Audio by Satellite from South America
Saturday 24th September 1994.
I flew out of Heathrow at 10:30pm to Buenos Aires (Bs As), 96 k’s over weight allowance with 7 flight cases of equipment and 2 backpacks. As one of a technical team sent out to six remote locations all over the world from France Telecom’s London satellite uplink base, we’re working on the worldwide launch of a new SUV. I’m managing the technical broadcast and uplink project on-the-ground for South America and also operating foldback audio.
The company personnel helped with the cases and I met some of the VIP’s travelling with us – Robin Knox-Johnston (now Sir), a great personality – the first yachtsman to sail single-handed, non-stop around the world in 1968-69 – accompanied by his lovely wife, and Helen Sharman OBE, the British astronaut. I would meet all the company support personnel and VIP’s at various points along the way, but their journey was very different to mine, travelling as I would be, with the crew of the local Buenos Aires (Bs As) satellite company we had engaged, and on a time schedule almost completely opposite to the main party.
Onwards to Rio Gallegos
The flight to Bs As took 13 sleepless hours from London – I remember arriving to smartly-dressed young ladies in Customs – friendly smiles, mini-skirts, tanned legs and trim jackets. I met Hugo – the local company Head of Technical, and local ‘fixers’ to help us through customs, who transferred us to the domestic airport one hour away by the River Plata, for the flight to Rio Gallegos. The river is so wide the other bank isn’t visible – 140 km’s wide in some places.
The River Plata, Buenos Aires
The four hour flight took Hugo and I, with much increased equipment, down South to Rio Gallegos.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Cold and windy, I learn only on the return journey from our Camera Director, John, that the last bank held up by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was in Rio Gallegos. They came to stay in the town and were regular pool players and drinkers at the British Club, which still stands today. When they robbed the bank and rode out of town, the locals only half-heartedly followed as they had come to know them rather well. The two then took a ship to Bs As and from there to Bolivia, where they met their fate in a shoot-out, but not the way the film represented their final stand – John said apparently one of them survived.
We took 2 hours to get all the equipment from the airport into town to our Hotel, the Santa Cruz. It was freezing and blowing so strong we could hardly load the equipment onto a courier van. The next two hours were spent talking technical in Spanish-English and discovering several problems: crew allocations and times; equipment movements; audio leads – the local equipment is wired differently to the equipment brought from the UK; local power plugs – there are three varieties; and local power distribution – I didn’t have enough sockets and leads for all of our equipment. In Maxat there’s a saying – if there’s a problem, ‘a hare has popped its head up’. I thought then, the hares have started popping up everywhere.
Time for dinner and getting to know Hugo in halting English. Talk of families and living in New Zealand, London, Australia, and Argentina. 28 hours without sleep after leaving London, sleep comes at 1030pm Sunday night 25th.
No Transport – Monday 26th September.
Breakfast at 1000am – we’re still talking technical and ways to solve problems. Hugo says his two crew, Patricio and Hernan, arrived very early in the morning from Bs As – 2,600 km’s by road, travelling night and day for the last four days and sleeping on the road in turn. They had a Ford pickup towing a 3.5m dish – fairly slow going in the wind and with such a low trailer.
Satellite crew arrive in Rio Gallegos
Hugo asks, could we not leave them to sleep until 3pm? Uncertainty about the road and how far to Porvenir in Chile – maybe 250 k’s – I’m concerned to get going through Chilean customs at Monte Ayrmond, and not to miss the ferry 140 km’s away before midnight. After calculating the time left to the first Transmission (Tx) – a day in hand, we agree, let them sleep until 3pm. Hugo needs to go and organise things in town; we’ll meet back at the Hotel at 2pm. Only later, I learn he has not organised a truck for hire to get our equipment to Porvenir and on to Ushuaia. This was arranged from London weeks ago! Hugo has now added more equipment as well as my own, brought down from Bs As on the flight. Patricio and Hernan’s Ford is full of equipment and big enough only for them.
