Friday, 25 April 2014

Our Anzac Day experience

Best told by pictures and a time line - and I've had time to put some pictures up now. 

Thursday 24th April

9am Our usual morning briefing, but an hour later than usual (just as well, given the previous night’s belly dancing…)

9.30am Team members seen ducking in and out of local supermarkets to stock up on food and drink for the day ahead. The souvenir shop just along the road also does good business as we realise we have little time left for shopping for presents, and everything will probably be way more expensive in Istanbul.  

10.30am Everyone on the bus, loaded down with all the stuff we might possibly need over the next 24 hours – thermals, warm jackets, official red shirts and lanyards, scarves and gloves, sun hats, beanies, sunblock, sunglasses – it’s still not clear what the weather will be doing, although there is a possibility of showers.

10.35am Our bus leaves the hotel for the ACS (Anzac Commemorative Site.) Three of our leaders have been to Gallipoli before, and one of the team has been as a visitor (not a volunteer) a few years ago. They’ve done their best to explain what it will be like, and we’ve seen the seating and tents being set up over the previous few days, but still nothing quite prepares you for the real thing.

About 11am We arrive at Mimosa Park and offload two groups (our big team of 30 has been divided into 7 smaller groups) for their first stint at bus registration. People are already waiting in the park. The Mimosa Park system is being trialled for the first time as a practice run for next year, when bigger crowds are expected. In previous years, people have arrived early to be first in the queue so they can get the best spots (often the coveted grass areas where they can spread out sleeping bags) but the ACS doesn’t open until later in the afternoon, so they have ended up sitting on the (closed) road for hours until the ACS entrance opens. This year the park was used as an interim “holding pen” for the first few hours; the buses were registered in order of arrival so people kept their place in the queue, but they could then relax in the shade at Mimosa Park and play soccer or Frisbee or cards until their turn came up to enter the site.

11.15am We drive on for as long as the Turkish officials will let us, then get off the bus with all our gear. The bus driver then has to drive the long way around to the north entrance of the ACS and park there, beside the officials’’ rest area. He drives off, we keep walking past all the trucks and busy preparations to the tents. We sit at outdoor tables and enjoy a delicious lunch, then those of us who aren’t rostered on duty take advantage of the stretchers and pillows and lie down under the shade of the pine trees for a rest. It’s a hot afternoon and there is no noise except bird song (and a nearby generator), much more peaceful just down the road. People come and go for meals, depending on when they are rostered on or off duties.

2pm We aren’t on duty until later but we set off now to get through the ACS before it’s closed down for a bomb sweep; unfortunately they are doing it early – at 2pm, not 3pm as we had been told, so the site is already closed down. It turns into a very restful afternoon as we can’t go anywhere until they reopen the site.

4pm As soon as they do, we go through security, get wristbanded and issued with orange hi vis vests and head south past Anzac Cove to the bus set down area. 

Some of the first arrivals
When the buses roll up, we hop on board to repeat the most important points of the briefing that they’ve already received at bus registration: what they can’t take into the site, remember any medication because they won’t be back on the bus for 24 hours, take warm clothes because it will get cold overnight, keep walking 700m from here to the South Entrance. (The whole bus movement plan is very complicated, involving one way roads and numbered bus labels, and I’m not going into it in any more detail here!)

There are families, tour groups and school groups. Some of them are very organised, get straight off and start walking; other people have sudden flurries of packing and repacking their gear, and there is always someone who runs back for an item they’ve forgotten, usually just as the bus is pulling away.  Lots of them are wearing Gallipoli or Anzac souvenir T shirts, and there are Turkish vendors selling hats and blankets. It’s sunny and pleasantly warm, after a hot afternoon, so we enjoy chatting to the DVA (Dept of Veterans’ Affairs) staff and Turkish students working as interpreters in the spells between buses; then three or four buses arrive at once and we are suddenly busy.

