There really is no point in masking it. Our May 2010 trip to Tunisia was inspired by a desire to visit the locations and last remaining movie sets used in the filming of the original Star Wars film and its subsequent prequels. We had started our fascinating journey on the island of Djerba, mixing the “business” of three separate Star Wars locations with pleasure. (Djerba is home to some of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in Tunisia.) Already impressed with what the country had to offer outside of space-worthy architecture, we were excited to rent a car and head out onto the mainland via ferry on our third day.
On our multi-day trip canvassing all of southern Tunisia, we would first be hitting up Medenine, a bustling city about 58 km. from Djerba. Medenine is home to an animated marketplace that draws vendors and bargain-hunters from both near and far, and it’s also here where we first meet young Anakin Skywalker (aka “Darth Vader”) in Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
After a two or three hour drive through terrain that truly placed us in North Africa, our next stop was none other than the "real" Tatooine, err... Tataouine. Oddly, no scenes of the "outer-rim territory" planet Tatooine were actually filmed in the moderately-sized southern city. In fact, the name "Tatooine" is never actually mentioned in the first Star Wars film from 1977 (later named A New Hope.) That being said, filming in Tunisia (near enough to Tataouine) clearly inspired George Lucas enough, as the desert planet was retroactively named "Tatooine" sometime before 1978’s "Star Wars Holiday Special." (For you Star Wars super-geeks out there, and Set of Drifters Brady is clearly one of them, Lucas had originally intended the planet to be called "Utapau." This of course is this name eventually used for the "sink hole" world in the final prequel film, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Perhaps the sinkhole concept was derived from nearby Matmata... but more on that later.)
At first glance, Tataouine may seem like it has not much on offer, and yet, after only a little exploration, visitors will find that the town is linked to a rich geological past (dinosaurs, anyone?), and acts as the nexus point for a series of interesting hillside-dwelling Berber tribes. Come to take photos next to the “Tataouine” sign, but stay to investigate the many beguiling ksour and kalaa that pop-up all over the area. Our favorites were Ksar Ouled Soltane and Chenini, pictured above. (What’s a ksar? You’ll soon find out.)
Traversing north again, we stopped at Ksar Hedada, another location Lucas & Co. first scouted in 1976 - but ended up saving until the 90s-era prequels. This evocative former granary was at one time turned into a hotel - only to later fall back into ruin. With some of the grooviest otherworldly architecture we’ve seen yet, it’s no surprise investors are looking to restore this desert beauty back to its former glory. We would have loved moving in if it weren’t so remote - and so damn hot out!
Now, just when we thought we’d seen it all - up next came the troglodyte village of Matmata. The surrealist topography that encompasses the small town (and nearby Toujane and Tamezret) is punctuated with jagged hilltops and underground Berber dwellings, many of which remain secret unless viewed from above! Matmata also comes complete with intriguing political ties from the past - and distant future. Not only was the village once at the center of military intrigue during World War II, but it also just happens to be the home of "Luke Skywalker!" (Star Wars trekkers unite! A visit to Matmata is perhaps the Holy Grail... well, at least the interior bowl of the Grail!)
Matmata was certainly not what we had anticipated. While completely bizarre - and totally spacey - its geographic location was curious. We had expected Matmata to be located at the bottom of a valley, not at the top of the treacherous Jebel Dahar mountain range! In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. If you are going to build downward into the ground (as opposed to upward to the sky), there is more space to extract from at the apex of a mountain!
If you are traveling across the width of southern Tunisia like us, the village of Matmata is pretty hard to avoid. Just make sure you spend at least a night here in one of the many subterranean hotels to soak in the town’s highly unusual vibe. Trust us, whether you are a Star Wars fan or not, this is one of the most unique places on Earth!
But southern Tunisia is not done dazzling yet. Almost eclipsing Matmata in its weirdness, the vast Chott el-Jerid salt flat is a 5,000 sq. km. wonder that sucks you from east to west and back, past packs of wild camels and a series of desert towns where precious water is funneled to promote date palm growth. Painted in rich jewel tones of gold, blue and magenta, the geological marvel of the Chott el-Jerid is one you’ll need to get out of your car to photograph properly!
At the western end of the daunting salt flats lies the marabout of Sidi Bouhlel near Deghoumes. This hidden hilltop marker is your starting off point to “Star Wars Canyon,” the impressive naturally-formed divide that easily rivals portions of the majestic American Southwest. In fact, Lucas chose this location to match up with shots from Death Valley that would later depict Tatooine’s “Jundland Wastes.” You’ll definitely want to plan ahead for this stop (which also includes views of topography seen in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and The English Patient). Road signage and trails are confusing at best. Bring water!
Our final stops on our southern Tunisia route were the oasis towns of Tozeur and its baby sister Nefta. Like many of the towns that edge the chott, both Tozeur and Nefta are known for their date harvesting. In fact, Tozeur features a palmeraie to its south so large that you could easily spend an entire day getting lost inside its lush maze! During our visit to this charming western outpost, we did just that, falling down “Alice’s rabbit hole” at Chak Wak, potentially the most peculiar amusement park we have ever seen!
We really liked Tozeur as it was readily the most active place we had been since way back in Djerba! And more people equals more services - and even a little vice. (We like vice.) Many of the westernized hotels and resorts populating the ever-growing "Zone Touristique" cater to off-road trekkers who crave adventure from nearby Ong Jemal and the “Grand Dunes,” locations used in the filming of both the original Star Wars film and 1997’s The English Patient.
But wait, there’s more! In fact, Lucas’s production team used not one, not two, but a total of six (!) different locations in and around the Jerid to complete his saga, all of which can be visited during your stay in Tozeur! The most interesting include the completely intact Tatooine city of “Mos Espa” (located in the world’s largest backlot) and the exterior of the Lars family igloo - recently rebuilt by a team of dedicated fans from all over the world! This spot is best viewed at sunset, and makes for the ultimate climax to your “Stars of the Desert” tour.
For more information, be sure to check out our book of the same name, available on Blurb.com.