Wellington Amateur Radio Club
The Wellington Amateur Radio Club (WARC) was founded in January 1928 and for much of it's 73-year history has met in rooms rented or borrowed just for meetings, so there has been no permanent club radio station. In 1995 a search was mounted for premises that would allow a club station to be established. All had major shortcomings such as price, access, or unsuitability for HF operations, because of EMI or antenna erection issues.
A chance discussion between Brian Miller ZL1AZE and Bob Stewart ZL2AMI, both members of WARC, led to the discovery that Radio New Zealand was about to close down its remote receiving facility at Quartz Hill and sell the site. The WARC Executive Committee decided this news should be followed up, to see if there was any possibility of using the site for field days or other amateur radio purposes. Brian ZL1AZE took up the task.
Brian found out that the site was being sold to a power company "as is" for possible future use as a wind farm for electricity generation. He then sounded out the new owners on the possibility of the Club using the site until it was required for power generation. The idea being that the Club would be able to use the station building and the antenna farm, and in return would undertake to maintain them in a safe and tidy condition. The power company tentatively agreed to this plan in November 1996.
When the tentative plan was put to the Club membership, a majority of the members voted in favour, realizing that this was a unique chance to 'own' a large antenna farm on a scale beyond the wildest fantasies of any individual amateur. Who has not dreamed of taller masts, longer wires, higher gain beams for all bands, aimed towards every major point on the compass? This support was essential if the project was to be successful. The power company gave us access to the site in January 1997 to commence urgent maintenance work, pending the drawing up of a formal lease. One month later, the Club had formally decided to go ahead, turned itself into an Incorporated Society, a necessary step for legal and insurance reasons, signed a 'peppercorn' lease with the owners and started work on making the antenna farm and the building, shipshape.
So what had we signed a lease for? The antenna farm covers about 240 acres. At its peak it contained more than 30 major antennas including three reversible rhombics, a bunch of terminated Vee beams with leg lengths of up to 300 metres, a 2-wire Beverage antenna 1Km long and miles of open wire feeders. The open wire feeder runs, supported on 20 foot telephone poles came back to gantries, on each side of the station compound. At the three gantries, the open wires were terminated in 12:1 baluns connected via underground coax feeds, to the antenna termination room in the station building itself.
The 270m2 station building was generally sound with lots of room including a bathroom and kitchen, storage and workshop. It was equipped with its own 50,000 litre water tank and 3-phase power from a 2Km power cable, run underground to help to keep noise levels down.
The land under the antennas is leased out separately to a farmer who has numerous sheep and cattle as part of an ongoing farming operation, so the stock had to be kept safe from the antennas and vice versa. This means that some outside work has to be co-ordinated with stock movements on the farm.
At Quartz Hill, the isolation and the relatively harsh environment of frequent, very strong, cold winds, occasional low cloud down to ground level, an exposed and elevated site and proximity to the sea, mean corrosion and damp is an ongoing battle both outside on the antenna farm and inside the station building. BUT the main poles were more than three times as high as the ones any of us had at home, and there was lots of them, PLUS the ambient noise level barely moved the S-meter on any band. On a fine calm day, the view out to Cook Strait and the west coast of the North Island was magnificent and it is wonderful to be out there.
A special group called the Quartz Hill User Group (QHUG) was set up by the Club to plan, manage and carry out the maintenance work. This meant recruiting volunteers to do the work, raising money to buy materials and a few special tools. The top priority was to make the antenna farm safe, by recovering fallen wire, replacing stays that were corroded or damaged and recovering any reusable hardware from the fields. Then work began on identifying, testing and marking the feeder runs, building new high power baluns and terminations to replace the receiving-only types. Inside, cleaning up the building and fixing the plumbing and clearing the cable ducts of hibernating possums. The Club members quickly learned the necessary skills required and devised ways and means of carrying out the various maintenance tasks with simple equipment, especially as much of site is not readily negotiable by vehicle.
Nobody in the Club had much practical experience with antenna rigging on the scale we faced at Quartz Hill. Handling 8 or 10 gauge copper wire, soft-drawn for the feeders and hard-drawn for antennas was a challenge especially in very long lengths. The stranded galvanised wire used for guying the larger poles was a lot heavier than any of us had at home, and many lengths of it had to be cut and tied off onto insulators, thimbles and eye bolts and tensioned without any accidents to ourselves, the poles or the livestock. Three months later, the urgent maintenance work was completed and an official opening day was held on the afternoon of 25 April 1997. We were up and running.
Once the site was safe, the best antennas repaired and the building cleaned up, the next task was to erect new antennas to suit ourselves. Andrew Corney ZL2BBJ commenced work on building the necessary 50/600 ohms transmitting baluns and Bob Vernall ZL2CA set about computer modelling the various antenna configurations that had survived and looking at new proposals. But there were more basic problems.
Building new antennas is physically demanding, partly because vehicle access to some parts of the antenna farm was difficult or impossible and partly because the large scale of the antennas themselves. This means that some poles had to be manhandled into position. Feeder poles were not too bad but wooden poles longer than 10 metres required gear we didn't have. So the sensible approach was to weigh the most desirable antenna options against the existing major masts and other hardware. Now that we were used to raising and lowering wires of 300 metres or more in length, the sloping, unterminated Vee beam configuration won hands down. After four years of operations, the design of the Vee beams is still being optimized in terms of heading and apex angles, using information gained by operating in contests, as a guide.
The isolated and rugged site has a spell all its own. Some members find working out in the open air exhilarating, even when the weather is bad, and relish the hard work of repairing existing antennas and raising new ones. It's difficult not to feel a thrill as three or four hundred metres of hard drawn copper or steel wire rises into the air - and stays there.
So what happens when finally, you sit down, tune up on the rhombic, select the short path to Europe and take a look on 20 metres. First of all it seems quiet - it is quiet, there is very little noise. You anxiously wonder if you have the right antenna selected. A signal is heard, but it doesn't seem all that loud. Even 12dB of antenna gain doesn't do a lot for you if the propagation is poor. It's easy to forget that at home, perhaps you wouldn't hear anything. Gradually you discover that the beams do work, and that the big antennas produce consistently good signals in and out. Call CQ on any band and stations appear from nowhere. Do this at the right time on 80M and you may generate a DX pileup, instead of the one QSO from the home station, on a good day. If necessary, you can select long path or short path on 80 through 10M.
Some hams who are unable to operate from their home QTH's, now operate from "up the hill" whenever they can. Others go to there to work skeds with old friends around the world. An ad hoc group of contest enthusiasts compete in selected events. A special call sign ZL6QH has been allocated and helps to fan the heat in pileups. QRP operators try out their few watts on the big antennas.
The N.Z. Vintage Radio Society take their prized treasures up there to find that signals boom out of the old radios as though they were made only yesterday. Your crystal set will really perform! Still others, find that once they have fulfilled the dream of actually having a Rhombic or Vee beam all to yourself, they are quite happy to go back to their home stations and operate with a 100ft random dipole fed with open wire line. An small team of LF enthusiasts has been operating on 1800M for some time and have successfully worked all other amateur stations in New Zealand and have been heard in Australia.
Our present lease expires in June 2002. At this time, renewal of the lease appears likely. Quartz Hill Management Team Brian Miller ZL1AZE chairs a group of dedicated helpers comprising Ralph Sutton ZL2AOH, Doug McNeill ZL2AOV, Andrew Corney ZL2BBJ, Wilbert Knol ZL2BSJ, Bob Vernall ZL2CA and Mike Kerr ZL2BCW. This team is supported by Quartz Hill User Group members and the Wellington Amateur Radio Club.