My wife and I had a trip booked to the Cook Islands for our 10 year anniversary, and of course the first thing I did was to see if there were mountains. Indeed there were, however E5 was not yet part of SOTA. 3 weeks before we left, it joined SOTA, thanks to the efforts of Andrew VK3ARR. So I was left with 3 weeks to organize everything having not planned any radio fun.
Andy the E5 association manager was extremely helpful and arranged my licence along with a copy of the ARM which was not yet published.
Only 3 of the 6 summits on Rarotonga are likely to be accessible, and one other one on an outer island. The 3 on Rarotonga:
- RA-001 Te Manga – the highest, requiring a 7-8 hour jungle trek, with sections aided by rope. Many hikers balked at the final climb which apparently is significantly exposed.
- RA-002 Te Kou – 4-5 hours, considered to be extremely hard, but no great concerns about reaching the AZ.
- RA-005 Ikurangi – a short easy hike to the base of cliffs which then require climbing with some amount of exposure to reach the AZ.
Since I was likely to be alone (I’d failed in an attempt to secure a guide) I chose Te Kou as the most likely for success with minimal outlay of time.
I had found a phone number of someone who frequently climbs Te Kou and calling him the day before resulted in up to date track information. In short, the track was in good condition and well marked.
From my research, the requirements for doing the trek were
- Two days of dry weather
- Several liters of water
- Loads of insect repellent.
- Decent fitness, pulling yourself up on ropes is required.
I’ll add to this list at the end.
A combination of jet lag and weather meant that Friday the 24th (Saturday 25th UTC) was the first, and as it turns out only, chance to activate. I put an alert up for 2100 UTC and my plans were announced in a few places including dx mailing lists. This notification proved essential as I could not spot.
The instructions I had were to take the track to the left of the gate and then there was another left to take at some point. There would be a track intentions book at the start of the track. In short my second left was too early and I ended up one valley across with no sign of a book, though the rest matched the description. I wasted half an hour working out what had happened, and this was only the first few hundred meters!
Summary: follow the vehicle track to the left of the gate by the house, all the the way to the top where there is parking space for 2 cars, plus the intentions book. The folder has comments saying the track is MENTAL! This is very true.
A walk through fields and the knee high wet foliage then led to head high foliage and plenty of spider webs, usually complete with a spider in the middle waiting for breakfast.
Through more forested areas with a stream crossing, an irate hen chasing after her chicks and the first of the ropes. The first one is just a teaser.
The second one on the other hand is a bit more serious, especially since the ground was still very muddy and slippery. This was easy to ascend but by far the trickiest to descend due to the mud.
A very nice hike through jungle followed, including two more rope sections which were even more serious. A few sections really required pulling yourself up on the rope rather than just using it as an aid as decent footholds were missing. When I say rope sections, there are usually multiple ropes, one after another, going around corners and requiring some maneuvering to access the best footholds.
At some point, I believe between ropes 4 and 5 I was up on a narrow ridge with quite decent drops either side, though with all the trees I didn’t feel unsafe. There were plenty of things to grab onto.
At some point you reach a fork, however the wrong path quickly ends, the correct way is to the left and up.
After rope 5, one ends up in what one hiker described as the super scary fern section and final rope section to the summit. I found this to be mildly concerning, it does obviously drop off somewhere beneath you with not much substantial to grip. It’s a short section though, until you reach the final ropes to the rim.
Once at the top, it pays to take note of where you are as the exit point is not obvious looking back. A mapping GPS of some kind was quite helpful, I just used a Garmin Forerunner 910xt which has rudimentary breadcrumb maps, together with waypoints. It was more than sufficient. The views from here are spectacular.
There’s a trail across the caldera to a central cleared area with some scientific measuring device of some kind.
The track to the actual summit turns 90 degrees right before the clearing itself. There’s a further rope to reach the summit which has a hut and tower. The hut has at least one repeater in it, and you can hear the traffic on it. The summit itself is very small with steep drop offs most sides.
