Patagonia DXpedition

In Patagonia – A DXpedition at the End of the World

By Rocco Cotroneo, Brazil

What follows is the story of a test (or should I say a “taste”) for a future serious medium wave DXpedition at the end of the world, la fin del mundo, as Argentineans call their extreme Patagonia region. Since I live in South America, I had always wondered how conditions were like down there, if I could find a place comparable to legendary Nordic AM DX sites like the Scandinavian ones, Newfoundland, Grayland, or in this hemisphere, like New Zealand and Australia DXpedition spots.

The adventure was fast, just two nights, but exciting and the answer to my question is definitely yes. Approaching the South Pole too, things are great for radio. At 53 degrees south, 100 km from the end of continental Americas, I suspect this has been the most austral DXpedition ever. What was I doing there? Not tourism, not Chatwin remembrance but work… Yes, it was also a free round trip. I was covering the new Argentinean president Nestor Kirchner in his  hometown, Rio Gallegos, and had decided before leaving Rio de Janeiro to take my AOR 7030, together with some basic stuff in the photographer bag I usually carry for fast DXpeditions. Wires, camping battery, earphones, minidisk recorder, frequencies lists.

The idea was to take 2 or 3 days off after the assignment. There was not much I could arrange in advance, as my newspaper asked me to leave home with just 24 hours notice. A fast search on the Internet and a few telephone calls almost killed my dream in advance. There was not one single hotel or “estancia” (farm) for tourism open in this season out in the countryside. Everything there closes down for winter after the Easter break. I cried out when in Rio Gallegos with local tourism office. No way. Then Adrian came… I knew Adrian through a friend of a friend of a friend of the president of the local ham club. The Rio Gallegos radio club was my last and desperate resource to find a place far enough from my city hotel, where conditions were extremely noisy and the only exotic thing I could hear was Falkland Islands on 530 and 550, right off this coast. Argentineans, true, are lovely people. The ham gang helped me immediately, even without understanding, as often happens with them, what I was talking about. Adrian himself has nothing to do with radio. He is a nice estanciero, a sheep farmer, in his thirties, who was heading to his land with his Toyota jeep, some stuff for the farm and 4 dogs. He just said, “OK, come with me. Just know that we have no electricity after 10 p.m. and we eat lamb twice a day, everyday.” I had a camping battery with me and I love “cordero.” What could I ask more?

The Place: The “Estancia el Relincho” is located 240 km west of Rio Gallegos, not far from the Chilean border. It’s hard to imagine a place in the middle of
nothing like this. The nearest electric pole is 18 km away, the nearest tiny town at 40km distance. Around the estancia, in theory, it’s possible to put an array of
ten to fifteen 1km-long beverages antennas… and sheep don’t like wires too much, I was told. I had only two 200-m tiny wire rolls with me. After a 3 hour drive, we arrived there at 9 p.m. It was freezing and dark outside and Adrian helped me to lay the wires on the ground. Any other antenna arrangement would have been difficult. I had only 48 hours to spend here and the first night was about to start.From an azimuthal map I made before leaving, the most interesting target was supposed to be South Pacific. I laid the first wire at approximately 240 degrees, beamed towards New Zealand and Australia, and the other one at a right angle, heading towards South Africa and Asia. I was not very interested in Europe or Middle East for a number of reasons. Firstly, the location was too far from the Atlantic Ocean, secondly Europe and its powerhouses are common catches for me in Brazil.

