The Asia 108 is a group of three flat, rocky islands of eroded limestone pavement, 5 km north- west of Tripoli, rising to 6m. There is some maquis-type vegetation but the islands are anyway relatively bare except in spring when carpeted in wild flowers ; however on Palm Island there are also small ponds, boggy areas and two reedbeds. Some of the wild flower species are nationally endangered or extinct along the mainland coast, or otherwise unusual, e.g. Euphorbia pithyusa, Cressa cretica. Known as the Bird Islands in the last century due to the abundant breeding seabirds, but presently only Larus cachinnans possibly still breeds ; however even this species has been declining rapidly (80-90 pairs in 1956, min. 15 pairs in 1975, none breeding April 1993). The site would make an excellent observatory for monitoring visible migration of waterbirds along the coast (egrets, ducks and waders, etc...). The globally threatened seal Monachus monachus and sea-turtles Chelonia mydas and Caretta caretta were formerly recorded at this site, the latter using the sandy beaches for nesting. Rabbits, rats and snakes are also present. Being the off shore island, Ramkin has been used for military purposes in the past, there are some concrete buildings and the platform for two guns, erected early 1900. Nowadays all the buildings are in bad shape and some are ruined. There is a lighthouse on Ramkin Island, supplied by solar panels. The area is declared as Marine Reserve, the islands are visited commonly by picnickers, tourists and hunters, and also by schoolchildren and fishermen. The camping is not permitted and all visitors must leave the area before sunset.
AS 108 in the radio hams scenario
As 108 is not particularly rare, some activations have been made in the past, the last lager was on September 1999 by R.A.L. the Lebanese radio hams league. The activity lasted three days and 6,000 qso were on the log. Some other activations have been made by single operators but they were sporadic and short. In spite of the activity, AS 108 is in the top part of the most wanted for the I.O.T.A program, being endorsed by less than 20% applicants. This is not because of the difficulty to contact the islands when activated, the skip is normally very good for Europe, but the difficulty is to get the qsl.
The background of the dx'expedition
The idea to activate AS 108 is grown when Naim, OD5LN went to Sanremo (Italy) for job reasons. The wish to be on the other side of the pile up was the main issue during our discussions and the idea to operate from AS 108 started to grow up. Naim agreed to take care of the logistic and the domestic part of the operation, as well as to get the licences, while we would take care of the technical part, the equipment, antennas etc. One important issue was the period of the activation, the sun activity is close to the minimum and the propagation is poor. It is slightly better in winter time since there are more dark hours in the north hemisphere. But against that we had to bear in mind that in winter we could have had bad weather on the Mediterranean sea, and the risk not to be able to reach the island because of strong wind and rough sea is a reality. Being forced to plan our activity in summer, after some discussion, we decided to activate the island during the I.O.T.A. contest, scheduled at the end of July. The choice would give us more possibility to go to the island but the price to pay would be a worst propagation; we were not prepared to face up to a three person trip with the risk to remain to look at the island from the main land with a stormy sea!
The program would be to remain on the island for three days, from Saturday morning to Monday evening, camping on the island for two nights. As already mentioned, the camping is not allowed in the protected area but Naim obtained the permission to stay one night at least by presenting the I.O.T.A. contest as an international happening. Our licences were released as OD5/hamecall but, in order to make more interesting and fast the island activation, Naim asked for a special callsign OD5RMK. As usual in this occasion, we had to face the transport problems: if we could carry all what was necessary, we easily would have reached hundreds kg in weight, so after calculating the transport cost it was necessary to optimize weight and volume and give up something. We planned to use two stations at the same time, one for the contest, the second for the WARC bands during the contest. We knew this was not a winning strategy for the contest since we renounced to the multiplier search but we believed it was more important to assure the AS108 reference to a larger number of hams instead of being on the IOTA contest top score. Other dilemma was beam antennas or amplifiers. By using the beams we could renounce to the amplifiers but we would have had bigger volume to transport and the need of masts on the island. By using the amplifiers we would have had smaller volume but bigger weight and the need of more electric power. Again a lot of discussions and in the end we decided to use vertical antennas and amplifiers taking in account that the vertical antennas, close to the sea, would have had a low take off angle, favourable for the dx and the assembly time would be shorter.
