The mighty Mediterranean, the cradle of Western civilisation, first grabbed hold of my heart many years ago. It was during my first break from full-time radio in the mid ‘90s, that the quest for travel and adventure lured me to its wondrous shores. I ended up working on a Greek cruise ship , that plied the azure sea from Athens to Istanbul. Every week, our ship would sail through the strategic, evocative passageway of the Dardanelles Straits. On the right stood the epic, ancient remains of Troy. On the left, the vast expanse of Gallipoli Peninsula, lording over the waterway. A vaulting stone column punctuated the skyline, soaring high into the heavens from one of Gallipoli’s tallest peaks. I soon discovered that this vertical edifice was in fact the New Zealand National Monument, at Chunuk Bair. The ship never stopped at Gallipoli for a shore excursion, but as a mark of respect and enduring affection for Kiwis and Aussies, this Greek cruise liner would fly our nations’ flags from the ship’s stern every time we sailed by. I was awestruck by this poignant gesture, and made a pact with myself to make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli, one day. New Zealanders’ are quite possibly the world’s most prolific globe-trotters. And of course it was that same quest for adventure that propelled so many of our young men to answer the call of King and country, in 1915. Like many New Zealand families, Gallipoli’s inter-generational thread weaves through my blood-line too. My great uncle, Lieutenant Frederick Ruck, eagerly enlisted for the “great” campaign. Before departing New Zealand, his mother gave him a Virgin Mary pendant to wear, in the hope that it would keep him safe. In the early morning of April 25, 1915, as Fred and his men scrambled ashore on ANZAC Cove, unrelenting gun-fire engulfed the air. According to my great uncle, he suddenly noticed the pendant that he had securely fastened to the inside of his jacket had somehow managed to unfasten, and had fallen in front of him on the sandy shoreline. As he bent down to pick it up, a volley of bullets that were destined for his chest, ended up just skimming his cap. Was it a “miracle” escape from instant slaughter? My great uncle certainly believed so. For the past two years, I have had the privilege of leading a tour group to Gallipoli for the ANZAC Day Dawn Service. ( A photo of my great uncle Fred took pride of place in my trusty backpack.) Both occasions would have to rank as the most spiritually enriching experiences of my life. Where else in the world do tens of thousands young Kiwis and Aussies gather on a frigidly wind-swept shoreline, and keep vigil through the long night, to pay tribute to our forebears? Such a mass outpouring of sobriety and solemnity surely is without parallel. ANZAC Cove begins filling up with pilgrims around 10pm. Many attendees will sleep rough in their sleeping bags on the scrub-covered slopes. As the night journey unfolds in the natural amphitheatre, giant TV screens broadcast a series of poignant documentaries, with heart-felt accounts of the ANZACs’ ordeal and historic battle footage; interspersed with reflective musical compositions. As the Dawn Service draws closer, a thick fog of silence blankets ANZAC Cove. The sense of occasion is stark and profound. Goosebumps envelope your body – but not from the cold. Gazing out across the moonlit sea , the absurdly huge distance from home crosses your mind. Thoughts turn to the all-out terror that must have confronted those first ANZAC landings, after nervously waiting on the water . The chaos. The bloodshed. The unbelievable waste of life. Heads are bowed. People are standing. Thousands of eyes gush with tears. And the first shaft of light heralds the start of the official service of remembrance. I’d never heard God Defend New Zealand sung with such stirring passion and pathos, until I came to Turkey. One of the most searing images that will always linger with me from Gallipoli, is the soaring cliff-face and fortress-like peaks, wrapped around ANZAC Cove. They are a striking illustration of the cruelly impossible odds the ANZAC landings faced, the moment they came ashore. The formidable “Sphinx” peak, that towers over ANZAC Cove was laced with Turkish forces, who lay in deadly wait. As the horrific military campaign unfolded, the New Zealand forces achieved an extraordinary triumph by seizing control of one of the peninsula’s highest ridges, Chunuk Bair. The fact that they managed to capture this mighty summit, is testimont to the courage and endurance of our troops.( It was only when British units replaced the Kiwis, that Turkish forces recaptured this crucial strategic site – and the Gallipoli campaign was lost.) There is no disputing the sense of nationhood that this far-flung corner of the world has imbued in our consciousness. Flag-draped Kiwis and Aussies make the trek to Gallipoli, not to chest-beat in a jingoistic fashion, but as a rite of passage. It’s a patriotic odyssey to show respect for the fallen, and to reaffirm our core values. Freedom, democracy and the pursuit of peace. New Zealand and Australia now enjoys a beautiful friendship with Turkey, a nation that I admire enormously. The Republic of Turkey is a lighthouse of hope, thanks to its visionary founder, Ataturk. It’s a model of how a predominantly-Muslim nation can be secular, moderate and democratic. On my last visit to Gallipoli, my Turkish guide, Kutay, and I came across a young woman from Auckland. She had just found her great-grand-father’s gravesite, on the slopes of Chunuk Bair. She was the first member of her family, in 93 years, to visit his grave. My Turkish guide offered to take a photo of her standing next to his burial site. That for me, encapsulated the abiding , inextinguishable spirit of ANZAC Day. We will remember them.
(First published in The Press.)