Over the last few days I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Turkey where I attended the 2001 ANZAC Day Memorial Service in Gallipoli. I had decided that this was one event on the calendar in Europe that I was not going to miss. The trip has become somewhat of a pilgrimage for Antipodean 20-somethings and by all accounts a bloody good time to be had by all.
So… booking in February I secured my seat on a five-day guided tour of Istanbul and Gallipoli including the 2001 ANZAC Day services through the ‘Party Professionals’ tour company. I chose them mainly because they chose to use ‘Pension’ accommodation in a little town just outside the Gallipoli Peace Park area called Ecebat. Staying here (the closest accommodation available), meant that we had a better chance of securing good positions at the Dawn Service.
Wasn’t all too happy about leaving home on Sunday at 5:20am in readiness for catching a 7:40am flight out of Heathrow bound for Istanbul. Firstly, those of you who know me know that I like my sleep-ins (especially on Sunday mornings), and Tina was also quite ill with a nasty cough and I wasn’t all too happy about leaving her on her own either. But… with Vanessa two steps behind me, we headed for the airport and soon (about a 4 hour flight all up) embarked on our journey to Istanbul. The Lufthansa flight was fine, I would almost say excellent with the exception of a few tense moments thanks to a dodgey landing fuelled by strong cross winds. But, after a swift transition through customs it was time to leave the terminal and kiss Turkish soil for the first time.
This was basically the first time, with the exception of Mexico, that I had been to a country where I had to keep my wits about me and not touch any of the water if I could help it – a strange kinda feeling. Vanessa and I caught the craziest cab ride in history from the airport to Istanbul’s town centre to drop Vanessa off at her hotel, the point at which we would separate with her joining up with her 7-day tour group. But anyway back to the cabby… Without going into it too much, the guy had a liking for things dangling from his rear-view mirror so much so that it obstructed his vision out the front windscreen. And it was also more than evident that he had a blatant disregard for lane markings, speed restrictions and basically all things that fall under the category of ‘road rules’. It was once he had hit about 160 km/h in an 80 zone that I decided it probably wasn’t the best idea in the world to get in a cab that had no seatbelts! Oh well, we made it there in the end and parted with 10,000,000 lira (7 pounds) for the guy’s trouble. I said goodbye to Nessy and headed off into the hustling bustling streets of Istanbul with a crappy photocopied map and bundle of enthusiasm… looking blatantly like a tourist I was going to find my hotel on my own if it (or maybe one of the locals) killed me in the process!
I soon established (once I realised that street signs hadn’t been invented in Turkey yet) that my current attitude was pretty ‘Rambo’ like of me… so I ended up latching onto a few visibly Antipodean lads who took me back to the Hotel Emin and thrust a cold beer in my hand – can’t ask for much more help than that! The beer continued to flow freely till about 8pm that night when we had our brief orientation talk and then headed to an organised nightclub kinda thing at a bar called Theodora. If it’s one thing I have learnt since travelling overseas and doing tours etc, it’s that you do what you can to avoid organised activities. They are so lame and they eat into the time that you could be using to get out into the back streets of whatever city you are in at the time. The latter is exactly what me and a couple of the lads ended up doing which I am proud to say is what led us to the very best kebab shop in the world! If you asked me to show you how to get there again I would have no idea as it was so tucked away from the main drag, but it was the best tucker I ended up having for the entire trip! Ended the night in a cool little underground nightclub where the locals were oh so friendly and the beer was oh so cheap – winning combination I reckon!
For many of the sore heads that emerged, the 9am departure on day 2 was way too early! At least another hour was needed for the overdosing of Berocca to set in. Nevertheless, it was ‘Old Istanbul’ sightseeing day and the morning was to be taken up by a tour of the main attractions of the city with the first stop being Topkapi Palace. I’d love to throw a bit of background historical knowledge in here about the palace, but it quickly became evident that good old Luke, our Turkish tour guide, was about as useful information wise, as tits on a bull! Hence we were left to our own devices and therefore I don’t have a lot to tell you historically about this amazing place.
Next it was off to the Hippodrome which was in fact an Ancient Roman chariot track which now plays host to 3 Egyptian style obelisks. I’m sure it all had a fascinating history behind it that I will no doubt read about at some stage, but poor old Luke could only string together a ‘Well my friends… I mean… you know… maybe… OK let’s go’.
And with that we charged on through the gates of perhaps the centrepiece of Old Istanbul – the Blue Mosque. Given it’s name due to the colour of the tiled interior walls as the sun bathes them during the day, the mosque holds an extremely important religious significance with the Turks. Indeed it was the only structure that all the guys and gals wearing shorts (which was a majority of us considering the beautiful 24+ degree temperatures) had to wear makeshift skirts in addition to everyone removing their shoes. It was quite spectacular inside and we were lucky enough to be visiting during a period of prayer that meant we were witnesses to a few bars here and there of completely undecipherable but highly entertaining wailing.