Problems with Connectors
Time to go for a walk down main street and send postcards to everyone – New Zealand, Australia, London. At 3pm Hugo returns to say he can’t find a truck to get to Porvenir. We meet Patricio and then Hernan – both exhausted, and lunch at 3.30 talking for over an hour and going through the 4-uplink Tx schedule and everything we need to achieve. They’re aware we need to get double equipment to the last site in Ushuaia and set it up – there’s simply not enough time between the last two Tx’s. I register their surprise and concern that they have to do more work than what they do already. It’s only later I learn they had misgivings, thinking if any of my equipment from the UK didn’t work they would get the blame – not a good situation from many points of view. ‘We cannot work with someone on our backs all the time’ they say later. I ask Hugo to tell them, I’m a kiwi, I’m here to work, used to working hard, and will work, eat and sleep the same as they do.
With that out of the way the talk is more productive. I discuss openly my disappointment at not leaving Rio Gallegos yet, how we must get through customs and not miss the ferry from Punta Delgada to Manantiales, in order to get to Porvenir in good time for the first Tx. Hugo and Patricio become animated and leave to find a truck. Hernan and I sit in the empty hotel restaurant and solder audio leads, rewire power plugs, cable-test connections. Patricio returns with no luck and there’s no sign of Hugo. Patricio and I leave to buy more power connectors. We return – still no truck and no Hugo.
At 9pm Hugo returns and I meet Roberto who is to be my driver for the next five days. He speaks only one word of English – ‘ok’, but we still manage to talk about everything under the sun over the next five days. For his hire as a driver including his van, I bet he wouldn’t have believed what he was about to become involved in.
On Our Way
We work solidly for an hour loading the pickup and van, say goodbye to Hugo – who has to go back to Bs As, and leave at 10pm only to travel a hundred yards and stop. What’s happening now? Argentinian customs. We stamp about in the cold and wait for the inspector. I hand him my Spanish-written letter of progress from London, which seems to speed things up.
Finally we leave Rio Gallegos at 11pm – 100 k’s to the border, another 40 to the ferry before midnight, then 120 more to Porvenir. We don’t hold out much hope but travel at great speed, almost recklessly, over dusty and pot-holed roads to make the customs, which we pass through with less trouble than in Rio Gallegos. The road is wild and the countryside – as much as I can see of it – is bleak and remote.
Miss the Ferry
At 2.30am we call a halt and check in to a hotel which appears lit-up in the middle of nowhere – on the road near Punta Delgada; there’s nothing else around for miles either side. Looks like a grand old silver mining hotel. No chance of making the crossing – it’ll have to be the 9.30 ferry in the morning. The hostess gives us dinner at this hour and we bunk down in twin rooms. Roberto snores and I throw things at the wall to make him stop.
Up at 8am for breakfast, Roberto and I play table tennis waiting for Patricio and Hernan to join us. Then we’re off, arriving in time to miss the first ferry by minutes. I’m annoyed. Patricio tells me to calm down – hey!, don’t worry. It’s minus 4 degrees as we wait on the shore and take photo’s, and then drive onto the ferry at 10.30am. Across the Primera Agnostura to Bahía Azul takes 20 minutes or so.
Ferry from Punta Delgada to Bahía Azul.
On the road now, a clear day all the way to Porvenir. Loads of sheep, Gaucho’s on horses, strange elaborate entrances to non-existent homes, and always the dish in front, eating their dust.
Road to Porvenir
We arrive at 3pm, 10½ hours before the first Tx to London, scheduled at 0130am local time. Check in at the Hotel Rosas in the middle of a rather pleasant little town – Porvenir – pop. 5000.
Local Protocol is Important
Patricio advises, we must speak to the local Alcalde (the Mayor) – it’s good for us to show respect, things will happen much easier. I keep pressing to hurry because of the time. We walk to his office and he meets us straight away. Patricio speaks fluently and Senor Torres nods and looks at me. Can we get local police co-operation? Patricio asks. Yes, replies Senor Torres and picks up the phone. We appear to have become important people in his town.
We must now meet the head of the local Electricity Board at the Gas Turbine plant on the edge of the town. Can we go there now? I shake his hand and we leave. It’s now 5pm, 8½ hrs to the first Tx. We still haven’t found the location nor assessed what power is there. We go to the Gas Turbine plant and a young electrician agrees to follow us. On the way back to town the Alcalde’s assistant proudly points out the town’s new prison; for a town of 5000, he’s pleased they have five prisoners there. There are statistics and population proportions I wonder, briefly in passing.
