The concept for this trip began in June 2018 at the international amateur radio exhibition at Friedrichshafen in Germany. This annual event is a fantastic platform for ham enthusiasts from all over the world to meet up, exchange information and share experiences, and DXpeditions are always a fun and exciting topic of conversation. Many faraway and exotic places are mentioned and various plans to these destinations are discussed over meals and plenty of pints.
A DXpedition to Tonga was not our first choice but part of a bucket list of the team. Our first choice later proved unviable as although the authorities had given verbal permission, no licence or visas were forthcoming and so it was decided to abandon this destination and a plan to go to "Tonga" was agreed.
A team for this DXpedition was then put together originally consisting of three operators (Tom GM4FDM, Ronald PA3EWP and Martin PA4WM) but realising the workload ahead, the group decided that a fourth operator would be required, They put out a request for another operator and I jumped at the opportunity. I have always wanted to travel into the heart of the Pacific where cultural traditions, island hospitality and picturesque surrounds dazzle your senses, all coupled up with a radio expedition. Yes, this was my chance to do something of this nature, so for the craic, I threw my name into the hat and was actually lucky enough to gain a place on this very experienced team.
Tonga is an interesting place. Officially known as the Kingdom of Tonga, it's a Polynesian country and an archipelago of 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited. These islands are all included in the Kingdom of Tonga with the capital at Nuku'alofa, on the island of Tongatapu. They are volcanic in origin, with coral formations concealing most evidence of volcanic matter. Tongatapu is a triangular shape, the base being to the south-east and the apex terminating in a curved narrow horn to the northwest. It is about 28km long, 15km wide, and for the most part level on the north coast to a height of over 60m in the southeast. The interior is broken up by a large shallow lagoon, available only to small boats, and entered from the north. The current ruler of Tonga is a King, "King Tupou VI" and his royal palace is in the capital of Nuku'alofa. This sovereign state has a population of over 100 thousand people of whom 70% reside on the main island of Tongatapu. The Tongan people first encountered Europeans back in the early 16th century when the Dutch vessel "Eendracht", captained by Willem Schouten, made a short visit there for trade. Later came other Dutch explorers, including Jacob Le Maire and Abel Tasman and even more noteworthy European visitors - including Captain James Cook (Royal Navy) in 1773 & 1774. Due to the welcoming reception accorded to Cook in 1773, Tonga became known in the West as the "Friendly Islands".
I can safely say that Cook was not far wrong in his estimation of the people there, extremely welcoming, up for a laugh and if you mention the words "Rugby" or "Ireland" for that matter they would just love to talk about our traditions and our legendary rugby players. It was brilliant while I was there as Ireland had just beaten the New Zealand All Blacks and they were raving on about how fantastic our team was and how they wished to visit the Emerald Isle one day. Yes, for me it was the Tongan people that made this trip somewhat extra special.
From 1900 to 1970, Tonga had British protected state status, with the United Kingdom looking after its foreign affairs under a Treaty of Friendship. The country never relinquished its sovereignty to any foreign power. In 2010 Tonga took a decisive path towards becoming a constitutional monarchy rather than a traditional absolute kingdom, after legislative reforms passed a course for the first partial representative elections. Between the 12th and 13th of February 2018, the Tongan Parliament House was unfortunately destroyed by Cyclone Gita, a Category-4 storm. As a result, the Parliament was moved to the Tongan National Centre, 4 km south of the city centre, and that parcel of land gazetted as a part of Nukualofa.
While not rare DX, Tonga is nevertheless quite sought-after from Western Europe, so internet enquiries brought us the Heilala Holiday Lodges, a beautiful location on the north west tip of Tongatapu about 20 kilometres from the capital Nukualofa. Once our destination was selected, Tom GM4FDM started the licence application process with the Tongan Ministry of Information and Communications. This was a straightforward process and after a simple "on line" application form and a small fee of approximately €10 we had an operating licence with the callsign A35EU for 160m-10m. We also negotiated an agreement to use the 60m band (5 MHz) which is not normally available in Tonga but having it as a part of our licence had an exciting prospect to it, especially as we could offer a new band/mode to many people. Although not officially DXCC accredited, it is always a nice experience.
The dates were finalised for the DXpedition in late summer of 2018 and we would be on-air from the 15-27th November 2018 with travel time either side to be considered. We looked for the cheapest airline options with the highest baggage allowances and the most direct connections. Qatar Airways proved this to us with an allowance of 30 kg each, and direct routes from Europe via Asia to Oceania. Since we were all travelling from Northwest Europe, we decided to meet in Doha in Qatar, and travel from there to Tonga via Auckland.
