South Black Range SOTA and park activation on 13cm band – 15th June 2019

Having received an offer from Ted VK1BL to help me find and fix the problem in my 13cm transverter, I spent an evening with him on 13th June. Moving through the various functional blocks in the transverter we found

  • The receiver was working quite ok, it was very close to the right frequency and was fairly sensitive, hearing -120 dbm from the HP sig gen pretty well
  • The output from the PLO was good and at a level of +7 dbm as recommended for the mixer
  • The output from the sequencer board, which includes attenuators and a level setting control for the IF signal, 144 MHz in this case, was working well and we calibrated that at -10 dbm for input to the mixer, with 0.5w drive on 144 mhz from the ft817
  • The output from the mixer and filter was at the expected level, about -13 dbm
  • The output from the tx IF amplifier/driver was +10 dbm, which was adequate for the power amplifier
  • The power amplifier had the correct negative bias and positive voltage on the correct terminals
  • But the power output to the antenna socket was zero.
  • The power output from the amplifier (before the relay) was about +35 dbm (approx 2.5 watts)
  • The relay board was examined and was found that the DC to the relay coil was intermittent. Resoldering the pins of the relay, a surface mount type, fixed that intermittent and made it a reliable connection. The output to the antenna socket was then +35dbm or 2.5w.
  • Transverter considered fixed.

With that result I discussed the possibility of an activation on Saturday morning to prove it in the field. Andrew VK1AD offered to activate Mt Stromlo and I decided to visit South Black Range. Coincidentally it was the day when bonus points commenced for VK2 summits above 1200m, so I half expected to find some snow on the higher parts of this summit, as it had recently snowed down to about 900m.

No snow, quite cold at about 3 or 4C when I got there, but it warmed up to about 8C by midday.

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FT817 in foreground, transverters and tripod holding 1296 yagi at rear

After initial contacts on 144 then 1296 we switched over to 2403 MHz and found we were able to make easy contact, my signal received a 5×8 report from VK1AD and I received his signal at an indicated strength 5.

Note: the distance of this contact was about 47.5 km, not bad for 2.5 watt transmitters. The locators of the two summits are QF44MQ (Stromlo) and QF44SN. The visual horizon is 35km so this is beyond “line of sight”. But how far over line of sight is it?

According to my iphone app DistBear the distance between centres of the two grid subsquares is 47.5km. So 2.4 GHz worked fine, well over the visual horizon. To get a more accurate distance I used the website https://sotamaps.org, using the “range mapping” option, we get a more accurate measure of the distance, at 48.7 km. I am sure there will be longer contacts made on this band using the same equipment.

The antenna in use for 2.4 GHz at my end is shown in the photo below attached directly to the 2.4 ghz transverter, was the SG-LAB PCB antenna, a 2 element HB9CV type on loan from Andrew VK1AD. The 2403 MHZ equipment was placed on a rock and turned so that the antenna pointed roughly towards Mt Stromlo, albeit through many trees nearby.

Two UHF transverters
The SG Lab transverter for 1296 is shown here sitting on the box containing the home made transverter for 2.4 ghz. These two transverters are, ironically, equivalent in power output and receiver function though they operate on different bands.

After completing the contact on 2.4 GHz I moved to HF and ran a few contacts on 7023 khz using the Pixie half watt morse transceiver (on a 50 x 50 mm PCB), then moved to the KX3 radio and ran contacts on 40m and 80m SSB and CW. I left the summit just after 12 noon, after spending 2 hours there. The temperature had risen to 8C by then.

Pixie PCB transceiver, battery, key, ATU, balun

Qualifying a summit – making 4 interstate contacts – using the 500 milliwatt Pixie morse transceiver hi hi

I built up the Pixie kit, having bought it a year ago or more, just to see how it worked and intended to try it out on a SOTA activation.

Being invited to accompany Andrew VK1AD to Mt Marulan for a return visit, having done the same in December 2018, I decided to take the Pixie along to see if it could make even one contact with 40m conditions as dicey as they are at present.

I set up the station to use the Pixie, with the ZS6BKW doublet fed through an Elecraft T1 tuner and the choke balun recently built. (Did I write about that? Maybe not.)

