ksar of Medenine (Medenine)

After a couple of days on the island of Djerba, we crossed over onto the mainland heading south towards the "real" Tataouine.  On our way we stopped off in the town of Medenine, a fairly populated city bustling with activity, and like most Tunisian towns, schoolchildren!  Medenine was actually the next location on our Star Wars “filming location tour,” otherwise we probably would not have stopped here.

The main attraction in town is the “ksar of Medenine” (see "goodies" to learn more about the "art of haggling" here.)  This “ksar” concept will need a little explanation.  In a nutshell, a ksar is the indigenous Berber equivalent of a "secured storage unit" you might rent from time to time on the outskirts of town.  But it’s not old VHS tapes from the 1980’s that Berbers were interested in storing...  It was grains, and after seeing how many ksour (plural for ksar) there are still scattered throughout southern Tunisia, there must have been a lot of grain to store!

Ksour are made up of a series of barrel-vaulted rooms called "ghorfas."  Depending on the location, the ghorfas may be stacked two, three or four stories high, all with stairs leading up the individual vaults.  In general, the stairways up to the upper levels of a ksar are perilous to say the very least, so wooden sticks are impaled above the entrance ways and used in a pulley-system to transfer grain from the ground floor up to the storage vault.  Traditionally, each ghorfa of a ksar would belong to a different family who would own the grains protected inside.  Doors made of palm trunks were used to keep moisture, insects and would-be thieves from destroying or taking the precious grains inside.

Here at the ksar of Medenine, the palm trunk doors no longer exist.  In their place, painted metal doors have been installed to protect the precious contents of each ghorfa.  Today, the grain is also missing.  Instead, Medenine ghorfas serve as family domiciles or storefronts!  (This is somewhat unusual since, just a block away, completely modern buildings and market stalls seem to be thriving.)  Many of the ksar doors feature “addresses” or “phone numbers” scribbled on the front to decipher one from the next.

We visited many ksour during our stay in southern Tunisia, and this one, dating from the 17th century, was certainly the least impressive, perhaps even a little depressing.  Here, the inherent charm of “ksar” architecture has been bastardized by the many Medenine shopkeepers hoping to lure you in to their stall instead of their neighbor’s!   (There are no pre-printed billboards here, but there might as well be!)

Aside from the extensive open-air market connected to the ksar, Medenine also offers Star Wars fans "Skywalker alley," the village street which literally spawned Darth Vader!  Just behind the main market square of the ksar of Medenine, visitors will find the doorway that would have led to "Anakin” and “Shmi Skywalker's" slave hovel in the Episode I prequel The Phantom Menace.  The street is first spotted in this scene where our heroes Qui-Gon Jinn, Padme and ahem, Jar Jar Binks, are led to Anakin’s home during a Tatooine dust storm.  It has been well over a decade since the movie was filmed here but little has changed.  (It is said that the locals did not want to keep the "futuristic" doors or alcove siding that had been supplied by George Lucas's art department, and thus all set dressing has been removed.)

If you are not on the Star Wars “filming location tour,” you may just want to pass on by this congested city.  Still, if you are looking to shop for Tunisian trinkets, the ksar of Medenine just may be a good place to stop (see “goodies” for more information).

Ksar of Medenine - follow along Avenue 7 de Novembre (if traveling in from Djerba), Medenine


Ksar Ouled Soltane (near Tataouine)

After a pit-stop in Medenine (see above), we took Route 19 south to Tataouine.  Even though we were spending the night in town, we sped past the city in the afternoon to reach the impressive destination of Ksar Ouled Soltane before sundown.  This location, 22 km southeast of Tataouine on the same road that leads to Maztouria, is a more proper representation of a ksar.  (At the very least, it has not been taken over by merchants selling replica ash trays or stuffed plush camels with glowing red eyes!)

Ksar Ouled Soltane, like many of the region's ksour, is situated at a high elevation, which in antiquity protected the contents further from potential raiders.  For a ksar that has been around since the 15th or 16th century, Ksar Ouled Soltaine is looking pretty darn good these days, its smooth walls a golden orange, and its stone flooring almost clean enough to eat off of.  (Geez, sweeping this place must be a pain in the arse!)  The well-preserved condition of Ksar Ouled Soltane is courtesy of a series of renovations completed throughout the years in preparation for the annual “Festival of the Ksour” held here each November.

Even though this ksar seemed sturdier than the others we would soon visit, there were still a number of stairs leading between the four stories of ghorfas that were not to be trusted.  Their derelict state, however, did make for nice inspiration in the watercolor paintings that we purchased from an artist who was also the caretaker of the ksar.  Sipping mint tea in the small courtyard cafe, we soon became friends with the caretaker.  He even let us climb up onto the ksar to take photos.  Of course, being as friendly as he was, and potentially starved for human interaction (as it was really quiet while we were there), he took it a step further and got out some obligatory headscarves and a scabbard for a traditional “Toureg” photoshoot!

According to some Star Wars fans, it is reported that a corner of the courtyard of Ksar Ouled Soltane was filmed and slotted in digitally to build some of the "Mos Espa" locations in Episode I - The Phantom Menace.  Another interesting bit of Star Wars trivia is that the species commonly known as "Tusken raiders" (or "Sandpeople") are officially dubbed "ghorfas!"  Hmmm, I wonder where they got that name!

Expect to see tourists from far-flung areas like Germany and Japan as Ksar Ouled Soltane is on many guidebooks’ Top 10 list for Tunisia.  (A couple of Italian bikers showed up during our visit.)  Overall through, on the afternoon we visited, the granary on the top of the hill was quiet and peaceful.  And while we did not stay for the sunset, we hear that it is tremendous from this vantage point.

Set of Drifters tip:  Need to go to the loo all the way out here in the middle of nowhere?  Have no fear!  There is a restroom at Ksar Ouled Soltane that is not the worst place in the world if you are desperate.  Follow through the first courtyard into the larger plaza and head straight back to the right corner.  A path here leads to the restrooms, each of which features great views of the valley below from small windows.

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Ksar Ouled Soltane - 22 km south of Tataouine (look for signs to “Matzouria” first, though this attraction is beyond that city in more rugged surroundings. You will then see signs for “Rethma.” Keep going, but make sure to take the turn off to “Ksar Ouled Soltane.”)



Musée de la mémoire de la terre (Tataouine)

In efforts of soaking up the local Tataouine “pulse," we took an afternoon stroll outside of the Sangho Privilege Hotel compound (see “digs”).  Oddly, with the surrounding flat desert environment, and a restaurant that looked like a pizza joint you might find in a Phoenix strip mall, we felt as though we had been transported back to the southwest of the United States!  In the distance, however, something way on top of a mountain caught our attention.

Could it really be... an outline of a dinosaur?  A closer investigation revealed that it was, in fact, a large statue of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, perched high above the valley overseeing the activities of modern-day Tunisia.  We suppose it is no surprise that dinosaurs, and other ancient fossils, have been located all across this part of Tunisia.   The rich geological diversity of Tunisia has protected and hidden these finds throughout the centuries.  In fact, new discoveries of ancient fossils are still being made in Tataouine each year!

T-Rex up on the mountain is actually connected to a small building across the road from the Sangho Privilege, the Musée de la mémoire de la terre (or “Memory Museum of the Earth”).  Featuring a fantastic collection of local fossils and dinosaur models, this museum may be a great stop-off for parents looking to keep their children interested in the local vibe.  (Just think, the Jurassic period reef coral and sponge fossils on display here are over 150 million years old!)  If you are staying at the hotel across the street, the reasonable TD 1.5 entrance fee (about $1 USD) makes this museum visit a no-brainer!  (Children under 12 are FREE.)  Operating hours are 9:00 AM to 7:00 AM daily.

Musée de la mémoire de la terre - Route de Chenini, 3200 Tataouine, 011 (216) 75 850 244

http://www.aamtt.com/


Chenini (near Tataouine)

You might imagine that buildings constructed over 400 years ago would not have much style or sophistication to them, and yet we discovered the opposite on our third day of trekking through Tunisia.  We started off our morning with a buffet breakfast at the Sangho Privilege in Tataouine (see “digs” and “eats”).  Our cat friends, who danced and jumped under the dinner tables for scraps of food the previous evening, were all too happy to be receiving additional attention from us in the AM.

 After our meal, we left Tataouine behind and headed west out of town toward the 12th century ruins of nearby Chenini.  The trip up to the hillside location is a virtual scenic roller-coaster of dips, hills and quick turns, with a handful of photo-worthy vantage points.  Because the "kalaa" (or ruins) of Chenini mostly face the other side of this mountain, their spectacular beauty is kept secret until you wind your way around to the south.

Chenini was built oh-so-many years ago as another fortified granary, but its appearance is quite different from other ksour we had seen so far.  The settlement is positioned at the junction of two separate mountain ridges, and takes advantage of the natural alternating hard and soft rock layers that have created a series of terraces in the mountainside.  These terraces, in turn, are used as avenues to carry goods back and forth.  Like many of the other hilltop villages in this area of Tataouine, Chenini is further dotted with caves.  In the older days of settlements like this, the caves were enough to protect the local Berbers from raiders.  In recent years, however, more elaborate structures were added to the natural caves to form the buildings that can be viewed today.

The term "Berber" references a melting pot of indigenous peoples of this part of Tunisia and beyond.   Throughout history, invaders from all over have given Berbers other names (such as "Libou," Libyans," or "Africans"), hoping to control those who would not adopt the Roman/ Byzantine culture.  While the Berbers of the 12th century have all but assimilated into the local Arab culture that has somewhat taken over all of Tunisia, in places like Chenini, there are many who still hold on to their traditional customs... whether that includes having a roof over their head or not!  Still, one does wonder if “traditional Berber life” is on display here solely for tourism's benefit.   (In truth, many of the settlement’s inhabitants have moved on to "Nouvelle Chenini" about 5 km away.)

At the base of the mountain junction, you will find some more modern buildings (restaurants and possibly even a hotel) situated alongside a parking lot.  Since tour buses line up here, do your best to avoid them and their constituents if you are looking for a more peaceful experience.  As you make your initial ascent up the side of the mountain you will undoubtedly be stopped by at least two or three locals offering you a tour of the ruins.  We decided to go it alone and wander along the clearly defined paths, and in the opposite direction of the larger guided tours.

