Amateur Radio News

We Honor Early Bouvet Island DXpeditioner Gus Browning, W4BPD (SK) and the 2023 Bouvet Island DXpedition Team

It is Santa season after all, but a team of 13 daredevil hams are about to make the big guy in red’s one-night flight around the globe look like a walk in the park as they head to “the most remote uninhabited place on Earth” this January for the 2023 3Y0J Bouvet Island DXpedition, proudly sponsored by DX Engineering.

The team will surely need a little “magic” of their own to successfully navigate surfs that can swamp a boat, subzero temps, sharp 164-foot cliff drop-offs, and fur seals that are friendly in water but aggressive on land. If they succeed, and we surely hope they do, they’ll land among good company with the likes of honorary 2023 team members Dr. Charles E. Brady Jr., N4BQW (SK) and John Snuggerud, LA1VC (SK), as well as Gus Browning, W4BPD (SK), one of the very first DXpeditioners and the first inductee to the DX Hall of Fame, who made his trek to Bouvet Island look a heck of a lot easier than anyone we know. 

A TV Technician turned full-time ham, Browning worked as editor of DXers Magazine—his only occupation save for selling postage stamps to collectors and printing out cheap QSL cards, said longtime friend John Peters in a 2009 GeoCities article. Unlike the 2023 DXers who will travel to Bouvet Island on an aluminum sailing yacht specially designed by the late and well-reputed naval architect Dominique Presles, Browning made his way to Bouvet using mere charm and help from fast-made friends. Peters explains, “Gus traveled by bumming rides. He made friends and stayed with the new friends. He carried his radios and bottles of Coca Cola. I don’t think Gus ever had money. He would pay with a smile and show the natives how a radio worked—in exchange for a place to stay.”

Browning hitched a ride for the 1962 LH4C Bouvet Island DXpedition on a South African icebreaker on its way to survey Bouvet for the installation of a new weather station. He convinced the crew to drop him ashore (a two-hour trip from the boat) on a flat stretch of land the span of two city blocks, where he remained with the company of a South African guide from November 26-28.

Browning described the island in a 1967 article from 73 Magazine:

“The top of the island (at least about 9/10ths of it) is a high plateau, and this portion was covered with a glacier some 200 to 300 feet thick. This glacier was making all kinds of noise all day long and all night long; cracking, popping, and snapping. Then there was a tremendous splash when a big chunk of this frozen snow dropped off to the ocean below. These chunks were, at times, as large as two or three moving vans.”

And vehicle-sized falling ice was just the start. Bouvet is notoriously difficult to access, with unbearable cold being the only welcome upon landing. Browning explained:

“It took about two hours of hard work for us to go the 1,000 feet or so from where the ship was anchored to where we wanted to land. The temperature, I estimate, was about 20 degrees, and the wind was absolutely murder when it struck me in the face. I had on the following clothing: regular undershorts and shirt, then two pair of those red, long, insulated underwear, a flannel shirt with long tails, two pairs of woolen pants, one pair of regular socks, and then a pair of woolen socks coming about six inches above my knees, then a very heavy turtleneck sweater. I also had a wool headpiece covering all but my eyes, and a big heavy overcoat, and last but not least, a pair of fur-lined gloves coming almost to my elbows. And I was still cold! Getting all my stuff ashore was no easy task, and to this day I’m surprised we didn’t lose some of it in the rough swells which kept hitting us. But we made it—I was at last on Bouvet!”

Camp was established, but the situation did not improve with constant cold winds, frozen ground, and penguins so infuriatingly friendly that they eventually necessitated determent with a metal pipe. Said Browning of his first night on Bouvet:

“When the sun went down (about 10:30 at night), those darned penguins crowded around the tent when I turned on the light over the operating table, and it was a continuous battle, with both me and the South African chap beating them off trying to keep them from coming into the tent. Those pretty little fellows that look so tame and helpless are real rough ones when they struck us on our legs with their little stub-like wings, and it was not beyond them to, at times, take a nip at you with their beaks either.”

The location of Browning’s shack was ideal for propagation to the U.S., Europe, Africa, South America, and parts of Asia, but sheer cliffs to the south and southeast made contact to Venezuela or New Zealand nearly impossible. Said Browning of his communications:

“Radio conditions were fine almost all the time. The bands went out about three AM and would start to open again around six AM. But all signals had that faraway sound most of the time, with the exception of stations in the southern part of Africa which was only around 1,500 miles away, making them just the right distance to get their first hop reflection from the heavy-side layer. Oh, yes, you should have heard those S-9+ signals from ZS2MI over on Marion Island, and the same with signals from the VP8s over on the Falklands, South Georgia, South Shetlands, and the signals from the boys down on Antarctica were out of this world—solid S-9+ every time I heard them.”

Lacking company on the island, Browning was far from lonely on the air with hams tuning in around the globe—some even staying home from work in order to try to make contact. Browning explained:

“Since my ETA had been given out to the boys, they all were on hand, standing by for me when I fired up. Many of them (I found out later) had stayed at home—playing sick or taking their vacations so they would not miss this one. I know, with all those thousands calling me every minute of every day that I operated, that some of them never did make the grade. And to these, I say, I am sorry—I sure wish I could have stayed longer. I operated practically around the clock while down there— total number of QSOs at the end of that time was almost 5,000, and still the pile-up sounded larger than the first day there. It was great, fellows! The thrill is still with me when I sit or lie back and think of it all!”

An expedition well worth the effort, sacrifice, and, especially, the subsequent bragging rights, but one that Browning deemed unfit for the average DXer:

“It seems absolutely impossible for anyone to go there unless they come across another ice breaker to get them there. To charter one of these monsters is out of the question with the normal contributions you receive from the fellows back home. You could probably charter one of these boats but considering the cost of chartering a much smaller boat, I would think it would be something like $10,000 per day—the price continues while you are on the island operating. So, by doing a little quick figuring, let’s say it takes two days from Capetown to get there plus five days on the island and then two days more back to Capetown—you will have tied up the ship for seven days— $70,000! We all know that a ham DXpedition can’t afford to spend this kind of money just to put one DX spot on the air.”

Oh, but how times (and budgets) have changed. Teams like the 2023 Bouvet Island DXpedition come equipped with far more resources than Gus Browning could have ever imagined. And all to go to a spot considered by most to be one of the very worst on the entire planet. A point agreed on most ardently by Browning, who called Bouvet “a miserable, cold, damn, Godforsaken place, and not fit for humans.” Unless, that is, you’re a particularly adventurous, even foolhardy, perhaps, DXer—like Browning, embarking on the ultimate ham mission.

All excerpts are from Browning’s 1967 article in 73 Magazine.

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