boil the content down to something readable seems like a monumental chore. In any case here goes ---

It's fairly early on a Sunday morning - the doorbell rings and it's the van guy to haul me, luggage, radio, and miscellaneous secret stuff to the LA Airport. All goes well, and the first heart stopping experience of the trip is going into the terminal and discovering a HUGE long line of people standing in front of the check in counters at Air Tahiti Nui, and this more than 3 hours before departure. But I decided I was on vacation after all and I should just practice the Zen of waiting. :>)

Anyhow, it turns out that the people in this airline have their act together. Did I mention that Air Tahiti Nui was founded in 1996 and flew its first flight in November of 1998? Did I mention that they have 1 (that's right ONE) aircraft (an Airbus 340)? Nonetheless, they did a superb job of getting everyone on board, settled, and in the air for the eight and half hour trip to paradise. I would highly recommend them as a carrier if the twice a week schedule fits your requirements. The people are great, the food is a definite cut above the usual spot-welded scrambled eggs, and the whole thing is carried out with Polynesian dignity and French flair.

Anyway, Capt Jacques (and the GPS) managed to find Papeete within our allotted fuel load and suddenly paradise was flying by the windows at touchdown speed. There was the usual delicious recognition by my sense of smell that I was back in the island tropics, and automatically my clock shifted to island time. Off to a small hotel (not the best, but a long way from the worst I've ever stayed in) for the night, since arrival was too late for transfer to Bora Bora.

I won't bore you all with the details, but soon after arrival I was settled in the bar in front of a cold (well, sort of cold) Hinano beer, surrounded by four or five Tahitians, and soon discovered that the legendary hospitality of the Tahitians hasn't degraded since the days of the late 18th century and Capt. Cook's visit. All I can say is that it's a good thing I (unlike Cook's sailors), wasn't in charge of the equivalent of the ship's nails. I would have given it all away just like they did! (As an aside, two weeks later while waiting for the return flight, I overheard two American couples complaining about the rude, grasping nature of the people they'd met in Tahiti. All I can say is that wasn't my experience - I guess it's all how and what you bring to the party).

Next day, I was off to see Papeete and visit Point Venus above Matavai Bay, where James Cook (he keeps popping up in this narrative), spent several months in the late 1760's. I wound my way around Papeete, sipped a couple of double espressos, and eventually headed back to the airport for the short flight to Bora Bora. It's about 175 miles northwest of Tahiti and therefore is in what are referred to as the leeward islands (downwind from Tahiti). The French name Iles sous le vent seems much more poetic and appropriate to me.

As a hint of what is and what is not important, the flight to Bora Bora was delayed because of a major shower - not that the airplane couldn't take off you understand, but jetways are unknown and we would have been like drowned rats had we tried to get to the airplane. That airplane by the way, is an ATR 72 twin engine turboprop - so anyone who doesn't like flying in small planes need have no fear, this isn't a small plane.

We flew through (well around, actually) some of the most glorious thunderheads I've seen since the last time I was in Louisiana in the summer; 45 minutes later arriving in real paradise. Bora Bora for those of you who don't know has a population of about 6000 and is really rural, except for those really expensive hotels you've read about. A gorgeous place, even with an almost cloud filled sky. The airport is built on the remains of a strip constructed in 1943 as an American supply base. But the terminal is pure tropics. Walls are unheard of, and the airport itself is on a motu (small island) in the northwest corner of the lagoon. Transportation from the airport to anywhere else is by boat; some big, fancy, high speed boats, some medium sized boats, and the one that met me, a 14 foot aluminum outboard powered skiff. As soon as I met my host, Stan Wisniewski, I knew that I was home!

Stan (FO5IW) is a retired filmmaker who has chosen to make his home on a really small motu (how small? I could walk around the perimeter in under five minutes) which is about a 10 minute boat ride from the airport. On this motu lives Stan, his wife, their two year daughter, Anais, a cat named Vodka, and a dog named Martin. Also there are three bungalows, a kitchen/dining room, and a ham shack. The resort is called Mai Moana and has been in operation for about seven years. In 1997 however, a major hurricane swept over and through the island and essentially everything but the concrete building which now houses the generator and workshop disappeared. So effectively everything has been rebuilt since then.