My epic 52-hour journey began on 13th November in Heathrow. On arrival in Doha I met up with Ronald and Martin. Upon our arrival we received an email from Tom GM4FDM mentioning that his plane had been delayed in Edinburgh. This resulted in Tom missing his connecting flight in Doha and possibly even missing his flight onwards to Tonga.
We would have to wait for an update from Tom once the rest of us were in Auckland, as we prepared for the world's 2nd longest flight of 17hrs on a Boeing 777-200LR. The flight may have been long, but we coudn’t have asked for better in-flight service. Flying is always a stressful experience even when making sure to be in the right place at the right time in different airports and not losing anything especially your tickets, your passport or even your mind, which can always be a challenge but the highest point of stress I find is of course when you are arriving at the destination because all the unusual luggage could possibly be held by customs, thereby ruining the entire trip. Thankfully, we had no such problems in Auckland. We were able to store our luggage which gave us the opportunity to explore the city while we waited for news from Tom.
Auckland is a lot bigger than I anticipated, and Google Maps on the phone becomes your best friend. A great way to see this magnificent city is to actually go up the Sky Tower in the heart of the city; stunning views can be had even with a nice dash of Tea or Coffee. Yes, this city is often overlooked by travellers who head for the stellar alpine and lake landscapes further south, but food, arts and even exploring the coastal hinterland are all excellent reasons to extend your stay in New Zealand's largest and most cosmopolitan city. It seems from listening to the various Uber taxis drivers whilst there that the only criticisms of the city's 1.4 million people is the "traffic" (which was very heavy in rush hour) and the "inconsistent (but always entertaining) form of the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL". Yes I can safely say that I felt at home in NZL. The weather that day was fantastic, and it had a real taste of summer in the air whilst walking around Auckland harbour. We all sampled some of the food on offer but before we knew it, we had to get back to the airport to collect our luggage and check-in for the flight to Tonga—without Tom, who would be delayed by 24 hours.
We arrived in Tonga to temperatures of 27 degrees with high humidity. There were no issues with security or customs, and no nasty surprises, unlike Chris GM3WOJ who once had to leave a deposit of £500 with Tongan Customs and immigration, and which was returned to him on leaving - to discourage visiting hams from selling equipment to the locals.
When walking through the arrivals area the welcoming sounds of traditional Tongan music was a delight to witness including the excitement and anticipation of the local people awaiting loved ones returning home. Our contact (Alekio) from the Holiday Lodge, met us in the arrivals area where he helped load our luggage onto a small mini-bus and so we then proceeded north to our QTH. The journey to the lodge took about an hour and the only thing upon our mind was "Sleep" as we knew the next few days were going to be a huge challenge.
Heilala Lodges had rented us out their family house. This was a local design, constructed from woof, with a kitchen equipped with fridge and cooker, toaster etc. It had an open-plan dining area which became our shack for the coming days. Sleeping accommodation consisted of two separate bedrooms with twin beds, and a communal bathroom with shower. There were ten two-person lodges in total, most of which were unoccupied for the duration of our stay as it was out-of-season. Waking up the next morning upon sunrise at 6am to birds singing and temperatures already 24 degrees, we started to unpack the antennas and coax and then get some breakfast where we then planned our next moves. Martin PA4WM and I started building build the antennas, and Ronald PA3EWP went to meet Tom at the airport and collect our A35EU licence in Nuku'alofa.
From, talking to the managers of Heilala Lodges and to previous expeditions, it was obvious that we would not be allowed to install our antennas right on the water's edge so as to gain maximum advantage of the saltwater. The beach is public, and people walk there every day. Heilala Lodges are right in the middle of a group of other holiday destinations and resorts all along the western peninsular and people from the different lodges walk the beach daily. With this in mind antenna building was the plan of action. It took us all day but when you are working under very high temperatures and humidity, it's very easy to forget that you actually need to keep hydrated. We drank about five litres of water between two of us that day and still felt thirsty, It's also important to protect yourself from the sun, especially your head which I was to find out about in the days that followed. (nothing like burnt scalp to make you feel very much alive).
The antennas we set up were as close as we could get to the shoreline, with the 40m vertical about 10m from the high tide mark. We knew that our biggest challenge would be working Europe, as we are nearly at the bottom of this sunspot cycle us. Even when we looked at the propagation prediction programs it would be possible to work western Europe only on 20m, 30m and 40m but with weak signals. So, the challenge became even bigger. We also knew that every additional dB of gain would make all the difference so with this in mind Martin had constructed our 2-element Vertical Dipole Arrays back in The Netherlands and tested them all out before departure. We could then put them together step by step a lot easier and there was less of a chance that things could go wrong in Tonga.
