Sunday, April 21, 2013

E51DXX DX-Pedition


Our  DX-Pedition / vacation to Rarotonga was very enjoyable and successful.  We spent almost two weeks on South Cook Islands including a day trip to Aitutaki.  Rarotonga is located in South Pacific between Tonga islands and French Polynesia.  It is in the same time zone as Hawaii (UTC -10h).  Rarotonga is part of South Cook Islands.

We stayed at Sea Change Villas located on the south coast of Rarotonga, almost opposite side to Avarua, the chief town in Rarotonga.

Figure 1.  E51DXX location on Rarotonga

Sea Change Villas has excellent 5 star ratings in Tripadvisor  and after spending there 2 weeks I can assure that the place is just wonderful. When booking the villa back in December 2012 I was corresponding via email to Christina and Deb.  I asked if it was possibile to setup a ham radio antenna.  They responded that if I don't interfere with the Wifi internet service I am welcome to setup my antenna.   It turned out to be a very ham friendly location and I got even some help to pull the coaxial cable. 

There are multiple villas on this well maintained property, including two that are right at the beach (Fig 2.).  We opted for unit #7 that is approximately 150 meters from the beach on a sloping terrain. 

Figure 2.  Sea Change Villas
We arrived to Rarotonga with a direct Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles around 6:30 AM local time on April 1st.  Upon arrival the warm southern pacific air smelled really good and there was a nice breeze coming from the ocean.   We had a driver waiting for us and he gave us white flower leis and took our luggage.  On the way to the villas James told us about Rarotonga. He explained that the main road Ara Tapu goes along the coast around the island and is about 32 km. There are clockwise and counterclockwise bus routes that go around this road.  There are also plenty of places to rent a scooter,  a bicycle or a car.  We passed by many hotels on the west coast as well as several shops and restaurants.  In about 20 mins we arrived to Sea Change Villas and James helped to unload our luggage. 

Figure 3. Sea Change Villas 

We were positively surprised of the villa - it was very spacious and very well maintained.  We had a nice view to the ocean as well as our own private pool backside. We also found that the refrigerator was well stocked with food so I prepared some eggs and toast for breakfast.  There was also a letter on the kitchen table explaining that the reception opens at 9:30 AM.  

After settling in  and exchanging more comfortable clothes I walked down to beach to check water temperature.  The morning mist was still visible around the mountains as visible in Fig 3. 
During the two weeks we stayed in Rarotonga the weather was really nice and temperature was around 30 C  (day time) to 23 C (night time).   

When the office opened in the morning John came to provide us orientation to Rarotonga.  We discussed about various activities and locations that we wanted to experience.  John was very knowledgeable and helped us to rent a car  and get our first scuba diving scheduled.   He also provided a really good overview of restaurants, beaches,  shopping and other activities we were interested.  


John also helped me to setup the Buddipole antenna next to the pool and to pull the coaxial cable inside. The telecom office was closed on April 1st as it was a public holiday in Rarotonga but I did erect the antenna to listen the HF bands in the afternoon and evening.

Figure 4. Buddipole antenna
I had two radios with me  - Elecraft KX3  and  Flex-3000.

I had also Powerwerx SS-30DV portable 30 Amp power supply with me.  I had also two adapters to plugin to local 230V AC but I realized later that they were lacking the grounding pin.

It took me a while to assemble the station and connect to Flex-3000.  My trusty old Thinkpad T60 laptop had latest and greatest PowerSDR software that I did test before our departure to Rarotonga.

I had also an Array Solutions AIM UHF antenna analyzer to help tuning the Buddipole antenna to different bands.  I  tested the Buddipole in different configurations such as
  • horizontal dipole
  • vertical dipole
  • L-shaped dipole 
I had a portable mast to erect the antenna up to 18 feet. I had also guy wires to keep the antenna straight.

First day was filled with other activities as well.  I went to get a rental car, we visited the scuba diving place to schedule some dives  and  finally took our snorkling gear to explore the blue lagoon a bit closer.

In the evening I was listening the ham bands  - 20m was wide open and I heard many VK and ZL stations as well as North American stations.  I also heard a few European stations later in the evening via long path.  The sunset was around 6:40 PM local time and eventually the sky turned pitch black.  I went out a few times to adjust the antenna and I was amazed to see Milky Way and Southern Cross. With almost zero light pollution in Rarotonga the sky was really black and I saw many unfamiliar constellations.

Figure 5. E51DXX license

Next morning we headed with my wife Marja (AB1NL) to Avarua  - the small town on the northern coast of Rarotonga. I got my Cook Islands drivers licence at the Police station - a dark gray building next to a gas station.  They also instructed me to go the Telecom office to pickup the E51DXX ham licence.  Telecom has a nice modern air conditioned office  and I asked for Mr. Katoa Banaba to whom I had emailed copy of my passport and U.S. ham licence in advance.  He had prepared my licence  so I walked out of the office in about 15 minutes with a fresh new E51DXX amateur licence in my hand.