I listened for a minute or two on the Pixie’s 7023 khz and could hear VK2ARZ calling CQ with a very high offset frequency, my guess was that he was on 7025 so would not hear me operating on 7023. The Pixie’s receiver is a direct conversion receiver without any inherent selectivity so if my ears had 10 khz frequency response I would have heard stations out to that offset in both directions, ie. higher and lower in actual frequency, eg. A signal on 7013 would produce a 10 khz frequency difference so the 10 khz would be coming through the receiver, as would a 7033 khz signal also produce a 10 khz audio frequency. My 69 year old ears don’t have that bandwidth any more, they have an inbuilt low pass filter.  🙂

So I spotted myself on Sotawatch using the vk port-a-log software on the android tablet, called CQ using the little blue hand key, listened, then called again. A big signal loomed in the earbuds and it sounded like a bug being used. Was it Steve VK7CW, yes, it certainly was, after the call letters marched across my ears and I logged the contact using the tablet. What strength was he? I didn’t know, sounded pretty good so I gave him 579. Received 559 in reply, not bad for half a watt. Steve said he was running an FT817 at 5 watts out. Monster power.

Three more contacts, regulars John VK4TJ in Toowoomba, Peter VK3PF in Churchill Victoria, and finally Paul VK3HN from Melbourne made it into the Pixie log and I’d qualified the summit in 11 minutes using a Pixie half watt, two transistor + one IC transceiver, that had cost me $9 for the kit.

In between the contacts I could hear some weak signals and I wondered how strong they were, perhaps they were others who I wasn’t hearing well enough to copy. So after completing the 4th contact and calling another CQ just to be sure I had worked all who were there, I transferred the antenna to the KX3 and had a better listen to the weak signals. They were weak on that radio too, and I think they were dx stations, probably US operators in a contest of some kind.

Pixie 500 mw transceiver as built above, and as used, below
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L-R: Elecraft T1 tuner top left, Pixie PCB, 3S LIPO battery, cwmorse.us hand key. The Pixie board is about 2″ x 2″ or 50mm sq. 

The rest of the activation was fairly straightforward using the KX3 and the same doublet antenna, some contacts on 80m, most on 40m, the Shires contest was running so I had to look up my shire, I quoted GM2 (Goulburn Mulwaree) so I hoped that was correct.

Edit: updated image links following migration of blog to WordPress.

 

Three summits between Wee Jasper and Tumorrama on 2nd June 2019

With benign early winter weather, cool mornings but calm clear days, it was clearly the right weather for activating summits.

The first was Mt Wee Jasper. It is on a famous walking track known as the Hume and Hovell walking trail. It can be accessed from the camping area south of the Wee Jasper village, but the walk is long and recent forestry work has apparently disrupted the trail. At 7+ km it would have taken too much time out of the day too. So my access route was to first head west on the Wee Jasper-Tumut road, then southwards on the Wee Jasper forest road by a few km. Turning off onto Pheasant Creek Rd, the mountain looms into view soon and the route to the parking area is fairly obvious though the road has been cleared of any gravel and may well be soft after heavy rain.

It is a pleasant and easy walk of about 15 minutes up the forest path to the summit, where there are two concrete-and-wood benches ideal as sitting and operating radios.

I deployed the zs6bkw doublet for hf with the kx3. For 1296 the ft 817 and the transverter were connected to the 4 el yagi mounted on the camera tripod. The icom v85 was used to make some contacts into Canberra on 2m fm. No available contacts for 1296 but the Canberra beacon from Mt Ginini was very strong. On hf it was easy enough to make contacts on 40 and 80m bands using ssb and cw. I aim to “qualify” each summit on both ssb and cw. It is also satisfying to make the required 4 contacts to “qualify” on each band, though this is a personal goal rather than any external requirement.

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Track marker for Hume & Hovell walking track on the edge of the forest at Mt Wee Jasper
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UHF gear on the park bench
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The 1296 beam on the camera tripod at Mt Wee Jasper
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HF gear on the other side of the bench

You may have read that wombats leave a rather uniquely shaped message on the ground.  Here are a few I stepped over on my way up Mt Wee Jasper.  Each “cube” is about a cubic inch.  How they shape them like that is a matter others can deal with.