We had VDAs for 17m, 20m and 30m. The 30m VDA was quite a monster on an 18m fibreglass pole and boy did this antenna sing. For 10m,12m and 15m we set up simple quarter-wave verticals with tuned, raised radials for each band. We did not expect to work much on these high bands and so it proved. 40m and 80m were also quarter-wave verticals with tuned raised radials. Initially the 40m vertical was quite close to the shack but it was moved closer to the sea as there was quite a bit of noise on that band and it was hoped that by moving it closer to the sea the noise level would drop. It dropped but not by much possibly about 6dB, I would say it made a difference. For 60m we managed to cobble together a dipole with the centre around 16m located high up in a palm tree. On most days, 60m was found to be unusable due to (what we believe) Chinese over the horizon radar. However, at odd times the band was usable and some QSOs were made.
Whilst CW was the preferred mode, noise levels often precluded this and we resorted to FT8, which seemed to be able to cope with the higher noise levels although we suspect that only the stronger stations were decoded. Not being very familiar with either 5 MHz (60m) or FT8 we came across an unexpected difficulty in that UK stations were unable to transmit above 1000Hz when in fox/hound mode. Our licence was sufficiently vague and flexible and allowed us to use 5.350 - 5.450Mhz, so in order to work UK stations we dropped our dial frequency by 1KHz to allow us to work into the UK on FT8. We are confident that few QSOs would have been possible on CW due to the band noise.
160m proved to be the most difficult band by far. For a start our "palm tree climber" failed to materialise and we had to make do with a simple inverted-V amongst the palm trees. Fortunately, they were some of the highest we had ever come across; unfortunately our aim with string and a rock was not the greatest and it took quite a few throws to get the antenna as high as possible. Like 40m and 60m, top band was very noisy.
After the antennas setup we started building the shack. We had ten low-power ICE bandpass filters to eliminate inter-station interference before the linear amplifiers, but in our opinion these filters didn't appear to have the edge on other filters that were used by this group in the past on other DXpeditions but still better to have them than no filter at all in the chain. We had three laptops, two Elecraft K3s and an Expert Electronics SunSDR2 Pro Transceiver. We had a solid-state linear for each station; an SPE Expert 1.3K FA, a Tokyo Hy-Power HL-1.1Kfx, and a home-brew 600w unit.
After a quick check of our electrical load of the shack, we arranged for a meal to be made for us that evening (a Tongan curry was the order of the day). We split into two teams with the first team operating after dinner, then the second team would take over after a few hours so we would have a constant presence on air and try keep tiredness at bay. It was hard work to have the station fully built for the European grey line that evening, but we managed to get A35EU up and running on most bands open to EU that first evening. We decided to run three stations during busy periods and try to have as diverse presence on the bands / modes as possible. We began operating on 20m followed by 30m and when propagation opened on 40m all three stations were in full swing on SSB and CW. Within the first few hours it was evident that the pileups were hard, heavy and even with wide spreads across all 3 bands, it was very exciting to hear the first signals on the bands. Asia was enormously strong as expected including the West coast of North America at times but the Polar Echoes on some of the CW signals from EU were fascinating. We quickly began to understand the difficulties of working EU while getting Asia and North America to QRX. Propagation was always going to be a worry for us as western Europe is almost due north of Tonga. In fact, if you draw a line 5 degrees east and west of due north, EI and most of the UK and the rest of western Europe all falls into this "dead zone" where propagation was extremely difficult and sporadic. With this constraint in mind we set about our task of trying to be on at both European sunrise and sunset each day. Sometimes sunrise seemed better than sunset, some days the opposite was the case. Some days we didn’t even hear any western Europe at all. It was quite frustrating at times when SP, OM, I, and SV, were telling us that we were S9+ and not hearing anything further west.
After a couple of days, it seemed that for western Europe, 30m and 40m would be the best bet, and Clublog seemed to confirm this. Every day we tried to get the pileups to standby for NW Europe stations to have a chance as our window for working them was short - approximately 45 minutes on 20m, 30m and 40m. We are sure that if the 60m band had been noise free, we could also have made a considerable number of contacts on there also. The last morning of the operation the QRM was at the minimum and we logged many Western Europeans on 60m which showed some hope for future operations on this band from A3.
