After the longer than expected day we were now installed in our campsite in Luxembourg, Auf Kengert, near the village of Larochette north of Luxemburg City. We had stayed here on one of our previous trips to Europe before we became interested in SOTA and had enjoyed the surrounding countryside. Helen spent our first evening on a walk around the forest surrounding the campsite to find a few caches and enjoyed the nice evening weather while I sat in the van relaxing and reading a book after the long day’s drive. There is actually a bare foot walk that starts at the site. This is where you can take your shoes off and walk a mile round the wood with various pits of different items and textures to step through for different sensations. The pine needles and cones in one of the pits looked the least inviting and the mud looked sticky even though the weather had been dry; she decided not to partake.
There are four SOTA summits in Luxembourg and in the past few years I have managed to chase them all, so the plan was to drive round to complete the region in one day. We were to start in the south-east of the country with the lowest summit, Widderbierg (LX/LX-004), then off to just north of the capital, Grengenwald (LX/LX-002), before heading to the north-west near Wiltz to climb the highest Steekammchen (LX/LX-001), finishing near to the campsite with the hill closest to the German border, Kiirchbësch (LX/LX-003).
Sunday morning started overcast with a threat of rain. The weather over all of Europe was rapidly deteriorating for the (UK) holiday weekend. As we drove through the village of Mensdorf, at the base of the first summit of Widderbierg, we came across a group of people boiling fruit in large metal pots over open fires, stirring them with long wooden spoons. We asked what they were doing and had a response including “Quetschekraut”. We were not sure what it was so looked it up online later. They were making a Luxembourg speciality jam made from local plums for which they have festivals in the autumn. During August they boil the plums for a day (being careful not to burn them) and then pour the jam into jars. The people seemed to be making a party of their endeavours as beer appeared to be involved. Our curiosity sated and a couple of photos later we continued on to some likely parking for the summit just outside the village.
The parking happened to be by an open-air chapel (la Grotte) on the side of Widderbierg. We followed a track passing the grotto before heading up into the trees. It looked like we had gone the wrong way at first when the path vanished but then we spotted the odd marker painted on trees confirming we were actually going the right direction. We crossed a main track running across the hill and soon we were near the top, so we turned into the trees again to find a bit of a clearing near the summit.
We set up the vertical antenna and settled down on our tarp sheet under a large umbrella trying to keep everything dry as rain had just started; fortunately it was not too heavy. Noisy planes would fly over regularly landing at an airport nearby because we appeared to be right under the final approach. Being on a mission for the day we had decided on a quickish activation and using only 40 metres easily made 47 contacts in 35 minuets including 2 summits to summits.
People in Mensdorf boiling plums to make Quetschekraut jam and the grotte at the bottom of Widderbierg (LX/LX-004)
We packed up in the drizzle, which began to get worse, and headed down to the campervan to set off to the next hill, Grengenwald. Parking for this summit was just off a busy main road that runs through the woodland with only a few places to be safely out of the way. After a short walk along the road it was back to more forestry tracks to navigate but this time they took us to the summit after a couple of junctions. At the summit co-ordinates we found a comfortable log to sit on and quickly set up the antenna again in the drizzle which had not abated. Helen made her usual contacts to qualify the summit before wandering off to find a geocache that was nearby. Again 40 metres was in good shape with 51 stations logged this time in just over half an hour. So far, so good and we were keeping to our time schedule too.
As we travelled towards the third summit of Steekammchen, the van started to have a small miss-fire, barely noticeable at first, but as we climbed out of the village of Wiltz up a steeper section of road the engine hiccup was accompanied with an obvious emission from the exhaust. I had already become quite concerned and on parking at the start of the walk to the summit, I popped open the bonnet to see if anything obvious had come adrift. From my rudimentary inspection every thing looked in place, no fluids were escaping and the engine ticked over fine, but revving the motor produced a black sooty exhaust.
The weather had improved as we travelled so we decided to activate the hill and check the engine again when it had cooled on our return. We had parked right near the top overlooking the town so it was a short walk along a track to get to the highest point. Here we found a woodshed and a man chopping logs with an axe storing them for winter. We exchanged hellos and then walked a little further to a grassy patch where we set up the antenna. The area looked like it might be private land but we were not challenged. My mind was not really on the activation because I was anxious about the campervan so only 28 stations found their way into my log before packing things away and returning to our ailing vehicle.
On leaving the summit the van got noticeably worse. The engine was miss-firing badly on acceleration, power was way down and each cough came with thick black, sickly-sweet smelling smoke from the unburned fuel and a very audible sucking sound. About 20 minutes into the journey, while on a flat section of road, the miss-fire and black smoke suddenly stopped but I soon found as we hit the slightest incline the van quickly lost speed; it had gone into limp-home mode. Was I doing any major damage by still driving it? My anxiety level shot up not knowing what the problem was; well made plans were now out the window.
We discussed our options. Should we stop the vehicle and call out the recovery service? We had European vehicle recovery but we knew unless it was un-drivable the first thing they would try was to repair it. It was the weekend so we could be stuck for an extra couple of days. Could we ignore the problem and blindly continue driving risking real damage? In limp-mode the motor ran smoothly, with no untoward noises or warning lights on the dashboard and the oil and water levels were ok. On top of these problems heavy rain started as a storm swept through the area; it continued for the rest of the afternoon adding to our misery. Really all we wanted to do was get back to the campsite where at least we could be comfortable and decide what to do next. Either way the final summit was not going to be activated this trip. Carefully I drove the van back to the campsite, worried that at any moment it was going to go bang and leave bits of engine all over the road.
