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“Doing” Anzac Day

 

“Stop the bus! Stop!”

A middle-aged man with silvering hair and a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist runs towards our bus with arms flailing.

“What the hell are ya doing here? How d’ya get in?”

Thirty-seven sleeping Aussie and Kiwi pilgrims jolt awake together, wipe the drool from the corners of their mouths and search for their water bottles while taking in the spectacle. The driver releases the automatic door with a whoosh and lets in a cloud of dust.

“What? The Jandarma let you in? But gates don’t open ’til 3pm – that’s two hours away! Typical Turkey. Security protocol out the window. How are ya anyway darl? You have a good trip down guys?

The air is a warm, refreshing change from the stale, banana-peel bus. The Dardanelle straits are sparkling teasingly. There is more bare ground than grass and deep cracks penetrate the ground like trenches, infused with the blood of our ancestors and dry as a chip from the early onset of summer sun. Hardy shrubs inject a shot of faded green into the otherwise earthy palette. The Sphinx is brooding in the background like a knife-edged ridge, just above our line of vision.

We have arrived at Gallipoli in the early afternoon of April 24, for the much-anticipated Dawn Service the following day. On arrival, each bus must be allocated a number, a formality we inadvertently missed by arriving too early. To double back and get a number would mean losing our number one place in the queue to a rival tour group, so there’s no question about it. We’re going in numberless.

Killing time, we sit on our sleeping bags in a rough circle at the entrance to the commemorative site, and talk about the food we miss from home.

More relaxed now, the man with the walkie-talkie joins in and is happy to have something familiar to talk about. He is an Australian Government Official based in Çanakkale, the closest town to Gallipoli, and hasn’t been back to Australia for 18 months.

“You know that thing, when your Mum makes French onion dip, and you hollow out a cob loaf and dip it into the dip?” he reminisces.

We salivate over talk of ice magic, mangoes, lattes from Lygon street, and “snot-block” vanilla slices. One couple from Melbourne carefully pull a packet of double-coated tim tams out of their backpack, and pass it around to deserving recipients like an offering to members of an elite cult. Biscuits are chewed silently while pleasure is expressed in hushed tones.

The Dawn service at Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula attracts a crowd of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders every year. Over the past ten years or so, numbers for the service have increased dramatically, especially with young JAFAs (Just Another F****** Aussie, a British term for our expats in the Motherland). Last year, numbers totalled approximately 20,000 people. Istanbul’s hostels are packed-out in the lead up to the event and there is a carnival atmosphere in Akbiyik Caddesi, the tourist strip to rival Khao San Road. The tinny sounds of “Land Down Under” blast from cheap speakers in makeshift pubs, and Aussie accents and havaiana thongs abound, both on visitors and locals.

A rough total of 300 buses take full loads from Istanbul down to the peninsula early on April 24. With no allocated seating for the service, the race is on to bags the best spot on the grass and most buses leave Istanbul between 6.00am and 7.00am for the five hour drive.

We board our bus at 6.05am. Stale cigarettes waft through the air vents and mix with the pong of boiled eggs wrapped in serviettes.

Names are ticked off a long list – groups of friends, fathers and sons and a young couple on their honeymoon named Mr and Mrs Beckham. Two young men from Sydney are located fast asleep in their dormitory two minutes before departure. They jump on to the bus in a beer-fuelled stupor, shoving clothes into their backpacks, and both passing out instantly with their mouths open as wide as hippos.

Everyone has a question to ask.

“When is the next toilet stop?”

“How long is the drive?”

“Can I run back and get my camera?”

The driver, a scrawny guy with armpits that smell like overripe Roquefort and a crunchy moustache hiding gaps where his teeth should be, screams into his mobile phone for the entire journey. The middle-eastern top of the pops on the radio almost drowns out the rustling of muesli bar wrappers and travel document wallets.

Our eagerness (and our bus driver’s ability to some how turn off the speedo in the bus) is rewarded with the highly sought-after prize. The closest patch of grass to the stage. While the plebs scramble for the back stalls and watch us in envy, we stake our claim with towels, sleeping bags and jumpers. The sunscreen and the books come out for a lazy afternoon in the sun.

Temperatures drop to below zero after dark, limbs become numb and the slightest relocation of a foot affects at least three cocooned bodies next to you. The night is sprinkled with short documentaries and interviews on a big screen, and a performance of WW1 era music by the Australian Army Band. An Aussie voice emanates from the loudspeaker every 30 minutes or so. “Please move forward. People are continuing to arrive and we need everyone to sit up and MOVE FORWARD.”

From the queue for the portaloos, you can smell the sizzling barbeque meat at the nearby kebab stand. A choice of chicken or lamb, both are pre-cut, re-heated and wrapped in oddly un-Turkish tortilla wraps by a couple of grinning Turks. Metin and Aydin, managers of a popular youth hostel in Istanbul are huddling together beside the heat of the barbie. They’re clad in quicksilver boardshorts, t-shirts and the type of colourful ponchos on offer at every Turkish souvenir stand. When questioned as to why they’re here, they uttered through chattering teeth “We don’t know! We thought it would be fun with all the crazy Aussies.”

The Dawn Service at the Anzac Commemorative Site is short and free from unnecessary frills and pomp. Lasting about 45 minutes, there are addresses by Australian and New Zealander ministers, prayers and hymns. The Reveille harks out over the silent crowds just as the eerie light of dawn is rising over Anzac Cove.

Following the dawn service, visitors make the 3.1 kilometre trek to Lone Pine Cemetery for the Australian Memorial Service. The uphill walk takes us past Ari Burnu, Shrapnel Valley and Beach Cemetery, where we pause briefly at the grave of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, better known as the man with a donkey. Services at the Turkish Memorial and Chunuk Bair, the New Zealand Memorial follow the Australian service.

Once all commemorative services are finished, guests board their coaches back to Istanbul. Heavily regulated, buses roll along in single file to pick up guests, with approximately two minutes to board once each bus number is announced. This process can take around four hours. We accept our fate as numberless nobodies whose bus will probably come through last, and pick us up like the last kids to be picked for the basketball team. Again, sunscreen is donned and sleeping bags spread out on the flattened grass in front of the cemetery at Lone Pine as we settle in for the long haul.

This time, conversation turns to travel. A show of hands indicates that well over half of us are doing Running of the Bulls this July, and most of us intend to book tours for La Tomatina tomato throwing festival in Spain, and Germany’s beer fest, before the year is out.

My friend the Government Official is on the loudspeaker, and starts announcing the arrival of “On the Go Bus 47. Fez Travel Bus 315.” He hesitates before announcing “now we have bus number… ROSIE’s bus? Everyone on Rosie’s bus- get on!”

Like football players running through the banner before a big game, we break through the crowds and cheer and hustle each other like team mates. Our bus is recognisable by the handwritten sign stuck to the front windscreen with chewing gum, spelling “ROSIE’S BUS” and our grinning driver tooting the horn and hauling us all onto his disco bus with Balkan pop beats accompanying our drive out of the Gallipoli Peninsula.