Climbing higher to the top, you will find yourself at the beautiful white mosque of Chenini.   From here, you can could look down into the different domiciles below.  The view kind of reminded us of "Bedrock" from The Flintstones, which somewhat makes sense considering the local Paleolithic history still clinging to this region (see Musée de la mémoire de la terre above).  There is an intriguing legend to the mosque of Chenini.  It’s much too long of a story to go into any detail here, but apparently it involves the grave sites of seven Christians who hid out at Chenini to avoid persecution from the invading Romans.  They slept for 400 years, all the while growing taller and taller as they rested.  When they finally awoke, they died almost immediately, but not before they had found Islam and converted to assure them their place in “paradise.”   Your “Set of Drifters” have too much going on, preventing us from sleeping for 400 years, though it does sound remotely appetizing.

The view from the other side of the mosque, overlooking the valley we had previously driven through, was simply breathtaking.  (The "camel rock" across the valley is not to be confused with "Ong Jemal" in Nefta (see below) or "Camelback Mountain" in Scottsdale, Arizona for that matter.)  Naturally, there was a tourist souvenir stand at the top of the mountain.  Aside from the cold Coca-Colas, the local gypsum desert roses were selling like hot-cakes!  

After a little bargaining with the shopkeeper (see “goodies”), it was time to make a decision.   Do we walk back down the steep declines, or hire a pack mule?  The latter seemed too bumpy a ride down to the bottom, so we took an alternate route on foot to see other elements of Chenini we had missed on the way up (donkeys, chickens and baby dromedary, oh my!)

Ultimately, we wished we would have had more time in Chenini; we probably only explored about a 10th of the intrigue it had on offer.  Our agenda was simply too full that day, and we had a lot of driving in between points of interest.

One more interesting tid-bit about this location...  Did you know that "Chenini" is also the name of one of the three moons of the planet Tatooine in George Lucas's expanded Star Wars universe?  (The other two moons are called "Guermessa" and "Ghomrassen," and yep you better believe it, they are two other ruin sites in the vicinity of Tataouine.)

Set of Drifters tip:  The ascent up the hillside village of Chenini can be taxing.  If you want to avoid the vast switch-backs back and forth, try walking up through the "Resto Cafe" (see "eats").  The stairs are steep, but the interiors are really neat; trust us, you've never seen anything like this place.  Just make sure that you stop for at least a drink if you do not have time to sit down for lunch or dinner.

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Chenini - about 20 km west and slightly south of Tataouine; look for signs to “Chenini” via C207, off of the main road (P19) in Tataouine


Ksar el-Hencha

We never made it to Ghomrassen, but we were pulled off the side of the road by the emergence of a large stone fortress on the right.  The sign out front read “Ksar el-Hencha,” a location not listed in any of our guidebooks, but full of tour buses in its parking lot.  To be honest, it was the white-washed building out in front of the “fortress” that had us intrigued.  The green-painted doors were a nice change of pace from the turquoise blue that we had seen everywhere up until that point.   (We are still curious if they had any particular significance?)  We were unable to get any real information about Ksar el-Hencha, but one can presume that the building out front was the home of the caretaker.

We arrived at Ksar el-Hencha just as a busload of Tunisian kids on a field trip were leaving.  By the time we nestled ourselves inside the grounds, we were pretty much the only people there!  In fact, the nicest thing about being in Tunisia thus far was that we had managed to avoid tourist crowds for the most part.  And then it happened!  While we were walking through the grounds, we heard a familiar sound!  People were speaking English!!  In fact, Doug overheard that the other group of people touring the space had come all the way from California as well!!  (We decided to keep our distance.)

Ksar el-Hencha was definitely the most spread-out we had seen yet, and featured two-story ghorfas that faced two or three large courtyards.  Strikingly handsome in its partially ruined state, one suspects that at night there may be some people squatting here?  We soon hopped up on to the roofs of the barrel-vaulted ghorfas where one must be careful not to make a misstep!  It's kind of like playing "Tomb Raider" where there is only one way to get up to this level, and one way to get down...   With so many ceiling cave-ins to navigate, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from this type of construction?

All ksour seem to feature a version of a “palm oasis” in the center of a court- yard.  The plaza at Ksar el- Hencha included some tourist shops as well as a cafe that served the usual coffee and teas.  Visitors can also send postcards from this location, seemingly in the middle of nowhere!  We wondered how long it would take for the mailman to pick up here?

While it is not on most tourist maps or routes, Ksar el-Hencha is recommended for its serenity and its diversity, and certainly would double for a nice place for a mid-day picnic lunch.


Ksar el-Hencha - follow   along C207 north from Tataouine on the way to Ksar Hedada



Ksar Hedada

After passing through numerous small hilltop and valley towns along C207, we eventually made it into Ksar Hedada (also known as Ksar Hadada, and sometimes as Ksar, Haddada).  At first, the most striking building on the landscape is the town's mosque.  It was a quiet afternoon in town and no one was around so we ventured inside, not sure if we were breaking any rules by entering (?)  The artwork detail inside was incredibly immaculate!  One of the oddest things about these rural towns out in the middle of this mountainous region were its electric lights that resembled old fashioned gas lamps?  It made us wonder if contractors were able to buy a whole bunch of the lamps somewhere at a really cheap price.  (The aesthetic just did not seem to fit in anywhere we saw them in use.)

Across the street from the entirely modern mosque is the not-so-modern ksar that has made the town famous.  In fact, Ksar Hedada is the only Star Wars location in Tunisia that actually draws attention to itself from kilometers away with arrow-shaped signage!  During the original Tunisian location scouting for Star Wars in 1975 this type of "ksar" architecture was photographed and brought back to George Lucas as a possibility for Tatooine.  (There are even production design drawings from this era which showcase the same concepts that would eventually be put into practice some 20 years later for The Phantom Menace.)  In scouting locations for the prequels in 1994, producer Rick McCallum called upon archaeologist, and Star Wars fan, David West Reynolds to help him relocate the places in Tunisia where George Lucas’s team had visited so many years ago.

Back in 1994, Ksar Hedada was a functioning hotel.  (This probably made it a lot easier for the art department to dress the location as though it were a functioning, current dwelling, even though the structures were already over a few hundred years old!)  The original version of the Ksar Hedada hotel was built in the 1970's.  As witnessed by the groovy curved wall interiors, whomever originally transformed the ksar into a hotel did a great job of making it completely functional while still retaining the charm of the existing structures.

A couple of the special attributes found here are the painted white borders which decorate the ghorfas and its unusual animal motif paintings and bas reliefs.  (It almost feels as though you have stepped into a Santa Fe Native American adobe!)  A stone and cement motif used in the base of the hotel’s tables is also of note.  The design certainly reminds one of the patterns of a giraffe, yet this is not sub-Saharan Africa, and there are no animals of a typical African safari around here!  Ksar Hedada is also famous for its mostly in tact palm trunk wooden doors.  (They all have crude simple locks since stealing is not a threat here.)  Many of the ghorfas had rooms inside that had been expanded into "other ghorfas."  In other words, the front the buildings look like they have hundreds of separate vaults, but in reality the interior rooms are much bigger (which would make sense for a hotel).

According to other Star Wars pilgrims who have traveled to Ksar Hedada throughout the years, the hotel had fallen into complete ruin since the 1997 filming of the Star Wars prequel.  These days, we are happy to report, the location seems rather pristine and well-kept!  The interesting thing about ksar construction is that the mud-packed smooth walls can crumble away from exposure to heat or weather (revealing their interior stone and mud foundation), only to be covered up again, sealed off, and painted to look new again.

The northern side of the hotel, where Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace was filmed, is seemingly under a tremendous amount of renovation, and it appears as though the hotel is set to re-open again soon?  The interiors of this renovated section were extraordinary!  It somewhat reminded us of the Dar Bibine back in Djerba in that it was a nice mixture of modern smooth lines and natural antiquitous textures.  The only thing missing were the accessories!  If these were to be the bedrooms or lounges of a new hotel, they would need a few throws and pillows at the very least!

While discovering Ksar Hedada, we were surprisingly the only two tourists on-site.  (Perhaps everyone was inside the mosque across the street responding to a call to prayer?)  With the requisite souvenir shop just to the side of the main entrance, we could smell the busloads of tourists approaching.  We savored the peacefulness while spelunking the many twists and turns that take you through the interior and exterior alcoves.

One location that was really special was the outdoor courtyard bar which featured views of the surrounding Jebel Haouia plateau and a gateway to the “older” part of the ksar still in ruin.  The clever design team used the traditional “giraffe-pattern” stone and cement motif on the passageway to take visitors from the more modernized section of the ksar into the ancient part.  A bartender was praying behind the bar while we were snapping photos; it made for a nice aural backdrop as we walked through this magical place.

Next, we checked out the interior two-story restaurant. It was almost unbelievable in its groovy design.  This would be a great place to have a once-in-a-lifetime party, and yet, it was completely silent that Friday afternoon.  It made us wonder.  In order for this hotel to succeed once again, the owners would have to install a spa, or have some nightly ethnic performances in the bar, as Ksar Hedada is just a bit too remote from other nearby spots to attract a steady stream of tourists wanting to stay overnight.

Then again, there is that Star Wars connection.  It’s no wonder that this place of “ancient, yet modern” design caught the eye of location scouts for a sci-fi movie franchise that always intended to reveal a “real” galaxy that has existed for thousands of years before the story even begins.  It’s that mixture of space age technology and "real" settings that viewers can relate to that has made the Star Wars saga so different from many other science fiction franchises.

Using reference photos to match the shots from the film, we were able to uncover the precise angles used in scenes depicting the "slave quarters" of Tatooine’s city of "Mos Espa.”  (It's amazing what a little set dressing, and CGI graphics will do!)  Ironically, Lucasfilm actually took a section of Ksar Hedada’s architecture and faithfully reconstructed it in the middle of the desert!  This allowed the production crew more flexibility in shooting larger scale scenes with space vehicles and such.  (We were to see the remains of this set north of Nefta in a few days time.)

