There's no shortage of organised tours to the Gallipoli peninsula, on Turkey's Aegean coast. Day trips from Istanbul arrive around midday, and excursions can be arranged locally in Çanakkale, the pretty port across the water from the battlefield sites.
Instead, I wanted to avoid the crowds. And to add a sense of scale to this World War I campaign I wanted from to walk from Anzac Cove, where the newly formed Australia and New Zealand Army Corps disembarked on April 25, 1915, up to the Allied frontlines.
But my plans for a solo hike along the ANZAC lines soon became an emotional roller-coaster.
Like most trips to Gallipoli, mine started with a minibus ride to the Kabatepe War Museum. This history lesson it offers is a naive and tragic one.
Photographs of grinning Australians en route to Turkey are coupled with their personal possessions: an illustrated book of Egyptian history in one case. Letters from the frontlines to mothers back home tell of skirmishes with the Turks: "Rather a hot job!"
Many of these young authors would be dead by the time their post reached the Southern Hemisphere. The three sons of Espie and Jane Watt from Gulgong, New South Wales, are illustrated in a black and white portrait on the museum wall. Trooper Walter Watt died at Gallipoli, his brother Trooper Archie a few months later in Greece. Final brother, Private Frederick, is said to be "Missing in Flanders" on Belgium's Western Front.
A 10-minute wander down to the peninsula's sandy western shore raises the spirits. On this 5km-long beach, bathed in spring sunshine, the only footsteps are mine. The ANZAC forces planned to land here at dawn nearly a century ago, then scramble for cover into the low wooded hills.
Tragically, a shambolic disembarkation led the ANZAC landing craft 2km northwards to a tight cove ringed by an amphitheatre of muddy cliffs. (I try to scramble up, but quickly skid back down on my backside.) On unfamiliar ground, without a visible objective to aim for, the invaders were given their first taste of mechanised warfare by their Turkish audience.
In contrast to the battle scenes of 1915, Anzac Cove's small cemetery is a blissfully tranquil resting place. Lines of headstones, all lovingly tended, look out to sea.
The inscriptions on the headstones are surprising. The majority of the fallen were in their mid-twenties to mid-forties from all over the country ("Laen, Victoria" and "Bulimba, Brisbane") proving that the whole nation answered the recruiting call. Other graves are simply heartbreaking: "FA Rawlings, 10th Australian Light Horse, aged 27, My Only Darling Son."
I hike up to the clearly signed Shrapnel Valley cemetery now confident that I will be able to see much of the site on foot. Again, the scene is bucolic, scattered with wildflowers and herbs, hemmed in by a babbling brook.
In 1915, food and munitions were landed by night at Anzac Cove then carried up this aptly named valley by man and mule. The frontline trenches at the top of the hill include Quinn's Post and The Nek, the latter immortalised in the 1981 Mel Gibson movie, Gallipoli, which is shown nightly in many of Çanakkale's hotels. All were scenes of hand-to-hand fighting, viscous attrition and shellshock.
Nearly 95 years after the landing, I climb the steep track that winds up from the beaches to the Australian war memorial at Lone Pine. I'm given a friendly wave by Turkish soldiers who are setting up rows of chairs. These will be used during the Anzac Day remembrance service by ministers and military representatives from both Turkey and Australia.
The views from Lone Pine are immense: miles of beaches where the Allies landed on one side of the peninsula, the Dardanelles Straits on the other. In early March 1915 Allied commanders ordered a naval push through this waterway through to Istanbul. The plan was to shorten World War I by delivering a knockout blow to the teetering Turkish Empire. It would also allow Russia, an anti-German ally, to be supplied via the south.
Historians debate whether this decisive strategy would have been successful, had the Turkish minelayer, Nusret, not put paid to the expedition before it started. This 40m-long vessel mined the channel by night, in thick fog and without radar, and frequently under enemy fire. Its explosive charges incapacitated six British and French battleships, the vanguard of an 18-strong invasion fleet assumed at the time to be invincible.
Some would call the April 25 land invasion that followed the naval retreat dogged. The less charitable might call it stubborn or foolhardy. It took six weeks to raise an Allied invasion force, which included the first ANZACs created from Australian and New Zealand troops training in Egypt.
The Turks were given ample time to prepare their defences. Couple this fact with campaign's generally inept execution "lions led by donkeys" is a phrase synonymous with World War I and the infantry was hammered from the outset.
I had hoped to continue my tour with a 5km-hike to the New Zealand war memorial at Chunuk Bair, but my energy is waning. I wonder whether an organised tour would have made for an easier, if less personal, day out.
Fortunately help arrives in the form of a VW campervan with British licence plates. It contains an Australian couple the only tourists I see all day who have driven from London via Italy and Greece.
I hop in, and together we pass several more Commonwealth cemeteries.
We compare notes: We've all been blown away by how happy the Turks are to see us paying homage to a conflict that runs deep in the psyche of both nations, despite the tenacity of the Allied attack that claimed hundreds of thousands of Turkish lives.
This respectful welcome reminds of a quote by Atatürk, the key Turkish commander in the Gallipoli campaign and who, as Turkey's first president, steered his country to neutrality in World War II. His words are set in stone on Anzac Cove, where a dawn memorial takes place each year on April 25.
"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie side by side," the inscription reads.
"You, the mothers … wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."
Çanakkale is the best base for those who want to organise their own Gallipoli trip. The Anzac Hotel
and the Çanak Hotel
, both recommended, have doubles for around $70. The ferry from Çanakkale to the Gallipoli peninsula runs hourly.
From Istanbul, Trooper Tours
organises day trips and longer tours to Gallipoli. In Çanakkale, TJ Tours is the leading operator.
Tristan Rutherford is the author of the forthcoming National Geographic Guide to Istanbul (December 2010).