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Despite the pleasant forest environment it was time to depart after an hour on summit, then pack away and head for the car. I had looked at the navigation options for reaching the next summit and concluded that the known roads were a more reliable option than trying to find shortcuts. So southwards on Wee Jasper forest road to Brindabella rd, east for a few km, then turning northeast along Nottingham Rd. About 15 km along this road is the parking point for Snowgum Mt. There is no public car access up to the summit so requires a steepish walk up a sealed road littered with leaves and twigs from the eucalyptus trees.

Setting up the gear again I heard signs that Andrew vk1ad was ready at Mt Stromlo for the planned s2s contacts including 1296 ssb. Hearing his voice weakly at first, I experimented with the position and direction of my antenna, peaking the signal in the expected direction. When his contact with a Canberra station ended, I called him and received a question as to who was calling. I moved to cw mode and sent a 20-30 second string of dots using that mode, to allow him to find the best antenna direction by setting it for the maximum signal. Dots are very good for this purpose as they have a constant average signal strength but are transmitted at maximum power, much stronger than voice signals with an average power of less than 30% of maximum. His reply came much stronger than the level I had previously heard. In fact over the next 5 minutes, signal strengths gradually increased to about 8 on the ft817 “blobometer”. (It isn’t a real meter, just blobs being lit up on the lcd display. )

Several additional contacts were then made on 2m fm, starting with Wade vk1mic, Matt VK1MA, then Dean VK1DW and I could hear Dermy VK1FDHA calling me but he was not hearing me on any of the antennas he tried. I also heard Peter vk1fphr calling but he also didn’t hear my replies.

At this point it was approaching 2pm and I knew that if I didn’t leave soon for my next summit, my departure from that summit would be in darkness. So I didn’t set up the hf antenna on this summit, failing to meet my goal of “qualifying” on several hf bands and also on cw. A return visit this year may be necessary.

I reached the next summit just on one hour after my planned activation time, sunset was at about 5 pm so I needed to get the contacts in the log. A few contacts were made with Wade and Matt over in Canberra on 2m fm but the rest of the activity was on 80m ssb and cw. I went to 40m but made only a couple of contacts on that band. Propagation conditions near sunset make distances below about 800 km quite difficult on that band. I was using my phone to log the contacts, as i could not find my logging tablet when I unpacked my gear on this summit. Had I left it in the car? Or had I packed up so quickly at Snowgum Mt that I had left the tablet there? It turned out that I hadn’t left it in the car at all, more of that to come.

I would have to go to my backup logging technology, paper and pen. That posed a small problem because although I had a notebook there was no pen in my pack or in the accessories box. Then I remembered that I had been intending to test the logging functions in the ParksnPeaks ios app on my iPhone. So, logging on this site was done using the ParksnPeaks app on the iPhone and it did it very well. The test version I had was working well.

It was then coincidental and somewhat ironic that when I went to 40m I was called by Sue vk5ayl, the developer of the ParksnPeaks app. We had a good chat and I mentioned that i was using the app for logging.

But the light was fading and I had to get out of the forest before darkness made it difficult. So I called it quits at about 5pm, packed up and found my way back to the car.

Approaching the car, I was surprised but relieved to find my logging tablet on the ground behind it. Thinking back to when I had prepared for the activation, removing the ft817, 1296 transverter and tripod from the pack, I must have dislodged the tablet and failed to put it back into the pack. Another reminder of how important it is to look around before departing.

It was now almost dark and I did not want to drive back through the Wee Jasper forest, it is the time of day when kangaroos and wallabies move around in search of food. So I drove west to Tumut, stopped at the Oriental Hotel for dinner, then drove to Gundagai and back to Yass along the Hume highway. The highway is also named after the early explorer whose name was given to the walking track mentioned earlier.

On the way I crossed this bridge with a unique name, I couldn’t resist stopping to take a photo of the bridge sign.  The bogs must shake a lot in that area.

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Three summits, 18 activator points and some s2s points for the summit-to-summit contacts made. And a good meal at the Oriental.

WIA AGM weekend in Sydney 25-27 May

The Wireless Institute of Australia’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) was scheduled for the weekend of 25-27 May and I offered to give a short presentation about SOTA as one of the technical presentations on the Saturday afternoon.  ARNSW which operates from its site at Dural in north-west Sydney was also scheduling a morning of exhibitions in association with the WIA AGM events and coinciding with its monthly trash n treasure event.  So we were invited to exhibit there and explain SOTA to interested people.