Back at the campsite a search on the internet for the van’s symptoms came up with a number of possible faults which all sounded very expensive and covered everything from an injector failure (I discounted this as it was running smoothly in limp-mode), turbo failure (had one of these fail before and was nothing like the van was now), problems with an EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) valve, or air leakage somewhere in the induction system. All I knew was that it was not going to be a quick fix on a Sunday in France or a Bank Holiday Monday in the UK. I had a restless night pondering all the worst possible outcomes.
Sunday morning started bright which always makes problems seem less overwhelming. Over breakfast we decided to see how far we could get with the van. If it failed we would call the recovery service and take things as they came; risky but what the hell. With trepidation we set off, the first anxious 20 minutes with the van coughing and spewing black exhaust smoke until it went into limp-mode was not pleasant.
Luxembourg is not the flattest of countries with lots of undulation on the minor roads that we had to travel on to get from Larochette to the A6 motorway. Hills were a problem but the roads were quiet and we did not seem to cause too much of an obstruction as I could keep close to the speed limits on the smaller roads. An hour into the journey nothing had got worse, nothing had gone bang and we had not annoyed other road users.
In the Ardennes just before Brussels is the European mainland’s oldest active cache simply know to geocachers as “Geocache GC40” set in July 2000; a 20 mile detour from the motorway on N835. We had planned to do this cache on the return journey from the beginning. I was more comfortable that the van was not going to let us down completely so we detoured off the motorway to find it. A quick find was made by Helen while I waited with the engine running fearful that it might not start again.
On returning to the motorway there was an extremely steep hill to negotiate on the way to the junction. We were worried that like Sisyphus from Greek mythology we would just make it to the top only to roll down again for another attempt. Thankfully we made it first time and continued with our journey. The roads around Brussels were busy with slow traffic which suited the van in its current condition. Soon we were onto the flatter parts of Belgium and northern France and making good time to our destination just outside Calais where we could relax and breathe a sigh of relief that another journey was over and that we were closer to home.
The campsite site near Guînes is used as a stop-over by many UK holiday-makers being just to the south of the ports at Calais and was the main reason we stayed there. It is also an ideal location to do the two nearby summits of Mont Gasard (F/NO-123) and Mont Le Communale (F/NO-026) which we originally planned to do before catching the ferry home.
Monday started grey and miserable. The van started ok but still with the embarrassing emissions. We had chatted about when we would go to the ferry over our evening meal. We had frog’s legs and snails for starters; not to everybody’s taste I know but we have had them before. The plan became to start off early (the ferry was booked for 2pm), see how the van feels, do one hill if it is ok, then head to the ferry terminal early and wait for the sailing. That is what we did.
The summit of Mont Le Communale is indistinct with the main summit location, according to the SOTA pages, just off a busy main road. We found a place adjacent to a lane where we set up our system in the now pouring rain. At least we had a little bit of comfort by using our camping chairs and sheltering under a brolly. Propagation was appalling; we suffered with static rain making almost all signals inaudible and it seemed only the bigger stations were able to hear us. This was the last activation of the trip. We were cold, trying not to get wet and were struggling with radio conditions; we were disappointed at the way the whole expedition was ending.
We headed to the ferry terminal early so we could relax and luckily we were offered the previous crossing to the one we booked. This we gladly took and although we did not gain the full hour because the sea crossing was rough and there was a delay at Dover, we did get back into the UK sooner than planned for the final push home. The roads were strangely quiet for a Bank holiday Monday (at least on our route, maybe due to the heavy persistent rain all the way) and the various hills we did have to climb on the motorways did not cause us too many concerns. But I don’t know what was more embarrassing, the black smoke coming out at Dover or being passed on all the inclines by a very old T2 (splitty) VW bus which I easily passed on the flat! We arrived home late in the evening, tired but very pleased to be back.
A big thank you to all the chasers, without you climbing hills and activating would be very lonely.
See more pictures on my flickr pages which has been properly updated with more photos from our European trip.
Carolyn (LX/G6WRW/P; F/G6WRW/P)
We seemed to end our trip in a depression but we had a brilliant time in Europe, walking, meeting people, enjoying all the local cuisine and we are always looking forward to planning our next adventures, wherever they may be.
The van was taken to my friendly vehicle technician and he found that the inter-cooler between the turbo and engine had spectacularly failed causing all the problems. No other damage had been done so it was quickly replaced and the van is again ready for its next big trip……… watch this space.
Travelled: approximately 2200 miles with Dover-Calais ferries
Activated: 15 summits in 11 regions and 8 associations in PA, ON, DL, OE, HB0, LX and F
Yaesu FT-817, HF Packer amplifier outputting approximately 25 Watts
2x4000 mAh Li-Po batteries
10 metre fishing pole supporting a 9.5 metre radiator as a 40 metre quarter-wave vertical, a 17 metre 5/8-wave vertical or a half-wave vertical on 20 metres
Augstenberg only; 5 metre pole supporting a linked quarter-wave vertical ground-plane for 20 metres and 17 metres
Garmin Oregon 450 and Oregon 600 GPSrs with European road and trail maps from OpenStreetMap
Our ancient Mio P550 Pocket PC with TomTom for European road navigation