We bought some groceries from CITC supermarket near the airport and headed back to the villa.  There are many smaller stores around the island but CITC store is well stocked and had everything we needed. There is also locally grown fruits and vegetables.

After dinner I opened the radio and starting working QSOs.  I was struggling a bit as the station setup was not very stable initially.  I got some signal reports where NZ  hams indicated that I might have some RF in the shack. I had some extra ferrite cores with me so I re-arranged the cables.  I also realized that the missing grounding pin on the AC adapter might be part of the problem. However,  I was able to fix most of the issues and adjust the settings in Flex-3000 / PowerSDR to eliminate the problem and I started getting better quality reports.

As discussed earlier I also experimented with different Buddipole configurations.  It was very easy to bring the antenna down,  adjust settings, measure with AIM UHF analyzer  and lift the antenna up again. As I got better feel of the bands and different antenna configurations I settled with the L-shaped configuration (see Figure 6. below) that seemed to work extremely well.  I used this setup both at the beach near water front as well as at the villa. Chris W6HFP and Tom K2GSJ have a neat Youtube video that explain how to do the antenna setup.

In the following days there were several great 28 Mhz openings  so I took my Elecraft KX3  and set the antenna right at the beach.  I made many great SSB contacts to Europe,  USA and Japan with only 5 Watts.  Many hams were amazed how well they heard my QRP station.  In many cases they had multielement Yagi and 1 kW amplifier on their side, and they gave me 56 to 59 signal reports. KX3 has excellent receiver and I did hear more stations than I could work with.

Figure 6.  Buddipole in L-shaped configuration.

I needed some power adapters  and I was wondering if there is anything available in such a remote South Pacific island.  I called Jim E51JD who we had already met at lunch in Avarua. There is a fairly new electronics store near the airport called JayCar.  I visited the store and talked to Denny who is the store manager.  He was very helpful  and not only had exactly what I needed but he also helped to test that everything worked. See figure 6 below - he is testing my Powerpole connections.

The store itself is like a very well equipped RadioShack. He had everything from connectors, batteries, solar panels to actual electronics components.  Denny mentioned that even the telecom engineers visiting from New Zealand find some components they need as they are installing a new 3G network on the island. I did visit the store couple times  during this DX-Pedition. I wish my local RadioShack store near Lexington would be as well equipped as this one.    

Figure 7.  Denny  from Jaycar is helping to fix a new power adapter. 


We did multiple scuba diving trips during this vacation.  We used Pacific Divers - their office is located on the east side of the island.   
Figure 8. Marja returning from a dive
Figure 9.  From left: Alex, dive master Hayley, Marja, Mauri and Mitch
 Most of the trips started from Avarua harbor as the wind was blowing mostly from south west during the first week.  The conditions were good - sea was calm and visibility was  around 30 meters (100 feet).

We had scuba diving scheduled typically in the morning and we explored the SS Mai Tai shipwreck near the Avarua harbor.  We also visited Edna's achor on this dive trip.  During the following 12 days we visited few other dive sites around the island.

Coral Gardens was an impressive dive site and I did capture on video some strange creature that might have been a big octopus hiding under a big rock.

We also learned some new tricks.  Diving backwards over the side of the boat was a new experience for me. The first time felt pretty awkward but it was really the only practical way to get into water with air tank and all the other gear as the boat was pretty tightly packed as you can see from Figure 8.

Figure 10.  Marja coming to surface

Unfortunately I did have some trouble equalizing my ears so after my 4th dive trip I had blood in my mask and had to stop and focus on snorkeling. My both ears were pretty clogged for the rest of the vacation.   However,  I did have a lot of fun and got to play with my new GoPro2 camera.  I still need to edit all those underwater video clips - I have literally Gigabytes of video and pictures.

Scuba diving in Rarotonga was a lot of fun but I also enjoyed snorkeling.  For example in the place called "Fruits of Rarotonga" there is a lot of tropical fish and corals if you swim past the big red buoy.

On our day trip to Aitutaki we had also opportunity to snorkel in the lagoon. What a fantastic place - the natural beauty of this lagoon must be experienced - photographs won't do it.  We finished our lagoon journey to One Foot Island (Tapuaetai) where we had lunch and got our passports stamped.
Aitutaki has also been used as the location for US TV program Survivor:Cook Islands.    


On Friday April 12th I had also a very nice lunch with Jim, E51JD and Here (friend of Barb, N1ICQ) at Tamarind restaurant. I learned quite a lot about the island, its history and the people.  Jim has been living in Rarotonga for 40 years and Here is native resident so they were both very knowledgeable. The island has changed over these years,  quality of housing has improved and tourism has become the biggest source of income. Many people have also moved to New Zealand and Australia, especially from more remote islands of Cook Islands group.  In Rarotonga there is about 10,000 residents and on annual basis they have some 100,000 tourists visiting these islands. When the new airport was opened in 1974 it brought many new visitors to these southern pacific jewels. 

Figure 10. Lunch with Jim E51JD and Here.

