Each year, the number of people attending Anzac Day ceremonies is growing higher and higher. Unfortunately, at the same time the number of veterans diminishes. Although age and infirmity take its toll on the courageous men and women who so diligently served and protected our country, age will never diminish the sacrifices they and so many others made to ensure our nation remained free from tyranny.
Tomorrow, I’ll be returning, as I do every year to Kangaroo Valley to march for my grandfather and take part in the ANZAC Day Service. However, it’s not just the experience that my grandfather had that will be at the forefront of my mind. It’s the sacrifice of every single young man who is named on the Kangaroo Valley cenotaph that moves me each year.
Often we can go to war memorials and be overwhelmed by the sea of names before us. Each and every one of them deserves our gratitude. However, with over 102,000 names on the memorial in Canberra, the sheer volume can blur into obscurity the true stories of the individuals who died, so that we could enjoy the lives we have today. No matter how hard we try, we often miss the important details of each soldier’s life and the lives of those they left behind when they went away to fight. Yet in Kangaroo Valley, I know the stories of every young man who left, never to return.
What started out as a history assignment many years ago when I first lived in Kangaroo Valley, turned into something more real and more important than I could have ever imagined. As part of year nine history, the students had to do a local study. One day when walking in town, I stopped to look at the cenotaph. In WWI, there were 58 young men who left for war and 21 of them were never to return. Another 8 were lost in WWII, many of whom were from the same families. I decided to let the students choose one of the names from the cenotaph and research his background prior to the war, as well as his experience of war.
I didn’t know what to expect. However, the deeper the students researched into each young man’s background, a series of wonderful and heartbreaking stories emerged. No longer was this just a collection of names on a memorial that so many people unknowingly pass by every day. Their stories came alive and now we were starting to understand the motivations, ambitions and lives of young patriotic men who sought adventure and had a selfless desire to serve their nation.
Helping the students with their research, we were able to gain access to military service records of every single soldier, providing a fascinating insight into their background, their family, what gear they were issued, where and how they trained, to which regiments they were attached and in which battles they fought. The vivid stories of their lives became even more real when we located the Red Cross records, many of which gave heart wrenching accounts of how each young man from the Valley died.
Over the years, we found letters, journals, family photos and newspaper articles about the men, which added to something that was becoming a very personal understanding of the lives and experiences of each and every young man from the Valley. For me, no longer were they a name on the cenotaph. They were wonderful, recognizable members of our small community who lost their lives fighting to protect our values and way of life. I was so pleased to see in 2012, their stories published by Geoff Todd in his history titled, “The Valley Boys.”
When the Last Post sounds and we stand in silence remembering those who fell, I don’t think of the Great War and all its generals. I don’t think about the landing at ANZAC Cove and the deadly rush to get off the water and onto to the beaches. I think about Thomas Edward Scott (20yrs) and his brother Peter Joseph Scott (18yrs), both killed in action. I think about Joseph (32yrs) and David (22yrs) Beacom, brothers whose graves were never known. I think about Eric Austin Tate (26yrs) and every other one of the brave young men who never truly had the chance to live their lives and who never saw home again.
Whilst the years roll on and new generations of Australians come together to commemorate the sacrifices of those who went to war, I encourage you to look deeper into each and every one of the names that are forever etched in your local Roll of Honour. Understand who those young men and women were, so we can honour their lives, dreams and ambitions as a living memory of what they did and what they gave up to protect our communities and our way of life.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Lest We Forget
In one of my random adventures in Japan, I found myself at the oldest and most significant Buddhist temple in the county. Zenkō-ji Temple is in Nagano, the capital of the province with the same name and host to the 1998 Winter Olympics. I'd actually had no intention of going there. It just happened to be part of another tour and so along I went, once again not really knowing what I was going to see and experience.
To be honest, not being Buddhist, I'd never heard of the Zenkō-ji Temple before, yet here I was standing before the most magnificent collection of temples. Whilst the Zenkō-ji Temple is the main temple and the original one on the site, built in the 7th Century, 642AD, many other temples have sprung up around it over the years. Deities that can help you with everything from still births to final school exams all have their own place of residence and their own loyal collection of monks and priests. It's just a matter of finding the right temple to go to and the right deity to pray to depending on your circumstances.
Progressing up toward the main Temple, you come to the Niomon Gate which is guarded by two massive statues that represent the beginning and end of life. It's a grand and commanding statement before you even reach the Temple itself. When you get there, out the front there's a massive incense burner that continuously swirls with smoke. Before entering, you need to cleanse yourself with the smoke so you can enter the Temple in a purer state, free of evil spirits and with a nice hickory fragrance. The front entrance is adorned with the back to front swastika, a symbol used by the Buddhists hundreds of years before the Nazis pinched it for themselves. (Just as a side note, a quick search of the Temple did not reveal any hidden Nazi gold.)
