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 the late 1980s I worked for a company called RF Marketing (RFM). My friend Rick Borrett also worked there and was one of the top salesmen (he may have been sales manager by then).
Rick had sold a lot of radio equipment into Lesotho and I was to accompany him on several of his trips to that little country to sort out radio problems. On one trip I had to squat in a small snowbank on a mountaintop while I worked on a VHF repeater and its solar panels. Just to make things more pleasant it was gently snowing.
We had been flown up in a Lesotho Defence Force helicopter (they rented them out for commercial use) and while the pilot sat in the warm aircraft we trudged over to the job and I got stuck in. Of course our clothing was quite inadequate for the cold but, in order to use my tools, I had to remove my gloves. Quite soon Rick remarked that I could not use my gloves, could I? Rhetorical question that it was I grunted in the negative to which he replied “Please can I use them?” and I handed over my nice leather, fur-lined gloves so that he could keep his hands warm.
After about forty minutes I had finished the work and I was so cold that I seriously, just for a moment, thought of abandoning my tools there on the mountaintop and scrambling into the warm helicopter waiting fifty metres away. They were my personal tools and Rick had the good grace to help me chuck them into my toolbox and then take one side of the toolbox to carry it to the helo.
We scrambled in and Rick asked the pilot to get us off the mountain as quickly as possible. He gave me back my gloves. The aircraft heater warmed the cabin and I warmed up a bit as we descended. Twenty minutes later after getting out of the chopper we were removing layers of clothing.
It was on one of these trips that I had the most sincere, if back-handed, compliment from Rick. He was muttering about some bloke approaching us as we waited for a light aircraft at some bush airstrip. In reply to my question he said, “He is a bloody idiot – his pockets are always full of bits of string and stuff and Swiss-army knives and shit like that.”
Somewhat disconcerted I replied “Well that sounds a bit like me with all my McGyver-type stuff.” Rick’s reply was something like “Yeah, but you know what to do with all that fucking shit.” A compliment is a compliment, I suppose! …and I still do – carry a lot of shit with me per the illustration!
Oh, HF, that is what I started with! Lesotho is a tiny land-locked country completely surrounded by South Africa and only measures about 210 x 162 kilometres in extent – about 34,000 square – kilometres and VERY mountainous.
A donor country had decided to build a micro hydroelectric station to provide power to an area way up in the mountains near the area that is the highest point of the famous Roof of Africa rally.
They found a steep mountain stream that made a short hairpin bend and doubled back to flow about 20-30 metres lower down but probably 30 metres or so from the uphill section if measured horizontally. The photo shows an area in Lesotho where the river doubles back on itself similar to what I have described. By diverting the upper part of the river they tunnelled down and through the dividing piece of mountain, installed a small hydro generator and then allowed the river to flow again after partially damming it BELOW the upper entrance to the tunnel. This now became the race for the head of water that would drive the generator. Very clever but not a short-duration project. The company had an HQ in Maseru, the capital, but very poor communications to the construction site.
Rick had sold them HF radios that had been installed by one of the technicians but the radios were not working at all – well the communication was non-existent while there was nothing wrong with the radios. The antenna of course, were another matter and we set off with poles, ropes, pegs, cables, connectors and some HF antennas I had made up in my garage at home.
On arrival I installed an end-fed long wire antenna at the base station because there was no room for any other kind of antenna and next day we got a light aircraft from the airport and were flown in to this VERY high landing strip on top of a mountain. It was a bit windy but early in the day so the air was relatively still. The landing – for the uninitiated – was quite hair-raising on this dirt strip that ended at a cliff drop-off. I think the picture is of that actual airstrip in Lesotho.
Taken up to the camp I proceeded to erect my poles – with help from Rick and a couple of men assigned to help us. I then erected a conventional HF dipole, connected it to the radio and then had to trim it by keying the transmitter, checking my antenna meter, adjust the length of each element of the antenna (calculating the antenna length is not an exact science in the field and it is necessary to let out or take in the ends until the correct reading is obtained). While we were doing this we had to keep telling the people at base to shut up while we worked – they were so chuffed that they could hear us and that we could obviously hear them!!
When this was done I tied off the ends of the antenna, checked the stays on the poles and told them they were set to go. “That antenna is not high enough” one of the local old hands had observed when I started and I had assured him it was. The finished job left the radiating elements of the antenna about three or four metres above the ground (depending on where you stood) but a car or pickup could drive under it. I told them in no uncertain terms, that apart from ensuring that the antenna was safe and secure, to NOT be tempted to move it or change its height from the ground.
“Why is it so low?”, I was asked and I explained about needing to get the signal up and down quickly because, although driving through the mountains took hours the base was only about 50-60 kilometres away in a straight line. The fact that it worked was irrefutable but they were confused and pointed out that the International Red Cross (IRC) down the road (about a couple of hours drive away) had these very precisely arrayed antennas and that they were at least thirty metres off the ground.
I enquired if they knew who they talked to and it turned out that they had wonderful HF communications with Switzerland. And in Lesotho? Oh those radios could not talk to anyone in Lesotho. I surmised that those antennas had probably been professionally erected with the express purpose of very long range communications. (We passed the IRC buildings next day and the antennas were indeed erected with Germanic precision on lattice masts that towered over the place).
Now that we had communications at the site the first message we got was that there would be no aircraft coming for us because the wind had come up and aircraft could not land or take off from the mountaintop!!
Our hosts rounded up some beers, coke and brandy, gave us a good feed and we sat around chatting, drinking and listening to Billy Connolly tapes in the cookhouse. I had chosen to sleep in the manager’s caravan (he was away) and the wind kept me awake most of the night, fearful that it would lift the caravan and chuck it off the mountain with me inside! Rick had chosen to sleep in one of the accommodation containers – it was heavy, dark and quiet and he slept well.
Rick looked rather rough in the morning though, having consumed the best part of a bottle of brandy with coke the previous evening!
Still no aircraft, we learned after a hearty breakfast, so they arranged a four-wheel drive pickup for us with a driver. Rick, who is an excellent driver, had their man in the back seat within the first couple of kilometres – I did not blame him because the driver did NOT instil confidence. There were stretches that were a bit like those horror roads you see in the video clips from South America and, narrow as the roads were, Rick was on the inside closest to the mountain while I looked fearfully at the horrendous drop-offs on my left. After FIVE LONG HOURS we got down on the level and merely had to contend with some rioters throwing stuff at us as we zipped past. My Microbus was still safely standing at the airport – untouched. We handed the pickup over to the company driver, went to our hotel for a shower and a meal and next day started back to Johannesburg.
It was most satisfying to get feedback from the client that they were very happy with their NEW communications – having been ready to box everything up and send it back to us.
For some information on HF antenna go to my earlier post