Quest to restore dignity to mother's final resting place
WHEN Warwick woman Cate Walker arrived at the final resting place of her beloved mother, she was devastated to find it in such disrepair headstones were being washed out to sea.
After initial feelings of hopelessness and despair, she retrieved what she could from the water and vowed to do more to save the historic Cook Islands cemetery.
The Crown land Nikao cemetery on Rarotonga is the burial ground for her mother Gloria and for many First and Second World War veterans.
Ms Walker, along with husband Paul Morrissey, has spent years restoring the legacy of her mother and her final resting place.
In 1976, her mother, a 35-year-old primary school teacher, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Ms Walker said such a diagnosis at the time was usually a death sentence.
"In November 1977, Mum and Dad decided to travel to Rarotonga, Cook Islands for Mum to receive radical and unconventional cancer treatment from Milan Brych, who was being promoted in the media as a life saver," she said.
"In reality, Milan Brych was a cancer quack.
"With a hypnotic personality, he was a master manipulator seen by many terminal cancer patients as their last hope and they were willing to pay anything for his miracle cure.
"Mum suffered greatly in her last days, conditions were Third World and there was little pain relief available.
"She died four months after arriving in the Cook Islands and was buried in Nikao cemetery."
Ms Walker said she was told of her mother's death by family friends.
"I was only 13 and at boarding school in Toowoomba," she said.
"I felt robbed being denied spending those final four months with Mum."
Brych fled the Cook Islands in 1978 and was arrested in Los Angeles in 1981 on cancer quackery charges.
He was sentenced to six years imprisonment in 1983.
In 1986, Brych was deported to New Zealand but was discovered to be active in Europe in the early 2000s.
In 1998, Ms Walker was devastated to read the Nikao cemetery was being washed out to sea.
"I got in contact with the volunteer caretaker of the cemetery, Gordon Sawtell, and we communicated frequently until his death in 2010," Ms Walker said.
"I also wrote to the Cook Islands government for help but heard nothing."
Ms Walker and her husband visited Rarotonga and the cemetery numerous times over the years, but it was a devastating visit in late 2014 that spurred them into action.
"The cemetery was completely overgrown and a mess," Ms Walker said.
"It was filled with rubble and many graves were lost to the sea due to cyclones and storm surges.
"I didn't want anyone else coming to visit their relative's grave and experiencing the overwhelming feeling of despair that I did."
Ms Walker said this was her lowest point.
"I just stood there looking at the destruction and thought, 'This is hopeless, what can I do?'" she said.
"I felt overwhelmed, heartbroken, powerless and angry.
"Paul and I ventured down to the shoreline and found two headstones on the beach."
In September 2015 Ms Walker and Mr Morrissey decided to return to the Cook Islands and start a clean-up of the cemetery.
"About eight months later, we returned to Rarotonga and spent one week in the cemetery, restoring the whole cancer patients and foreigners section," Ms Walker said.
"We spent in excess of $2000 to kick-start stage one of the cemetery restoration and made incredible progress.
"Locals and tourists showed up to help, people brought food for the volunteers. It was an amazing week of friendship for everyone involved."
Ms Walker also launched the Nikao Cemetery Restoration Project Facebook page in May 2015 to connect with relatives of those buried in the cemetery.
By January 2017, Ms Walker had been contacted via the Facebook page by hundreds of people from all over the world who have family buried in the Nikao Cemetery.
The cemetery also contains the largest group of Cook Islands First World War NZEF Anzacs buried throughout the entire Cook Islands.
In June 2016, during the first stage of the Nikao Cemetery Restoration Project, the Cook Islands Government started building a rock sea wall to protect the important historic site.
That sea wall has now been completed.
On Tuesday, Ms Walker and Mr Morrissey along with local and foreign volunteers will begin stage two of the cemetery restoration project as a local film crew documents the work.
This will include the complete restoration of the Cook Islands First World War Anzac graves and installing War Service plaques honouring the Australian Second World War veterans.
Ms Walker has launched a Gofundme page to help fund the continuing restoration of the cemetery ahead of this Anzac Day, April 25.