At this hour, on this day, ninety-nine years ago, the Australian and the New Zealand Army Corps, at Gallipoli, made immortal the name of ANZAC.
By 5:30 in the morning the crowd for the 99th anniversary of the ANZAC landing had swelled to 37,000 pairs of quietly shuffling feet. Although one could sense the size of the gathering, it was eerily silent. The squawk of cockatoos filled the pauses between odes and reveilles, their white feathers faintly illuminated in the night sky. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were fuzzy shadows outlined by the light of the moon.
When Chaplain Peter Willis began the Lord’s Prayer, a baritone rumble filled the outdoor amphitheater. The solemn ceremony ended before sunrise and people poured out as quickly and as quietly as they had arrived. Those who remained waited in line to place a poppy on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or on a series of tablets with the names of fallen soldiers called the Roll of Honour.
By 8am the Olims Hotel was filled with military personnel and civilians with inherited war medallions on their jackets. Barret and I hadn’t slept well in the YHA dorm the night before, so we bypassed the free-flowing beer (some places started serving beer at 4am) in favor of coffee and a shotgun breakfast- eggs, toast, tomatoes and sausage.
I was about to fall asleep in the warmth of the room when I saw a veteran sitting alone with the morning light striking the side of his face. I went over to take his photo.
Ken was from Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) and had fought in the SAS for 12 years during the Rhodesian Bush War- a civil war which led to the Zimbabwean independence and the election of Mugabe in 1980.
Ken was part of the estimated 60% of the white population that emigrated after the close of the war. Because his bank account had been frozen, he only had $100 when he arrived in Australia. During his first four years he worked three jobs. His fortunes changed though and now he is building a new house in Kiama.
The only time Ken’s accent was noticeable was when he was in agreement. “A reindeer-pulled sled ride? Your vacation in Norway sounds amazing. ” “Oh jaaaa!”
It was 11:30am when Barret and I walked away from the parade announcements echoing down the wide, sprawling streets. Despite being the seat of Australian politics, the city of Canberra is notorious for being quiet and sleepy. Its current location was chosen because it wasn’t Melbourne and it wasn’t Sydney and it was equally out-of-the-way for both cities.
We walked along Lake Burley Griffin, named after the American architect who designed the city, and through the sculpture gardens of the National Gallery. Unlike the streets, the path along the lake was filled with activity: joggers, dog walkers, and bicyclists.
By 2pm we were fishing in our pockets for the $5.50 fee to join the Canberra Returned Services League. It didn’t matter that we weren’t Australian and hadn’t served in the military, we had our membership for the year and could stroll inside the gates to play two-up.
Two-up was the gambling game of choice amongst the Australian diggers in WWI. Because of its connection with the troops, ANZAC Day is one of the few days in which it’s legally allowed to be played in pubs.
The rules are simple; two coins are arranged on a plank of wood (called the kip) and then tossed into the air. The ringkeeper is in charge of the coins and of announcing the results while the boxer paces about the ring to facilitate the betting. In order to participate, you have to find someone else in the audience who wants to bet the same amount as you.
If you bet heads, tap your money against your head until someone takes up your bet. If you want tails, then look for someone tapping their head or shout out your bet. Tails is always the person who holds both bets. This is a good system for people who are too drunk to remember what they chose.
The receptionist at the YHA told us we wouldn’t have a good time here unless we were, “18 and looking to get pissed.” However, she underestimated how much fun it is to watch drunk guys yell at shiny objects spinning in the air.
“Are we ahead?” Barret asked as the afternoon wound down.
“Are we behind?”
“Sounds like the perfect time to leave.”