We drive around and can’t find the location! This is important: the first Tx involves playouts of camera-recorded tapes, due to be rushed to our Hotel at 10pm by Courier from the VIP party travelling up North, crossing the Strait of Magellan. From the ferry dock, wherever it is, we’ll also go live for the second Tx when the VIP’s and SUV’s arrive on the ferry from Punta Arenas, at 11am the next morning.
We Find the First Transmission Point
Six k’s out of town we find the Dock and a small cafe – Penguido’s. There’s no other dock for 200 miles so this must be the one.
Ferry landing from Punta Arenas
We begin the set-up in freezing cold but luckily there’s a barn and the local owner is pleased to let us use it to shelter our equipment. This is good for the dish as it must be blowing 40 knots – it’s fortunate we can align the dish to the satellite in the lee of the barn, partially protected by a barn next door against the cross-wind. I leave Patricio and Hernan to align the dish and set-up the kit and go with Roberto to finish soldering leads at the cafe 30 yds away.
Uplink setup 1 – Porvenir
The lady is to keep the cafe open for us until 3.30am the next morning for hot coffee (though she didn’t know it at the time). At 9pm there’s still no power connection, the electrician having gone back to Porvenir for cable and connectors. Patricio needs further connectors – he disappears to town to find anything he can. When he returns, I ask Roberto to drive his van to the hotel to pick up any tapes that might have arrived from the VIP party by overland courier (the long way around the Strait).
Not Enough Power
There’s no power for the Inmarsat satphone. Out with the croc clips and onto the Ford pickup battery; it means we must keep the engine running as the phone draws 13 amps and would drain a car battery in perhaps two hours. I align the satphone transmitter to the Inmarsat satellite and call the Satellite Master Control Room (SMCR) in London. They’re ready to take our signal but we have no heavy power for the uplink amplifiers and so advise of our progress. The electrician arrives back and begins cabling from a power pole 50 yards away. We’re three hours away from the first Tx time slot. At midnight we have power but not enough for all the uplink equipment, the satphone, plus all my audio equipment needed in the morning for the live camera Tx. The Ford engine runs for hours. When it stops for lack of petrol we fill it from cans and start it again – the satphone is our only contact with the outside world and it’s now dark, blowing about 25 knots and down to probably minus 12. We take turns to sit in the Ford with the heater on for a moment to get warm and then back on with the job.
Uplink setup 2 – Porvenir
Roberto arrives back – the tapes are here! I’m overjoyed. Hernan calls Hispasat in Madrid to set up the satellite transponder for our link to London. Hispasat receives our test signal and audio tone loud and clear – the question is, can London receive it as well? We phone SMCR in London – no, they cannot receive us. We’re using new technology – digital Spectrumsaver, which can, if required, squeeze multiple channels through digitization and compression into the same bandwidth as a normal (analogue) television channel.
In London, the dish (LNB) cannot decode the signal we’re sending. We spend two hours on the satphone to London and Madrid trying to find a solution to get the signal to London. David – our main contact engineer in London, and his team, are pulling out all stops to make it work. He has had hardly any sleep as well – they’ve been working all hours, taking in feeds from 5 other locations around the world for the same epic event.
Time To Call A Stop
It’s now 3.30am – 19 hours without sleep for the second time and another Tx at 11am, if we can get it working. I have to call a halt – the team needs sleep and there’s no way we can Tx to London. I call David in London and agree with him to power down and discuss a possible time when we can test next morning. I tell the local crew not to worry, it wasn’t their fault – they are professionals and are relieved to hear this, knowing the signal is leaving Porvenir and reaching Hispasat (as Madrid Control confirmed), at least.
Cold and tired, I call our Head of Business Services in London, wake him up and detail our options. We know that London will move heaven and earth to receive the signal there. We call Hispasat to notfiy them we are powering down uplink to their satellite transponder, and then turn off all our equipment. In the freezing cold we’re constantly jumping, running on the spot and waving our arms to keep warm. The equipment has to be partially dismantled and put in the barn because of the weather. At 4.30am we drive to the Hotel in town. Senor Rosas has provided snacks in our rooms and is uncomplaining at this hour.
