Dxpedition to the end of the world : The Rapa experience

By Antoine D. R. N’Yeurt, FO5RK / 3D2AG

 	Rapa Island (IOTA OC-051) is the southernmost island of the Australs group 
  in French Polynesia, lying 1240 km to the south of Tahiti. My Dxpedition began 
  at the Naval wharf in Papeete, Tahiti, where we boarded the French Navy vessel 
  ‘La Railleuse’ which was to take our 14-member scientific team to 
  Rapa, for 6 weeks of study of the marine fauna and flora of that far-away island. 
  There is no airport on the island because of the impracticability of making 
  a runway, and the only links with the outside world are inter-island vessels 
  about every two months, or military patrol vessels such as the one we were lucky 
  to board. The trip takes 48 hours by clement sea, which was fortunately the 
  case for us. Life aboard the military vessel was strict, and we had to adhere 
  to inflexible meal times, and were restricted to our quarters during the frequent 
  military exercises of the crew. Maritime mobile operation was of course out 
  of the question; otherwise the crewmembers were quite friendly to us. At daybreak 
  on the second day at sea, there was a magical moment as the island of Rapa began 
  to be visible on the horizon, its jagged peaks silhouetted against the red hues 
  of the sunrise. An ancient volcano with peaks culminating at 650 m and steep 
  outer cliffs, the island offers from the sea a desolate, eerie landscape to 
  the first-time visitor. That picture gradually changed as the boat got closer 
  to the main bay, home to the 500 souls spread in two villages (Area, and Ahurei) 
  that make up the population of Rapa. There is a small wharf at Ahurei, and we 
  were greeted by almost the entire population of the village who had come to 
  welcome us with garlands of flowers, and singing of traditional hymns. There 
  are few visitors to this remote and wind-swept Austral island, and those that 
  make it are surely well-received, with a genuine hospitality that has been long-lost 
  in tourist- filled islands such as Tahiti and Bora Bora. 
Once we landed, we were overwhelmed by our welcome, and a French Polynesian ‘truck’ , the local bus, was waiting to take us to our dormitory and a traditional feast or ‘tamara’. However, the military boat could only stay a few hours and we first had to unload our material (including my antenna!) from the hatch. That having been done, I had time to reflect during the short ride to the village, on the best way to mingle my scientific duties and give a ‘new one’ to thousands of radio-amateurs who still needed OC-051. Fortunately there was a continuous supply of electricity to the village, so generators were not needed. After a most delicious meal in the presence of our Rapan hosts, I enquired about a suitable place to set-up antennas and a station, and was kindly provided a small space in the hall behind the church, in the same building as the men’s dormitory. Thereafter that afternoon, our time was occupied setting-up the scientific stations and laboratories, and attending preparatory meetings, so ham radio had to be regretfully set aside temporarily. It was decided that we would do a couple of dives every morning, have a break for lunch (either at sea or land) then another dive in the afternoon, after which scientific samples had to be sorted out and filed away. All that meant that operating time on the radio was extremely limited, and basically could only occur before breakfast, for 45 minutes after breakfast, during lunch break (if it took place on land!) and late afternoons for an hour or so before dinner, and after dinner until bed-time (which was early, since we had to wake up at 4 A.M. local time!). In UTC that translated to being QRV from 1430 to 1530, 1600 to 1700, 2200 to 0000, 0300 to 0430, and from 0600 to 1100 UTC each day, propagation permitting (Sunday was off, so more flexible times were possible). The next afternoon, I found some time to assemble the 2-el HB9CV antenna for 20, 15 and 10 metres (kindly donated by Toshi, JM1PXG) and put up the windom antenna in an inverted-V configuration for 40 m and the WARC bands. Because of the strong winds which are frequent on Rapa, the antennas had to be well-secured, and turning was with the ‘Armstrong’ method! The station consisted of the ICOM 706 MKII, and a Bencher paddle for CW operation (absolutely imperative after 0800 UTC, when most other expedition members were luckily asleep!). Preliminary trials indicated that propagation was best by shortpath to Europe and USA between 1500 and 1700 UTC on 10 and 12 metres, and on 20 m shortpath USA between 0300 and 0600 UTC. Europe was open via longpath on 20, 15 metres between 0900 and 1100 UTC on several days a week; on the other days high noise levels about S-7 strength was making reception in the evenings quasi-impossible, even with all filters activated. At first I thought a machine nearby was intermittently being put on, but such was not the case. The answer lay in the fact that Rapa is way south, past the tropic of Capricorn, and auroral noise is quite frequent, especially in summer. Temperatures on the island are quite cool compared to the rest of Polynesia, with a minimum of 6 degrees C in winter, and a maximum of 22 degrees in summer (which means fruits like peaches, apples, nectarines, and vegetables like carrots and potatoes thrive; however coconut trees are rare and never produce fruits). Fortunately the weather was nice to us during the first weeks of operation, but on the last week a freak tornado while we were at our farewell lunch pulled up the HB9CV from its mast, and it fell on the ground. Luckily, no serious damage was incurred because the antenna is so light, and it was quickly put up again with the kind help of locals, for a few more hours of operation. The station was officially QRT about an hour before boarding our ship back to Tahiti via Raivavae, on December 8. It was a rainy, foggy day and the sea was rough, totally unlike our coming, an uneasy feeling adding to our sadness at leaving our newly-found Rapan friends. On the deck of the ‘Railleuse’, through tear-filled eyes we customarily threw our ‘leis’ or flower garlands into the foamy sea, a promise we will return one day to that isolated, forsaken, but so humanely hospitable shore.
Despite all the restrictions in operating time and natural QRN, some 3000 QSOs had been logged by the end of the 5-week expedition, mostly on 10, 12 and 20 metres, about 75% of which were on CW. That may not have been enough to satisfy all the demand for OC-051, but at least the lucky ones who made it could proudly claim a rare ‘new one’ for their IOTA programme. I am particularly grateful to the people of Rapa for their overflowing kindness, unparalleled welcome and unselfish help during our stay with them, and also to I.R.E.F. for support towards the expedition.