A galaxy far, far away

The Force is strong with Jeremy Head - on the Tunisian set of the first Star Wars movie

A new Star Wars movie is in production. The original cast members are returning. Harrison Ford has broken his ankle on set! But the next film has a release date for late 2015. I needed a Star Wars fix sooner than that. So I headed for a galaxy far, far away. Well, the desert in Tunisia to be exact.

 

The vast Sahara occupies a big chunk of the far south of the country and it was the perfect spot for recreating Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home in the very first film way back in 1976. George Lucas took inspiration for the planet’s name from the real town of Tatouine a day’s drive south from Tunisia’s capital, Tunis. When we rolled into town, dusty and tired after the drive I didn’t feel much excitement. There were no droids to greet us, no stormtroopers on the street corners. The town itself wasn’t used for filming and it was a pretty run-of-the-mill place. But a short drive northwest along a dirt track brought me straight to my first experience of a real Star Wars location.


Ksars or fortified granaries can be found all over the place in this part of the country, but Ksar Hadada is particularly unique. It was the location for the slave quarters in Episode One (the Phantom Menace). A bunch of simple mud-hut-like cells are bundled one on top of the other. Somewhat ironically they aren’t used for keeping people prisoner. Instead they are hotel rooms - though pretty basic ones at that. I clambered around the site imagining Luke Skywalker around every corner. It’s now a popular tourist destination and I had to fight my way around with a busload of French tourists. But that didn’t detract completely from the atmosphere. The fact that it’s a building still very much in use somehow made the experience feel all the more real.

 

Next morning we fired up the trusty Landcruiser and drove another day’s drive out into the desert arriving eventually at Matmata. (If only we could make the jump to hyperspace - it would make the long journeys between places a bit less tedious.) It was seriously hot out here and I wasn’t surprised to find that people in this part of the world choose quite voluntarily to spend much of the day underground. Dotted around this little desert town are huge circular pits which have been dug deep into the crumbly ochre sandstone. Smaller caves have been cut back into the walls. Many of these structures are still in use even though some are over 400 years old. The main central courtyard pits sometimes have small wells and flower gardens at their centres and some of the bigger cave dwellings have connecting corridors to more courtyards and more rooms. The temperature in these troglodyte dwellings remains pretty constant all year round, perfect for escaping the baking days and the cool nights. Several of them are now hotels, so I spent a night in one. I slept in my sleeping bag, deep in the bowels of the earth as unexpected rain pattered down onto the ground far above, unaware that stormtroopers were wreaking havoc close by.