However, 160m and 80m proved impossible for western Europe really on any mode. Spending so much time on the lower bands has its consequences i.e. less overall QSOs. However, this is a trade-off worth paying to get Europe in the log on the low bands. Unfortunately, our DHDL receiving antenna was not performing well at all, we tried it the first day, but without success on all the low-bands. Propagation was simply terrible on 160m. We were forced to use an inverted-V instead of an inverted-L and the noise on this band was S9+, very difficult to copy anything in that and even on the DHDL antenna the signals were not readable at all. We also tried listening on the 40m and 80m verticals, but the noise was also very high. So, we were forced to use FT8 also on this band.
We didn’t make many QSOs on 160m. We spent our effort on the other bands due the high noise on the magic band and most days almost as soon as the sun was up in the morning, 160m, 80m and 40m died very quickly indeed. 20m stayed open mainly to the USA for a couple of hours, and then it was a long drag into mid-afternoon before the bands really opened again. Mornings and early afternoons were spent jumping from band to band, making a few QSOs on CW, RTTY, and SSB, then moving to FT8 making a few more, then swapping band and going through the motions again. We decided among the group that morning time was antenna maintenance time. We didn't really have any bad weather whilst we were there so maintenance was minimal, although we moved antennas around several times to try to lessen the band noise or the odd bit of interaction. Noise continued to be a problem for the duration of our stay. We never really got to the bottom of the noise problem, but there were security lights that were turned on all the time during our stay. When we enquired if they could be turned off, we were told the night shift security man required them especially as there were now wires and cables strewn all over the site. We say this through gritted teeth, but FT8 seemed to cope with the noise better than CW especially on 160m and 60m, where it was almost impossible to make QSOs without resorting to FT8. We were disappointed by the noise level on the site as it is on the beach and seems to be quite far away from any other commercial activity, but there you have it.
During our last weekend we took part in the CQWW CW contest. Participating in a contest from the Pacific is a completely different story than from Europe. It was a great experience, we all learned a lot from it but without the contest we would have certainly made more QSOs in the same time. It is extremely difficult to find a clear frequency and after that to keep your frequency. A lot of times we were covered by the NA and EU mush and working pileups on simplex all in or around the same tone can be an operator's nightmare especially once you’re spotted on the cluster or Reverse Beacon Network. A3 is a long way away from everyone and this combination of weak signals and high noise levels can certainly raise your temper quickly. In total we made 1,700 QSOs in the contest, I wished it to be more but that was the best we could get out of the conditions.
On our last day in Tonga we started to break down the station. We had to pay a lot for excess baggage on the way to Tonga, we didn't want to pay it again on the way back - the extra charges were more that the value of the masts and cable concerned. Ronald PA3EWP had a brainwave and suggested we send the masts to Tarawa for his next DXpedition T31EU to OC-043 Kanton Island in the spring of 2019?! After a few telephone calls we made the decision to send it to Tarawa; that was a much cheaper option than sending it back to Europe and the team get to use them again in Kanton in the spring time.
On the last morning we packed the ski-bag (35 kg) and brought it to Fiji airways for transport via Fiji to Tarawa. Chuck, our contact person on Tarawa, would take care of the final handling of the ski-bag.
We had another quick visit into Nuku'alofa before we went back to the resort by bus where we then packed the last of our stuff and made our journey back to the airport. We had a long layover in Auckland, so we decided to stay in an Airport hotel for a few hours' sleep and then bright and early in the morning we went by taxi to the city-centre for a breakfast. The flight from Auckland to Doha was 17.5 hours. Arriving at Doha we had another 8 hours delay until our flights home. Tom was flying back to Edinburgh, Martin and Ronald to Amsterdam.
We had 17,098 QSOs of which 7,240 were unique calls. We expected a little bit more, but circumstances did not allow it.
Our logs have been uploaded to Club Log and were sent to LOTW just before Christmas. As part of their donation, the GDXF have indicated they will pay for 5,000 QSL cards which is a nice gesture.
We are very thankful to all our donors who helped make this trip possible. In Ireland we were supported by the members of the EI-DX Group and individual sponsors EI2CN, EI4BZ, EI6BT and EI9FBB and in the UK we were supported by BARTG, GMDX, RSGB and CDXC. Other sponsors were the Clipperton DX Club, Lynx DX Group, SDXF, GDXF, Lone Star DX Association, LA DX Group, EUDXF, OHDXF, FEDXP, GPDX, East Tennessee DX Association, EUDXF, and the Mediterraneo DX Club and the many individual sponsors, especially Alex PA1AW for his support and maintaining our website.
For more information, statistics and photos see
http://tonga.lldxt.eu and Club Log.