The southern end of the Ksar Hedada is the older part... or is it?  Perhaps this is just the section which has not yet gone through renovations.  The more “rough” portion of the ksar is similar in look to that of Ksar el-Hencha, but it’s much more compact and looks more like a city and less like a granary fortress.  It was especially interesting to peek inside the domiciles that had not been touched in recent years.  These interiors needed a little more than just a coat of paint!  Most of the old "hotel rooms" consisted of a sleeping chamber on the second floor with bathroom facilities and a small living room on the first.  The holes in sides of the walls and the top-sided toilet basins proved that electricity and water once flowed from here.  Previous visitors to Ksar Hedada have made their mark with scratches of graffiti that look more like wall art than vandalism.

Eventually, feeling very "Lara Croft," I climbed to the top of the ghorfa vaults to get a better view.  (In order to get to the top, I had to climb through a hole in one of the roofs of a ghorfa!)  The roof-top views from Ksar Hedada are amazing, pulling together so many facets of Tunisia’s melting pot culture into one vantage point!  From here, Ksar Hedada itself looked like a maze.  Scattered on top of the structures were rusted tins, an old roll of film, a bone!  It will be interesting to follow the trajectory this location takes in the future.  Will it once open again as the chic hotel it was in the 1970's, or will it crumble into further ruin?  (We wondered if earthquakes were common in Tunisia.  If they are, these structures do not seem to stand a chance!)

On our way out, we tried to grab some food in a small cafe but it was closed!  Instead, we ventured into a nearby market to buy some chocolates and water... and what did we find?  Yep, they were selling Star Wars costumes!!  It was just too surreal, and perhaps the only time in the entire trip where it appeared people were trying to make any money off of Tunisia’s allegiance to the planet of Tatooine!  Set of Drifters tip:  While exploring Ksar Hedada, watch your head!  Some of these doorways are quite low!

Ksar Hedada - driving north from Tataouine on C207 (just north of the town of Ghomrassen and the turn-off for C121)


indigenous Berber "troglodyte" homes (Matmata)

After an afternoon of some pretty intense driving maneuvers (see “essentials”), we finally reached the top of the Jebel Dahar mountain range - and the solemnly strange town of Matmata.  Famous for its "troglodyte" dwellings, domiciles that are built into the surrounding hills and mountains, the village has seen its fair share of action throughout the years.

The area that comprises present-day Matmata was largely uninhabited until the 17th century when invading Arabs forced nearby Berbers into hiding amongst the hills.  To create new shelter, the inventive remaining population dug down into the ground where the soaring temperatures of the desert climate are considerably cooler.  Nestled in their cave-like dwellings, the Berbers blended in so well that they were largely ignored by the colonizing French authorities when they arrived to take charge of the country in the 18th century.

Much later, during World War II, a considerably large entanglement took place here between Italian, German and British troops.  The opposing forces battled it out over a nearby military “caserne” that provided an advantageous lookout point.  While this battle somewhat put Matmata on the map, after Tunisia gained liberation in May of 1943, the area was once again soon forgotten.  Not surprisingly, the intriguing underground "troglodyte" abodes continued to fly well under the radar until 1967 when a huge flood damaged many of the submerged structures.  The tragedy finally forced the Tunisian government to take notice of Matmata's crafty inhabitants, and to assist them with rebuilding their unusual community.

Of course, the story does not end there.  Ten years later, a "force" from almost half-way across the world would change the small village of Matmata forever, and not necessarily for the better!  (See “the home of Luke Skywalker” below for more information.)

Guide books say that there are over 700 pit dwellings in Matmata, but many of them are now abandoned.  In 2000, it was reported that Matmata had 3,500 residents, but by 2008 that number had been reduced by 1,000.  Like other more rudimentary hilltop communities, many of Matmata’s indigenous people have fled to more modern accommodations.  (Nine miles to the north lies "Nouvelle Matmata.")  Still, there is some attractive architecture above ground in old Matmata.  Yet it’s pretty hard to stand out when you are competing with the somewhat sideshow oddity fascination of “troglodyte” dwelling.

At dusk, we decided to take a walk through the back roads of town to experience the real pulse of the village.  It was Friday night in Matmata, and yet, very quiet and serene.  (If you listened closely enough, you could hear the bray of a donkey or even the clearing of a dromedary's throat!)  Local kids offered us tours of their homes for 50 dinar.  Since we were already spending the night in a "pit dwelling,” and at the price of only 16 dinar each (see “digs”), we politely declined.  We picked up a stray goat’s horn as a souvenir of this otherworldly place and then rested on the foothills to partake in the magnificent sunset.  Capturing the magical hues with their circular dirt rims, the pit dwellings were revealed in an entirely new light not to be missed!

Licensed tours of the Berber pit architecture are available for $10 TND (about $7.25 USD) from the town’s Syndicat D’initaitive, a building that you can easily locate at the nexus of the two major roads in town.  The office is open Monday through Thursdays from 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM, and again in the afternoon from 3:00 PM to 5:30 PM.  On Friday and Saturdays, the

Syndicat D’initaitive is only open from 8:00 until 12:00 PM.  Set of Drifters tip:  Be on the lookout for aerial images of Matmata.  These will give you a whole new perspective on the village.  We happened to find a poster in town which showed how the inverted cylindrical homes literally dot the surface of the ground like bomb craters!

Syndicat D’initaitive - C104, Matmatat-Al-Qadimal (at the turn-off for the Hôtel Kousselia), 011 (216) 75 230 114


the home of Luke Skywalker (Matmata)

"Luke, Luke, tell Uncle Owen that if he gets a translator make sure it speaks bocce."

"Doesn't look like we have much of a choice, but I’ll remind him."

Sound the least bit familiar?

Chances are that if you have ascended the Jebel Dahar all the way up to Matmata, alone in your rental car or with a tour group, there is one spot that you will undoubtedly be visiting, “Pit 4” of the Hôtel Sidi Driss (see “digs”).  You see, this is where George Lucas filmed both Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope in 1976 and Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones in 2000.

Aside from the otherworldly vibe already created by the inverted “troglodyte” housing, the best part about the Star Wars filming locations at the Hôtel Sidi Driss is that, unlike any of the others we had seen in Tunisia so far, they still retain most of their original set dressing, left behind by Lucasfilm all those years ago!  Rumors have surfaced that the owners of the Hôtel Sidi Driss were specifically asked to keep the set dressings in place when Lucasfilm left in 2000... for potential future films?  In reality, it is unlikely that Lucas & Co. will return here, even though the stories depicted in the forthcoming live action TV are said to take place in the time between Episode III and Episode IV.

More likely, Lucasfilm may have thought they would potentially return here in 2002 to film scenes for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the end scene of which takes place at the "Lars homestead."  Those final Episode III shots where Obi-Wan Kenobi hands baby "Luke Skywalker" off to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru were actually completed at the same time as other "Lars homestead" exterior scenes shot for Episode II and mixed with green screen elements in post-production.  Thus, there was no reason to ever return to Tunisia for more filming in 2002.

Of course, the set decorations on display here serve no other purpose whatsoever.  Much of the piping that is “connected” to interiors or the ground to indicate a deeper functionality could just as easily be picked up and taken away with little or no trouble!  In some places, it appears that this is unfortunately the case!

Other pieces of the plaster set have begun to crumble apart, thanks in no small part to the harsh desert elements.  Yet, one suspects that the many wooden and fiberglass materials fashioned into space-age utility and control panels have been further weathered by the constant barrage of tourists and Star Wars pilgrims that arrive daily to soak in the spot where Luke Skywalker spent his Tatooine youth.  Careful restoration will be required so that the hotel’s exposed filming locations are not lost forever; simple patches will just not be enough!

There is hope however.  The proprietor of the hotel seems to be one of the few Tunisians around who realizes the cultural impact of the film made here over 30 years ago.  That impact, of course, translates into tourist dollars rather nicely!  And thus, while the architectural piping at the ksar of Medenine was ripped free from the doorways after filming, it remains intact here at the Hôtel Sidi Driss, albeit painted over in a strange mauve color where it was originally white.

Walking around in the same otherworldly location that made such an impression on an entire generation was a total trip, and the culmination of a lifelong dream!

Visitors and fans alike will easily be drawn to one of the most recognizable sets from “Pit 4,” the alcove that is referred to today as the "Lars Family dining room."  It is here where young Luke spoke to Uncle Owen (and wife Beru) about his dreams to leave Tatooine, and his moisture farm chores, behind in hopes of joining the flight academy.  In Episode II - Attack of the Clones, Luke’s father Anakin discussed his mother's disappearance with a much younger "Owen" and "Beru" in the same dining room.   (For this prequel film, all set decorations from the original 1976 Star Wars shoot had to be faithfully recreated, but made to look even younger since the events in that film would have predated those in A New Hope by about 23 years or so.) 

It may surprise some to know that the evocative ceiling painting in the “dinging room” was not created to make this Star Wars set seem more exotic.  Back in 1976, the painting had been an original Berber creation!  As it appears today, the painting is not the original.  The hotel owners had whitewashed over it sometime in the early 1980's after the filming of the original Star Wars!  In 1997, three years before the filming of Episode II - Attack of the Clones, fan enthusiast Phillip Vanni faithfully restored the ceiling to its original ethnic glory.  Your “Set of Drifters” wonder if Lucasfilm ever gave him a kickback for helping out!

Strangely, these days, the “Lars Family Dining Room” is not used as the hotel's primary dining room.  Perhaps, the owner wants as little disturbance as possible to the SciFi movie magic details that seem to be unraveling at the seams!  (Set of Drifters tip:  Just beyond the "Lars dining room" lies a secret passage to service pit #5.  The passageway was marked private, but we entered anyway.  This would have been where "Aunt Beru" prepared her space stew.  In reality though, that scene was filmed on a soundstage back in London.)

If you know the film Episode II - Attack of the Clones there is a scene which is digitized to connect the "exterior" Tatooine surface level of the pit and the "interior" inverted dwelling found at the Hôtel Sidi Driss.  In actuality the "exterior" surface was filmed almost 300 kilometers to the west.  (We would later visit this outside the town of Nefta in a couple of days.)  Ironically, Luke’s home planet of "Tatooine" was originally called "Utapau" in the earliest drafts of the screenplay.  Star Wars fans will note that the name was eventually given to a location in Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, a planet full of giant sink-holes, not unlike the pit dwellings of Matmata in Tunisia, a country which certainly re-inspired Lucas in the writing of the story!  It seems that everything comes full-circle in Matmata... figuratively and literally!

