One of the unexpected aspects of visiting Tunisia was to come across a range of areas that had been used as locations for various movies. ‘The English Patient’, ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ have all been filmed here. However, the most famous of all would have to be the ‘Star Wars’ series. Many of these George Lucas movies were filmed in the remote deserts of Tunisia, which apparently seemed to be an ideal location to represent planets from ‘a galaxy far, far away.’ As part of our Sahara odyssey, we were scheduled to visit some of these locations which would certainly be of more interest to me than Jules. We had actually attended the opening night screening of Star Wars back when we were dating many moons ago, but while Jules was happy to leave the series at that, I had continued to enjoy the original trilogy for many years to come. It was over forty degrees when we head into the rocky desert area, toward the tiny village of Matmama. This is the land of the ‘Berbers’, nomadic tribes who still live in primitive dwellings dug into the hillside as a way of protecting themselves from the intensely dry heat. Such was the design of the ‘Sidi Drass Hotel’, which was similarly dug down into the ground to provide the visually unique setting for Luke Skywalker’s childhood home. Amazingly, the interiors remain much as they were seen in the original 1977 film and as a functional hotel, the dwelling still attracts Star Wars devotees from throughout the world eager to spend the night. The dugout rooms were amazingly cool and we enjoyed respite from the heat while tucking into a traditional Tunisian lunch before heading back into the desert. The next day we change our mode of transport from coach to four-wheel drive as we headed deep into the sandy desert to search out an exterior location from ‘The Phantom Menace’, filmed in 1999. Bouncing over the sand dunes, we eventually come across the manufactured set looking pretty much as George Lucas had left it once the filming was over. Clearly it still provides a good income for locals who continue to transport the tourists across the desert as well as for the trinket sellers who wait there eagerly for them to arrive. You can well understand why this area was selected, with it’s stark unearthly landscape providing a terrific backdrop to the sci-fi epic. As we wandered around the remote site, we had our light saber at the ready…well, our camera at least! The isolated beauty combined with some fantastic alien architectural forms certainly provided us with some interesting shots that appeared to be straight from another world, just as the famed director intended.
Driving across the inland deserts of Tunisia, we are struck by its harshness of the landscape, but also the variety of forms that a desert can take. There are long stretches of low-level saltbush, flat sections that look like salt lakes and rocky lunar-like landscapes. Of course the most visually appealing are great sandy deserts that come with the occasional welcoming patch of green oasis. While not looking quite like the clichéd image of an oasis, these are generally large areas of closely packed palm trees that are obviously thriving on a small well of water rising from somewhere deep below the ground. This was the sort of desert experience we were looking for and it wasn’t too long before our driver was heading toward an area where we could explore it further. It was mid-afternoon and the temperature was scorching as we headed toward a tiny town called Douz. Also referred to as ‘the gateway to the Sahara’. Douz has long been the starting point for many desert treks and historically was an important stop for the Trans-Saharan caravan route. Today it remains a haven for tourists wishing to have a taste of a bygone era when camels were truly the ‘ships of the desert’. We leisurely waited in the swimming pool of our hotel until late in the afternoon before we donned traditional Arabic kaftans and head cloth (known as a kufiyya) to join our group for a sunset trek into the desert by camel. Now at this point I probably need to mention that I have always been a big fan of the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, which provided me with a very romantic notion of the desert since viewing the movie at our local drive-in theatre way back in the 1960’s. So the notion of riding a camel across the desert dunes was somewhat of a fulfillment of a childhood fantasy for me. While I was getting quite excited about the notion, Jules was becoming increasingly apprehensive about climbing on board a headstrong dromedary that appeared not so keen on being ridden by an inexperienced Australian. There was a solution…while I would ride the camel, Jules would be chauffeur driven in a horse drawn buggy taking photographs of me having my ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ moment…perfect! So as the sun began to shimmer over the horizon, we headed off across the soft white desert sands. The scene looked as picturesque as I had imagined if you somehow managed to ignore the hundreds of other tourists also wishing to have the same experience. Jules’ camera was working overtime in the dying minutes of the day and as the sun began to set, a silhouetted figure sat high on his camel strolling majestically across the crest of the desert sands. At that point and in my own dream world, I swear I could hear the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia in the background!