Words are simply inadequate to describe the beauty, tranquility and serenity of the island and the setting. The colors, the smells, the sounds, the people, everything combines to define the perfect fantasy of a South Pacific desert island. It can be experienced or imagined, but not really described.

Facilities are excellent - not luxurious, but far above adequate. And the food - have I mentioned the food? Truly exquisite. Local stuff, lots of seafood of course, but with a leavening of classic French cuisine and style. I've been fortunate enough to eat some pretty good stuff in lots of interesting places in the world, but I have to say that never have I experienced such consistently good food for so long a period. I not only never had a bad meal, I never even had a mediocre one! Here's a partial list - broiled mahi-mahi served with a local vanilla cream sauce, chicken marinated in lemon juice, then covered in honey, broiled and topped with ground peanuts, Polynesian style ceviche with the addition of coconut milk (yes, from coconuts that fell off the trees on the motu), a classic French charcuterie served with Feta cheese and super virgin olive oil, New Zealand green lipped mussels cooked in white wine and onions, and it goes on and on ...

But enough of the creature comforts - after all I hauled 30 kilos of radio, wire, computer and stuff. What was it like operating from there? In a word (OK, two words) really neat!. This was my first experience operating from the South Pacific and it was certainly different than I expected. Conditions were pretty good in general. The solar flux was around 190 to 210 for the first few days and then drifted to around 160 by the time I left. In general the geomagnetic numbers were OK except for a day and half when the A was around 15 to 20 and the K got as high as 4.

Here was the setup. I took my FT990 and a laptop computer (very graciously loaned to me by Darwin, KF6RHB). Also took along a manual antenna tuner and three hundred feet of copper wire. The antenna setup on site was a triband beam (TH3) mounted on about 20 feet of light tower. The tower itself is about 100 feet from the building that is the ham shack, but the magic is that of those 100 feet, about 60 of them are covered by 1 to 2 feet of salt water. So the reflection gain is about as good as it gets. There is no rotator as such, but rather the tried and true line attached to one end of the boom. Other end of the line is tied to a medium size rock. Rotating the antenna meant wading into the lagoon, finding the rock, picking it up and walking it around to a position that would point the beam in the desired direction. Needless to say, it was OK to do that in the daytime, but doing so after dark could be hazardous to your ankles from the sharp coral.

Propagation was interesting to say the least... The first real experience was on the night after I arrived. Around 8:30 local after dinner (0630Z) I went trolling on 20 meter CW. Much to my surprise, the strongest signals were from EU, sounding much like the EU signals I'm used to on summer evenings in Southern California. Anyhow after working a couple or three people, I realized that the volume of callers at the end of each QSO was growing at a rapid rate. Pretty soon the end of a QSO would result in an ever widening wall of sound. It was taking me somewhere between 30 and 45 seconds to pick out a partial call, so the rate was only somewhere in the 40's. I had gone with the intention of having a vacation that included some radio rather than playing dxpedition, so that was no problem. That operating time became my regular pattern, two hours of pileup after a great dinner and some good red French wine is a wonderful digestif!

For those of you who haven't experienced it, being on the dx end of such clamor is initially one of the more intimidating things you can subject yourself to. But, it doesn't take long to get the swing and rhythm down so that it becomes a really relaxing way to spend a couple of hours. A couple of lessons I learned: One - work split, either by sending up or consciously working the top edges of the pileup. It makes everyone's life easier. Two - don't grab a partial call and ask for a confirmation with EU pileups. It just doesn't work, if you respond with a 2D? kn everybody calls again anyway! What I found most effective was to send the partial 2 or 3 times and then continue on with the exchange. The station in question (and usually that station only) then almost always would respond with a full call or any corrections, and then you're done.

Anyway, it was a real blast. Typically I'd operate each evening for 2 to 2 hours before the generator went to sleep for the night. For the first few nights, conditions were excellent, but then around the 4th or 5th night, the A and K went up and EU either disappeared completely or was so weak as to be unworkable.

During the daytimes, I didn't operate very much. Most of my time was spent snorkeling, kayaking, doing a daily beach inspection, and similar critical tasks. What time I spent on the air during daylight was usually on 10 meters. Some days 10 was in great shape and I could get to North America with no worries. On other days, 10 was a local band with some very nice chats with A35, ZL and VK.