The initial contact for the exhibition was Compton VK2HRX and we collaborated on the nature of the exhibit to be set up.

On my way to Sydney I called in at Mt Gibraltar, sota reference VK/IL-001 to make at least 4 contacts and qualify for the 4 points available from that summit.  I found that a short time earlier, Peter VK3PF had been at that site.  During my operation I heard Peter at good strength, activating another summit nearby, Mt Alexandra VK2/IL-005.  We made our S2S contact of course and while I would have liked to follow Peter to that summit, I wasn’t sure I had enough time (actually I would have).

I reached Parramatta in western Sydney at about 3pm and checked into my hotel, reorganised my back pack, changed my clothes and then took the train into Sydney, stopping at Town Hall station, very convenient as the evening event was located at the Town Hall in the Marconi room.   After some announcements and speeches by various officials of the Waverley Amateur Radio Club, which was celebrating its own 100th anniversary, a fascinating presentation was given about the achievements of Australia’s signals intelligence network during the 1940s.  The presenter was David Dufty, the author of The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau: how Australia’s signals-intelligence network helped win the Pacific War.  His enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject and how he came to learn of the details was very interesting as it followed my visit to Bletchley Park in the UK three years ago.  So many details had been kept secret until relatively recently, it seems.

On the Saturday morning the formal AGM was run and as has been the norm recently, this went fairly quickly and was over within an hour.  In the open forum session following the formal phases, a lot of questions were asked about the outcome of the recent ACMA review of the examination and callsign allocation contract.  It seems there are still a lot of fine details yet to be clarified.

During the afternoon session of technical presentations I presented on the subject of SOTA, explaining how the award works, how summits are verified and approved and gave some statistics on the number of activators and chasers, contacts made, etc.

I ended my presentation with a short personal history of involvement in SOTA and how it relates to my health, which I am sure is much better than it would otherwise be.  I suggested that activities that involve you getting out of the shack and out into nature are not only fun from a radio perspective but are approved by our partners, so what more could you want?

At the dinner on Saturday evening the group heard a great presentation on the Apollo program and what we have gained from it, from Prof Fred Watson, Astronomer at Large for the Australian Government.  I found his presentation highly entertaining and informative, he is a very good speaker and if you ever get a chance to hear him speak I recommend it (he has a weekly spot on ABC local radio’s evening program).

On the Sunday morning we went to Dural and set up our exhibit promoting SOTA.  A number of clubs from the Sydney area also exhibited, also ALARA, the WICEN group and CREST had stands.

Here are a few photos from our stand and others:

We handed out about 30 copies of our SOTA brochure and had some good chats with various people who wanted to know more.

Overall we thought the exercise was well worth while.

After I left Dural I headed up to Mt Tomah VK2/CT-043 in the Blue Mountains.  I operated until just about sunset near 5pm local time, after which I closed down and packed up the gear in the rapidly cooling evening air.

The next morning I drove up to Mt Bindo a little earlier than planned as there was a forecast of low temperatures and a high probability of rain.

I did qualify the summit, with 5 CW contacts and 4 SSB contacts, during which my pole collapsed three times.  After the third collapse in a very strong gust of wind, I decided to pack and go, as the clouds to the west were looking dark and I wasn’t really sure of my way down the mountain.

Only a short time later, I was 20km away enjoying a hot coffee at Oberon. It started to snow and I was really glad I didn’t get caught in that on the hilltop with radio gear at risk.

On the way from Oberon southwards to Goulburn, there was quite a lot of snow on the roadside and in the countryside.  So glad I wasn’t still on a mountain in that.  A big change from the weather I had enjoyed three days earlier on the way up to Sydney.

 

SOTA on 23cm, 23 March 2019

In keeping with the trend for activity days that match the band with the day of the month, a 23 cm activity day in and near vk1 on the 23rd of March was organised for SOTA operators by Andrew VK1AD.

I operated from Mt Mundoonen, which is near Yass.

The antenna for 23cm was a 4 element yagi mounted on a camera tripod as seen in the featured photo above.