summary of the equipment
1 transceiver TS400 1 transceiver TS450 1 transceiver IC735 (spare) 2 SWR bridges ROS 2 switching power supply 1 linear amplifier FL2100Z 1 vertical antenna Eco 7+ 1 vertical antenna HV6V 1 dipole for 80m 2 filters Dunestar 3 laptop 1 antenna analyser MFJ259 interfaces, keyers headphones, cables, etc. Furthermore, personal belongings, medicines etc. all for a total weight exceeding 120 kg. Very important issue was the packing of the equipment: we knew how delicate they were and which sort of shock they would have been subjected to when they were stowed on the aircraft. The preparation of suitable packing is a time-spending operation, some of the equipment is heavy and delicate and the packing must be easy to open for the Customs inspection. Naim provided on site all the necessary for the logistic and whatever was possible to find locally such as 2 power generators and the relevant fuel 1 tent and blankets 2 desks 2 big umbrellas 4 chairs 1 linear amplifier 811 electric cables and accessories 1 roll of RG213 coaxial cable 1 ice box drinkable water and food
In order to avoid any discussion when back to Italy it is a good precaution to have a list of the most important equipment, at least those with a serial number, signed by the customs. We prepared a comprehensive bill of equipment but when we submitted it to the customs officer he pointed out that a temporarily export procedure should be necessary, lasting a few days and requesting the payment of a caution. After some discussion he gave us the right suggestion, just to fill in a declaration of goods leaving E.C. for the equipment identified with the serial number, in this way the procedure is reduced just to the inspection of the declared goods. Once solved the problem with the Italian customs, we still had some concern when approaching the Middle East Airline desk because of the weight and the volume of our stuff, but no problem raised and we were in the condition to embark in time. In case someone would go to Lebanon, we recommend having a window seat on the left side of the aircraft: during landing you can see Beirut city and the show is unique! The Lebanese customs was an hard obstacle to overpass, in spite of Naim having already obtained the authorization to import our equipment; our luggages were inspected and sealed ant transported to the customs docks where, the official says, we could collect them on the following day, too late for our purpose. Only after a long discussion between Naim and the official, discussion in which we were only spectators since it was in Arabic language, our material was released two hours later. Out of the airport two cars were waiting for us, and after loading we proceeded to Naim's house where his wife Hannan offered us a nice dinner Lebanese stile. The following morning we woke up at 04,00 to be ready to load our stuff on a van and leave to Tripoli, one-hour trip. Being there during sunrise the landscape offered us a poetic show which was not very appreciated being so sleepy. In the previous days Naim already transported there the material which he had procured and, in fact, a few minutes after our arrival to the harbour a car, fully loaded with a lot of stuff arrived with two robust boys, engaged by Naim to help us in the material handling. To avoid bad surprises we decided to try the generators before embarking them. They started easily up and we embarked them on the boat. The volume of the stuff we embarked was so big that the main part of the upper deck was covered. During the day the boat transports tourists but at that time they were all still sleeping. We were surprised to see a number of persons making jogging on the walkway close to the sea. In fact there was a hidden passenger who accompanied us on the island; very soon we would discover that Mr. Murphy is with us. The sailing lasted one hour approx., there is some breeze and the boat rolls but nothing dangerous. We spent our time taking pictures, since we needed some to select for the qsl cards. The boat was always moving, we needed to shot a number of pictures hoping there were some good enough. Thanks God with the digital cameras there is no need to print all the pictures to see the results.
The stations set up
The landing on the island was not easy. There was an old pier that is no longer used because the sea in that point is not deep enough, so it is necessary to enter in a small gulf, protected by the wind but with an almost vertical cliff. The sailors knew the area and they used all their ability to approach the coast. One of them from the land took the prow of the boat and we started disembarking the material. It was a human chain, from the boat deck to the rocks, the two friends of Naim's handled easily the heaviest loads and in half an hour all the material was on the ground. It was not finished yet, now we had to transport all the stuff to the building, the distance to cover was 300 meter but the first 100 were on sharpened rocks before reaching the small path which drives to the main building. The sun was already high once the material arrived at the destination, and it started to burn, the sky was very clear and the breeze kept the skin fresh, but we had to protect ourselves with high protection ointment to avoid burning. The setup of the station starts immediately, the jobs are shared without specific rules but everybody knows what to do. The first antenna, the Eco 7+ is raised on a rock close to the sea. We have with us the Dunestar filters, nevertheless we try to install the antennas as far as possible to avoid interferences when operating with two stations. The second antenna, the Butternuth HV6V, is erected on the top of the building roof, where we install the desks and the tent. The power generators are at the ground floor to avoid us being annoyed by the noise.
