16 Jan 2017

Government help needed to save Anzac graves

9:12 am on 16 January 2017

An appeal to the Cook Islands government has been made to maintain the graves of soldiers who fought in the First World War.

A headstone of a Cook Islands soldier who served in the First World War is found washed up on the beach.

A headstone of a Cook Islands soldier who served in the First World War is found washed up on the beach. Photo: Supplied / Cate Walker

About 500 Cook Island men, most of them in their teens, enlisted for the First World War serving as labourers and ammunition bearers in France, Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, and Palestine as part of the Maori contingent.

Fifteen of them are buried on Rarotonga in Nikao Cemetery which has about 74 graves.

But its location on the shore opposite the airport means it is prone to erosion and many of the graves have been damaged with some washed away entirely by the sea.

Graves at Nikao cemetery on Rarotonga in need of repair.

Graves at Nikao cemetery on Rarotonga in need of repair. Photo: Supplied / Cate Walker

Australian business owner Cate Walker heard about the Anzac's graves after restoring her mother's site in the cemetery.

"I only knew of the cancer patients in the foreigners section of the cemetery and I didn't realise it was one whole great big cemetery."

Cate Walker's husband Paul tries to life the headstone of a Cook Island veteran of the First World War on Rarotonga.

Cate Walker's husband Paul tries to life the headstone of a Cook Island veteran of the First World War on Rarotonga. Photo: Supplied / Cate Walker

"I was contacted by Bobby Nicholas in Auckland who told me that the cemetery was much larger...and he told me that several years prior he had learned his ancestor was buried in there who was a Cook Islands World War One Anzac veteran."

Ms Walker and Mr Nicholas joined forces to repair the graves in order to preserve the history of the men buried there.

"I thought I don't want anyone to feel the way I felt when I stood there in December 2014, and looked at this dreadful mess where my mother was buried, graves hanging off cliffs, down on the shoreline, I thought 'no something has to be done about this once and for all'."

"We started researching who they all were and where they are from," she said.

"It is in fact the largest group of Cook Islands Anzacs buried in any cemetery within the Cook Islands so it's quite a significant historic site."

Concrete is poured to restore the graves at Nikao Cemetery on Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

Concrete is poured to restore the graves at Nikao Cemetery on Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Photo: Supplied / Cate Walker

A team of volunteers are working to tidy up the cemetery in time for Anzac Day in April this year, she said.

"So far it's just been myself and donations and volunteers doing the work. During a stage of the project in June last year, Mr Heather, the deputy prime minister, kindly gave a donation of the concrete we needed to re-concrete a number of graves."

"We have had local businesses giving us buckets of paint, we had people providing us with lunch, a lot of volunteers show up and people in the local community who were really interested in the project who want to beautify that site and preserve it."

Overgrown graves at Nikao Cemetery on Rarotonga are in need of repairs.

Overgrown graves at Nikao Cemetery on Rarotonga are in need of repairs. Photo: Supplied / Cate Walker

It's a community project and volunteers both local and from abroad are mucking in to fix up the site for Anzac Day this year, but Ms Walker said a long-term plan is needed.

"I'd like to see the Cook Islands government set up a civil cemetery policy which I believe they don't have, and have an adequate and a regular maintenance schedule so that this cemetery is kept in a reasonable state and not in an overgrown state."

Ms Walker said the construction of a a rock sea wall is wonderful but now the whole cemetery needs to be restored.

Graves at Nikao Cemetery on Rarotonga after being restored.

Graves at Nikao Cemetery on Rarotonga after being restored. Photo: Supplied / Cate Walker

"I'm hoping we will get that support from the government and I will be in contact with them from the very near future to ask them for their help. They were very helpful in June so hopefully that will continue with that stage two which starts on April the 18th just after Easter and we'll get these Anzacs restored and looking nice for Anzac day."

Ms Walker set up a page for donations after queries from people asking to help which can be found here.

Grave listings for the soldiers can be found here.

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