8pm We swap duties to South Entrance; this involves meeting people after they’ve been through the security gates, and giving them wristbands and the information packs. I’m sure some older people have never been wristbanded before, and they are a little puzzled! We are also there to be a welcoming face, so we chat about where they’ve come from and answer any questions. Someone says how great it is to have the Kiwis and Aussies here!  As before, there are busy and quiet spells, depending on when the buses arrive (many of them coming down from Istanbul.)  Search and rescue teams go past with their dogs; black security vans roll in and out; a few mounted police canter past and there are always lots of jendarma about.

There’s a beautiful sunset over the Aegean Sea – the soldiers often comment in their letters about the colourful sunsets – and the water in Anzac Cove is very still, reflecting all the floodlights around the site. We think about the dawn services about to happen back in NZ and Australia. As it gets dark, we occasionally we see lights shining up on the hills above Rumours go round that there are a few Turkish snipers stationed up there in case of any trouble. Later newspaper reports say there were 1000 of them.

9pm at South Entrance. The wristbands come in flat sheets which are torn up as we need them; each one is numbered in sequence, which is how they keep track of visitor numbers. At one stage I find myself holding band no 3000, which seems quite special, but then there’s another sudden rush of incoming people and I forget to point it out to the person who gets it.

10.30pm Back to the rest area for dinner (again, delicious.) Baris is waiting as we arrive; he scans the menu, suggests what we might like, calls the waiter over, orders for us and makes sure we have a drink. As soon as we’ve eaten, he shoos us off to our own tent for a rest. The tent is full of prone bodies huddled under blankets and beanies, and silent except for a few whistling snores and the occasional click of a camera as someone takes a shot of us all. Simone, Peter, Nick and I get about 1 ½ hour’s rest on the stretchers before our next rostered duty, and some people even manage to sleep. All through the night we look out for each other as a team and try to make sure that everyone - including the team leaders – gets enough rest; there is a lot of joking and friendly conversation amongst us.

12.30am (now officially the 25th, and Simone’s birthday!)  Now we are helping in the Assisted Mobility area. People can register to sit here with a carer if they need extra help, and it also gets them a seat on a shuttle bus to Lone Pine or Chunuk Bair afterwards. The big screens are playing historical documentaries and short films, and there are some school choir performances and a band which we can watch if we aren’t needed to help people find seats or get up and down the stairs. 

We keep checking the sky for rainclouds, but the stars are clear and it’s a surprisingly mild night. Dogs are wandering round, but they are mild tempered as most Turkish dogs seem to be, and nobody minds. The birds are still singing – we think they must be confused by all the lights!

1am a reporter and cameraman from ABC news turn up in the stands. They want to know if there’s anyone they can interview who has a family connection to Gallipoli, so we go up and down the rows til we find someone for them to talk to. 

3am We swap duties back to South Entrance. Walking over there, we can see the kids stretched out in sleeping bags on the grass, trying to sleep through the music or commentary from the big screen. 

Not many people are coming through now; most have already arrived and claimed their space. The wristband numbers are now in the 4000s, but there’s a general feeling that overall numbers are down from last year; perhaps about 4500 or 4800. It is actually quite a nice number; it doesn’t feel too crowded or overwhelming. Some people come back and ask if they can take extra info packs. It’s obvious now that there will be heaps left over, so we gladly give them away. I’m sure it won’t be like this next year.

4am We end up finishing early and wandering back to the main site to get ready for the dawn service which we’re going to watch from the Assisted Mobility stand. There is a poignant film playing on the big screen called The telegram man. Lots of people – especially the sleeping bag crowd – aren’t paying it much attention, but hopefully they will read over some of the booklets and look at the historical photos in the info packs later.

5am Huge queues at the tea and coffee and food stalls and at the portaloos. And everyone in Assisted Mobility wants some assistance to get to their special toilet before the service starts. One woman manages to lock herself in, but we get her out at last.  

5.30am And it’s starting…

Too hard to describe - but there is a very special moment when we look up and realise a crescent moon is sailing just behind the silhouette of the Sphinx.

7am  We help the Assisted Mobility people onto the shuttle buses. Most other people walk up Artillery Road – 3km to Lone Pine, 6km to Chunuk Bair - and it’s heating up – it never got very cold at all overnight – so they are very red in the face by the time they arrive. The Aussie volunteers go to Lone Pine for the service at 10.30am and we six Kiwis are at Chunuk Bair for the 11.45am service.

