SOTA: ZS/WC-043 Maclear’s Beacon

Over the last two weeks, I have traveled in South Africa and Botswana, primarily on business, but with a little time set aside for radio fun. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive regulatory clearance to operate in Botswana in time for the trip, so I left the radio in my suitcase there (despite the bilateral agreement on amateur radio between the US and Botswana, to operate, US hams need to file with BOCRA, which takes some time). However, in South Africa, I operated from Pretoria and Cape Town, visited a local ham club, and activated a SOTA peak.

While I would prefer to activate less common SOTA peaks, when traveling I often need to consider what is in range of public transportation. Table Mountain is a 50 Rand ride on Uber from downtown Cape Town and is also a stop on some hop-on/hop-off bus tours. Two hanging cable cars run from the base of the mountain to its top. There is a long path up as well, but as I was lugging more equipment than usual, I decided to take the cable car, which was something like 250 Rand round trip (about $20; pricey, but it is, after all, a tourist attraction).

From the top cable car terminus, it is about a half hour walk (~2 km over not entirely smooth terrain) to Maclear’s Beacon, ZS/WC-043. There is cellular connectivity (on vodacom) at the top terminus, and I used my phone’s GPS to take me right to the site. Google Maps shows all the trails, and I simply followed its directions. Trails lead away from the terminus on each side of the ridge; both head in the general direction of the site. At one point, the trail dips down, and there are some chains to help climb down short but steep stretch. Climbing up the other side is not too bad, and then the bulk of the walk is across a plateau. The ground rises at the very end of the trail, so a bit more climbing and then on to the beacon itself.

The monument is a pile of rocks with a metal rod sticking out the top. On the side, there is a descriptive plaque.  I suppose you could scale the monument and mount an antenna to the rod, for example, the base of a SOTAbeams collapsible mast or a crappie pole, but I wasn’t sure about the etiquette of treading up the monument.

I walked to the other side of the monument to the survey marker and set up there. The weather was nice, so a good number of tourists were around and curious about what I was doing.

I had previously programmed in the frequencies for Cape Town repeaters, and I put the word out on the ones that I could reach that I was looking for simplex contacts on 145.5, the de facto simplex calling frequency. I did not get a lot of replies on the repeaters, so I went to 145.5 and started calling.

The day before activation, a previously active coronal hole had rotated into geoeffective position, resulting in a geomagnetic storm. Overnight, the planetary K index hit 5, so I wasn’t sure how HF propagation would be. Consequently, I was strongly motivated to try to land the four contacts required for a successful activation on VHF. Considering my vantage point, though, I thought it likely.

One operator came back to me quickly from his home QTH, and ten minutes later, another. I kept calling, and at ten minute intervals worked two more mobile operators. One of them, ZS1K/m was also set up for mobile HF, so I asked him to standby and quickly threw up a Chameleon F-Loop antenna and peaked it on the lower end of 40m.

I was stunned when I put out my call and immediately heard a pile of calls coming back from Washington and Arizona, presumably long path. It took me a minute to realize they weren’t talking to me, however, these were big-gun stations operating in the ARRL International DX SSB contest.

I went back to 2m, called ZS1K/m and asked him to try 40m. I could hear him just fine, but unfortunately, he could not hear me. The high background from the contest did not help, but I am sure that the limiting factor was the antenna’s effective radiated power. The manufacturer says that the power output is measured down one or two S-units versus a dipole (presumably, in optimal direction). Since each S unit is 6 dB power (4x), being 6 or 12 dB down from 5W input means that I was radiating between 313mW and 1.25W, which seems marginal for an HF phone contact. While ZS1K/m’s mobile antenna was probably not very efficient either, he had more head room with 100W input.

Given that a contest was going on, I switched to CW for the rest of the afternoon hoping to reach hams in Gauteng on 20m. I experimented around with some calls on 15m and 17m as well and tried the antenna in various directions, but although I heard some CW signals, I received no replies. I wrapped up operations around 17:45 local, because the last cable car down was at 19:30, and I did not want to walk back in shadow.

I typically operate with an LNR end-fed dipole, so my kit is pretty light and fits in a video camera bag. For this trip, I had the extra weight of a tripod, the F-loop tuning section and loop support rod, and wire loop and its feedline, which meant carrying a substantially larger and heavier bag. Were I to do this again, I think I would have brought a portable mast and use the top of the beacon monument as a support. The ground around the monument is rocky, so guy lines would probably need to be tied to outcroppings rather than stakes driven into the ground.

I guess the take home lesson for this peak is to be sure that you spend some time securing VHF contacts and that mobile operators listening to 145.5 Mhz could be the difference between an successful activation and getting skunked if HF conditions are poor.

Two more quickies…

Two other sites to mention: a hotel in Pretoria and a ham club in Cape Town.

Despite being the capital of South Africa, Pretoria is a small, spread out city. Hotel choices are limited, and since I didn’t need to be “downtown”, I selected a hotel located on a mountain ridge a few kilometers from the center of town. The hotel, Castello di Monte, is patterned on an Italian Castle. Staff and service were great, but beyond that, there is a patio on the roof with an uninterrupted view from east/west. In one direction, the view encompasses Pretoria in its entirety.

I set up the on the roof in the evening, after dark when I figured other guests would not be up there. Unfortunately, I did had barely gotten the antenna up when a heavy thunderstorm let loose. I tried calling CQ a few times on HF before I was drenched, but I was getting concerned about soaking the equipment, so I called it a day. Despite less than stellar results, it’s a location to keep in mind for portable operation on a visit to Pretoria.

The next week, I had a chance to drop by the Cape Town Amateur Radio Centre, where I heard a talk on the Western Cape Repeater Working Group. The club has its own clubhouse, with seating for meetings. There is a working station ZS1CT, at the clubhouse, which is easily recognizable from the outside by its rotating stacked beams. The beam antennas may be coming down for servicing, but inside the shack, but a new vertical antenna is soon to go up.


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