It does however, have a massive statue of the Buddha. However, nobody has seen this for centuries, since 654 AD to be exact, so it may or may not be there. Consequently, this poses a great philosophical question. If a statue exists inside a concealed chamber where nobody can see it, does it really exist? Hmmmm… perplexing indeed!
The story behind this mysterious statue dates back to when the Temple was first established. The monk who had the statue of the Buddha commissioned, realised that the image of the Buddha was too pure for the eyes of humans and must therefore be concealed within the Temple and so that's what they did.
However, there's still a connection which can be had to the original Buddha and this requires you to walk in total darkness through a passageway under the Temple, all the time whilst trying to find a brass handle which connects directly to the Buddha. It’s said that if you discover the handle and move it back and forth, your life will change forever. Walking in complete darkness is always a surreal experience. You lose all perception of depth, time and surroundings and it was just that, total and utter darkness. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
I brailed my way along the right hand side of the tunnel. I'd been told to stick to the right. I'm still wondering what would have happened if I'd gone left. Maybe something cool such as what happened in Big Trouble In Little China, but then again, I'm mixing my Asian cultures here and nobody dresses as if they're from the 80s.
It felt as if I'd been in there forever, when suddenly, the wall felt different, it was metallic… It was the lever!!! I cranked the lever several times, just to make sure it was life-changing. With my task of connecting with the Buddha done, I kept feeling my way through the darkness till I popped out to find myself almost exactly where I'd started.
This truly is an amazing place to visit. It doesn't matter if you believe in Buddhism or not. It's a remarkable and stunning site steeped in an amazing history and well worth exploring.
The monks had a replica of the original statue created, although recreating something from a statue that nobody’s ever seen before is one of the more remarkable feats of this order of monks. Having not seen the replica of the unseen statue, I can really comment on how good a job they did with it. However, if you want to see it for yourself, once every six years they bring out the replica Buddha and this becomes a focal point for pilgrims and tourists alike. All in all an amazing and fulfilling experience no matter how you look at it.
This week, I'm going to depart slightly from the usual themes of adventure and risk management and talk about something that's kind of related, but at the same time, more to do with fitness and perceptions of health and well-being, which is technically what I'm always talking about too.
Anyway, I was lined up at a Starbucks. (I apologise deeply to my regular café haunts,. I'm loathed to admit that I was getting coffee here, but I needed an espresso and fast. Thinking of which, doesn’t espresso mean fast anyway? Then again you know I don't speak Spanish!) Ok, so back to the story. I was in an airport in the US getting coffee and the lady in front of me, who looked as though she could lose some weight, ordered a skinny mocha, but before placing the order, she asked if they had that nice whipped double cream. They did have the cream, which she was very happy with, but at the same time she insisted it had to be skinny milk. She wasn't joking or being sarcastic, she wanted a skinny mocha layered with double cream!!!
Being the second week of January, it felt like this was a New Year’s resolution gone seriously wrong. This is a classic lack of application and thought. I saw it another time when I was out shopping. A guy at the supermarket was sitting on the bench next to his trolley. It was filled with all sorts of processed food and very little fruit and veg. He was talking to another guy next to him complaining how he tried so hard and couldn't lose weight. Yet here he was with a pie in one hand and soft drink in the other. There are some mysteries in life that will never be solved!
Now who would I be if I simply criticised people and didn't understand their problem. However, I do! I won't go into the whole story now, but a few years ago, I was terribly overweight, to the tune of 30kg. I'd been like this for sometime but decided I was sick of looking the way I did and having no energy. What was I to do though? I could sit and complain about it and well… that didn't seem to change anything. The task felt a little overwhelming though. I knew how much I weighed, and I knew how much I wanted to weigh, but there was still this massive thing in the middle called action and to take action required willpower, something many people just don't seem to find enough of.
I was way gone on those scales almost hitting 90kg, when I should have been around 60kg. It was for me to do something about it, or I'd be overweight forever! As with most people and ‘new things,’ the first day I was full of energy and ready to go! I walked down to Narrawallee Beach (which is about 1.3kms long). After stretching, I started running. I thought I was going really well. I'd made it to the rocks (200m) then over them (210m) and down the main stretch of the beach. Gasping and panting for air I pulled up. I was completely wrecked, dripping with sweat and my head was throbbing. I’d made it… half way. So at about 650m I was done. I couldn't go any further.