We did also some antenna tuning at Jim's place.  He has an impressive station on the north east corner of Rarotonga with antennas covering almost every band. I heard Jim E51JD multiple times on the air during my visit to Rarotonga even though I was on the other side of Rarotonga mountains. His 30m/17m/12m vertical antenna was a little bit out of resonance so we took it down and adjusted the upper element.  While we had the antenna analyzer available I measured all his other antennas as well and they got a perfect score.  Jim is fairly close to the beach and he explained that winds are bringing salt everywhere so corrosion is a big problem.

As this DX-Pedition was really a vacation I was not too worried about working around the clock or trying to maximize number of contacts. I worked at a leisure pace and did not spend all nights chasing for DX stations.  However,  I did have a couple good pileups  and I am very grateful for the patience of fellow hams who were calling me.  In several cases I worked a station and they gave up their frequency and put me on the DX cluster.  This did help a lot as I spent quite some time calling CQ  without success as my signal was pretty weak in Europe and USA. Once I was spotted on the DX cluster a big pile up developed and I could work over 100 stations in a short period of time.

It was also  interesting to hear how the band conditions changed pretty quickly. After sunset in Rarotonga I could work stations around the Pacific rim. I also participated the ANZA net almost every day  at 14.183 Mhz at 05:15 UTC.  I got many good contacts through the net.

Figure 11. E51DXX working a pile up 


As discussed earlier many of these contacts were made with only 5W with Elecraft KX3  and L-shaped vertical dipole near the beach.  As many hams have discovered earlier a vertical dipole near large body of salt water is an excellent antenna for DX work.  In my case I tested various Buddipole configurations and finally decided to stick with L-shaped vertical dipole (see figure 6. above). It was very easy to tune to accurately to resonance, it provided really good signals on reception and I got great signal reports even from stations 10,000 miles away.  I was literally blown away how well this QRP setup (see Fig 12. below) worked.

Figure 12. Elecraft KX3 - 5 Watts and vertical dipole at the beach

With Flex-3000 my transmit power was around 50-70 W. As the villa was about 150 meters from the beach I used the Buddipole antenna at maximum height of 18 feet and carefully tuned it to resonance. I did notice about 2 S units difference on several stations compared to reports by Jim E51JD - he was located on the north side of the island. Jim was  using a 3 element Yagi  that may explain part of the difference. I also worked Jim a few times - he was only 5 - 6 km away but we had Te Manga,  a 652 meter (2139 ft) high mountain between us. I am not exactly sure how and where the radio waves reflected but they certainly did not pass the solid rock between us.

Total number of QSOs  was 776 and they are mostly on 20m and 10m bands. I did spend time also on 15m and 17m bands but to my disappointment I did not hear much activity and got only a handful of contacts on these bands. 10m band openings were totally unexpected and a great experience.

10M 362
15M 5
17M 7
20M 402

I was positively surprised how well my simple station performed. I worked total of 49 DXCC countries listed below. There was a couple new ones for me like Samoa and Fiji. I was also very happy to get 10 stations from Finland in my log, as the distance is over 9700 miles and my VOACAP propagation prediction did give only a slim chance to make these contacts with QRP power levels.  Out of blue also Nick RI1ANP called me from Antartica on 10m band.


I have uploaded my log to eQSL.CC  and to LoTW.  I already had a stack of QSLs waiting in my mail when I returned home from this trip. Creating a printed QSL card  and sending  them out will take few months so please be patient with me.

Update May 11, 2013:  QSL cards arrived (see Fig 13. below) and I sent the first batch to those who send me QSLs directly.

Figure 13.  E51DXX QSL card front

Mauri  E51DXX  /  AG1LE 


  1. Hi Maukka,

    Great story. Wow, really nice location for a ham project.


  2. must have just missed you we were there in may ,great place .we had a swim most days in or around muri beach ..cheers zl4dlu

  3. Hello Maukka,
    nice report from your trip!
    73 & CU, Timo, oh2mat

    1. Hello Timo
      Thanks for comments, hope to see you soon.
      It was a great trip, Rarotonga is a really nice destination and having opportunity to make some QSOs was icing on the cake.
      Mauri AG1LE

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this informative post.
    Very well written and expressed.

  5. Hello Mauri,
    I'm Gus, I'm 65 and think spending a vacation on the Cooks before the end of the year. Can you tell me a few words on Internet quality at the resort, or internet on the island altogether?
    I'm a CW guy but the conditions what they currently are I'm also into FT4/FT8 which means I need time synchronization, hence the question.

    Hope to hear from you.
    73, good DX

    Gust ON6KE
    PS. Did you revisit the Cooks since 2013?

  6. Hi Gus
    Internet was working well both in 2014 and 2017. You can buy Internet username/password coupons from the local telecom provider office in Avarua. There are many Wifi hotspots and I had Wifi working in both places I staid at. I was using Internet with my radios (Flex5000 and IC-7300) while I was there.
    Enjoy your visit!

    Mauri AG1LE


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