Better The Next Day
I’m up first at 0730am after 2½ hrs of restless sleep and rouse the others. We have a quick breakfast and talk about anything but the problems. We learn jokes from each other’s country and there’s general laughter and shrugging of shoulders. Hernan translates for Roberto – the humour is not language-bound. We drive back to the pier and it’s much easier to turn everything on this morning. Leaving Hernan and Patricio at the dish, Roberto and I position his van at the Cafe with the engine running for the second satphone.
We must use every bit of power we can find from the cafe for the rest of the equipment. The Pickup is running to provide power for the links satphone near the dish. The van is running near the cafe for the foldback satphone, in turn connected to my local loop wireless transmitter for the headsets and earpieces that the director, VIP’s and crew will use to hear questions asked from London. The VIP’s will then respond on camera. We connect the local talkback equipment to the only power outlet left in the cafe and hope for the best. It’s a little dodgy – the socket is almost hanging off the wall and I gaff tape it in place. The camera location is 100m from the dish. We run out 2 audio and 1 vision cable 100m to connect the camera kit. With under three hours sleep, we don’t even know yet whether London has sorted out the problem but must continue as though they have. It’s not worth calling them until we’re ready to send.
It Works! – Finally
At 10am we’re ready to send audio tone and colour bars (test signal) to London, only one hour before the scheduled live slot. I call London – they’ve pulled out all the stops and are receiving the signal! I’m amazed – it’s not direct up to Hispasat and down to London as planned – it’s up 35,800km’s to Hispasat, down the same to Madrid, up again to Hispasat and down into London – they’ve worked wonders in three hours! We can’t stop to be happy as my kit has an earthing problem – 80V neutral to earth, 70V positive to earth. We float the earth at the last moment and in trepidation turn the power on – it’s not an optimum solution. There’s a satisfying glow of ‘on’ lights but there’s no time for more tests, we look up to see the ferry has crept in behind us and is about to dock. Action stations!.
John, the director, comes straight off the front of the ferry and over to us. The last time I saw him was in a meeting in London two weeks before. How to explain we were unable to play-out any of his pre-shoot material to London the night before? He’s disappointed and takes some minutes to think it through. He’s a professional though and agrees that ‘these things can happen’. It means a re-think on the script he’s developing in his mind and immediately he gets down to working out different possibilities. London calls our satphone to say we must go live now – no time for getting any tapes played out first.
Live – the First Transmission
We scramble. I wire Sir Robin for IFB (international foldback – this is the system whereby he can hear the program in his earpiece live from London and the questions they ask in order to respond). He stands ready 100m away from the dish, looking to camera. London Studio crosses to us live but there’s a problem. SMCR tells me in my earpiece they have pictures but no sound. We’re frantic – I race to the camera location from the uplink dish and ask Nick, the soundman travelling with John, to send tone from his recorder. It comes back into my earpiece from London as I check the cables right there with him … but only intermittently.
100m of audio and video cable between uplink and camera
The signal path can be explained as follows: The camera vision and audio travel from the camera and audio equipment, 100m down the cables on the ground to the uplink equipment at the dish. These signals are then digitised, combined and uplinked to Hispasat, down to Madrid, up to a different transponder on Hispasat, down to the London satellite master control room (SMCR), on to the London studio (Mission Control), mixed with studio input, then back to the SMCR, up again to another satellite transponder, and then out to receive sites throughout Europe, to local invited audiences watching the event. All the uplinks and downlinks to and from geo-stationery satellites, travel 35,800km’s per ‘hop’.
