Shortly after we published the story of our BGAN review in Mexico (here), which became a real-life test of the technology, I got an email from our friend John Knights, a senior Land Rover Experience instructor in the UK who’s also been on and led many major expeditions in Africa. John bought one of the very first Motorola 9500 satellite telephones in 2001, and has been using it since.
The 9500 was a bellweather in the development of satellite telephones. When I made my first sat phone call in 1999, from a camp in Zambia, the device I used required a bulky tri-fold antenna which had to be precisely aligned, and which came with dire warnings not to stand within three meters of the front of it. Just two years later, when the financially troubled Iridium network finally got up and running for the final time, you could make the same call with a one-piece handheld 9500 and stand anywhere you wanted (as long as it was outside).
Since then, John has used his 9500 on more than one occasion to manage emergencies in the bush—some of them mere inconveniences, some of them more serious. Here are a few of his recollections.
Zimbabwe 2001 (chasing a total solar eclipse in the north of the country): The Defender 130 we had hired blew out two tire sidewalls. Although it was equipped with two spares, once both were used we would have been stranded had we suffered another blowout—highly likely on remote African dirt roads. A quick call to the hire company office had two spare tyres and inner tubes on a light aircraft to a nearby safari lodge, who dropped them off in a powerboat to where we were camped on the shores of Lake Kariba.
Death Valley 2002 (touring the scenic Wild West in a rented SUV): We had journeyed off the beaten track to see the famous moving rocks. Returning down the rough dirt track, we were passed at speed by another SUV. They shot off into the distance, and I commented, “He must have much better suspension to travel at that speed on this road.” A few corners later we found the SUV, wrecked—he had lost control and hit an embankment, launching the car airborne, going end over end twice before landing back onto its wheels. Thankfully the occupants where unharmed, but had no supplies or recovery gear with them and were surprised their mobiles did not work. I produced my trusty Motorola, rang the ranger station number off the park map, gave them our exact position from my GPS, and waited until the rangers arrived. In the meantime we found out the family concerned were also in a rented SUV and were due to fly home that evening. I’d love to know what he told the hire company!
Australia’s Blue Mountains 2003: Touring in a hired car we came across a 4x4 on its side. The driver had gotten into a skid on the loose gravel road, and aimed for the embankment rather than the drop off. Again everyone safe but no mobile coverage, but a swift call from the Iridium had a rescue on the way.
Namibia 2003: We set a new record on this trip for number of days without a puncture (seven I think), but that meant we were in the middle of nowhere when the first one happened. The puncture itself was not a problem, but when the locking wheel nut key split while reinstalling the wheel, it did create a problem when we had a second puncture and could not remove the locking nut. Again an Iridium phone call to the hire office had a man with a hammer and chisel on the way, although we did have to spend an unexpected extra night out on route. Our journey was not actually saved by the man with the chisel, but buy the sister vehicle to ours from the hire fleet. The guests driving it rolled it over a couple of miles from where we were. Armed with their wheel nut key we were able to remove our flat tyre, and we then took normal wheel nuts and spare tyres from the wrecked 110 to allow us to continue.*
Whilst I would love to have an all-singing-all-dancing satellite communication set up that gave me calls, high-speed internet, and a wifi hotspot, at the end of the day the ability to raise any help is a blessing and I’m sure my trusty 9500 will see a few more adventures yet.
Ocens (here) carries the full line of Motorola satellite telephones, including the current 9555.
* An easy trick (no doubt discovered by wheel thieves) is to find a 12-point 1/2-inch drive socket that's just too small to fit over the locking lug nut, hammer it over the nut, then use a breaker bar to remove it. I've used the technique a half-dozen times and have yet to fail. JH