HF Radio-telephone Botswana

It might seem strange that I have included this with my military experiences (it is posted elsewhere too). The reason for doing so is that this anecdote would not have been possible without the training and experience I received in the Rhodesian army. That includes being innovative and a bit of a “McGyver” type of person.

In 1985 I worked for a small radio communications company in Johannesburg.

The owner of the company was something of a wheeler-dealer in the radio industry at the time and he had managed to get in with the owners of the then Tuli Safari Lodge in Botswana (I think it still exists – the pictures are from a google search of the name). It was situated a couple of kilometres inside the most eastern corner of Botswana and, by road from South Africa, was reached by crossing at a tiny police station/combined border post called Pont Drift.

I think it may have been late winter or mid spring in South Africa. On this occasion his advice damned nearly got my wife, Margaret, and I locked up in Botswana. 

When I lived in South Africa I carried a Browning 9mm Hi-Power that I had bought and carried in my Rhodesia days and my boss’ advice was just chuck it under the seat or in your toolbox and you will be fine. I should, in fact, have handed it in for safe-keeping with the police at Pont Drift on the South African side but I took the boss’ advice and it was only when I presented myself on the Botswana side that I realised that this had been a BAD IDEA!

The country was, and is, paranoid about private weapons especially if you bring them across the border with you, undocumented. Only if you have completed the reams of paperwork required as a professional hunter can you bring rifles into the country. Handguns were treated as a great sin.

There were signs everywhere warning of the DIRE consequences of bringing undeclared weapons into the country and I had heard one or two chilling stories of incidents involving weapons and these were brought to front of mind in no uncertain terms.

Too late now, so I brazened it out and we were allowed in and drove up to the lodge.

Why were we there…of course…well a radio tech had been sent up a couple of months previously to sort out the HF radio. This was very important to the operations of the lodge because, in those days, before the advent of cell phones the only telephone link to remote places in Botswana was radio-telephone. It had been thus for many years – if you received a call an operator established communications with you then – using acoustic coupling (basically connecting the telephone to the handset of the radio) – they allowed the call to proceed. Outgoing calls were initiated by radio and the control operator made the phone call and connected the radio subscriber. Callers on phones had to use radio procedure because, unlike a telephone or cell phone, only one person can talk at a time so you HAD TO wait until the other person had stopped speaking before you could take your turn. Of course call quality was variable but if you had a GOOD HF LINK it made a huge difference.

Anyway the technician had gone up there and basically buggered around and made little if any difference to the performance of the radio link. Very shortly after he left call quality dropped off to virtually non-existent other than at some arbitrary times of the day. The owners had paid and they were seriously NOT AMUSED so I had been sent up to sort things out. Because the boss was on good terms with the people at the lodge I was invited to bring my wife up. Margaret took a day or two off and we travelled up – on a Friday I think – arriving very late in the afternoon.

We were allocated a very comfortable room and invited to join the evening game drive which was most enjoyable even though we had been travelling all day. I think we also did the early morning game drive on Saturday.

Meals were taken in a semi-circle, each at your own little table and this worked to get everyone present talking to each other. A great atmosphere and wonderful food (and the worry in the back of my mind about the pistol lying disassembled under a bunch tools and greasy rags in a compartment of my Microbus).

After breakfast I got stuck in and examined the radio. This piece of equipment was located behind the bar which was partly inside and partly under, a large hollow baobab tree.

After I connected my wattmeter to the radio and plugged the antenna lead into it I got the strangest readings. Basically there ought to have been NO COMMUNICATION AT ALL and in fact I felt that it was so badly mismatched that I was surprised that the radio had not blown a final. How strange, I thought, the tech who had been up must have done the same test??

Only thing for it and, getting a ladder, I climbed up into the tree to see where the feeder cable led to thinking that perhaps there was something wrong with the junction of feeder and radiating elements.

Imagine my surprise when I found the radiating elements (made of bare copper wire) had been NAILED TO THE BRANCHES OF THE TREE using metal staples made from wire nails bent into a U shape!!

One of the basic things we were always taught on signals course was that you avoid having any part of the radiating elements touching trees or poles even though our antenna in the army would normally be using insulated wire. I was flabbergasted that someone who was supposedly a radio technician would have done this!!