8am Bit of a hold up at CB. There is an earlier Turkish event up here which is still going on. It’s a big day for boy scouts from all over Turkey – we hear one estimate of 17,000 – who make a pilgrimage from Ataturk’s home village to the Turkish 57th Regiment Memorial near Lone Pine. I don’t know if that figure is correct, but they are walking past for hours – literally. It means nobody can go in, but luckily it’s still warm and sunny and everyone is glad of a rest on the grass after the climb up the hill.

Waiting at Chunuk Bair
9am Still waiting to go in. We explain the situation to people as they arrive and collect their visitor surveys.

10.30am The crowd begins to move at last – it’s only a small crowd really, when they all get seated – maybe a thousand or so.

11.15am  Sir Jerry Mateparae, the Governor General arrives and delights the crowd by moving round saying hello, rather than going straight to his seat. He let people take photos with him and captivates everyone even more by cuddling an eight month old baby. In front of our stand, he stops and calls out to all the young Kiwi travellers, “had a shower yet today?” Gallipoli and the Anzac story obviously mean a lot to him; he gives an emotional, heart-felt address and what feels like an impromptu speech at the very end, thanking every person present for the effort they had made to be there. 

(I chatted to one Kiwi who met Sir Jerry and talked to him him a day or so ago down at Beach Cemetery; he seems like such a kind, generous and approachable man.)

Sir Jerry meeting the crowd.
11.45am the service starts, once Sir Jerry gets to his seat. There are several readings – one very poignant one of William Malone’s last letter to his wife, written at Quinn’s Post at 8.10pm on 5 August 1915, just before the launch of the attack on CB; another, the reflections of Dan Curham, who served with the Wellington battalion at CB and recorded his memories for Maurice Shadbolt’s Voices of Gallipoli in 1988.

“By some miracle I was the only one who got anywhere near the summit of Chunuk Bair. I never saw or heard of my comrades again; I don’t even know what happened to their bodies. … I have felt their loss very deeply for the rest of my life… Talking about Gallipoli, especially about Chunuk Bair, brings sorrow to my heart even as I talk to you now… I didn’t weep physically… I was not a weeping chap. I wept in my heart.”

Sir Jerry gives his address, we sing How great thou art and Po Atarau / Now is the hour (in English and Maori). Leading Aircraftsman Sarah Henderson, RNZAF plays the bugle for the Last Post and the Rouse. The Ode is spoken in both Maori and English as well, and we have both the Turkish and NZ national anthems. It feels like a very inclusive service, honouring Maori, Pakeka and the Turkish people.

Maori TV are here filming the service, I get a text from my mother saying she and my sister are watching it live and she thinks she spotted me!

12.45 the service finishes and people stop to admire the wreaths,then start to drift back to the open grassy area to wait for their buses

1pm It starts to rain

1.15pm It is bucketing down!!!! Don't know what they would have done if this had happened during the service itself. One of the Maori TV guys lends me an umbrella (I hope he doesn't mind that I leave it in the hotel later - my suitcase seems so much fuller than it was that an umbrella simply won't fit.) 

1.30pm Everyone is sheltering under trees. The narrow road outside is jammed with buses lining up to pick up their passengers. People are cold, wet and pretty tired by now, and a lot of them are facing a 4 or 5 hour bus trip straight back to Istanbul. Each bus load cheers loudly when their bus's number is announced. 

But they're all gone by 2pm - much faster than in other years, apparently. Our bus is the last one to arrive because we have to make sure everyone else has gone before we leave.  

2.30pm Back at the hotel - showers- sleep - and at some stage, packing to leave for Istanbul tomorrow. 

Our Anzac Day experience = amazing!!!


  1. Wow! I hadn't understood you would literally be up all night. What a wonderful experience. Hope you managed a few hours' sleep.

  2. With you in spirit over the day!-We were really impressed with the quality of the speeches at all the venues and the personal stories that were told.I particularly thought of our grandfather in the fighting at Chunuk Bair in the explanation of the size of the battle field and the number of casualties.