The cold wind sweeps across the immaculate oval, biting the faces of those who are determinedly setting up tents. Despite the cold weather the people smile and laugh, clutching their lifesavers; cups of hot coffee, the only thing stopping their fingers from turning blue. There is a sense of community in the air, a whisper of bravery, and more than a hint of courage. No one is complaining about the long night ahead, because they all know that the people that they’re fighting for have it a thousand times worse.
The sun occasionally peers through the clouds, as though curious about the goings on below. A light shower of rain graces the tents, but everyone ignores it. Themes are beginning to emerge for every team present, bright colours and silly bits of costume adorning the team members. Once the small city of tents has been erected, everyone is called to the main stage, which is little more than a truck with one side folded down. Assembled, the crowd looks more like a circus gathering than soldiers. Small children run around, with no regard for what is happening on the main stage. Teenagers, with their own team for the first time, pay strict attention, uncannily quiet and attentive. Veterans of this particular war listen closely, standing to attention. The names of the participants are read out, and the first lap begins.
As we begin to walk, I notice certain soldiers wearing sashes. Some are white, others orange. A whispered inquiry reveals that the soldiers in white sashes are the ones currently fighting the war. The orange sashes are in memory to those we have lost. Possibly the most heart wrenching of all of the walkers is the small girl, no more than five years old, wearing a white sash, the ends of it dragging on the ground; it is bigger than her.
The first lap carries with it a quiet dignity, each team carrying the banner declaring which faction they are from. After we have done one round, team members begin to split off, the first runner for each team carrying a brave responsibility on their shoulders as they begin the first of twenty three hours of walking. Laughter and talk begins to emit from each tent, as team members settle in for the long night. Some teams mix together, trading war stories, or regular gossip. The children who make up some of the numbers have pulled Frisbee’s and balls from their parent’s cars, and are now all playing together on the inside of the track. More than a few of the adult team members join in, throwing a Frisbee, catching a ball or kicking a footy. Barbecues are lit, people huddling around the sudden warmth. Sausages and bacon are thrown on, filling the frigid air with the aromatic smell of dinner cooking. Children load their plates with food, enjoying the opportunity to eat with friends instead of family.
All around the oval, participants gather in small groups, laughter overtaking the complaints about the cold.
Live music pumps across the oval, the occasional song prompting spasmodic dancing and encouragement. A talent show is taking place, the audience screaming with laughter, egging on the performers. Darkness has fallen, the four enormous flood lights creating the illusion of day time. The performer at the moment is doing a Michael Bublè impersonation and pulling it off with ease. A few of the older women are beside themselves with laughter as he addresses the song to them, a suggestive wink earning appreciative applause and laughter from everyone.
I march around the oval, my eyes on the crowd by the stage, my team’s baton in my left hand. My right hand taps my thigh to the beat of ‘Moondance’, and a few of the walkers are dancing around the track instead. Overhead, the moon begins to rise, the clear night making it even colder for the people below. Suddenly Darth Vader catches up to me, and we begin a conversation. He’s from the Star Wars tent, and I find myself agreeing to a light sabre duel later on the night. Darth trots off, a Yoda backpack clinging to him, their team’s baton.
Suddenly we’re all called to the main stage by one of the council members. As everyone gathers, two of the floodlights are turned off, and those still walking have to use torches to find their way. They look like lost travellers in the woods, but they don’t complain; they know why we have been summoned.
This is why we have been walking and fundraising. This is the Candlelight Ceremony, where we honour those we have lost, those who still fight, and those caring for the wounded soldiers. One soldier stands at the mic, and bravely tells an audience of over two hundred people she’s never met about her battle. Throughout her speech, she fights back tears, but those listening cry along with her. When she finishes, no one applauds, because this isn’t a talent show or a ploy for attention. This was her war story, and people honour it with their tears and their silent appreciation for her bravery. Three people are lining up at jars which contain big candles, and carefully they light them one by one. One is for the past, another for the present, and the biggest one for the future. A singer begins to sing ‘You Raise Me Up’, and everyone bows their head to remember. I join them, trying to hold back tears, but when I see an older gentleman staring at the ‘past’ candle with silent tears coursing down his face; I can’t help but cry along with everyone else. A lady takes his hand, and he mouths the word ‘thank you’ to her. She accepts it, her own grief showing plainly on her face.