I had been given the frequencies for the equipment before leaving Johannesburg and had grabbed some petty cash and, using 2.5mm panel wire and some stuff I had lying around, I had made up a two-element HF dipole in my garage at home. I proceeded to erect my antenna – that necessarily had to be spread above the lawn covered beer garden area near the baobab bar.

The owner had been away but when he came back he was rather disconcerted to find the antenna strung above his guest area. He said the previous technician had taken heed of this and made sure that the antenna was unobtrusive to which I retorted that it was so unobtrusive as to be completely ineffective too. Did he want communications that he could rely on or were aesthetics more important? He could not have both. With a bit of a grumble he let me carry on.

By late afternoon I was happy and confident that the equipment would now perform correctly. I had been receiving some flak from the control station in Gaborone because my testing was causing interference on the radio net that served all outlying places in the country. I had apologised for that and explained why and said that if calls came through I would wait for them to be completed. (The duty barman said that was the best comms, while I was still setting up, that he had heard since being there!)

Anyway, after a quick wash I went on the evening game drive. Margaret had already been on the day drive during which they had stopped somewhere to look at a view or while the guide pointed out something of interest.

Margaret had seen some colourful rocks and picked up three or four pieces thinking the pretty colours would look nice with a pot-plant or in a rockery at home. Probably agate (in picture) or quartz which is plentiful in the area.

Sunday morning was spent on another game drive followed by a pleasant breakfast-in-the-round and later we set off back to Johannesburg.

At the Botswana border post we were asked if we had anything to declare. Now I must comment here that the brightest people are probably not going to end up in a backwater like this but that did not make them NOT THOROUGH. So thorough, in fact, that some of the things we were asked were frankly ludicrous but they were asked in absolute seriousness. What plants were we taking out if any, did we have any minerals or diamonds that we had collected and so on and then the dreaded question – “May we look through your vehicle, sir?” as if I was in any position to refuse.

Heart pounding and dry-mouthed I walked out and opened the sliding door and the first thing they noticed on the floor was Margaret’s innocent bits of prettily coloured stones. I could have held the stones in one hand but these boys lit up and all of a sudden they wanted to know if we had any diamonds? What else did we have? Would I open the back? Take out the stuff in the back, open the engine compartment please?

They were poking into everything looking in our bags, in my toolbox and Margaret was nearly in tears explaining about the pieces of stone saying she would throw them out to prove that they were just something she liked and picked up off the ground. To their unsophisticated but officious and suspicious minds no-one just picked up some stones because they were prettily coloured – we had to be up to something.

I suppose the whole episode did not last much longer than what seem like a full day but was probably thirty minutes in reality. The worst bit was the homemade bins I had between the front seats of the bus.

“What is in here?” “Oh my rubbish bag and rags that I use when I work on greasy stuff and probably a couple more tools” I said as nonchalantly as I could.

He was trying to open it as if it was hinged and I slid the lids open one at a time. He poked round in the smaller one that had some grubby stuff in it (I can’t remember where I got it from but it had not come with us). Sliding open the next one I gingerly put two fingers in and picked up a particularly dirty, greasy rag.

“What else is in there?”  “I think there is a spare oil cap (there was) this water pressure cap,” as I fished them out and waved my hand at the bundle of greasy rags now lying in the bin. He looked on as I gingerly started to put my hand in again, as if I did not want to get any dirtier, then said “OK, you can go” and proceeded to lecture us on the sovereignty of Botswana and how they do not appreciate diamond smugglers etc etc. (the nearest diamond mine is about 450 kilometres away in the middle of the country in a very barren area – there are NO DIAMONDS in the Tuli area but I was not going to argue that point).

We went in and got our passports stamped, thanked the officials, got into the car and drove off as sedately as we could – barely breathing and expecting to be called back at any second. Margaret’s stones…did we get to keep them? After all this time I can’t remember.

We crossed back into South Africa – taking several deep, shuddering breaths of relief as we arrived. I told the policeman on duty about our adventure as he stamped our passports and he told us we were very lucky indeed because they could be quite savage on anyone breaking the weapons rules in Botswana.

About a week went by before I got feedback that the radio communications were now the best they had ever been in roughly the twenty years the lodge operators had been there. They thanked us and told my employer that I was welcome there at any time. We never took them up on it though we did discuss it. The remains of the copper antenna wire are probably still there, embedded in the tree I imagine.

That good old Rhodesian Army Corps of Signals training and experience had struck again!

For some information on HF antenna go to my earlier post