Luke obviously had something else on his mind so we all but skipped any educational sessions and instead moved onto a neat little Turkish carpet factory. Here we finally learned something through a guided tour from a hilarious Turkish bloke who took us through everything from the collection of silk cocoons to dying of thread with natural substances and finally the weaving process. We were shown exquisite carpets that contained up to 5 and a half million double knots per square metre and that took their creators, sometimes as young as 15, over 10 years to finish. You can imagine the price tag attached to one of these kinds of carpets. It wasn’t easy trying to haggle a 50% reduction on the price of a carpet like that just for the fun of it, but I laughed myself stupid trying!
The whole Istanbul experience out of the way, we set out in the afternoon for Ecebat – a quaint seaside town just outside of the Gallipoli area where we would be spending the next few nights. It was pretty obvious that the town only comes alive for one week each year at the end of April and the locals were absolutely loving it!
The evening consisted of some bloody awful meal organised for the tour group as a whole (remember that lesson I had learned???) and then our first taste of the legendary Aussie owned and operated ‘Vegemite Bar’. Only opened for 1 week each year, the Vegemite Bar was basically an old shack on the side of the road that looked pretty ordinary from the outside, but was pretty awesome and entertaining on the inside. The decor pretty much consisted of every crocodile and koala crossing sign known to man as well as an impressive shelved collection of everything Australian and alcoholic. Apparently different groups of Aussies buy the bar each year to make a ‘killer profit’ for one week only before selling it onto another group for the following year – what a great idea!
Everyone ended up spilling out onto the beach out the back around a bonfire, which kept us warm long into the wee small hours of the morning. That’s when the fun started…
We couldn’t work out the best way to get back to our pension 2km away on the other end of the main drag. The suggestion going around was to thumb a lift with one of the cars going by at any one stage but that was shelved when along came the Vegemite Bar’s very own Donkey Man. This guy was an absolute legend and he was having a ball and probably making a bloody good profit out of us drunken hooligans. We were a bit sus that the old fella was on the turps himself if his driving was anything to go by. A tip for any of you who may someday make the trip… if you are sitting on the donkey man’s tray hold on like buggery cause otherwise you will no doubt fall off more than once and it hurts, I have the scars to prove it.
Anyway, this is turning into a bit of an epic so I’ll cut to the chase and cover the real reason why I went. The general idea of the next day was to get going early and have the opportunity to see the various memorial sites around Gallipoli without the expected crowds of the services tomorrow, therefore, also providing the opportunity for a pre-service history lesson as well. Now, if you haven’t guessed what I am going to say next then you have obviously had your head in the sand over the past 10 paragraphs or so… ahh to hell with it, I’m not even going to go there, but needless to say that we spent a lot of time reading between sites to fuel or own lust for historical knowledge!
First stop, and thank God we did considering the crowds that arrived when we came out, was the Kabatepe Museum which, although simple, contained some excellent war relics and some incredibly moving letters written by young and old soldiers alike to their families and loved ones. From the museum’s location you could look down the valley to ANZAC Cove which gave us the opportunity to take some neat pics and also to reflect for the first time on just how rugged the area is and how amazing it was that the soldiers were able to push forward inland from the coastline. Before long we had jumped back on the bus and traveled down the dodgey single lane road round to ANZAC Cove. The cove was to going to be the site of the Dawn Service the next morning, so once again it was our opportunity for happy snaps without the interruption of swarms of tourists. I was particularly happy with some of the shots that I managed to take at this point. Yay for me!
We pushed on taking a leisurely stroll along the calm and peaceful beach to the first of the memorial grave sites that we would visit during the day. It was here that we were able to view the headstone of that other famous ‘Donkey Man’ that I know – John Simpson. It was also where I was first exposed to the powerful piece of prose penned (alliteration abound!) by the Turkish Military Commander ‘Ataturk’ who later became the President of the Turkish Republic and a major player in the establishment of the new relationship between Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. In 1934 he wrote (and I hope all of you take this in):
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side.
Here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries.
Wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
When considered in context, to me that is one of the most powerful and meaningful pieces of writing you are ever going to read. I think it was once I had read this that it suddenly hit me how much it meant to me and probably to my family for me to be in Gallipoli for ANZAC Day.
From here we took the bus about 2-3 km back up into the hills towards Lone Pine. The site of the major Australian memorial, Lone Pine is a beautifully laid out plot of land guarded by a lone pine tree situated directly in the heart of the burial plots and headstones. We were very lucky in that the Army were running through their dress rehearsal for tomorrow for the service tomorrow – more chances for photos!