Visitors who investigate a little deeper inside the Sidi Driss “Pit 4” alcoves will be exposed to some trade secrets!  Set dressing door frames are actually constructed out of plywood, plaster and chicken-wire and feature "handprints" left by a multitude of travelers from all over the world.  We noted Star Wars pilgrims from Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada, among others.  Mark Dermul from Belgium leads group tours of Tunisia’s Star Wars locations every few years, though he says 2010’s trip will be his last.  Somehow, I doubt that.  Once traveled, Tunisia holds a very special place in the heart of any Star Wars fan.

Now you may ask... did the “Set of Drifters” leave their marks at the Hôtel Sidi Driss?  You will just have to visit to find out!

Set of Drifters tip:  The "Lars homestead" reveals itself more clearly in the better light of mid-morning.  Since we had arrived to the Hôtel Sidi Driss at dusk, we made sure to awake early the following morning so that we could head back into “Pit #4” to grab better photos.  Doug was not necessarily pleased to be up at 6:30 AM, and unshowered to boot, but I had requested his help to set up some specific shots that I wanted to accomplish.

Not surprisingly, it was really cold in the morning underground, requiring us to wear jackets!  Still, it was nice to be able to get up-close and personal with the spacey set decorations without any distraction from tourists or late-afternoon shadows.

While snapping some images in the otherwise enchanting pits #1 and #3, it occurred to me that I had seen them before!  Turns out, these parts of the Hôtel Sidi Driss were photographed in the mid-1970's book North African villages by Norman F. Carver, Jr.  I had purchased the photo tome a few months earlier to get prepared for the journey to Tunisia and heartily recommend it for any others making the trek.  The book features "vintage" photos of other Tunisian locations we explored, including Chenini, Ksar Hedada and Sidi Jemour.  It is interesting to note that Carver's photos would have predated the filming of Star Wars, and potentially may have been used as sources of inspiration for the Production Designer and Art Director.

Set of Drifters video:  For video from this event, check out our YouTube channel!

Hôtel Sidi Driss - C104, Matmatat-Al-Qadimal, 011 (216) 75 240 005


Toujane

The intrepid drive through Tunisia’s southeastern ksour region is nothing short of incredible (see “essentials” for more tips).  Along the way, beautiful vistas and rugged mountains quietly compete with a handful of small towns that seem almost too meager to survive, especially when perched to the very edge of steep cliffs that drop off into the vast valleys below!  While heading from the southern town of Tataouine to Matmata (our final destination of the day), one spot that really caught our attention was the town of Toujane, a quaint village that features stone houses built right into the hillside!  If driving west from Medenine on C104, you really can’t miss it!  The barely paved roads that cling to every curve are typically only wide enough for one car to pass!

Spread out in the valley between two mountain ridges, Toujane reminded us a bit of the old mining town of Jerome, Arizona, yet this place is certainly Jerome on steroids!  Toujane is glutted with crumbling ruins dating centuries back, including an old Kasbah set high into the mountain.  Still, it seems that the residents have not quite yet figured out how to accommodate all of those tourists making the passage up to Matmata. 

There are a few souvenir shops set up along the edge of the road, but where the heck are you gonna park?  Need gas?  Well, there was one little stall with a fancy glass bottle of blue petrol for sale, but we couldn’t vouch for what was really inside.  One thing that the town would really benefit from is an accessible (and reputable) restaurant to allow visitors to spend more time (and dinars) while taking in the incredible scenery.  In fact, there are a few coffee and tea dens in town... if you can find them.  (Keep in mind, you will be taunted by vendors selling carpets midway through your first cup!)

Toujane is certainly not taking advantage of its inherent beauty.  Residents in town are poor at best with young Berber children crossing busy streets to wave people down and ask for food!  One older gentleman stopped us on our way back through town and almost cried when we gave him the remnants of our package of cookies!  We imagine that in a few years time, Toujane will figure out all of the kinks.  In the meantime, the vistas alone make this a great place to take a break from the treacherous road, stretch your legs and grab some extraordinary photos!

Set of Drifters tip:  If you are afraid of heights, you might want to close your eyes altogether.  While this would be somewhat of a tragedy, since you really should see this place, we have to admit, as we passed through Toujane, it almost felt like we were in an airplane traveling over the valley, instead of in a car hugging to a path alongside it.

Toujane - about 23 km. southeast of Matmata on C104 (the road which links to Medenine)



the road... and “Ode” to Douz

Okay, so Matmata is a small village.  While there is a tiny museum devoted to Berber culture located somewhere in town, and a World War II museum in nearby Mareth (if you are into that sort of thing), we simply did not have enough time to check everything out.  Regretfully, our tight cross-country agenda for the week required that we leave Matmata after only one night!  And thus, we began the longest portion of our trek with a picturesque mid-morning drive towards the Chott el-Jerid (see below)! 

The journey northwest out of Matmata is nothing if not eye-catching.  It almost feels like the center of town has held out on you since more and more ingenious Berber dwellings unexpectedly pop-up out from the hillside.  Many of the homes here are carved directly into ground-level dirt mounds as opposed to holes in the ground, and though the lion’s share of the domiciles are pretty rustic, there were a few standouts we discovered that were adorned with scarecrows, pottery and other odd decorations.

The first town you will hit after leaving Matmata is Tamezret.  The Berber pulse here was in full swing!  Many locals we spotted wore traditional woolen shawls called “baknoughs.”  We snapped a few photos, but tried to remain as covert as possible since tourist gawkers, especially those with cameras, are frowned upon!  In truth, it would have been nice to take a longer detour through Tamezret’s labyrinthine alleyways that overlook the Nefzaoua plains, but there was simply no time to lose!  We were headed to Douz, and there's so much to do in Douz!

A steep decline eventually took us from the rolling hills outside Matmata down onto the desert floor.  No sooner had we leveled out when we spotted our first Tunisian camel out in the wild!  Technically, they beasts out here are not "camels."  The one-humped cousin of the traditional camel is called a “dromedary” (or dromadaire in French).  We must admit, it was somewhat thrilling to see them crossing the lonely highway at their own free will.  Now they say camels can be darn right mean, and that you should never get too close to a one, but those warnings could not stop us!  How else were we going to get such great close-up photos??  After another 20 kilometers or so, the dromedary and desert faded away in favor of green palmeraies.

Date palm farming is big business throughout Tunisia, and as you pass by the towns that follow the flat desert, you will witness many locals gathering fronds that are used to thatch roofs, make furniture and baskets.  It would have been nice to get a better ecological understanding of how a palmeraie works, as we had a hard time deciphering which actually came first, the date palm oasis or towns that grew around them.  Either way, as you trudge from one dusty town to the next, it is quite striking to see the giant farms sprout out up out of nowhere!

Douz is a popular stop-off for tourists looking for that ultimate "Saharan desert" experience.  The town lies at the northernmost edge of the "Grand Erg Oriental," or the Tunisian section of the Sahara desert.  From the outpost of Douz, visitors can go for short dromadaire rides, 4WD dune excursions, or longer multi-night stays in secluded desert encampments.  While we did not spend any length of time in Douz, we immediately fell in love with the name and proceeded to write a little ditty about it during our car-trip.  Some of the more politically-correct lyrics can be found below:

The Ode To Douz

Have you heard the news drifting off the dunes?
There's so much to do in Douz.
Meet “Who's Who in Douz...
Seek out the Berber clues!

You can lose your shoes,
Relax and snooze!
There's so much to do in Douz.

Check out the sandy views,
In golden tones and hues...
Try the local cous cous...
And don't worry, we'll sneak you some booze.

There's so much to do in Douz.



Of course, Douz is just one of many small towns that dots the road connecting Tunisia’s east to the west above the Grand Erg Oriental.  Expect lots of traffic in the form of cars, bicyclists, donkeys and children that always seem to be heading in and out of school!  The series of road blocks offered by these towns will definitely slow you down, so be prepared to get slightly frustrated!  Believe us, we were quite happy to reach the end of the line at Zaouia.  Our "Ode to Douz" rhyming variations were already getting pretty stale!

Set of Drifters tip:  Did we mention that hitch-hikers are common in Tunisia?  If you are a single driver passing through patches of desolate desert wasteland or strenuous mountain passes, you are absolutely expected to pick up strangers and take them as far as you can in the direction you are heading!  Huh?  Frankly, we never felt the need to actually do this, though other travelers to Tunisia we have spoken with, and even guidebooks, swear that this practice is completely normal, and safe!  We will let you judge that for yourselves!

Douz - about 100 km. west of Matmata on route C104



Chott el-Jerid

After what seemed like a never-ending barrage of small up-and-coming Tunisian Berber villages, at long last we reached the Chott el-Jerid!  A giant salt-lake yet with no water in sight, the chott is dry as a bone for 99% of the year, including the few days we experienced it in May of 2010.

The flat goes on for miles and miles beyond the causeway that bisects it, and therefore creates a bizarre milieu of countless wonders.  Each side of the 6 ft. high causeway features small ponds and rivulets of geothermal liquids that form colorful gypsum crystals in what is perhaps the world's largest Petri dish!  (Ain't geology grand?)  The weird thing is that out here, the sand of the desert floor is not "sandy" at all, but more the consistency of crust.  When you walk upon it or simply touch it with your finger, it collapses and sinks underneath you, not in a dissolving way, but more like the snapping of a graham cracker.

Though hard to photograph, mirages (known in Tunisia as “fata morganas”) abound in the distance, playing mind-games with your eyes when you least expect them.  If you are in the driver’s seat, please remember to keep your eyes on the road, as there is a surprising number of people crossing the chott at any given time!  Visitors along this passageway will have to compete with an army of other cars and tour buses stopping off here and there to take photos of the many crystals and oddball sand sculptures that entice from a distance!

Naturally, if this causeway were placed somewhere inside America’s Sonoran desert, its views would be marred by obtrusive billboards every few miles.  Luckily, out on the chott, roadside distractions are kept at a minimum, and include only a smattering of run-down cafe/ shacks that are entirely perplexing in their simplicity.