To receive the audio in our earpieces in Porvenir from London Studios, it’s mixed in the studio and sent to the SMCR in London, out to a local telephone exchange, long distance to an Inmarsat Earth Station, up to an Inmarsat satellite, down to the satphone in Porvenir, in to the local RT transmitter, and out to radio earpieces for the VIP’s and radio telephone (RT) headsets for the crew. During test, the crew also receive the local audio back from Porvenir via the same route. Through cable and space, the audio tone from Porvenir that I hear, travels over 184,000km’s to get back to my headset with a 1½ second delay – the equivalent of 4½ times around the world. This is called ‘programme return’ and allows the VIP’s to hear and respond from a remote location to studio questions asked in London, out to an audience throughout Europe in real-time, as the programme is mixed in London. When we go live, the local audio return is mixed out of the earpieces to the VIP’s, so that they do not hear their own voices back delayed whilst they are speaking.
A Problem With Audio
The audio tone is intermittent! We check cables at the camera location. There’s a 1½ second delay between plugging and unplugging cables and what I hear back. Plugging and unplugging one audio cable, the tone appears to be intermittent right at the connector – the problem is in the cable! There’s no time to waste. I look at Nick and without words we both know what we have to do. Chop. Out with the cutters and chop the audio connector off. Whilst I’m stripping back the wires on one end, Nick takes the cutters and chops off the connector on his audio ‘fly’ lead. We joke about broadcast standards in the field – any connection will do at a time like this when London Studio has already crossed to us live. We twist the correct wires together. No joy! expletive! I run 100m to the dish with London screaming in my headset. Robin is turning blue in the harsh wind. A second seems like a minute as the London Studio presenter stalls with additional words, asking us whether we are there.
At the dish, Patricio is on the satphone to Hispasat. We check all the audio connections, repatching different combinations, taking connectors apart to check the soldering, coming to the limit of what we can do. The audio LED lights on the Spectrumsaver input seem to glow – it’s hard to see if they show any signal in the daylight. I cannot get back to the camera location in time… is Nick still sending tone? What to do… London can see and speak to the camera location and they can respond via the RT route if I speak to London. I talk to SMCR in London and ask them to confirm Nick is still sending audio tone, marvelling at how the request gets to Nick 100m away from me via London. Yes, London says, Nick is still sending tone. I look at the Spectrumsaver LED’s – we have audio signal! but… London still does not. An expletive of sheer rage. The audio signal suddenly bursts through my earpiece – a faulty connection in Madrid, Patricio says later, nothing to do with us.
We’re live! I run back to the camera with thumbs up to John as he nods and I hear the first question to Robin from London in the headset, loud and clear. When I get there, Robin is answering. He speaks and when I hear a low-level mix of his first words come back through my headset 1½ seconds later, it’s sheer bliss! The local audio is quickly mixed out of the return and then all we hear in the headsets is London studio audio. Now we’re working on adrenalin alone. London tells me later to stop shouting into my headset microphone and distorting it. I tell them it’s easy for them to say that in a warm, windless London SMCR. Sir Robin does a star turn – the sheer difficulty of getting live out of Porvenir in freezing 40 knot winds and all the problems add to the impression of exciting, live television. The wind is really kicking up. The camera shot is a good one, tight on Robin, the ferry, and three SUV’s in the background as they come off the ferry. I wonder whether London can sense the ruggedness and wildness all around.
It’s all over and the VIP’s retire to the warmth of the cafe. It’s full of locals who have come out to sit and watch. John and I start plotting which tapes to play out in the time left of our Tx slot. It’s now 1230pm and we play out tapes for another hour and a half, to be recorded and edited in London.
Pack Up and on to Ushuaia – 500km’s South
The VIP’s and SUV support crew leave to drive to Rio Grande and overnight there, 240km’s away. We’ll pass through Rio Grande late that night and on to Ushuaia, non-stop, 500km’s from where we are. The crew is very tired and we pack up until 5pm in the bitter cold.
Packing up Porvenir and on to Ushuaia 500 km’s away
I thank the lady at the cafe and leave a good tip for her. She beams in embarrassment. We retire to Hotel Rosas in town for a shower and food. Patricio tells me over dinner he lost his best friend in the Malvinas/Falklands war and there is pain in his eyes.
