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Crossing borders in a Kombi van



The border-obsessed times we live in reminded me of some really tough borders I encountered in years past.

Turkey (Bill B/Flickr)

It is October 1961, the place: rural Turkey. Where you would have expected to roll on down the deserted dusty road, there is a boom gate and four sentries. This can't be a border, however.

We had already experienced the grim realities of a Middle East border in our attempt to cross from Israel into Jordan through the Mandelbaum Gate. Despite our special ‘clean’ Australian passports, supplied by the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv and devoid of any Israeli stamps, our trepidation as we approached the crossing was acute and intensified by the sudden bursts of gunfire on both sides of the gateway. We U-turned sharply and retreated and so ended our drive to Baghdad.

But this laconically guarded boom gate is no border: this is just a Turkish road, rough, mostly empty, curving away over stubbly green hills into a steel grey wintry afternoon. Our Kombi van eases to a stop at the boom gate and the engine idles with that hesitant, unlovely clunking that became so familiar as the people’s car spread across the world. The four of us — Australian students Ray, Jim, Bob and me — look blankly at the sentries.

A mixture of halting English and vestigial German ensues and we learn that our plan to drive to Gallipoli means that we must enter a ‘military area’. Forty-six years after the landing, entry to the battlegrounds that are familiar names to most Australians and New Zealanders, not to mention most Turks is still restricted.

We shrug and walk around, stretching, inspecting the boom gate, squinting at what seems to be a distant sliver of silver sea. The sentries smile and shuffle their feet. We show them our Grüne Karte. They are amiably unimpressed. So what, everyone has a Grüne Karte their expressions seem to say. We show them our passports.


'We shrug and walk around, stretching, inspecting the boom gate, squinting at what seems to be a distant sliver of silver sea. The sentries smile and shuffle their feet.'


‘Aussie, good’, says one.

We smile modestly.

‘Gellibolu?’ says the first sentry, who seems to be in charge. We nod and mimic his pronunciation. Gellibolu.

After consulting the four passports again, he hands them back, lifts the boom gate, points to his watch and raises the index finger of his right hand. Since it is four o’clock in the afternoon, not one, we have no idea what this means, but we smile gratefully and then we drive through. Soon, the isolated sentry post has dropped out of sight and the road to Gallipoli unwinds before us.

The Kombi bangs and clatters over bumps and potholes through pleasant farmland on which, distantly, white houses glimmer and a tractor now and then chugs across a faraway field. We are running into the territory the ANZACs expected to flood across once their assault on the beaches had succeeded.

Intermittently one of us returns to the puzzle of what the sentry had meant by his parting gesture but we lose interest entirely when the motor gasps, picks up, falters — and stops. In the silence that replaces the racket of the engine — the suspension creaking, groundlarks peep-peep-peeping in the fields around us — our random expletives sound pointless. This is no mechanical failure. We’re out of petrol. The Kombi has no fuel gauge: you were supposed to watch your mileage and calculate accordingly.

‘I’ve just realised,’ says Jim into the tense quiet, ‘what that sentry meant back there. He meant: you’ve got one hour to reach Gallipoli. It’s a military area. They don’t want us stuffing around at will. He probably phoned ahead: "blue Kombi with four highly intelligent, good looking Australian men. Should arrive 1700 hours . . ." We’re late and they’ll want to know why.’

For emergency equipment we carried a jerry can. Empty, needless to say. Jim and I set off on the rescue mission and on the other side of the ploughed paddocks flanking the road we waved to a tractor. The driver was a tough looking bloke frowning of forehead, broad of shoulder, deeply unimpressed of mien. He was towing a cart in which were ten women. We were obviously the most exotic sight they’d ever come across.

Our empty jerry can and distant abandoned van told the story. The tractor man gestured to us to climb aboard — but not with the women. So Jim, clutching the can, stood on the tow bar, I balanced myself on one of the mudguards. Looking like a tableau of teetering trapeze artists, we arrived at a small village where our driver filled the can with a hand-operated pump. Then came thick coffee and much good will. Finally, minus the female entourage, it was back on the tractor and a bumping, yawing, rearing, return to the Kombi.

The whole episode took a couple of hours and by the time we were on the road again, the light was fading. It would be dark before we arrived in Gelibolu.

‘If that bloke at the boom gate really did mean one hour,’ Jim said, ‘we’re going to be very bloody late checking in. I don’t think the Turks are going to be impressed.’

‘We’ll make sure they know we’re Australian,’ Ray said.

‘They knew that last time and it didn’t help much,’ said Bob.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Image credit: Turkey landscape (Bill B/Flickr)

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, borders, Turkey, Gallipoli, Middle East



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Existing comments

A traveller's tale, so what's the end of the story?

KNDole | 16 February 2021  

Please Brian tell us if you got to Gallipoli. I did enjoy reading your article.

Gabrielle | 16 February 2021  

Wonderful article. "Deeply unimpressed of mien" is so expressive...and impressive.

Pam | 16 February 2021  

Can't wait for the sequel Did you and the Turkish guards live happily ever after?

Malcolm Lynch | 16 February 2021  

What is a ‘Gelibolu’? Are human throats around the world so different that we can’t all pronounce the true form of a name (which would be the earliest form of it)? The Greek Kallipolis (for beautiful city) had to be Italianised to Gallipoli (because, as the common office trope goes, the strongest urge in a human is to change another’s draft) and now it is ‘Gelibolu’ because Turkey is the last link in the change-the-draft chain. Of course, it would be different if ‘Gelibolu’ actually meant something in the Turkish vocabulary, and the name of the surrounding area of Canakkale (which sounds similar to it) has a genuine Turkish origin in ‘Fortress of the Sultan’. Meanwhile, even the holiest of traditionalists pronounces ‘Jeezus’ when the Angel Gabriel, forced to speak Aramaic instead of his usual heavenly tongue to make himself understood by a possibly under-educated woman, didn’t pronounce these two syllables (which, one supposes, even an Aramaic child could have imitated at eighteen months). After all, it’s not that you have to know English to understand ‘coronavirus’ or even why it’s crowned with the appellation ‘corona’.

roy chen yee | 18 February 2021  

More traveller tales please- a reminder how lucky we were then to see places now forbiddento our young today and to experience the generosity of traditional hospitality. A reminder too of a time when Australians had not offended half the world. Harshest word I got was a rebuke in Kabul for letting “my president drown” sicHolt!

Pamela | 19 February 2021  

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