At this point, I could have gone one of two ways. I could have given up and started drinking skinny milk to make me feel as if I were possibly doing something to lose weight, or I could try again the next day! So given the fact that I hate the taste of skinny milk, I tried again the next day! With my body still aching from the day before, I'd set the goal of making it to the other end of the beach without stopping. ¾ of the way along I wanted to give up, but I pushed through this pain and kept going right to the end. It wasn't a record breaking time, but time didn't matter, I'd made it to the end and that was all I cared about!
Each day and week I pushed myself a little further and a little harder. Now it was to the end of the beach and back, then it was 1.5x then 2x then out to the next beach along. I started feeling better and better and had more and more energy as the weeks and months rolled by.
If I'd taken the easy option of pretending to diet, and do no exercise then I'd be in the same place as the lady with the skinny mocha with double thick whipped cream, or the pie and soft drink guy! Don't get me wrong, I’m no health fanatic by any means and eat my fair share of chocolate, whipped cream and doughnuts, but I balance this out with exercise and the willpower not to make excuses for my situation.
In the long run (which it was), I lost 30kg and went from not even being able to run 1km without near collapse to running the Canberra Half Marathon Twice and my own personal marathon once!
To achieve this however, I didn't do anything special other than put one foot in front of the other and kept going until I'd reached my goal. So if you want to achieve something or make a difference in your life, take that first step and the next and the next, even if it's a massive goal and for me,shedding 1/3 of my body weight was. It all starts with those first few steps and the willpower to keep going.
So don't go putting whipped cream on your skinny mocha. You're just pretending you're doing something! But use your willpower, drive and determination instead. Turn your life around and if you do run a marathon, you can have whipped cream on anything you like!
Australia is big, really, really big and most of our population lives on the eastern seaboard. Consequently, many of us never get to see our own unique wonders that form critical parts of our nation’s history. In all the years about education and hiking around the countryside, other than being stuck in Darwin airport due to a broken plane, I’ve never actually gone into the city. Other than the extreme heat, I really didn’t know what to expect.
Setting out with a friend in April, we flew to Darwin and the moment we stepped off the plane, we were hit by the unbelievable humidity of our nation’s frontier to Southeast Asia. Darwin itself, is more like a big country town than a city. It has a bizarre charm to it. Stinking hot, very red and surrounded by waters in which you can’t swim for fear of being stung by deadly box jellyfish, or eaten by crocodiles. If this is your first port of call in our country, “Welcome to Australia!”
Other than avoiding the water, there are some interesting things to do around town. We started out at one of the old World War II sites, which were massive fuel tunnels, built underneath the city. During WWII, Darwin was bombed 64 times by the Japanese. The first attack happened on 19th Feb 1942. 188 Japanese planes struck Darwin, an important Allied naval port. Darwin harbour was full of Allied ships and this was the biggest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour.
Fuel Tunnels Info
The fuel tunnels were built to protect the Allied fuel sources as all of the tanks which were above ground had been repeatedly bombed and destroyed by the Japanese. Walking through these massive concrete chasms built deep into the ground, you get a sense of how critical thinking changes during times of war.
The second historic site we went to later that day was the Darwin Military Museum, which is on the original site of the old army outpost. Here there’s a fascinating, interactive display which runs you through the bombing of Darwin and the experience of those stationed there to defend our shores. There are films, personal accounts, maps, photos, artefacts and lots of military equipment, all of which present a very different picture of the Australian experience of War during WWII.
An amazing piece of military engineering you can see is one of the original massive 9.2" guns. This was an anti-ship gun which they built to protect the harbour against naval vessels. However, by the time they built it, they only fired it to test it out and the war was over. Walking inside the bunker and around the gun, then seeing the projective it fired, you can imagine how loud it would have been when fired.
Most of the focus of our studies of WWII tends to be on Australians in Europe or in PNG. However, this was happening on our own shores. You don’t realise how close we came to being over-run in recent history. Unfortunately, the experience of Darwin and its efforts to fight off the Japanese often only rates a couple of lines in a text book and this is something we need to seriously address.
Taking a school group here is a valuable and eye-opening experience to the fact that War was on our door-step, not in some far off land in Europe or the Middle East, it was here and it was real! There’s so much more to the history of Darwin than we often think and visiting these sites on our Northern frontier, is a great way to give your students a real understanding of just how critical this city was to protecting our nation from invasion.
For more on the history of the bombing of Darwin & the WWII experience:
Darwin Military Museum
Darwin Fuel Tunnels