The weather conditions were misty at 8am, but it cleared up later.

The operating position for this activation was from inside a sun shelter, a small 3 sided tent structure that I find helps a lot to reduce sun and wind exposure and is also useful in rain.

The sun shelter protected the operator from sun and wind. This shows the 23cm yagi near a half wave vertical for 2m fm.

I was impressed by the signals received on the 2m dipole. The beacon from Sydney VK2RSY was good copy and I heard the VK3RGL beacon from near Geelong at a low level. Surprising to hear it on such a low gain antenna. Zero db above a dipole…

[edited following comment about reception on the 2m dipole] A note on the dipole: Testing the 2m dipole antenna for SWR while mounted at about 4m elevation, offset about 2m from my metal clad shed at home, I noted a significant change in impedance depending on whether the dipole was end on to the shed, or aligned broadside to the shed. Clearly a 2m offset from the shed is insufficient for there to be no interaction, so you wonder what is the effect on each antenna when you see antennas mounted on cars, with spacing of several inches only between antennas for various bands.

Edit: checking image links

The Hotham S2S-fest February 2019

For several years a dozen or more SOTA fanatics have met at the Victorian snowfields destination of Mt Hotham for a weekend of multiple activations, many S2S contacts between summits and some social activities. I had intended to join in this event several times in the past but various problems prevented it.
 
This year I made it and had a great time too. The organiser of the event is Brian VK3BCM who manages the lodge during the winter and knows the area well.
 
Wade VK1MIC was also keen to attend so on Friday 1st Feb we travelled together down the Hume Highway from Yass to Albury then south to Mt Big Ben to score our first points for the weekend. But about 3/4 of the way up the forest road we found a substantial tree blocking the road up to the summit.

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We decided it could take a long time to clear the road and there could even be more trees blocking the road further on, so decided to turn around and go to Mt Porepunkah.  Taking the route suggested by the GPS was not successful and after consulting several blogs we found which route was recommended.  It was quite easy to reach the summit that way and we activated the summit successfully, before heading for Mt Hotham via Bright.
 
On Saturday we joined a convoy of three cars heading south west to Mt Murray and Mt Selwyn and others, but after Mt Selwyn we decided to detour back to Bright to refuel for the following day.  That might not have been necessary as fuel would be available in Omeo but it seemed prudent at the time.

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On the Saturday evening activation at Mt Hotham, Wade wanted to activate on FT8 and did so successfully on HF, though the subsequent sked with Compton VK2HRX on 1296 mhz using FT8 was unsuccessful for reasons that are unclear. The 1296 transverter and 4 element yagi was put to good use, with a dozen or so of the activators making contacts with Andrew VK3JBL at Mt Torbreck, a distance of just over 100km and all the more satisfying as Andrew’s transverter was operating at reduced power of a few hundred milliwatts. 

The photos below were provided to Gerard 2IO for his composite article on the weekend, thanks to the photographer. They show Wade and me, with the setup used on 1296 (FT817 and SG-LAB transverter, a 4 element yagi on a camera tripod weighed down (against the breeze) by a bag of groceries I found in the car… have to be creative sometimes.

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On Sunday we joined a group heading east to Omeo then north for a round trip via five summits north of Omeo.
 
On most summits it was possible to share a single HF station to make the CW contacts I needed to qualify on CW and count towards a CW MG award. Towards the end of the Sunday trip storms were approaching and we adopted a hit and run strategy by making four quick contacts on 2m FM and not setting up on HF at all.  I’d like to return to all of those summits and have a more leisurely activation on HF bands, ssb and cw.
 
The visit to the historical Washington Winch site was interesting too.
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At the Washington Winch
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At the Washington Winch
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At the Washington Winch
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At the Washington Winch
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At the Washington Winch
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At the Washington Winch
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At the Washington Winch
 
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Gerard, Compton and Wade at one of the summits we visited
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Cheerful road sign
 
Due to the large number of activators trying to qualify their summits on 146.5fm, it was often difficult to satisfy all activators with immediate contacts.  Some methodology for making more use of the VFO dial, using another 2 or 3 frequencies would be useful. There are channels available but we need to realise that 25 khz channel spacing is not enough protection from a very local signal.
 