Our Ford pickup and van entourage leaves at 6.30pm. Hernan forgets to pay for petrol and has to turn around 10 miles out. They’ll come after us if we don’t, he says, Argentinians in Chile. Roberto drives on to the barren border crossing into Argentina and we wait for them there. The border is dark and remote – there are guards with machine guns and all our paperwork has to be correct. Patricio and Hernan arrrive and everything is in order. We drive on through the night, stopping at Rio Grande for 20 minutes for coffee. The city is amazing and silent at night with light winds and snow flecks falling. Onwards, nobody sleeps during the drive – the road is good for a while but dangerously icy, then abruptly turns to mud holes and deep cracks, dusty one minute then wet. It seeps into our skin. I drive from Rio Grande to spell Roberto, until we hit the snow again at the foothills of the Andes, some miles from Ushuaia. I can’t recall when I’ve concentrated so much, driving RHS 120km/hr and the road is like marbles and then mud holes. The scenery we can just make out is awesome.
Over the Andes and down into Ushuaia
The road up through the Andes and down into Ushuaia is unbelievable. We’re not towing the dish now – a very good decision as it has a low base and would not have made the journey, although originally planned. We are carrying over a tonne of equipment still. Another fixed (larger) dish is being set up in Lapataia Bay as we drive. The snow is really coming down at the end of the 500km journey, as we travel up over the Andes in the dark and down into Ushuaia. As we climb, hundreds of feet below there are sparse lights and looking down, we can just make out houses that seem far too close to the side of the road.
Over the Andes and down into Ushuaia
We reach Ushuaia at 0530, now 21 hours without sleep for a third period in a row and with only 9 hours sleep in total since the start. We book in to Hotel Albatross right on the pier in the centre of town – perfect! I meet Patricio’s brother, Billy, and Santiago, in their room. They’re waking up to go 20km’s out to the next Tx site – Lapataia Bay, the end of the Pan Am Highway which runs unbroken, 8000km’s from Alaska to here. We talk for an hour and go through everything we need to do. Billy doesn’t quite believe me yet – he’s done all this before with the Camel Trophy and actions speak louder than words. I decode Patricio’s words to his brother – he’s ok!….we’ve worked side by side for the last three days, this is what we have to do!
Drive to Lapataia Bay – End of the North American Highway
Billy and Santiago leave for Lapataia Bay. We sleep for two cruel hours and breakfast at 0830. Patricio, Hernan and myself are speechless with exhaustion. We’ve spelled Roberto at various times to sleep, and he’s thankfully a little better but still tired.
We leave for the site at 0900. Roberto puts on up-tempo tango music and we sing and swing in laughter to keep our spirits up. The road is no more than a dirt track in places.
The road from Ushuaia to Lapataia Bay 1
The road from Ushuaia to Lapataia Bay 2
We pass the Ushuaia Golf Club and the Rugby Club; it seems unlikely they’re open.
The Ushuaia Golf Club
The Ushuaia Rugby Club
When we reach Lapataia Bay I cannot believe my eyes. We’re so far South, the dish has to point virtually straight ahead to reach the equatorial, geo-stationary Hispasat. It’s the only satellite that can get us out of there. Looking at it from behind, the dish points straight into the mountain.
Lapataia Bay Uplink
The satellite engineers had carefully measured this on maps in London – the line-of-sight to the geo-stationary satellite would just clear the back slope of the mountain with acceptable fade margin and the calculations were fine – but the weather was always an uncontrollable factor. Right now the mountain is covered in thick fog with snow being pushed off the front face in the high winds.
Patricio says relax! – Billy is a magician with these things. (He’s using an asymmetrical cassegrain design for the dish, which has the uplink transceiver off-centre). There’s no option but to start setting up kit. Billy bumps the satphone and the Transceiver comes crashing down off the roof of the van into the snow. We fear the worst. There’s nothing broken though and after resiting it, I re-acquire the Inmarsat satellite for the comms satphone and leave it on in case London calls. Between us though, the ice is broken – Patricio has taught him a joke I told Patricio previously, and from then on we work and communicate with laughter and the job cracks on.
