In the lead up to my Gallipoli pilgrimage, I’d been quite obsessive about being prepared for the weather. You’re outside overnight at a time of the year when the Turkish weather varies, and the overnight temperature can drop below zero. To complicate matters we had been warned that security would be very strict, especially with Turkey neighbouring war-torn Syria. In fact, the security concerns were such that the Australian Government sent over a security team to look after the dignitaries, and there had been reports of people cancelling their travel plans. Each pass holder was restricted to one day sized backpack and a sleeping bag. There was also an extensive list of prohibited items that included camping gear, umbrellas, professional photographic equipment and alcohol. The thought of spending the night outside in the cold by the sea (and possibly in the rain) wasn’t appealing so I’d strategically packed my daypack to ensure that I was protected from the elements. I’d managed to fit in a rain jacket, wet wipes, a variety of dry snacks, zip lock bags containing emergency items (for me this included lip balm and a portable phone charger) and a small tarpaulin to either sit on or huddle under. The entry into the park took a couple of hours with most of that time spent waiting in the bus queue. Hundreds of volunteers had been flown over from Australia and New Zealand to process visitors and overall the security checkpoints were relatively fuss-free. By the time, I arrived at Anzac Cove it was around 8 pm, 12 hours since we had set out from Istanbul. The set up was similar to an outdoor music festival. Seated stands had been erected around the beach area with large grassed spaces in the centre lit by huge floodlights. Outside the stadium, it was pitch black and although I couldn’t see the sea I could hear the lapping waves. A wide pathway ran through the middle connecting the entrance on one side to food stalls on the other. On the edge of the pathway, the media were lined up with a perfect view of the upcoming service. During the night, it was amusing to watch recognizable faces doing cross overs, touching up makeup and taking selfies with fans from the crowd. One poor male reporter earned the mirth of the crowd for his excessive number of takes. Large screens with speakers were located to either side and played videos from the war museums and archives. It had clearly been a huge logistical exercise with everything, right down to the portable toilets, being bought into the Peninsula for the event. As I looked around at the spectacle, I remember thinking to myself, “wow, the place is packed already”. Little did I know that visitors would continue to be bussed into the Cove well past midnight. I headed down to the front grassed area where I was greeted by a sea of weary people cocooned in sleeping bags. Most of them were already asleep, so with a little difficulty I stumbled over bodies and managed to find a small space to sit. Just as I was getting comfortable and starting to think that maybe my night outside in the elements may not be as bad as I had first thought, the floodlights were turned on full, and we were told to make room for the hundreds of new arrivals. Everyone obliged by sitting up and moving forward but by 3 am we were at standing room only. By this time, my legs were numb from the cold, and my feet were aching. During this time however I was able to chat with other travelers and find out why they had decided to make the Gallipoli pilgrimage. There was Jenny, known affectionately as ‘Five-star Jenny’ by her friends. She was a New Zealander, who had travelled with her Australian husband from their home in Sydney. Jenny admitted that she was far from an outdoor type and that her decision to accompany her husband to the event had her friends back home in disbelief. I also met two young Australian men who were with the Fanatics, a tour company aimed towards young Australian travelers. Most Fanatics were recognizable by their bright yellow hoodies and t-shirts. They had generously made room for me on the lawn and told me how they’d each travelled from different cities – Sydney and London – met in Istanbul and joined the tour, group. I’d seen photos of Fanatics on the internet and had feared that they might too loud and boisterous for me, but these guys were polite and well spoken. In fact, the entire tour group seemed rather sedate. I only met a handful of pilgrims who had a family member that had served or worse died at Gallipoli, most I came across, including Jenny and the Fanatics boys, had made the journey because they felt that the centenary event was special. In fact, it was this idea, of being part of something special that gave many the motivation to get through the discomfort and cold until the Dawn Ceremony began at 5.30am.
When the service did start, I felt a mixture of relief and excitement. It’s not easy spending the night jetlagged, outdoors in the cold, especially when you’re pushing forty. I’d attended a few Dawn Services over the years and pretty much knew what to expect but in this case I’d been wondering what was in store for us. Thankfully it would be something quite memorable. The service took place on a stage on the beach front. It opened with a reflective program, a collection of moving stories of ANZAC experiences at Gallipoli on the big screens. A selection of epitaphs of the dead from the nearby cemeteries rolled across the screens, a sad and poignant reminder of how loss is felt by loved ones and families. The service was then officially opened by an indigenous Australian didgeridoo ceremony followed by a karakia (spiritual call) from a Maori member of the New Zealand army. For me, this was a highlight, and it set a solemn and respectful tone for the service. The crowd had in fact been reminded of the solemnity of the event earlier on. Before the service started, we were taken through protocol & asked to take off our head wear for the minute’s silence and returning address. By the time the dignitaries were on stage to make their speeches, the morning’s light had broken into a soft blueish haze and I could finally see my surroundings – steep, sharp cliffs rising around us, the rocky beach and foreshore and an eerily calm sea. Taking it all in and breathing in the frosty air, I could for a moment imagine what it would have been like to arrive at this place a hundred years ago. As each dignitary spoke, a single line of war ships sailed in procession towards the cove before turning off to the right- a well-orchestrated backdrop and truly inspiring sight. I have to say that whoever wrote NZ Prime Minister John Key’s speech did a fantastic job. It was probably the best of the service. Next came the laying of the wreaths and then it was over. Something that had taken years to plan and days to travel to was finished within an hour. Overall, I felt that the service was thoughtful, appropriate and most definitely memorable. No sooner than it had finished we were all told that it was time to move out of the Cove and begin the walk up the hill.