At one point, just beyond a mile marker for the Algerian border, a lagoon of magenta water in the middle of the chott pulled us from the road for a closer look.  Perhaps not the best place for a swim, it was still eerily inviting contrasted against the harsh horizon where sky and desert meet!

The chott’s one-way-in/ one-way-out causeway ends at a “T” with options toward Tozeur or Tamerza.  We later carried on to the former, however, not before a trek to the marabout of Sidi Bouhlel, the marker for our next Star Wars filming location.  The Chott el-Jerid also happens to be the home of one of the most iconic scenes from the movie, though we would not visit that far more remote location until the following day (see below for more information on both locations).



Chott el-Jerid - accessible via P16 en route from Kebili to Tozeur (approximately 94 km. in length)



the brickwork of Western Tunisia

Another of Tunisia’s many diverse surprises was unfolded when we arrived in Tozeur.  The western town, and its neighbor of Nefta, feature architecture that is unlike anywhere else in the country.  Visitors weary of photographing whitewashed barrel vaults and studded blue doors will find the towns’ intricate brickwork facades a welcome respite.  Their dizzying assemblage of symmetrical patterns and geometric formations almost convey a sculptural bas relief, and though most walls are a muted tan by nature, many bricks have been painted in contrasting jewel tones of rose, carnelian and turquoise for added impact.

Regretfully, we completely missed Ouled el-Hadef, the "old quarter" of Tozeur that exemplifies the architectural motif best.  If you are in town, do not make the same mistake.  Simply take the road beyond the town’s main souk (perpendicular to Avenue Habib Bourguiba), and look for signs for the Musée Archéologique et Traditionnel.  While the small museum features an assortment of local textiles, large date jars, muskets and powder horns, the real gem here is the building itself.  Housed in the former koubba (tomb) of Sidi Bou Aissa, the Musée Archéologique et Traditionnel showcases one of the best brickwork facades in town, and yes, there’s more where that came from...

Tozeur’s old town was constructed by the wealthy el-Hadef family in the 14th century.  Their legacy can be found in many of Ouled el-Hadef’s edifices, particular those east of the museum.  We’re still kicking ourselves for not taking a stroll here, though we suppose there is always next time!

Outside of the old quarter, the mosque of el-Ferdous offers another great illustration of the motif’s impeccable geometric patterning, though trust us, you will be hard-pressed to avoid the technique anywhere in town... that is unless you head south past the palmeraie!  Here, the clean-lined brickwork fades away into a series of tented shacks and run-down abodes better suited to a shanty town!  It did not take long before we realized it was time to pivot back toward the more well-manicured part of town!

The Musée Archéologique et Traditionnel, featuring dioramas of Tunisian life presumably not nearly as bonkers as those at Chak Wak Park, operates 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM and 3:00PM until 6:30 PM Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays. Admission is TND $1.1 (about 80 cents in USD).



Musée Archéologique et Traditionnel - Ouled el-Kadef, Tozeur

Mosque el-Ferdous - Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tozeur




the palmeraies

The main reason towns like Tozeur and Nefta even exist amidst the harsh desert environs that surround them is due to their oases.  Contrary to popular belief, many of these spots would not have sprung to life without the intervention of man.  While it’s true that there are often hidden springs running beneath the desert’s sandy surface - even in the most desolate parts of the world - the springs must be discovered, and then cultivated, to assure a sustaining population.

Tozeur’s oasis palm grove, or palmeriaie, is the second largest in Tunisia, producing a crop of dates each year that are then sold throughout the region.  Since we do not advise that you spend a week counting them all, we will now reveal that, according to reports, Tozeur’s palmeraie consists of 200,000 trees spread over its 10 sq. km. land mass.  Thanks to an impressive system imagined by mathematician Ibn Chabbat in the 13th century - look for his monument in town - the palmeriaie today is still serviced by over 200 underground springs that produce an astounding 15 million+ gallons of water daily.

Tozeur’s palmeraie, and Nefta’s version, “La Corbeille” both offer a multitude of resorts and attractions within their borders.  Easily walkable, but perhaps best viewed on bicycle, the palmeraies offer a unique look into the natural resources available that have literally put Tozeur and Nefta on the map!  Our favorite attraction was easily Chak Wak Park, the indoor/ outdoor museum that you just have to see to believe, though the shrewdly named “Zoo du Paradis” certainly intrigues.  (See below for more on “Chak Wak Park.”)


When nature would not stop calling on our way out of town, we unintentionally visited another palmeraie.  Stopping at the side of Basma’s palm grove, thinking it as good as any place to go to the loo, we suddenly heard the tiny “mewwwws” of a baby kitten.  The little orange-and-white creature was probably only a few days old though its mother was nowhere to be found.  He was so cute, yet so pathetically thin, that we felt he needed some sustenance, and pronto!  Using a bottle cap we fed him some water.  Then, after placing a few pieces of broken cookie into the cap, we watched as the little guy chomped down on the softened biscuits.

Eventually, we had to get going back towards Djerba, yet just as we were turning the ignition on our car, we heard the even louder cries of another kitten who was about to cross the busy road!

Acting on instinct, Doug grabbed the other black-and- white kitty and brought him over to his brother.  We felt they were better off surviving the Tunisian wilds together, though if we had known what we would discover later that night at our hotel, we would have taken them with us in cardboard box!  With the remnants from the buffet restaurants at the Park Inn Ulysse in Djerba, we could have easily fattened up the two cuties rather quickly!

Set of Drifters video:  For video from this event, check out our YouTube Channel!  

Tozeur Palmeraie - south of the Zone Touristique, look for signs for Chak Park from Avenue Abdulkacem Chebbi, Tozeur




“Star Wars canyon”/ the Marabout of Sidi Bouhlel (Deghoumes)

After about 45 minutes of hypnotic alien topography, courtesy of the westward drive through the Chott el-Jerid (see above), travelers to this region of Tunisia will find themselves at a crossroads.  Most turn left and head straight on to the oasis town of Tozeur... but we are not most people.  Instead, your “Set of Drifters” hung a right, in attempts to locate “Star Wars Canyon.” yet another filming location we had planned to tackle near the town of Deghoumes!

Sadly, the directions we acquired were somewhat bogus, and we soon found ourselves lost in what can only be referred to as the “Tunisian outback.”  (Believe us when we say, “Star Wars Canyon” is not in any travel guide for Tunisia!  You are on your own in this rugged terrain, and yet that is exactly what made it so thrilling.)  While driving on the dirt road that we initially thought would lead us to the marabout, we ironically happened across the same exact location where George Lucas returned with his production company in 1980 to film the “Tanis” dig scenes for Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark!  And while it was pretty cool to unexpectedly add that notch to our belt, we were still lost.  The funny thing is that we could see the marker for the canyon, the marabout of Sidi Bouhlel, up on the side of the mountain, but we couldn’t figure out how the heck to get there.  Not thinking clearly - it was about 1:30 PM, and thus, oppressively hot - we decided to endeavor the rest of the route on foot!  After about only 10 minutes of sluggish process, I was already worried, keeping in mind that I had dragged Doug all the way out here, across a desolate salt-lake nonetheless, only to get lost in the middle of nowhere!

We decided to head back to the car and try another approach to the canyon.  After briefly getting our car stuck in the dirt (UGH!), we found the more appropriate road in no time.  (Note to self:  Sometimes it is better to just use your intuition instead of worrying about directions!)

At the end of the road that leads to the marabout of Sidi Bouhlel, a shrine to a holy man from the nearby village of Bouhlel, is a giant parking lot that borders a weird water pumping system.  Like the nearby Chott el-Jerid, this area is apparently a hotbed of geothermal activity!  (Don’t ask us to explain how it all works, but the location afforded some nice photo ops at the very least.)  The adjacent parking was once used as a filming location for Star Wars in 1976.  (It is here where Luke, Obi-Wan Kenobi and C-3PO found a bunch of butchered Jawas next to their parked Sandcrawler!)

Just to the right of the marabout up on the hill lies what has commonly been referred to by fans as “Star Wars Canyon."   The first few steps inside its mouth are somewhat elusive, cleverly hiding the grandiose landscape beyond!  To be perfectly honest, I was somewhat afraid that “Star Wars Canyon” would be potentially boring and frustrating for Doug.  How much excitement can be elicited from looking at a bunch of rocks and trying to match them up with stills from a movie? 

It was soon evident however that, in addition to the six or seven Star Wars locations, we would be in for some pretty startling natural scenery as well!

First up on the tour of “Star Wars Canyon” is a spot along the right side of the canyon where little R2-D2 once made his way after ditching C3-PO in the “Jundland Wastes.”  (While in Tunisia, Lucas’s crew had a hard time making R2-D2 actually roll down the bumpy canyon floor, thus requiring re-shoots to be added in later from footage shot in Death Valley, California in early 1977.  I had visited this location as well just a few months earlier, and it was pretty cool to review their connection.)

Just across the way geographically is a little cave! This is where the local Tatooine Jawas spot R2-D2 and then run behind a rock to stun the robot with some weird Sci-Fi device. Those pesky Jawas then position R2 alongside the rock that today still looks pretty much as it did back in 1976!


Just beyond the Jawa rock, “Star Wars Canyon” opens up considerably wider!  This vantage point was used towards the end of the Tatooine sequence in Star Wars when Obi-Wan and Luke try to help a damaged C-3PO with his torn robotic arm.  Another shot, where Luke and C-3PO spot a couple Tusken Raiders on their “electrobinoculars” was also filmed from this general location.  Subsequently, Luke is attacked by a solo Sandperson on the flat square rock that features prominently on the ground floor of the canyon.  You can’t miss it!

Remember the scene from Star Wars when tresspassers Luke and C-3PO are down for the count and the Sandpeople are rifling through the Landspeeder?  Eventually, Obi-Wan Kenobi imitates the sound of a "Krayt Dragon" to scare the Tusken Raiders away while R2-D2 hides in a cave across the way.  This location is also easily discovered while trekking through “Star Wars Canyon,” the white and tan striations of the rock wall are still almost identical to the way they appeared back in 1976!