According to the detailed map I had, the 560m contour appears to cover southern side of the caldera rim which is 28m below the summit at 588m. Only a small amount of SMPS noise was encountered after I setup in the partial shade of the solar panels.
I was just able to set up the 20/40 EFWH on the northern side of the summit, short travel pole jammed halfway up a tree, and started with the MTR on 20m. 20 minutes or so of cq’ing resulted in nothing, despite sending SMS spots, so I switched to the 817 and had a tune around. Aside from the maritime net above 14.300, the band was dead. I tried checking in to the net to at least get one contact, but after many attempts they got my call and I got a 31 report but that was it.
I put the roughly tuned 15m EFHW up next which after a few cw cq’s resulted in a QSO with Gary k4mf who kindly spotted me. Then a quick succession of CW qso’s with W7RV, KB7HH, W7USA, N6PEQ, JR6EZE, JJ1NYH, JH0INP, CX6VM, K5KJ. Interestingly, only the first 4 of those are known SOTA chasers from what I can tell, showing the benefits of an E5 call 🙂
I could not get separation on some of the later calls with everyone calling on the same frequency, so for the first time tried split, which worked really well.
Now the last time I attempted to work DX back in April, I spent time with MorseRunner practicing pulling out calls, and also general copying practice. This time I didn’t have time due to work and trip preparation, and it showed. Poor KB7HH suffered while I eventually got his call right 🙂 SRI. There should be bonus points for patient chasers 🙂 More practice clearly required.
Working the CW crowd dry, I wrapped up with some SSB contacts with Doug E51DLD and Victor E50V. Despite trying with their assistance for some US stations, 5w was not sufficient for SSB on a partially open band. I wanted to try 10M, but realized that I left that dipole at home – oops.
Once down when I could check sotawatch, I saw Wayne, VK3WAM came on 20m the same time as I had finally been spotted on 15m. Unfortunately I didn’t know this nor was a band change quick or easy for me, and I suspect the propagation wouldn’t have been there anyway. Now I discover that Guru EA2IF heard me weakly on 15M. A few missed opportunities 😦
I’m not sure what happened to my spots, perhaps my telephone number was missing an international prefix somewhere. I used one of the VK parks’n’peaks numbers.
Feeling like I was getting roasted (my arms were quite burnt, suspect i sweated/brushed most of the sunscreen off early on), I packed up and headed down, which was quite fun. The problem with climbing up ropes, is you’ve got to descend them after!
Despite being a quite short hike, overall I think this was the most physically and technically challenging hike (that wasn’t on snow) I’ve ever tackled. It was also extremely rewarding. I only saw one other person the entire hike. He took two attempts to reach the summit due to bad weather on the first. The ropes, while looking old, generally appear to have good anchors, even if on tree roots, and are still in good condition.
As it turns out the Friday was the only acceptable day aside from the day we left due to brief rainfall on many of the days.
So to the above list I’d add the following:
- Rope gloves – some of the ropes are nylon
- Definitely more than 5w even if using cw, but keep in mind you have to haul this up with you.
- Short travel squid pole, preferably inside the pack or extending below the pack, not above. Tropical jungle is NOT squidpole friendly! Trying to untangle yourself while hanging off a rope is not my idea of fun.
- Maybe gaiters, I ended up with soaking pants and shoes within minutes due to the morning dew on the lower section. My shoes were also caked in mud.
- Extra sunscreen or long sleeves
- A love of spiders – unless you have a friend who goes first, you’ll encounter loads of webs across the narrow track
On my last day I found some copies of the recommended book, “Rarotonga’s Mountain Tracks and Plants” by Gerald McCormack and Judith Kuenzle. This describes in detail the tracks to all three accessible SOTA summits. I bought one copy, expecting to be back. I can lend this out to any VK activators who plan to visit.
Also on the last day, we had a lunch with all the visiting hams to Rarotonga, plus the 5 locals, and a tv crew. Cook Islands SOTA made the evening news, with a few mentions from the association manager, though the focus was mainly on the sheer number of visiting hams.
The last week saw me lose a layer of skin off both my hands, so gloves are highly recommended!