Star Wars Road Trip -South Western Tunisia
South Western Tunisia is an amazing location for a self drive tour. The roads are generally in excellent condition, with little traffic, and you’ll find yourself passing through an ever changing landscape of desert, arid mountains, palm fringed oases and villages which seem hardly touched by modern life.
In certain sleepy small towns though, the mid day somnolence will be disturbed by the roar of 4×4 engines and the hiss of the brakes of large buses. The tourists have arrived and its a fair bet that most are Star Wars devotees.
Star Wars fans know that many of the most evocative and ‘unearthly’ scenes in George Lucas’ first Star Wars movie were filmed in South West Tunisia, and many names and places in the film were taken from real Tunisian place names. Consequently, the area is a popular day trip from the tourist hot spots along Tunisia’s coast. Its a long, hot bus journey for those on the package tours, but as a Driver Abroad, you’ll have the opportunity to escape the crowds and see the sights alone and in splendid isolation. And believe me, you will really feel like you’ve been transported to the planet Tatooine.
A good starting point is the Island of Djerba. (The island gave its name to the Jerba, the Tatooine beast of burden).If driving from the North, take the main road south from Tunis to Sfax and Gabes (its a busy road with a lot of trucks heading to Libya so take care). At Mareth around 20 KM after Gabes, take the road to El Marsa which is the ferry port to Djerba. The ferry lands at the small town of Ajim, which was used to film a number of scenes in Star Wars back in 1976, notably those set around the Mos Eisley space port, and in particular the exterior of Chalmuns Cantina. Its not easy to find the locations used in the film and you may need to ask a locals assistance.
From the ferry follow the main road towards Houmt Souk until you reach a roundabout with a clock monument. Turn right and you’ll find a square building with a dome on Avenue Aboul Kacem Chebi, which was the Cantina in the film. Another Star Wars pilgrimage sight on Djerba is Ben Kenobi’s House. Again, this is close to the ferry terminal. As you leave the ferry, take the first left turn possible, which is a sandy coastal track. (You may find that the police erect barriers along the approach road to the ferry, especially if there are a lot of vehicles waiting for the ferry, so keep an eye out). You follow this track for around 3km and the house is on a slight incline overlooking the sea.
Djerba itself is a pleasant enough place to spend a few days. Houmt Souk is a small seaside town, which I found preferable to the large touristic zone just along the coast.
Leave Djerba either via the ferry or the causeway at the South of the Island towards Zarzis (quicker unless you leave very early in the morning before the ferry rush hour).Head South around 80 KM towards the town of Tataouine (sound familiar?). Areas around Tataouine were used as the site of Mos Espa’s slave quarters in the Phantom Menace film. Ksar Ouled Soltane and Ksar Hadada were the two main locations used, but there are a number of ancient Ksar’s (fortified granaries) in the area worth a visit via marked scenic routes. Others include the Ksars of Ouled Debbab, Beni Barka and Tamalest. There are also a number of Berber villages in the area worth a visit such as Guermessa, on a hilltop above the modern town of the same name (4WD needed).
From Tataouine, head North to Medenine which also has a Ksar which was used in Phantom Menace, then onto one of the main draws for Star Wars fans, the village of Matmata, 61KM to the North West. The drive from Medenine to Matmata is a great scenic drive with few vehicles and winding steep roads. The section from Toujane to Matmata and on to Tamezret is deservedly classed as an official tourist scenic drive. Matmata was a troglodyte community dating back around 300 years. Rather than live in caves dug into cliffs though, the villagers lived in pits sunk around 30 feet into the ground into which the cave dwellings were dug.
It was in one of these pits that Lucas filmed the interior of the Lars family home, in which the young Luke Skywalker was raised. The scenes were shot in whats now the Hotel Sidi Driss, which still retains a few futuristic props nailed to the walls, but in general is a bit of a disappointment. If you decide to break up your journey and stay the night, you’ll obviously want to stay in a cave dwelling (recommended though can get cold in winter). If you’re a die hard Star Wars fan you may want to brave the Sidi Driss but in my opinion the nearby Hotel Marhala is a better option.
From Matmata drive around 100 KM West towards Douz, which sits on the edge of the Sahara. If you’ve ever harboured the urge to re-enact Lawrence of Arabia and ride a camel into the desert, this is a good place to do it. There are plenty of local options ranging from one hour to 3 day rides. If you do 3 days you probably won’t be able to sit down to drive when you return!
Next you’ll be driving through one of the most hostile and alien places you’re ever likely to encounter as a driver abroad- the great salt lake of the Chott El Jerid. Covering almost 5000 square km, the ‘lake’ is dry for most of the year. Its totally flat, and in summer, like driving through an oven, with shimmering heat and mirages. For Star Wars buffs, this was where the exterior of the Lars house was filmed and where Luke contemplated the two suns in the first film. You’ll cross a long causeway as the road heads towards the Oasis town of Tozeur. Depending on the time of year, the ‘lake’ will probably be dry and salt can pile up at the side of the road like snow drifts. Its spectacular driving and something you’ll never forget.
See a clip of driving across the Chott El Jerid on the DriverAbroad.com YouTube channel.
Tozeur is a reasonable sized town with the ubiquitous tourist zone and a few hotel and restaurant options. Its also the site of one of the biggest Palmeraie’s in Tunisia with over 200,000 palm trees providing welcome shade from the Saharan heat.
There are a number of Star Wars sights close to Tozeur. Its here that you can visit the rebuilt set of the Lars house which is past Nefta on the road towards Algeria. Its around 1km from the 26km marker and is usually visible from the road. The original set was destroyed after filming in the 70’s and this is a replica rebuilt in 2000. Also near Nefta is the Grand Dune which is the site of C3PO and R2-D2’s crash landing in the Dune sea, and the Oung Jmel, or Camel Neck rock, which featured in Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. To find it, head North from Nefta and follow signs for ‘Site Touristique’.
This circuit of the main sites in the Star Wars films could comfortably be covered in 3 days, maybe with stop overs in Djerba and Matmata, but the area is great for driving so if you have the time, you could easily spread it over a week with a couple of days at the beach in Djerba and stops in Douz and Tozeur.
Driving standards in Tunisia are actually very good for North Africa and car rental and petrol are reasonably priced. For more info on driving in the country and car rental options check my Tunisia page.