Apart from the radio contacts I also learned a thing or two about my 4WD and gained some confidence about climbing steep rocky roads.
 
On the Monday after helping Brian to move a woodpile inside the lodge we drove over to Wangaratta and enjoyed a coffee with Warren VK3BYD.  Then we drove up to Holbrook and visited Bernard VK2IB and his partner Deb.
 
It’s always good to meet people you have talked with on air.
 
I had met about half of the gang at Hotham before and it was great to catch up with them. And it was great to meet others who I had spoken to on the radio but was not meeting in person for the first time, in particular Sid ZS5AYC and Adele ZS5APT. Sid was working with an injured foot but managed to activate every summit visited. (I noticed that Adele was subsequently successful in gaining her Mountain Goat award, which was great to see.)

Three activations in Tasmania, November 2018

Having negotiated some SOTA time on our trip to Tasmania I thought I would be very happy to add one VK7 summit to my activation list, adding a new association in SOTA parlance to my list of associations activated.

The ideal summit in Hobart is the ever-present Mt Wellington which towers over the city and spends much of its time bathed in cloud or rain. At 1270m and only a few km from the city which is at sea level, it is a commanding presence to anyone noticing mountains as they scan the horizon, ie. any SOTA activator. In Hobart there are a number of SOTA qualified summits nearby.

On Wednesday 14th the weather forecast was for afternoon rain, but mid afternoon it seemed to be fine and I thought that could be my opportunity. So I ventured out with some cautious enthusiasm.

Arriving at the top of the mountain I could not see any details of the broadcasting towers and indeed had to look carefully to identify the trig point. There were very few people wandering around due to the threatening weather, which suited me very well.

I set up the gear and antenna using some large rocks as a protection from westerly wind and rain. The tarp I normally use to provide a clean surface to sit on was used instead to cover the radio to protect it from rain. I used an umbrella to keep most of the rain off my clothing, though I had donned the raincoat and pants. Radio conditions were not good, but I managed to make contacts on 40m and 20m using cw and ssb.

Rain on the legs and shoes
Here I am cowering under the umbrella while operating at Mt Wellington

The next day I had an opportunity to activate another summit in the Hobart area. I didn’t know how ambitious to be with only a few hours available. So I opted for a local summit Mt Rumney which is between Hobart city and the airport. There is comms gear on the summit, which was producing some spurious signals on 40 and 20m.

I found a track just off the roadside at the top, which ended with a gate, for service access to the comms compound. The roadside barrier provided a mounting point for my antenna pole.

Operating setup at Mt Rumney

On Friday 16th Nov I drove from Hobart to Devonport, but via the Ben Lomond National Park where there was a very attractive option, Legge’s Tor VK7/NE-001. This is a truly spectacular trip mainly for the passenger in the car, but the driver gets a few glimpses of the trip up the Jacob’s Ladder in the few moments he can afford to look elsewhere but the road. The pics below show some of the scenery en route to the summit in the car, and the walk on foot. On the way back down I stopped several times to grab photos of the scenery, I don’t think these shots do it justice.

On the radio, I made about 20 contacts on 40 and 20m, CW and SSB. After running out of available contacts I noticed a few spots of rain on the logging tablet, so decided to quit while I could walk down and be dry for most of the distance to the car, about 1.5km. As it happened, I had just opened the car and started making a cup of tea when the rain started to get heavy. Just lucky timing.

The small pole in the far distance made me think I had 500m to go, but in fact it was only about 200m and the pole was quite small. Heading up this way was the right way to reach the Activation Zone

At the summit area

The equipment setup at Legge’s Tor. Convenient rocks making a seat and table.
Operating position
View towards the summit cairn

Moss on the rocks on the summit path
Summit path clearly visible
One of many huts on the summit, apparently used as ski lodges
View down into the valley from the summit path

Looking back towards the summit village, on the way down
Some of the rocks on the way down
Looking down on part of the “ladder” and the valley below
Rocks!
Part of the Jacob’s Ladder on the way down

 

Looking out from the road into the valley

 

Part of the road down the Jacob’s Ladder
The road ahead shown on the GPS

 

Finally back on the ordinary road, still with snow markers

 

This activation capped the SOTA part of the trip to Tasmania in a spectacular way.

Amateur radio experiences with VK1DA