TUNISIA: PART 2 - A STAR WARS STORY
BY: TRAVIS GILL
Not so long ago in a country far, far away…
[Begin epic main title theme composed by John Williams and start iconic STAR WARS crawl text]
Episode 85 – Chasing Childhood Memories
Our two valiant motorcycle overlanders have traveled throughout North America and Europe in their constant search for adventure. They hoped to reconnect to their childhood by visiting locations that they have dreamed about since watching the summer blockbuster movie STAR WARS. Visiting previous film locations like the Redwood Forests of California, Skellig Michael Island in Ireland, Lake Como in Italy, and the Hardangerjøkulen Glacier in Norway, have continued to fuel their wanderlust. However, the “Death Star” of STAR WARSfilming locations had eluded them until now – The north
African country of Tunisia.
STAR WARS Fans Rejoice
Although Tunisia has a lot to offer the traveler not interested in seeing STAR WARS film locations UPSHIFT Issue 83, it really is a fascinating place to visit if you’re interested in this epic space opera series. I have fond memories of watching The Empire Strikes Back as a young child – I remember being in shock as I watched the stunning lightsaber scene where Darth Vader cuts off the hand of Luke Skywalker and then reveals that “No, I am your father.” This was mind blowing stuff to a young, impressionable, 8-year-old boy.
I had a large collection of Kenner action figures including Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and even Hammerhead and Greedo. By the way, Greedo shot first! My parents even sprung for an X-Wing Fighter, that I gleefully flew through the air while burning through batteries that powered the laser cannon sounds and flashing lights – “AA-batteries not included.” So it was with great joy that we found ourselves in the southern region of Tunisia – where much of A New Hope, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones, were filmed.
May the 4th Be With You
Our STAR WARS story begins on the most perfect day for fans of the beloved movie series – May 4th. We didn’t actually plan it this way, perhaps it was the Force that led us to the town of Matmata al-Qudimal and the subterranean Hotel Sidi Idriss on that particular day. Who are we to deny the power of the Force?
The Hotel Sidi Idriss is a late 17th-century Berber home selected by George Lucas in 1976 to film most of the interior scenes that would become the Lars homestead. The hotel was used again in 2000 to shoot scenes from Attack of the Clones. The Hotel Sidi Idriss is a popular tourist site, so we expected that it would be crowded. However, despite a regular flow of Toyota Land Cruisers delivering enthusiastic fans throughout the day, by late afternoon the hotel took on a hushed feeling with nothing more than the sounds of the desert breeze blowing orange-colored sand across the surface.
For a very reasonable price of $55 USD, you can spend a night in the simple cave-like rooms that included a molded bed and two nightstands. We originally had been assigned the Princess Leia room, but when we opened the door, a feral cat hissed and sprung from the room – apparently trapped throughout the night. We decided to settle for a different room named after another female Rebel Alliance leader – Mon Mothma. Hotel guests share the bathrooms and other common areas, where we enjoyed an authentic Berber meal in the exact same spot that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru discussed with Skywalker about plans for continuing to work on the moisture farm for another season. In that scene, Luke frustratingly gets up from the table and walks out. The next scene shows Luke emerging from the Igloo styled earthen home and peering into the binary sunset, reflecting on his future. This powerful scene, from A New Hope, flows naturally from the interior to the exterior shots – however, these two sites are about 310 miles (500 km) from each other.
An Iconic Site at Sunset
Not far from the Algerian border, in a remote saline dry lake-bed, rests the prominent exterior of the Lars Homestead. Reaching this part of Tunisia wasn’t too difficult for a dual-sport motorcyclist, however it’s far enough off the beaten path that it doesn’t get the loads of tourists as other sites. When we arrived, just before sunset, we relished having the entire site to ourselves. It was nice to reflect on being able to visit such an iconic piece of movie memorabilia in complete peace and solitude. The original structure, that was built in February 1976, still stands today – a remarkable achievement and a testament to those who cherish the STAR WARS universe. As the sun began to descend onto the western horizon, we made sure to capture a memory of this historic event – including the legendary binary sunset.
The Jundland Wastes are Not to be Traveled Lightly
In the Jebel Sidi Bouhlel region is a geological canyon where a large portion of A New Hope was filmed. As we were riding through the town of Dguache, we came across a roadside vender selling fresh watermelon and decided it would be a nice snack to cool us off from the 95-degree (35C) heat of the afternoon. We carefully strapped the watermelon to the tail-bag and made our way to the canyon entrance.
The watermelon seemed fitting since the fictional Jundland Wastes are where Black Melons grew providing a reliable source of milk for the Tusken Raiders. Scenes shot in the canyon include: the Jawas neutralizing R2-D2 and carrying him to the Sandcrawler, Luke being attacked by the Tusken Raiders, and the introduction of Ben Kenobi. At the base of the canyon, we watched clips from the movie and tried to find the same flat spot where Luke’s Landspeeder would have been parked. We enjoyed eating the sweet watermelon and contemplating on being in such a remarkable place from a movie memory some 47 years before.