When the song finishes, we all lift our heads again, trying not to sniffle too loudly. We begin another group lap, but this time in the dark. Along the edge of the track, paper bags with candles in them illuminate the messages that have been written on them. Some are saying good bye to the fallen soldiers, others paying tribute to those who fought bravely and won. As we pass our tent, I spot the one that I made with my little brothers earlier that evening.
At the end of the lap, we all split up again to relieve those who had still been walking. A few people split off into tents, their grief still too fresh to show the rest of the world. The music begins again, but it’s slower and more respectful now.
It’s getting later now. The winner of the talent contest has been announced (Michael Bublè, by all votes), the music has been switched off and children have been tucked into their sleeping bags. The hardest part of the night is beginning, the part where there are only twelve souls walking, the coffee trailer is closed and iPods are the only comfort to the hours of frozen feet treading the same course over and over again. Again, there are no complaints, because for us there is an end in sight, but for those fighting the war, there is none. They can only hope that one day the sun will rise on the horizon of their battle.
I begin the two til three shift for my team, hands in my pockets, iPod in my ears and my brother’s tea cosy beanie on my head. It’s so cold that I can see every breath in front of me, and where people haven’t been walking is covered in frost. My head is down as I walk, and I’m not so much listening to my iPod as I am falling asleep. As I pass my teams tent in a stupor, I’m scared awake again by something tugging at my sleeve. My little brother, who has inexplicably found another tea cosy beanie, can’t sleep and demands one of my ear buds. I hand it to him, and he finishes the last hour of my shift with me, neither of us talking, just pounding the track in front of us, listening to Britney Spears croon about something.
I’m up again to do the five til seven shift. My body clock is slowly beginning to wake me up again, so much that I even begin to enjoy the brisk walking, the peeking of the slow sun over the frozen horizon. When it hits the walkers, people sigh with relief as their clothes and hands begin to defrost. There is a stampede as the coffee trailer opens, the aromatic aroma of ground coffee beans beginning to dispel the zombie from people’s eyes. I buy a strong coffee for myself and a babycino for my little brother, who has taken our baton from me so that we don’t break the rules.
The warming sun hits our faces, and there is no better feeling in the world at that moment. It has been a night of frozen hell, but at least our night ends. It has been a glimpse into the life of a soldier, a fighter of this invisible war, and I cannot think of anything more terrifying than this.
The breakfast van also opens, and a stampede of the same magnitude for the coffee van rushes the bacon table. There is a sense of camaraderie about everyone; we just spent almost 24 hours continuously walking. Friends have been made in the frozen depths of the night, and Darth Vader winks at me from across the fruit table. I take it upon myself to apologize about forgetting about our light sabre battle. He tells me we can reschedule for next year.
People are waking up voluntarily now, small children beginning to run around again, with too much energy for some of the older folks liking. Impromptu trips to MacDonald’s are being made, requests for breakfast being shouted at leaving cars. How many of those breakfast requests will make it back in one piece is a mystery; I myself would kill for a Sausage and Egg McMuffin.
The sun is well and truly up now, and some of the infectious fun and laughter of the previous night is beginning to ripple through the crowd again. People are crowded around barrels of fire, slowly defrosting each finger and ear that the night froze. I tip my tea cosy to them, advising them to buy one for next year. Despite the ridiculous pom pom and tassels of this hat, my ears have been toasty ever since I began walking.
The closing ceremony announces that the final lap is one that we’ll all do together. Our teams baton makes its final lap higher up than anyone else’s; my brother, who I’m piggybacking, holds it aloft, as proud of this maraca as he would be of the Olympic torch. Once the lap is over, we all gather at the main stage, and my mother whips the tea cosy off of my head and replaces it with a sombrero, hoping to win best dressed team.
Despite my ears now burning from the cold, I hear the announcement of best dressed team (not us, so I take my tea cosy back), and then the amount of money that we managed to fundraise. All together, we have all raised over $30,000 for this cause; it makes everything worth it.
We’ll keep on fundraising, every year. We’ll continue this battle until we’re no longer needed; this seemingly never ending war against cancer.