Lapataia Bay Uplink – side view
Power Problems Again
I set-up the audio IFB mixer and satphone and power them up. Plugging into the power gen in Billy’s van, I get a strong earth off the IFB equipment chassis. Damn it! – just can’t afford not to respect power and I’m furious with myself, shaking out the jolt in my arm. Check the connections – snow has drifted onto one of the plugs, telling myself over and over, you can’t make a single mistake with power. Dry it out, check everything and re-insert – doing it all slowly, by rote. No power still. This could blow the whole IFB talkback link to London – I throw the lead into the snow in disgust. Our VIP’s will have to talk with no questions from London…maybe. My mind is racing with the options – we could use one of the Inmarsat phones held up to the ear during the shot – not pretty… I hope against hope it’s only the fuse in the power lead, not the equipment. Re-plug with another power lead and yes!, power to the unit. Pause for a minute to stare at the snow and reflect on how close we’ve come several times over the last few days to not having a show at all. Get on with it!
The Southern end of the Pan-American Highway
VIP’s Arrive – No Signal
We call Madrid – they’re getting nothing at all. London phones in via the Inmarsat satphone – Fabio from Maxat SMCR! – bless his soul, he’s been trying to get us for an hour and is relieved we’ve made it. The last time we talked was in Porvenir – a night and 520 km’s away. I say we’ll call back, but his is a welcome voice.
The VIP’s arrive. I talk with John and say we have, as yet, no pictures out of here. John agrees that it’s always been a less than 50-50 proposition but that we’ll keep trying everything we can. The main suspicion is that the dish line-of-site to the satellite is so close to the side of the mountain 1.5km away, the signal cannot punch through the heavy mist and snow pushing off the mountain face by the prevailing wind. We had suspected this in map readings in London but it had appeared to be achievable.
In easier situations, one can measure these things for uplink power – what does that matter now if none of the signal is getting out? I call London again via the Inmarsat satphone which is thankfully working, and explain the problems here. Madrid is receiving our ‘signal carrier’ but no signal on top. London understands and will wait for whatever we can give them. They wish us luck and sign off.
The IFB talkback kit needs adjusting so I call SMCR again in London. They read aloud and I adjust an audio problem encountered at the last Tx with the VIP earpieces. That fixed, a quick look at the mountain and at the dish and I can’t help feel a wave of disappointment and exhaustion .. so far! so close!.. I walk away now with nothing to do, past the end marker to the highway, along a wooden, slatted walkway, through the trees and out to the land’s point jutting onto a lake, frozen in places, leaving it all behind.
Walkway to paradise
It’s unbelievably beautiful and silent out there, an amazing tranquility.
The lake of tranquility
When I return it doesn’t matter anymore – who cares?, we tried and it didn’t work, so… at the end of the day we pack up and go home, that’s what happens. I smile to myself. It’ll be ok but less than what you hope for. I’m never satisfied with that. You keep trying that’s what you do, what’s the use in giving up?
A quick check with Billy – he’s on the phone to Madrid – no joy, but whatever we’re sending is now linked all the way through Madrid to SMCR in London and on to Mission Control at London Studio. If anything happens it’ll go all the way through.
John and the VIP’s are very up and happy and joke with the crew and carry on. The clouds are beginning to lift.
Signal Received in London
Twenty minutes later, walking back to the satellite truck, we glance up at the mountain – clear sky! Unbelievably, just like that, Billy yells out that Madrid has our signal. That means London will have it too.
The mountain clears
I whoop and high-five Billy. Yes! Patricio grabs me from behind in a neck-brace and punches Hernan in the stomach. Roberto beams away in sheer joy. John comes running over. We’ve got it John! we can go live in five minutes! Mission Control first needs to be called to set up the IFB talkback – time is what we don’t have now. Nick wires up the VIPs’ earpieces. I’m mixing each earpiece via the local loop wireless RT, with return audio from London coming back via the satphone, and talking to London via the same path, hearing back their London programme as it goes out live in Europe. The announcer says they will shortly be going live to South America – John has an RT also and hears it too. We look at each other and suddenly we’re live. A question comes through, then another and the programme runs itself – I’m oblivious to the content. Without sleep, this is still an exquisite feeling and I find myself pacing back and forth close to the mixing panel, out of camera shot.
Live from Lapataia Bay
Onwards to Ensenada Bay – Last Transmission
Patricio, Roberto and Hernan have already left for the next and last Tx site to set up the portable generator and other equipment.