Trouble in Tatooine
It was during our ride to Jebil National Park that we had a breakdown of my G650GS. While gassing the throttle, to cross over a sand-washed portion of the paved-road, I heard a loud “pop” followed by the spinning of the drive shaft where it connects to the front sprocket. The pinion teeth on the main drive shaft have been slowly wearing over the last 60,000 miles and they finally reached a point where the front sprocket would no longer engage. The wear had deteriorated to a point where the sprocket would need to be welded. To make matters worse, we hadn’t seen another vehicle in hours and were surrounded by desert in all directions. As we pushed my motorcycle to a clear patch of roadway where we could work on it, a small 1980s Datsun truck appeared over the horizon, slowly making its way towards us. As it approached, we noticed three Berber elders, somewhat comically, wedged into the front bench seat of this tiny truck. They stopped to offer help, but quickly realized that with our language gap, and not having the tools needed to help us, they moved along down the road. We were left a bit helpless in the blowing sands of the Sahara.
Fortunately, we carry a spare front sprocket and have all the tools needed for replacing it. We loosened the chain and removed the holding bolt and worn sprocket from my crippled mule. Perhaps the fresh sprocket would have enough pinion engagement to get us out of the remote desert and to a local welder? We said a quick, but heartfelt prayer, and reinstalled the new sprocket, holding bolt, and chain. Miraculously it worked! There was adequate engagement between the pinions so we could continue on our way. Perhaps there would be someone at the Mos Eisley Spaceport that could saber-weld the sprocket?
Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy
Most of the Mos Eisley exterior scenes were filmed in the Ajim neighborhood on Djerba Island. A cantina, plaza, and two side streets were constructed in 1976 for some iconic scenes of A New Hope including Ben Kenobi’s famous line “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Unfortunately, not much of the set remains except for the small cantina building which is slowly crumbling away. A pixilated Stormtrooper, created with small bathroom tiles, and a spray-painted masking that reads “STAR WARS Filming Location” are the only reminders to visitors and fans. We continued to the west to check out the other spaceport of Mos Espa- surely they have someone who could fix my speeder bike there?
Podracing and the Slave Quarters
We wanted to time our arrival to Mos Espa early in the morning in order to avoid the crowds that congest this popular tourist destination, and to have some time to photograph the various buildings during the “magic hour” without being subjected to the constant barrage of venders. As we entered the desert dune landscape at 5:30 AM, we were thinking we had a pretty good plan. What we didn’t realize is that the venders live here full-time. When they heard the sounds of our single-cylinder Rotax engines, they came out to offer us the latest “good deals” on everything from camel rides, cheap jewelry, colorful geodes, and photographs of us holding desert fox pups. We thanked them for their diligence with some Tunisian dinars, but insisted we didn’t have room on our motorcycles for souvenirs. Unless they had a shop that could weld our sprocket or convert our antiquated wheeled mules into floating speeder-bikes, we weren’t interested. Unfortunately, they didn’t have either.
The rather extensive Mos Espa set started construction in May 1997 for the summer filming of The Phantom Menace. It was used again three years later for scenes in Attack of the Clones. It was nice to see some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in production budget being used to help provide jobs to the local Tunisians who continue to benefit from the tourism provided from these STAR WARS sites.
After a short camel ride across the nearby dunes, we happily returned to our motorcycle mules and continued our adventures to the east where we discovered the Ong Jemel or “Camels Neck”. This mesa-styled rock formation includes a pinnacle that looks like the neck and head of a camel. A few scenes from The Phantom Menace were filmed here, including a portion of the pod-race circuit, and a scene where Darth Maul lands on a desert mesa.
Even further southwest, in the Tatooine region, are the Berber fortified granaries of Ksar Hadada and Ksar Ommarsia. The name of this Tunisian region was also the inspiration for the naming of the desert planet of Tatooine used in the 1976 movie script. The Ksars were used for the slave quarter scenes of The Phantom Menacewhere Anakin Skywalker lived with his mother Shmi. Walking among these 19th-century structures was pretty fascinating – especially climbing the mud steps and peering into the individual storage rooms where locals would keep their grain storage and family mementos.
May the Force Be With You
As we headed north to the capital city of Tunis, we contemplated how unique the Berber region of southern Tunisia really is. So much of their culture influenced George Lucas and the STAR WARS writers, including the desert climate, regional names, traditional hooded coats worn by the men, and even the Berber alphabet. We felt Tunisia was inspirational in making a space opera movie like STAR WARS feel so real – a story of good vs evil, set in a world that may have been a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but still maintains the familiarity of a childhood storybook. When we boarded the Grimaldi Lines ferry to return to Italy, we couldn’t help but feel like we were being transported to another planet – Planet Europe. More adventure awaits….
Travis and Chantil Gill started full-time motorcycle overlanding in early 2020 with the hopes of seeing and experiencing the different countries and cultures of the world. You can follow them on their website at www.viajarMOTO.com.