In contrast to the activity at Lone Pine, the NZ memorial site 4km away at Chunuk Bair was silent in its idyllic location perched on the side of a hill. After taking video footage and many photos we all headed back into Ecebat for some REAL tucker in the form of a chicken kebab from a local vendor and a couple more beers from the Vegemite Bar. Before I headed back to the pension courtesy of Donkey Man, I noticed a little side shop selling these fantastic polo shirts that were far superior to the crap given to us for our official tour shirts and the rubbish being flogged on every street corner with ‘Galipoli’ spelt incorrectly! 15,000,000 lira (about 11 pounds – cheap when you look at it in any way other than Aussie Dollars) later I found myself with what was to become one of the most hotly sought after shirts for ANZAC Day 2001!
Before I start writing anything further, I have to stress that ANZAC Day 2001 in Gallipoli has without a doubt become a landmark day in my life so far and a day that I will not forget for as long as I live! The closest I have previously come to getting anything of substance out of an ANZAC Day in the past, I am ashamed to say, was the day that I was a flag bearer as an Enoggera Cub Scout in the Gaythorne RSL Service many years ago.
OK… I can now move on… by 11pm the night before ANZAC Day as I hauled myself out of a quality 2 hour slumber, there were already murmurs floating around Ecebat that the ANZAC Cove site was already filling up fast. Consequently we were on the road armed to the tooth with warm jackets, sleeping bags and cameras by 12:30am. Arriving shortly after 1am we had about 4 hours in which to find the best remaining vantage points for the 5:30am Dawn Service. Initially starting up on the hill behind the main service area and out of site of the speakers podium, I decided that I hadn’t come all this way for a second rate possie, so I took myself off away from the rest of the gang and headed down the front where I found my mate Dingo and his crew in a not so fantastic possie at the back of the front, if you know what I mean? The thing was, that when people finally sat up from their sleeping there was going to be a sudden creation of vacant sitting positions giving us the opportunity to ‘upgrade’.
In the time that we waited for the first tinge of blue to appear in the cloudless heavens over us, poetry was read out, stories were told and the odd chant of Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi went up. You just got the feeling that with so much pride collecting on this tiny stretch of Turkish Beach, today was going to be something special. Right on 5:30am the murmuring in the crowd of what seemed to be well in excess of 18,000 gave way to a deathly silence broken only by the sound of waves breaking on the shore.
The whole service was very moving and many tears were shed. The most memorable moments were probably when the hymn ‘Abide by Me’ was sung after the Chaplain (Air Commodore) Royce Thompson urged the crowd to turn around and focus on the beauty of the cliffs behind us as the glow of the sun began to break over the peaks. And of course the haunting tune of the ‘Last Post’ and the following 2 minutes of silence left not a dry eye on the beach. If there was anything that detracted from the service, it would have been the immense media presence that somehow managed to muscle their way into the best vantage points.
A leisurely and reflective walk back along the beach to the pick-up point and it was off to Lone Pine for the next service. This proved also to be incredibly popular with every spare blade of grass being consumed by bums. Probably the highlight of my day, the service was not all that dissimilar from the Dawn Service other than the fact that we were now bathed in beautiful sunshine (if that sounds a bit over the top, remember that I was living in London at the time), and the crowd looking on was almost now 100% Aussies.
The defining and perhaps most memorable moment for everyone in attendance of the service was unplanned and totally spontaneous. The MC (Air Vice-Marshal Gary Beck) made the announcement that there were still about 14 seats vacant in the reserved official party seating area. No sooner had he finished speaking and there were initially about 3 veterans who rose to their feet at the insistence of young Aussies around them, and started to make their way to the roped off area. As they did, every individual on Lone Pine also rose to their feet and joined in on the most heartfelt round of applause I have ever witnessed. It was this moment that I felt more proud to be an Aussie than ever before… even outdoing any of Perkins’ swims or any single gold medal won by an Australian in Sydney last year!
We had the option of walking up to Chunuk Bair for the NZ memorial and I really wanted to, but it was a 4km walk uphill and we had about 40 minutes to do it in. So, the rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent catching up with friends from London on other tours that I bumped into while there, signing the visitors registry and generally soaking in the sun in an attempt to lessen my London ‘moon tan’. It worked so I am happy! We left to return to Istanbul that evening and I spent another day in the city before I left. But I am getting sore hands from typing all this so I am going to have to stop it here.
All I really did on the last day was help some Brisbane girls haggle for a good deal on some carpets in a back alley shop which they paid in excess of AUS $1,000 for anyway (the whole thing was dodgey), a quick trip to St Sophia which I thought was way more spectacular than the Blue Mosque, and then finally a traditional Turkish bath where I washed and massaged from head to toe by a bloke with a face like Freddy Krueger. He ripped my limbs around and cracked my spine and I thought I was never going to walk again. But it felt fantastic and I’m all the better for it!
All in all, an amazingly emotional and memorable weekend away – one that I’m not going to forget for a very long time.