While many Star Wars pilgrims voyage beyond the marabout of Sidi Bouhlel to check out the formations depicted in the film, it is the overall topography that really impresses.  (Clearly, a river ran through here at some point!)  The formations are breathtaking; literally; I found myself gasping more than once at the stunning outcrops and wildly jagged edges, the result of what must have been a pretty intense earthquake at some point.

After more than hour of viewing Star Wars locations, as well as the weird fossil marks along the canyon walls, we were both exhausted and knew we had to turn around.  And yet, we had still not seen the ultimate view of "Star Wars Canyon!"  To get to this unbelievable vantage point, we had to travel back up to Sidi Bouhlel and then along the top ridge of the canyon!  I could tell right away that this was going to be somewhat stomach-churning as it had been a loooooong way down to the canyon floor that I had just been traversing!

At one point Doug stopped and could go on no more.  Ever the completist, I still had to make it all the way to the end to view the angle where the Tusken Raiders (or "Sandpeople") first spot Luke and C-3PO coming into the canyon. 

Eventually, I came to the very end of the ridge!  It is from here where Obi-Wan described the city of "Mos Eisley" as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy."  While the jaw-dropping view the cast would have been looking at includes the entire canyon, Sidi Bouhlel, Deghoumes’ palmeraie, and even the grand Chott el-Jerid, in the completed movie, "Mos Eisley" was composited with a shot from "Dante’s Peak" inside California's Death Valley National Park.  Who would have thought so much work and passion went into piecing together of even the smallest scene from Star Wars; trust me, it is no small feat to hike to this spot.  Mission accomplished!

Ultimately, the views in and around “Star Wars Canyon” are so incredible that photos can not do them justice.  The staggering rock formations truly offer a microcosm of what can be viewed inside Arizona’s Grand Canyon!  At one point while hiking up and down, and across, the canyon floor I looked up and saw a giant comical face peering down at me from the canyon’s wall; nature truly is mind-boggling!  In another rock near the entrance, gypsum crystals form in a crevice that cuts right through the boulder and continues on the other side of the passage we had just walked through!

The long walk back to the car was grueling to say the least!  For some reason, both Doug and I avoided sun-tan lotion this afternoon.  What were we thinking!?  Bring plenty of water if you plan on taking the hike, and watch your step!  Many of the jagged spires seem to defy gravity altogether!

Set of Drifters tip:  Not surprising, this canyon of grandiose beauty was also used partially in the filming of both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The English Patient.  Be on the lookout for “caves” that feature obvious man-made construction elements that may have once been part of these sets. 

Not interested in movie locations, but still curious about these so-called “marabouts?”  Your better bet is still the exquisite marabout of Sidi Jemour back on the island of Djerba.  Not only is the location easier to find, but it is also set against that dazzling blue/ green water of the Gulf of Gabès!  (Oh, and by the way, if you hadn't figured that out already, “sidi" means "saint.")

Set of Drifters video:  For video from this event, check out our YouTube Channel

“Star Wars Canyon”/ the marabout of Sidi Bouhlel - accessible via small road off of    P16 at the end of the Chott El Jerid before it junctions with C106; email us for more explicit directions for this location as it is very hard to describe, especially since most streets in Tunisia don’t have names




Chak Wak Park (Tozeur)

While walking in Tozeur on our first night in town we happened upon a series of curious advertisements that immediately reminded us of the billboard’s purporting the infamous "Thing" all throughout America’s Southwest.  The curious attraction was called "Chak Wak Park," and with clouds swirling up above us the following morning, we decided to find out what all the hub-bub was about!


Chak Wak is a park in the middle of Tozeur’s grand palmeraie, and upon our arrival to its grand gates, we instantly knew that we were in for a special treat.  The park’s main buildings and nearby landscaped gardens are rather lovely, obviously rented out for parties and such, and yet there is more to Chak Wak than meets the eye... much more in fact!

In essence, Chak Wak is a strange mix of amusement park and “live-action” tableau, minus any actual live people...  It presents a replica of planet Earth that outlines the human history and religion.  Any journey through Chak Wak will take visitors from the “time of creation” all the way up through the present via a series of quirky installations composed of painted fiberglass, elaborate lighting and indoor/ outdoor sound effects!  It’s somewhat like any large city’s Natural History Museum, but with much more (unintentional) whimsy.  Nevertheless, seeing that we were a far distance from Disneyland, we were actually quite impressed by the park’s “special effects,” as naive as they may have been.

Perhaps chiming in on the area's rich Paleolithic history, Chak Wak’s first stab at dazzling patrons is its startling array of dinosaur statuary both big and small!  Yet these are not skeletal remains; the beasts at Chak Wak are presented to scale in all their three-dimensional glory, roaming amidst the many palms of the surrounding grove.

While the dinos allowed for countless comical photo ops, eventually it was time to move onto the Neanderthal tableau.  Here, it appears no expense was spared at Chak Wak... sarcasm, my friends!  Inside, an “erupting volcano” was accompanied by a coaxing female voice over that told the story of the “Big Bang.”  Was it just me, or was the heat turned up for added effect?  Probably not.  Much of the park was in a state of disrepair - which only added exponentially to the oddity of the environs.

Evolution continues on through the years at Chak Wak park with a parade of cave men and women who may have literally been hit with the ugly stick!  The accompanying colorful paintings of Neanderthal women were so intriguing that we would have hung them in our apartment back home if at all possible.  (Was that “Pris” from Blade Runner?)  Other depictions of cave dudes were frighteningly freakish; no nipples - no eyes - no service!

Unexpectedly, live animals mixed into the papier-mâché and fiberglass madness!  While I have no issues with the ransom goat, pig or peacock, the ending result was all very strange indeed!

Chak Wak delivers a true dichotomy in that that it educates visitors on both Evolutionary and “Creationary” theories, as evidenced by its monolithic replica of a very robust "Eve."  (Someone get this woman a fig leaf already!)  A “Tree of Life” sprang eternal nearby, and it did not end there!  The story of Noah’s Ark is also represented, yet with one too many giraffes, we were a little confused by the tableau’s veracity.  Inside the ark, things fared even worse, especially for the randomly placed taxidermied animals that had been hung up to the rafters with strings!  WTF!?!?

And just when you think you've seen everything at Chak Wak... a tour of the world's ancient civilizations begins!  The interiors of the Asian and Egyptian pavilions featured artwork displayed in a more traditional museum setting, and yet every piece was clearly some sort of reprint or replica.  (I found it especially odd to be viewing native American art in such an unusual setting half-way across the world!)

We grooved on the architecture presented in Chak Wak’s homage to all things Islam, even if it was completely made up for the sake of the amusement park.  Naturally, this being a Muslim country, this section was pretty spectacular, its decadent interiors topped off by an amazing model of a significant religious structure comprised from tiny little pieces of wood no bigger than a matchstick!

Overall, the park’s even keeled approach to the world religion is its masterstroke!  Separate vignettes for Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu religions are each accompanied by historical information and explanations of each faith’s main tenets, though it must be reported that the Jewish section is compact in comparison.  Chak Wak’s “Parting of the Red Sea” is perhaps the most peculiar diorama, and you do not want to miss it, not that you could!  We won’t ruin the surprise for you now, but we can assure that no towel is required!

Chak Wak Park is actually a great place to take kids.  Furthermore, if you need to brush up on your religious history, you could do a lot worse than this unique spot.  Heck, it’s worth the price of admission alone to just have your photo taken holding up a “Cro-magnon baby,” or standing aside “Eve’s” ever-creative nether regions!  In fact, the sights and sounds inside the park were so unassumingly trippy we are now kicking ourselves for not taking video!  (Trust us, you’ll want to save some room on your memory card for this same purpose!)

Entrance to Chak Wak Park costs TD $15 (about $11 USD), well worth it in our humble opinion.  The cavalcade of eccentricity opens at 8:00 AM Monday through Friday and at 9:00 AM on Saturday and Sunday.  Closing time is 11:00 PM daily.

Set of Drifters tip:  If you haven’t had your fill of weird papier-mâché diroamas yet and still want to see more, a similar museum is located conveniently within the Zone Touristique.  Built by Tozeur’s former mayor, the same gentleman behind Chak Wak Park, Musée Dar Cheraït weaves 3D tales specifically from Tunisia’s history.  Admission is TD $3.4, plus an additional TD $1.7 to take pictures (all together about $4 USD).  The museum is open daily from 8:00 AM all the way up until 12:00 AM!

Chak Wak Park - southeast of the Zone Touristique inside the Tozeur Palmeraie, look for signs for Chak Park from Avenue Abdulkacem Chebbi, Tozeur

Musée Dar Cheraït - Avenue Abdulkacem Chebbi, Zone Touristique, Tozeur, 011 (216) 76 452 100

http://chakwak.com/en/





drive through the Chott el-Gharsa via 4WD

Upon check-in at our hotel, Doug and I browsed through the concierge’s funny little book of “off-roading” options that used Tozeur as a starting point.  One of the more popular trips seemed to be one that takes visitors to the western towns of Mides and Chebika, old Berber villages that are now havens for hiking and swimming.

Of course, we had our own tailor-made mission to accomplish, direct from our own homemade dossier.  As soon as we showed it to our concierge, he knew exactly where we had hoped to go and assured us that for TD $150 (about $110 USD), a scheduled driver would take us anywhere we wanted to go the following afternoon starting at 2:30 PM!  (Good thing, since without our driver, we never could have figured out exactly where to go... and, in our trusty little rental car, would have probably ended up stuck in the dirt on our way up the first dune!


The following afternoon we waited patiently in the lobby, but as you can well imagine, our driver was almost 45 minutes late!  Already somewhat nervous, I showed our driver Ehmid my book of photos from the Star Wars films.  After chuckling a few times here and there, he assured us in his broken English that he knew how to get to all of the locations we had hoped to see.  And yet, as we started out from the El Mouradi Tozeur, my anxiety was palpable.  The weather had only worsened throughout the day, we had already been delayed 45 minutes, and we had not one, not two, but four specific locations to check out - all prior to the sun setting around 7:30 PM!

