While it is true that, when all other communications are down, ham radio operators invariably provide the emergency communications from a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster regions – there is much more to the hobby than that.
Starting over a century ago, enthusiastic hobbyists started “playing around” with the new-fangled radio popularised by Marconi. As more and more hobbyists became involved, the professional radio and telegraph operators of the day insultingly referred to them as a bunch of “hams” – the name has stuck to this day, but the hobby as evolved.
Today, Amateur Radio Operators, “Hams” are on the cutting edge of communications using the latest technology to communicate across the country or across the world. They use voice, Morse code, and a whole range of data modes. They communicate by bouncing signals off the ionosphere, off the moon, or by using orbital satellites built by hams and launched during international space programmes. They still provide emergency communications for disasters large and small, and are often on hand to provide public service communications ranging from communications in a bike race, to tracking the yachties traversing the Pacific on the Pacific Seafarers’ Net.
Although there are millions of hams around the world, there are only seven in the Cook Islands – one in Tongareva, one on Aitutaki, and five on Rarotonga. Of the seven, only four are active – all on Rarotonga – yet those four hams have probably done as much to raise global awareness of the Cook Islands as a “destination” as all the commercial publicity!
How, you may ask! Three ways: most importantly they talk to people – thousands and thousands of them -- all over the world; they send out postcards to confirm those chats; and they maintain web pages.
So how much impact do they have? The Cook Island Tourism Corporation has had over 60,000 “likes” on their Facebook page in the last two years.
Andy Duncan, callsign E51AND, a ham living in Inave has had a web page up for only nine months and has 45,000 hits; Jim Ditchburn in Tupapa, E51JD has 221,420 hits; and Victor Rivera E51CG has had an astounding 1.3 million hits on his web pages.
In May 2013 and April 2014 the American Radio Relay League published articles in their journal “QST” about ham radio in the Cook Islands – millions of people world-wide receive that magazine, and in April 2014 an article was published in “CQ Ham Radio” magazine in Japan reaching millions of Japanese. This publicity brings people here to holiday, and to operate their radio from a very “rare” location. Last week two hams from the US flew home after two weeks here, this week a German ham arrives, and later in the week four Japanese hams will be here operating their radios from the KiiKii Motel – a favourite spot for visiting hams.
So when you drive by Victor’s Computers opposite the airport and wonder about the tower and funny looking aerials he has in his yard, or drive through Muri and wonder about the big “upside down” umbrella frame at Bob Walkers house, or pass by Jim Ditchburn’s place in Tupapa and see all that aluminium sticking up in the air, or by Andy Duncan’s place inland of the backroad by Cook Island Divers to see “the biggest TV antenna you ever saw” – remember, these are the unsung ambassadors of the Cook Islands, talking to people all over the world, and with collectively over one and a half million hits on their web pages – Oh! – and if a cyclone, tsunami or other disaster takes out all commercial communications – they will be the first voices the outside world will hear…