AS 108 on the air
The I.O.T.A. contest starts at 15,00 local time (12,00 GMT) and we decided to start to operate with the first station as soon as possible. The smaller power generator, initially a bit reluctant, starts up and it is 09,31 GMT when the first qso is in log on 18 Mhz. The pile up is immediately lively but we soon understand that the propagation will not help us. In the meanwhile the second station set up proceeds and finally, when ready to start, Mr. Murphy makes his first show, the bigger generator, which was tested before loading it on the boat, does not want to start. After trying any possible solution we must acknowledge that the generator is hopeless. Naim starts to phone to his friends in Tripoli (thanks God the area is well covered by the cellular) to find a spare generator but in the while the wind rises and the sea is rough now. The wind is rather strong and starts annoying us, sometimes the umbrellas risk to fly away and only the weight of the radios and the amplifiers avoid the desks to get upset. The generator, finally, is available on the mainland but the conditions of the sea are so bad that is not possible to sail, therefore we have no alternative than operating the two radios barefoot since the generator left was not big enough to support an amplifier. Nevertheless the qso rate is not bad, we are always over 100 qso per hour on the contest also. We understand the interest for the island is big but the propagation is heavily variable, we often have huge pile up and in few minutes we are calling CQ with no signal on the air! A lot of stations from Russia, Ukraine, and north Europe, some JA and few from the States with very low signal. Always in the fist row the Italians, finally the pile up is rolling fast and regularly. The propagation, as we already said, is not helping us, only an opening on 15m, few qso on 12m, the activity is mostly on 17, 20, 30, 40m. The noise is very strong on 80m, we are forced to forget this band for the fist night, hoping to have a better chance on the second night, after installing a dipole. We will see later that it remains only a hope. It is only at the sunset that the wind decreases and the conditions become suitable to sail. Finally we received the spare generator when the sun disappears into the sea. But bad surprises are not over yet, the power socket is American standard, and our plugs can not be used. We have no tool and material to arrange a plug to fit into the socket and the only way is to dismantle the control panel and to connect the cable directly. It is dark when we are finally ready. Unfortunately the generator is not big enough to supply two amplifiers and we decide to go on running the contest barefoot, since we have already been operating for some hours in this condition and it would be senseless to change the category right now. We would like to make a remark to the I.O.T.A. contest committee, the contest rule imposes to exchange RS(T), serial number and I.O.T.A. reference for every contact. This means slowing down dramatically the qso rate. Taking into account that during contests it is not possible to operate split, if we compare the rate of the station out of the contest with that of the contest station, the latter was 40 - 50% slower than the former. Of course the rules are the same for all the stations in the contest and it makes the difficulty equivalent, but the point is that when an island is rare and the operation lasts for a short time, having a low qso rate means that many stations will miss the contact. The operations go on all the night long without interruption, in spite of a very poor propagation. It is Sunday early morning when Naim receives a telephone call announcing that the permission to remain on the island for the second night has not been released and we must leave to the mainland before sunset. We have no other choice than to dismantle all our stuff, ready to embark it on the last boat tour at 19,00 local time. We wait till the last minute to dismantle and we run the last station till 15,17 GMT when the last qso from AS 108 is on the log. To make the dismantling short, Naim asks his two friends to come to help us. They arrived at noon carrying a huge and sweet water melon and a couple of nargilè, a pleasure which the Lebanese cannot renounce! Once again their help is precious in the dismantling and handling job. Finally the boat arrives a little later with a dozen of tourists who are observing, not without a certain concern, our loading operation and the pile of stuff on the deck. During the sail back the boat makes a complete tour around the island and we can observe the whole coast around.
Back to Italy
Time is running and time to go arrives, our flight leaves early on Friday morning. Naim recommends to be ready with the equipment on Tuesday afternoon. Before noon he comes to us asking to prepare all our stuff as soon as possible to bring them to the customs. The procedure is very long, a lot of long discussions, all in Arabic, with a half dozen of different officers, signature on documents written in Arabic, a consistent export tax to be paid. All the luggages, including the hand luggages, are sealed with the customs seals, we will collect them at the airport customs office. The following morning, we wake up at 03,30 to be ready in time to collect the luggage and to check in. As soon as we are in the airport we contacted the customs immediately and we were able to collect the luggage. Naim is not there to assist us, a customs officer is with us to assure that the luggage is loaded on the flight without being opened. At the check in we were obliged to send on the aircraft stow all the luggage, no hand luggage allowed, since we were strongly overweight and the Middle East Airline pretended us to pay the relevant fee. Finally we can leave and we land in time at Milano Malpensa. The luggages are delivered still with the Lebanese customs seals. We expected the Italian customs would ask for explanation but for the officers we are not interesting. Claudio, IK1LWK which already drove us when we left Italy, is waiting for us, our Lebanese adventure now is really is finished.
Conclusion and statistics
We put a lot of efforts in this expedition and being forced to stop our activity from AS 108 one day in advance did not allow us to put in log all the qso we wanted even if the qso rate was what we expected. Furthermore owing to the time shortage we could not operate 80m, which was not possible to activate in the first night. The propagation did not support us, we discovered after our return home that a solar storm negatively affected the propagation; we already noted it while operating from OD5, the signal was very weak from the States, not much from Japan, very deep qsb.