The Return of the Jedi to Melbourne

Like so many others, I wish we had fast, frequent trains connecting the eastern capitals. At three hundred kilometres per hour I could go from Melbourne to Sydney and back, three hours each way. To Brisbane a little longer. No more messing about at the airport with an expensive ride just to get there. No turbulence worries or wasted time in the air. Just the countryside racing past while I relax.

Last year I caught the XPT to Melbourne and back to watch The Empire Strikes Back in Concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The train was nice enough I suppose, though not always the passengers. In fact, most of my long distance train journeys in Australia seem to involve a stop somewhere to allow the police to remove someone.

It is not an option for The Return of the Jedi in Concert. The timings are bad, I must be back for the karate competition on Saturday. The weather looks scary for flying. I am stressed enough anyway.

I rebook the concert, but the flights are too expensive. The day train back is booked out. The night train, unsuitable.

Nothing left but to drive, hoping to get there in time.

Just me and the Mazda. Drop Alex off, head out to the M5 until it morphs into the Hume beyond the city limits. The wind is fierce through the Southern Highlands, shaking the car from side to side. I am glad that I am not flying through it.

Outside of Yass I pull up at the McDonalds to get some breakfast, to take a break. It is busy, shows signs of wear. I am glad to be off through the rolling grasslands littered with granite boulders, the wind turbines spinning in the gusty winds.

This route is all too familiar to me. I stop at Holbrook to use the bathroom facilities near the landlocked Otway class submarine, then stop for fuel. The bakery seems to be filled with grey nomads and I just want something fast, so I continue on to Albury, a city of much history for B and I.

So many options, but I can’t be bothered to find parking in the CBD. I turn into a KFC, punish my body with a meal, then continue onwards. Time is of the essence.

Once in Victoria I change to listening to the thirteen part NPR Star Wars radio drama, my introduction to Star Wars as a kid and often a source of entertainment on long road journeys.

Great multi-lane motorways run into Melbourne. Fortunately my GPS warns me of speed cameras and the motorists are slower, more patient than their Sydney brethren.

I watch aircraft descending into Tullamarine, wonder if it is as rough as always.

The GPS only fails me as I approach the turn-off to the Convention Centre. I am in the wrong lane, must continue. Fortunately, it finds a suitable way out, with strange traffic lights that let but a single car past at a time.

I park my car at the DFO and check into the Novotel Melbourne South Wharf. There is a great view from my high level room, but little time to enjoy it, only an hour and a bit before the pre-concert talk by Art of the Score. This is one of the major reasons I am here.

There is enough time for a brief explore of the DFO outlet stores before I head to the Plenary. After the session there is barely time to get food and my dinner is basically a muffin.

It is a fantastic performance of Return of the Jedi in Concert, but it finishes late and the eateries are closed, so I head straight back to my hotel, adjacent to the Plenary.

The buzz is so great that it takes me a while to fall asleep, making me even more anxious about driving back.

Fortunately I sleep in a bit, then fill my stomach with a buffet breakfast, fresh fruits making up for the fast food of the day before.

B has asked me to shop at the DFO, which only opens at ten. So I am already quite late at 11.30 am when I finally make my way out of the car park and begin my journey home.

Again I am thankfully for the patience of the drivers on the motorway as I try to work out the optimal lanes for he exits.

It is a relief to finally reach the highway heading north.

There is a dramatic cloudscape in my rear view mirror, but my eyes are focused forward. I keep driving until hunger begins to overtake me, it now being past lunchtime.

I pull off into Glenrowan, the location of the last stand of bushranger Ned Kelly. We stopped at the museum last trip south.

Lunch is a milkshake, pie and jelly slice at a bakery, but there is no fuel to be had, so I stop a bit further along at Albury, just over into New South Wales. Again I am racing the clock, but this time it is to do with darkness.

The traffic thins out greatly soon afterwards, only a few trucks and cars. It is pleasant driving the lonely road, free of the pressure from other vehicles, letting the car worry about going over the bare hills.

But I eventually tire and I run out of Star Wars episodes to listen to. North of Gundagai I pull into the Dog on a Tuckerbox stop. It’s been years since I’ve stopped there, once a rest stop on the Canberra to Albury bus route.

Others a walking dogs and stretching their legs. It’s late and the fresh apple stall is shutting down for the day. I buy some chocolate cherries from the little store that maintains the toilets that I desperately need to use.

I walk across to inspect Olivers, a supposedly healthy road stop food chain, but emerge disappointed by the lack of choices. Tired, I try unsuccessfully to have a quick nap in the back of the car.

I regret not having the time to stop overnight. Usually we don’t drive the whole way, stopping to stay in a cheap, but often charming, country motel.

Such places bring back many memories, as do meals in country pubs and quirky cafes. But there’s a difference between a journey of exploration and one where the point is just to get between two places.

Like the business traveller in town for meetings, I just want something comfortable and unchallenging. I’m inspired by the non-functional artwork, the EastLink Hotel in its pointless location.

In my mind’s eye I see a multistory chain hotel with simple modern rooms out of an IKEA catalogue and a twenty-four hour reception. You park, pay your money, stay. Adjacent to it is a petrol station and a twenty-four hour family restaurant like the ones in Japan. You sit in your booth by the window overlooking the bright lamps of the service stop or the inky blackness of the farmlands at night. The menu is simple, there is a salad bar, dessert.

Maybe, like the Hungry Jacks in Gundagai, there is a games room, a surprise for bored children.

When you go back to the hotel, you can read a paperback in the lobby, get a cup of coffee, hot chocolate, tea or soup. Then head up to bed.

There is no reason to stop at this place unless you want a rest or a meal. There is nothing to do except eat, sleep or feel the cool dry wind on your skin, the scent of grass and nature in the air, to stare up at a sky full of stars. And yet that makes me stay longer.

It should exist, but it doesn’t.

Instead I am driving home as the light turns golden and the shadows lengthen. On the car stereo, analysis of film music from the Art of the Score podcast. I keep a close eye out for wildlife.

Darkness falls as I close in on Sydney. I hate this last bit, heavy traffic, impatient drivers and inconsistent speeds. I cannot wait to get off the motorway.

I stop for petrol, make it home before bedtime. My legs are jelly-like, my head tired, but I am glad to be back.

I enjoyed the drive, but as always I do wish there was more time to stop and explore the countryside, to look for my imaginary hotel.

Even better would be to catch the train.