Instead of heading west on P3, our driver took us on the longer, “more adventuresome” route via a dusty dirt “road” north of Tozeur that seemed like no road at all to me!  I was ticked off since I had specifically asked Ehmid to make as many shortcuts as possible in order to give us as much time as possible at each of the four locations.  Again, he advised us not to worry - that we would see everything, and the sunset, as planned.  Still, over the next 45 minutes, Ehmid took us on a voyage with such indiscriminate turns through the terrain, it seemed impossible we would ever end up anywhere in particular!

At one point along our scrub-brush bump-a-thon, we passed what seemed like a real lake in the middle of the desert.  It must have fed the nearby "Corbeille" palmeraie of Nefta, and its presence soothed my nerves a bit since I knew we were going somewhat in the right direction after all!

Following a few more kilometers, a sign finally popped up out of nowhere that signaled the the first stop on our 4x4 Tunisian desert adventure, the rock formation of "Ong Jemal" (or "neck of the camel") as featured in another movie, The English Patient.  Located on the edge of another salt flat, the Chott el-Ghasra, the most famous view off of Ong Jemal is notably punctuated by a decent sunset that we were still wondering whether or not would ever happen that evening!  The mirages out here were quite trippy, though now that we think about it, not quite as much as those dioramas from Chak Wak Park earlier in the day (see above)!

Looking out across the Chott el Gharsa from the top of Ong Jamel we could see a number of locals and tourists participating in some wild dune-buggy off-roading!  For us, there was simply no time for such antics.  We were still on a mission!  You see, the area around Ong Jemal was also used in the filming of Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  This is where the villainous character Darth Maul sent probe droids out to look for the heroes of the film.  The location was probably the most unnecessary stop of our trip so after only a few requisite snaps, we popped back into the 4WD.

Ehmid then took us on a rowdy ride up and over nearby dunes - in the rain no less!  (This was certainly was not the weather I had been hoping for and I must admit that I was getting more and more restless by the minute.  We still had so much to see that afternoon before sunset... that is if we could ever locate the sun!)

Bumping up and down all over the place as we traversed across the wavy dunes was not necessarily part of our original plans, yet Ehmid ultimately knew what he was doing when he took us on this more thrilling route!

At the top of one of the dunes we found ourselves in place with two other nearby 4X4’s.  The resulting "race" to the bottom was breath-taking to say the least!

Once at the other side of the dunes, we found ourselves amidst an all new alien landscape comprised of jagged windswept embankments.  What the heck were these sand colored formations resembling "Roman noses" laying on their backs?  “Yardangs" apparently, or wind-abraded ridges often found in desert environments.  The formations range from small to very large, and while they seemed quite exotic to us, are quite common in desert regions across the globe.  In fact, the origin of the word is apparently Turkish, translation of which is "steep bank."

Not surprisingly, this particular yardang field was also used in the filming of The Phantom Menace in a scene where Queen Amidala's sleek Royal Ship first lands on the planet of Tatooine.  (Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn later had a showdown amidst the yardangs as well.)  We enjoyed playing an unintentional game of hide ‘n seek amongst the embankments, but knew we had to move on to our next destination once we saw another couple 4WD’s appear from the top of the dunes.  Luckily, our next target, a large pile of debris in the middle of nowhere, was within walking distance!

Remember the filming location of Ksar Hedada (see above)?  This was the granary in southern Tunisia that had been transformed into a hotel and used to designate the "slave quarters of Mos Espa" in The Phantom Menace.  Well, during the production of that film, George Lucas and his team reconstructed an entire section of the hotel out here in the midst of Nefta’s massive imposing sand dunes.  Aside from the drama provided by the natural geological surroundings of the yardang field, Lucas had requested that some of the larger vehicles, like Anakin’s "pod racer" fit into the “Mos Espa” slave quarters set.  The film crew, and the pod racer, would certainly not have been accommodated by the actual hotel Ksar Hededa location.

It is amazing how much detail went into the reproduction set, and therefore somewhat tragic to see it shredded to pieces and laying in complete ruin with not much of it recognizable.  So what happened here?  Thieves?  Bandits?  Vandals?  Actually no... the culprit here is simply sand.  Over the last 14 years, the encroaching dunes have slowly been moving across the set, consuming entire walls and staircases, and leaving behind in their wake, dilapidated piles of plaster rubble, chicken-wire and parched wood framing.  Yes, my friends, the dunes are alive!! 

Before coming to Tunisia on this journey, I had read accounts that in the latter part of the last decade the set had been completely covered.  Therefore, we were quite happy to see so much of it exposed on this overcast Sunday afternoon.  The experience left us feeling somewhat like archaeologists at excavation site.  Ironically though, the “ruin” in question was simply fabricated out of plaster and dated only from the last 15 years!  Much like the examples seen in the fascinating History channel series Life After People, it was quite startling to see what can happen in such a short amount of time when “Mother Nature” takes over where Man has left off.  A solo lost Bedouin shoe at the Ksar Hedada reproduction set said it all...  The days are numbered for this piece of Star Wars history!

Eventually, the sun began to peek out. and just in time for the next stop on our 4WD excursion located just a few hundred meters beyond...

Au Coeur du Désert offers a multitude of 4WD day and afternoon trips through western Tunisia.  Prices vary according to itinerary so check with your hotel’s concierge or their website for more information.

Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure you take some photos of you or your friends standing next a yardang.  You will be surprised at the scale of these oddly-shaped sand mountains while reviewing your photos on the trip back home!


Au Coeur du Désert  -      Zone Touristique, Tozeur,  011 (216) 76 453 660. or 011 (216) 76 453 570

http://www.aucoeurdudesert.com/en/index.php



Star Wars “Mos Espa” set (Nefta)

The next location on our Star Wars trek across western Tunisia was the complete, and intact, Tatooine city of Mos Espa!  Simply a quick jump over the dune from the yardang field and the reproduction set of Ksar Hededa, this impressive faux spaceport was also constructed for 1999’s Episode I:  The Phantom Menace.

Unlike the mini-repro of Ksar Hededa, the buildings and set pieces of “Mos Espa” have been well- maintained, and more importantly, guarded from the encroaching dunes all around.  Yet, do not be fooled, these are buildings conceived solely for a movie, similar to the ones you might find on the back-lot of any major movie studio in Hollywood.  The odd thing here is that the facades and partial buildings have been erected in a desert in the middle of nowhere some 6,500 miles from Tinseltown!

The "Mos Espa" set was certainly the most crowded place we had been all day.  It seems that this is a stop on any, and all, 4x4 desert tours in the area, whether participants are Star Wars fans or not!  Walking through the streets full of tourists from all over the world, the set conveyed almost the same vibe as depicted in the original film, that is to say, a rough ‘n tumble melting pot of races, species, and sub-species.

During the filming of The Phantom Menace in 1997, the worst rainstorm in years whipped through this set, destroying much of the production team’s hard work.  (Ironically, the same thing happened in 1976 when Lucas first came to Tunisia to film A New Hope.)  The crew worked relentlessly to rebuild “Mos Espa” in just a matter of days in order to keep the production on schedule.  Luckily, a return visit in 2000 to film Episode II:  Attack of the Clones proved less problematic.

One of the most striking aspects of the Mos Espa set are the "moisture vaporators," set pieces that featured often in Tatooine scenes from the start in the 1977 original.  Their design is so iconic within the Star Wars universe that I must admit leaning up against one almost brought a tear to my eye.  But again, don't be fooled...  The "moisture vaporators," devices intended to capture even the tiniest of water molecules from the arid desert landscape, are completely fake, constructed out of nothing but wood, chicken-wire and plaster!  (Sadly, one of these beasts would not fit in my pocket as a souvenir!  I guess I could always try reconstructing one back home.)

While strolling through the set - most tour operators will allow about 45 minutes to do so - you will undoubtedly notice that the piping in the door frames looks mighty familiar. Yep, it is the same motif as seen on the "Lars Homestead" set from the Hôtel Sidi Driss in Matmata (see above).  And just like at the Sidi Driss, the pipes and tubing found here (meant to depict sophisticated cooling systems) do not go anywhere; they are simply nudged into the corners of the set and covered with sand at their base!

We enjoyed deciphering which household items made up the other odd props attached to building facades.  Look, there’s the backside of a flat screen computer monitor!  Spray-painted gold with some extra holes and gadgets added to disguise its origin, it doubles as an otherworldly device of unknown purpose when flashed quickly across a movie screen.  You see, the George Lucas trick is to make sci-fi futurism seem "lived in," as if the technology is perhaps already outdated even though it is supposedly from our future.

While a number of people have scratched graffiti into the walls, or added their signatures to the vaporators (I do not approve!), damage to the “Mos Espa” structures remains at a minimum.  How does this particular location stay in such good shape when the set just over the hill is in complete ruins?  It’s simple.  The locals of Tozeur and neighboring Nefta appreciate that Star Wars brings in tourists... and tourists bring in money.  And thus, keen to repair what someday may be lost, it’s the everyday residents of this region who maintain the facades and keep the dunes from destroying the 20+ buildings once and for all. 

Speaking of commodities...  Be warned that hordes of tourists congregate each dusk to watch the sunset from plastic lounge chairs left out front of pumpkin-shaped “Watto’s junk shop.”  Though we did not stay to witness that particular bummer, we did have our own freak-out moment when we ran into a family that had originated from San Diego, California!  Even though they had been living in Tunisia for almost an entire year, their presence - and particularly their American accents - immediately took us away from the otherwise alien vibe all around!

We spent about an hour at the Mos Espa set.  The entire time clouds played vicious games with the sun and I found it quite difficult to get well-balanced shots from my camera.  Nevertheless, "Mos Espa" was certainly a highlight of our trip, and yet... the best was still ahead!

Set of Drifters tip:  A couple refreshment stands have been added to quench the thirsts of the many tourists who pile through here every day!  (Unbelievable!  They even have Coca-Cola and mint tea on Tatooine!)  Need to use the restroom in outer-space?  User-friendly port-a-potties are available near the makeshift parking lot.  Access is granted after paying the caretaker a measly TD 1 (about .75 USD).

Star Wars “Mos Espa” set - north of Nefta Corbeille, about 24 km. northwest of Tozeur, via the “Saul Zaentz Imperial highway” (constructed for the filming of The English Patient)... Oh who are we kidding?  Get a guide.  You will never find this place otherwise!