As an aside, I rediscovered some aspects of ham radio. Communications ability takes on a whole new meaning as you become aware of the relative remoteness of these little specks of dry land in a very big ocean. I came away with a much greater appreciation for the value of amateur radio.

Since I knew ahead of time that there were no low band antennas, I took along some wire and put up a 200 foot long wire which was only about 20 to 30 feet above ground. That wasn't very successful on 40 or 80 for long haul stuff, I suspect because the take off angle was way too high. Nevertheless I did get several thousand miles in most appropriate directions. Interestingly enough, EU was quite loud in FO on 40, much louder than I would have expected for an almost 10,000 mile polar path. Unfortunately, the high angle of most of my radiation and only 50 to 100 watts of power meant that that not many EU stations heard FO0SCH on 40. The antenna wouldn't tune at all on 160, so that band was a washout.

Some RFI problems (with the VHF based telephone system) kept me off 15 almost entirely.

In conclusion - in retrospect I can think of nothing about the trip that I would change to make it better (except to make it longer of course!) I would highly recommend Mai Moana as a place to go and rediscover yourself and one of the most beautiful places in the world. Stan and his wife and daughter provide some absolutely magnificent hospitality.

My bottom line is that before I left I gave Stan a deposit for my next visit. I'll be back in late May for another stay and will do the CQ WPX CW contest from there. Recommendations don't get any more solid than that.

Thanks to all who worked me, you contributed to a perfect holiday!

73 de Bill, W1HIJ/FO0SCH

Member Comments: Add A Comment
W1HIJ's Visit to Bora Bora Reply
by oe5oho on January 8, 2001 Mail this to a friend!
Itīs true - one really should state clearly _from the beginning_ if heīs going on a vacation _OR_ on a DXpedition. Likewise should the callers accept that the OP is going QRT and to the beach if he stated to be on vacation on the remote island. Reading your story thereīs one question: Is it really unimaginable that FO is "a bit" more request from EU than from USA???!
One thing sure - JA pile-upīs are a pleasure, USA-pile-upīs are normally following the simple principle "1-3 times Callsign - listen if the DX got a call", EU is a bit hard to tell - probably EU got the wrong picture of tailending (you know it, we simply keep on calling, hi ;-) Just to mention it - I heard also bad JA pile-upīs, and NA-pile-upīs can worsen quickly. But hey! JA-pileupīs are for sissies! The real OP knows how to have fun working EU. EU-pile-upīs are definitely for the top OPs. And itīs a pleasure to see guys running EU from remote places. If youīre not good enough to cool down the EU-masses - or if you have the feeling "after I made my last QSO there were still many callers" - then you did something wrong. Practise working pile-upīs dry from your nearest biggun or conteststation before you travel to remote places. I assure you that youīll have much more fun then and a LOT of hams will get happier than if you just go there to find out youīre not good enough. Once again: JA-pile-upīs are for sissies - EU ones for "freaks"! Vy 73 de Oliver...
W1HIJ's Visit to Bora Bora Reply
by K7GT on January 18, 2001 Mail this to a friend!
Bill knows me from several years ago and, in fact, we have done
the ARRL DX test as a Multi-2 for the past 3 years. So when he
said he was going to FO0 for two weeks I was looking forward to
some DX ragchews with my buddy. As it turns out, his operating
time and my available time didn't work at first. Finally, about the last
day or so, I saw FO0SCH spotted on DX Summit, rushed over
to the club station here at work, and easily found him. 10m with
a beam is easy enough from CA. He quickly recognized my call
and we attempted to have that ragchew. The discourtesy of the
others attempting to break it up was disappointing, to say the
least. In any case we did manage (in spite of the idiots) to have a
chat. Fortunately I was able to bump into him later on that
evening on 20m for an unhindered and longer chat. DX cluster
spots are sure a mixed blessing!

73 all Allan K7GT
W1HIJ's Visit to Bora Bora Reply
by N3FR on February 21, 2001 Mail this to a friend!
Fantastic article Bill! It's been a life long dream of mine to visit any one of the
South Pacific islands and reading your article has made me think more seriously about
making it a reality. My wife loves the beach - I love contesting - sounds like a true
CQ WW or ARRL DX paradise trip!
Thanks for some very enjoyable reading Bill.
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