Last but not least local sunset hours, usually good for TA reception in South America, were not usable because the energy generator in the estancia is too
noisy until it is turned off. As for North America, I had not the slightest idea whether reception was possible. I was more worried about interference from Argentina and Brazil if putting a north wire. It was a blind date. What Happened? When I switched on my radio at 11.00 pm. (0200 UTC) the first night, I realized I was going to have a painful problem. My battery has six hours capacity and the austral winter nights are long. I had to spare energy as much as possible to get through the most interesting hours. My laptop had enough battery charge and greyline software advised me I should wait at least 0400 (all times are UTC from now on) for Tahiti sunset and 0530 for New Zealand. On the northern front, the whole Americas would have been in the dark by 0330. Propagation would then decide what to listen to.Surprisingly, the dial was crowded with local and semi local signals on any frequency. I had expected a quieter situation. Patagonia is well away from densely populated areas, Central Argentina is 2,000 km away as are the most populated areas in Chile. Still, all Buenos Aires stations were strong and stable, as were Santiago’s. Likewise Peru on 1470 and 1500. The big Brazilians (1040, 1100, 1220, 1280) easily made the big distance too. Inland AM propagation is not easy in Latin America. I have never heard Peru from Rio de Janeiro, for example, and just a few stations from Chile and Venezuela, in special conditions. Another interesting discovery was the huge number of split, off-frequency stations, mostly presumably from Chile and Peru.

The X-band was crowded too, with Argentinean pirates, but the first real DX came in right there, at the very top of the dial. At 0400, after a long no-stop music program followed by ABC news, 1700 kHz was revealed to be Oldies Radio KQXX Brownsville, Texas. Not bad. The signal stayed there, weak and with long fading, all night long. Propagation was heading north at 0415, when TWR Bonaire boomed in on 800, dominating the MEC station in Rio de Janeiro. A few minutes later it was Ecuador’s turn to kill the dominant Sao Paulo station –
Radio Splendid Cuenca on 1040. Now distant signals were getting interesting. Splendid is supposed to be 10 kW – at a good 6,000 km, their signal was strong. At least my wires were working.

At 0420 an even stronger signal came in on 1090. US, definitely, with sport, mixed with another station. “Sporting News Radio,” damn… no way to ID it… On 750 and 810, two big Caracol stations from Colombia and I realized that the west side of the continent had almost totally overwhelmed the Atlantic side, the Brazil and La Plata dominant stuff. At 0520 everything was clear and I was experiencing a US West Coast opening! On 740, “traffic and weather together” with San Francisco temperatures announced as KCBS with strong ID “All News 74.” At 0600, on 1530, ABC news started after an exciting KFBK jingle from Sacramento, California. Network programs with talk shows, with fast fade-outs, showed up on 810 and 1200. The big signal on 1090 was still on. Now I am almost sure it was the all-night “Sporting News” program from Mighty 1090, I guess the former XEPRS transmitter from the Mexican border broadcasting for San Diego, California.

It was time to check Pacific channels and Bruce Portzer’s excellent Pacific Asian Log was the right tool. A carrier on 738 was presumed to be Tahiti, but it never turned into a real signal to listen to. Just a few seconds with soft music. My Pacific wire was too short and I decided to focus on high frequencies. At 0650, yes, it came in… Radio Sport from New Zealand on 1503. I taped a tentative ID from what was possibly the Wellington 5 kW outlet. I think I have never been able to ID such a weak signal in my whole DX life. The quietness of the estancia did it and I also want to thank veteran New Zealand DXer Paul Ormandy who
confirmed the catch. Then just time to listen to weak music on 1098, another talk station on 1593 before the battery died… At 0720, with five more hours of darkness… Hawaii? Australia?Japan? I will never know if even more exotic catches were to show up or not.

The second night was much less exciting. Propagation was all favouring the other side of the Americas. More common catches like Virgin Islands on 1620 and Bahamas on 1540, and a good WTOP ID on 1500, suggested that the US West Coast is not a everyday meal here and that I had been very lucky the previous night. (Thanks also to Neil Kazaross to and Mark Hattam for helping me on 1620 and 1540). My battery kept on until 0830 but the Pacific bubble was so weak that no significant emerged from 1503, 1314 and 1098 carriers.
It was a great experience anyway, I could not expect more from such a quickly planned DXpedition. California is 10,000 km away and my 2.5kw New Zealand catch “just” 8,000 km. Next time I will need a couple of car batteries, more wire and most of all a couple of volunteers  with their receivers and experiences to share the excitement.