Le Grande Dunes (Nefta)

Sometimes life takes on a surreal edge.  Often when traveling and doing something completely out of the ordinary, you have to pinch yourself and ask for a moment, “am I here?”  During the entire afternoon of our trek across the dunes of of western Tunisia, we felt as though we were living inside some weird movie, and in a sense, we were.

After our stop in the Star Wars city of "Mos Espa,” our driver Ehmid collected us in the 4WD and drove us another 10 kilometers out from Nefta towards the Algerian border.  Along the way we passed not one, but two little girls who popped out from shrubs holding baby foxes! Apparently they charge a few dinar for a photo with the cuddly creatures!  Wow.

We also navigated beyond by the stunning palmeraie of Nefta, a natural oasis location inhabited since the Neolithic age.  In fact, the oldest evidence of human life in Tunisia has been recorded in the immediate area at Gafsa. Coincidentally, the expanded universe of Star Wars also includes a canyon named after the town; it’s located inside the Jundland Wastes of Tatooine, depicted in the film by the same “Grand Dunes” of Nefta that we were about to discover!

We only had about an hour until sunset at this point, and with the clouds conspiring once again to shut out the sun, things were not looking very promising.  As a result, by the time we finally reached the “Cafe des Dunes” (the staring point for any number of camel treks out into dunes), I was in no mood for the somewhat abrasive demeanor portrayed by the manager of the dromadaire encampment.  After a few minutes of haggling, we eventually agreed upon a price of TD $40 each (about $30 USD) for a brief half hour ride to the furthest edge of the dunes.  It was no easy task to work out the logistics since it seemed no one around spoke any English, or French for that matter!   (At least I still had my dossier of Star Wars screen captures to help explain our initiatives!)

As we headed out on our mini-trek, we did our best to refrain from any references to Sex and The City 2, the Moroccan-based film that had been released while we were traveling abroad.  It was not necessarily easy when, at the halfway point of our journey (and after four days of no service), “Set of Drifter” Doug’s cell phone starting beeping, the result of a non-stop deluge of text messages from home.  Here we were in the middle of the Saharan Desert and finally, phone reception!  Highly ironic.

Now it must be said that a ride on the back of the one-humped dromedary is not the easiest way to get around, nor the most comfortable!  Brady kept sliding off the back of his beast while mine was so unfortunate looking that it reminded me of 1990's one-hit wonder Jane child!  It’s best to remember to hold on tightly.  No photo of sand is going to be worth you falling off your camel and becoming the butt of local Bedouin folks’ jokes!

Speaking of which, while our guides chit-chatted with each other along the way, a separate grouping of Berber women soon emerged from behind.  They followed us for the remainder of our route, offering a number of trinkets with little or no interest.  Their incessant chants of “buy, buy, buy” nearly drove us nuts.  Looking back on it now, this actually may have been the perfect place to buy souvenirs on the cheap.  The bracelets, necklaces and dollies up for grabs were only 1 dinar each!  And who knows, maybe a sale would have shut them up?

Eventually we made it to Le Grande Dune.  This is where C-3PO and R2-D2 first crash-land on the planet of Tatooine with stolen plans of the Death Star in the original Star Wars film A New Hope.  Like at the yardang field, the dunes here had been "on the move" and all did not look quite the same.  (Perhaps surprisingly, the scrub bushes that grow around the dunes actually help them from shifting entirely from one location to the next.)

It was hard to tell but one dune, dubbed by fans as "Krayt dragon ridge" once held the “skeletal remains” of the imaginary beast from the film.  Today, local Bedouin kids prey on tourists with what they claim are original "Krayt dragon bone" props from the 1976 shoot.  Once our guides found out that Brady was a fan, they hounded us incessantly, proffering small pieces of plastic and fiberglass that in no way resembled the skeletal structure seen in the film!

The ride back to the camp was especially comical.  The younger group of Bedouins egged on a poor old Berber man that was absolutely determined to sell us pieces of the aforementioned dragon skeleton.  Keeping a running pace in order to match the trot of the camels, the ancient man followed us all of the way back to the camp, pleading along the way “please, please sir, please.”  We felt bad for him naturally, but there was no way we were going to buy a piece of broken plastic just because someone said in broken English that it was from a former Stormtrooper costume!  (In 1976, the Stormtroopers were played by a bunch of young Tunisian locals.)

All sore buttocks and backs aside, the dromedary trek out into the Nefta’s “Grand Dunes” was yet another experience we won’t soon forget!  Of course, the ultimate Star Wars moment was just to come!

Le Grande Dunes - accessible from road heading north at kilometer marker 26 for Hazoua on P3 (about 10 km. west of Nefta); take the turn-off north for about 4 km. where you will run into the picturesque camel encampment




“Lars Homestead” igloo (Nefta)

After the dromadaire ride amidst the Grand Dunes, we hopped once again into Ehmid’s trusty 4WD jeep, edging ever closer along P3 to Tunisia’s western border with Algeria.  At the marker for kilometer 26 (en route to Hazoua), we turned off the main road heading southwest into the barren Chott el Jerid salt flat.

It would be impossible to describe the suspense that continued to build as we made the trek ever closer to our final destination of the trip.  Though handheld movies filmed here reveal not much of anything along the horizon, they eventually pay off once our jeep stops just meters away from one of the most iconic Star Wars locales of all time, the exterior "ground level" of the "Lars family homestead.”

Featured in three of the six Star Wars films, the set's first appearance was in 1977's Episode IV:  A New Hope in the scene where the “Jawa Sandcrawler” stops by to sell Luke’s Uncle Owen a pair of droids.  And yet the building you see in Star Wars is not the same one that stands here today.  You may remember that in the original film the distinctive igloo-shaped domicile is burned to the ground by the Empire's Stormtroopers who are on a hunt to find C-3PO, R2-D2 and their stolen plans for the Death Star super-weapon.  After filming in 1976 wrapped, the chicken-wire and plaster construction was demolished, leaving only the surrounding earthen craters to mark the famous location.  (Of course, the crater is not real at all.  The man-made berm was constructed long ago to match up with the underground pit dwelling location that was actually filmed 190 miles away at the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata - see above.)

In 2000, Lucasfilm returned to this exact same location - out in the middle of nowhere, mind you - to faithfully recreate the "Lars Homestead" dome for Episode II:  Attack of the Clones.  Because the scenes in that prequel film would have occurred 23 years prior to the ones in Episode IV, the building had to appear newer and less-weathered.  The ironic thing is that when we visited in 2010, the then-current igloo appeared more like it would have following its appearance in A New Hope, seemingly tattered and scarred by the battle fire of Mother Nature. 

And yet, the structure that stands today is still not the same one featured in Episode II.  After the igloo started deteriorating at an alarming rate, a group of super fans (lead by Mark Dermul) banded together in 2012 to restore the building to its original appearance.  Is is this newly-polished rebuilt that new Star Wars pilgrims will visit today.

Peering into the arched entrance of the dome you can almost imagine it leading to a tunnel that would connect to underground dwellings in much the same way you enter the Hotel Sidi Driss.  Of course, if you follow the “stairs” at the exterior Lars Homestead set out in the middle of the Jerid, you will be led nowhere but into a shallow pit of sludge!  (Oh, the magic of movie making!!) 

When we visited, the under-the-dome construction of the set looked very similar to that of the interiors behind "Mos Espa" facades back in Nefta.  We were surprised by the igloo’s small stature, and even more so by the clever placement of an Imperial Stormtrooper action figure next to the egress.  Seemingly on-guard against the looters and vandals who had already swiped nearby “moisture vaporator” set dressings, we left the 3 ⅞” tall sentinel to complete his job. 

Aside from a used condom unceremoniously discarded at the foot of the igloo - some people are just so uncouth - another thing we did not expect to find out here were piles of tires that littered the environs!  Our guess is that they serve two purposes:  one, to mark the location for guides from far away distances, and two, as a barrier from the wild winds that continue to cut through the chott each year, wrecking havoc on the poor, unprotected structure.

Case in point was the weird rickety wooden structure located just behind the igloo.  The outline of "Luke’s garage," and sometimes referred to as the farm's hydroponic garden, the skeleton shell of this set piece appeared on its last legs.  (Its top had blown away long ago and the ground itself has been swept out from underneath!)

Eventually, Ehmid let us climb onto the hood of his jeep to get better views of the expansive skyline.  From here, it was obvious that we were finally gonna get that iconic sunset after all!  With Doug documenting on video the intrinsically surreal once-in-a-lifetime experience that was to follow, I cued up John William’s "Binary Sunset" theme on my iPod and watched as the sun dropped behind the silhouetted dome.  The magical moment took me immediately inside the movie, and to another planet in a galaxy far away from Earth... though in retrospect, I suppose we were one sun too short!  (Tears flowed down my cheek shortly thereafter.) 

Since I kept forgetting my “Gorilla tripod” everywhere, we asked Ehmid to take some photos of us together.  Crouching down at times to mimic Luke’s poses from the film, I cursed myself for not bringing that old soiled karate outfit from home!  But I digress...

Earlier, we mentioned that three of the six Star Wars films featured scenes shot here. 'Tis true... while filming Attack of the Clones in 2000, George Lucas also shot an additional scene for Episode III that, at that time, had not yet been named.  In fact, it is the final scene shot here from 2005's Revenge of the Sith that closes out the first three prequels and segues them into Episodes IV, V and VI. 

Set of Drifters tip:  Certainly, the staggering sunset at the Lars Homestead ended up our favorite moment of the trip to Tunisia.  While we presume you could find this evocative location on your own, no doubt using an assortment of GPS coordinates and Google Earth map images, it’s much easier to just hire a guide like we did!  (See above for more information.)  Just make sure you make your Star Wars “super geek” intentions well-known ahead of time so your driver knows how much time to give you at each site. 

Lars Homestead igloo - Chott el Jerid (accessible from road at kilometer marker 26 for Hazoua on P3, about 10 km. west of Nefta)

Au Coeur du Désert  -      Zone Touristique, Tozeur,  011 (216) 76 453 660. or 011 (216) 76 453 570, http://www.aucoeurdudesert.com/en/index.php