We finish the Tx. We now have 20 minutes to pack up the kit and take it 6 k’s to the last Tx site – Ensenada Bay, the place of much disputed location in London meetings.
A park ranger drives me from Lapataia to Ensenada. I’m completely somewhere else, in a dream, light-headed from lack of sleep and happy for some strange reason. The scenery is breathtaking and the morning has turned
the mountains pristine white in the sun against a deep blue sky. When we get there, I apologise for not talking and he smiles and says he understands.
Ensenada Bay 1
Bounce Microwave Back to Main Uplink
Unbelievably, Billy has worked his magic. We were never going to get live out of Ensenada Bay – too many mountains, wrong line-of-site to the satellite. Billy has a small .4m microwave dish – in fact, he has four of them. His crew locate one dish near the camera shot on the beach at Ensenada Bay, and they have an inflatable to take two to an island, 1km out in the bay.
Ensenada Bay 2
The fourth will be close to the main uplink at Lapataia. He’s going to bounce the signal through the small dishes to get to the big one there. Brilliant. They must be line of sight, one to the other. With 12 hours sleep in close to 90 hours, I can still smile.
Microwave link to Lapataia Bay
The Last Transmission
And so, the last Tx. The generator needs to be moved behind the concrete pier – too noisy. Santiago and I lug it to it’s new position.
Last transmission setup
Patricio is dead on his feet, Hernan can’t think, setting up the small microwave dishes. Nick runs out audio and video cable for us – 50m. I cannot locate the Pacific Ocean Region Inmarsat satellite. I punch in and change to another satellite – Atlantic Ocean Region East – AOR-E. Still no joy. Unbelievably, I locate one of them perfectly due South – cannot explain and have no time. David – our London engineer – tells me in London later that the area suffers from extreme magnetic deviation, but due South?… we’re only 60 miles from Cape Horn.
London has pictures but no audio again. We check and re-check and in our tiredness, discover we have wired the audio wrongly. We find the audio connected into the betaSP recorder, not into the microwave and quickly replug. London has audio. Natalie, a local, eminent conservationist, is the VIP. The London studio presenter is flustered by the delays. They interrupt an interview in London and cross live to us.
An Argentinian Coast Guard ship steams into view and spoils the picture, threatening to cross the microwave link. All of a sudden there’s a cloud of smoke, all stop, and the ship backs up – they must have acquired the microwave signal we’re bouncing off the island to the uplink.
Almost crossing the microwave path
We’re live. Natalie is asked – how was the trip?. She never went on the trip!, she lives locally and is there to be asked about local conservation. London covers by saying there’s a problem with communications. There’s no problem – she can hear perfectly!, but she’s not experienced with the delay and with hearing the studio questions coming through her earpiece and this throws her. Monica is brought on in Ensenada to bolster the live piece and rescue the situation. The piece goes out live with an awesome view behind but I feel simply drained. There’s still four hours of packing up before we get back to the Hotel.
A Successful Event
The story really ends on that beach. We had champagne and took photo’s of each other as though we were conquering heroes – great fun.
There, a little later on the pier in an overwrought state, I thought stuff it!, picked up the satphone and called my girlfriend in London. The scenery was breathtaking.
Sleep did not come in great lengths over the next few days. It’s a complex process which took more than two weeks – it happened also at the last big event I was involved in, the ’91 G7 Economic Summit in London. Two days later I said goodbye to Roberto, Patricio and Hernan with a phrase I wrote down for them – ‘Long may our paths cross, your friend Brent’. What a team! What a job! They were to drive 3000km’s back to Bs As over the next week – the scenery was simply beautiful as they left us at Ushuaia airport.
3,000km back to Buenos Aires
The Magic of South America
Ushuaia is a magical place – there’s something about it I cannot explain. The people, the scenery, the southernmost city in the world.
I took some last shots of Ushuaia then joined the VIP’s and flew back to Buenos Aires. That night we went out on the town to a show and saw a street performance – real tango – amazing.
Last night out in Buenos Aires
We flew out to London on Sunday night. All in all, a great experience, great teamwork, an excellent crew.