Up early on a hot and steamy Tunisian morning, we quickly eat breakfast and waited outside our hotel for a 6.30am pickup to begin what is referred to as a ‘Sahara Getaway’. The trip would take us far from the coast and inland heading toward the Libyan border. However, our first stop was at the ancient town of El Djem, which is famed for it’s magnificent Roman amphitheatre. Now, this isn’t one of your average crumbling Roman ruins but rather one of the best preserved examples of Roman architecture in the world, dating way back to the third century AD. While it’s equally impressive cousin the Colosseum in Rome continues to attract millions of visitors each year from around the world, El Djem remains much less known and as a result is somewhat less tainted by commercialism and the tourist dollar. It is similar in design and scale but in far better condition with its classic circular structure remaining beautifully preserved despite numerous wars as well as the inevitable destructive combination of time and the desert sands. Once it held crowds of up to 45,000 people watching everything from ‘Ben Hur’ style chariot races through to gruesome gladiatorial events. In fact, it is still possible to venture down into the dungeons to see the cages where animals and possibly people were kept before their encounters in the grand arena. As Jules and I wandered through the ancient tunnels and stairways that lead to the amphitheatre, we could only imagine what life must have been like during those ancient times. We both really enjoyed being able to just wander around the largely unrestricted site without being swamped by hordes of other tourists. Despite its World Heritage listing (awarded in 1979), this particular Colosseum appeared to have remained somewhat undiscovered by the wider world, with only small groups of interested visitors willing to make the indirect journey to this remarkable location. Its isolation and authenticity is probably one of the factors that has attracted numerous filmmakers over the years. Not surprisingly, Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ was filmed here, as were scenes from Monty Pythons ‘Life of Brian’. For us, El Djem was quite an unforgettable introduction to Tunisian history and to the desert region. It suggested that this country had an intriguing and unknown past that had many more remarkable secrets yet to be revealed.
With just a couple of weeks to spare, before heading to Paris, Jules and I were keen to do some sun chasing. The UK was having yet another disappointing summer, so we began to look further a field. A place that was being heavily promoted and was certainly in our price range was Tunisia. We had absolutely no idea about this destination other than the fact that many were recommending this North African country as a great place to enjoy the warm Mediterranean coastline. As we boarded the plane it was clear that many others had already heard the whispers and were also keen to stretch their holiday dollar even further by paying Tunisia a visit. When we left the gray skies of Manchester, the holiday excitement of the many sun-starved northerners on the plane was clearly beginning to build. Of course our touch down at Monestir was met by the obligatory round of applause (not sure why they do that) and we were quickly whisked onto our holiday package tour bus that would take us to our resort. To be honest, our initial impressions of Tunisia was somewhat of a shock. As we left the airport we encountered a dry and dusty urban landscape of buildings that looked either half demolished or half constructed (it was often hard to tell). This was the first time we wondered whether we had done the right thing by coming here. The streets revealed a strange combination of the old and the new. Horse and carts traveled the roads with the sleek four wheeled drive vehicles. Traditionally dressed locals mixed with those in the latest European fashions. We passed advertising billboards standing on empty patches of desert sand showing futuristic artist impressions of proposed high-rise buildings. Was this the promise of what was to come or just wishful thinking? All this confusion was certainly in stark contrast to what we saw when passing through the gates to our resort at Port El Kantaoui, with its lush green manicured gardens and grand entrance to our white multi storey hotel. There was certainly no ambiguity here; this was a sanctuary for fun and relaxation in an environment that was more than likely well out of reach to most Tunisians. For most of the folk in our transit bus, this is where they would stay for the remainder of their holiday time, without venturing outside the gates. They would spend their days soaking up the sun and enjoying the warm waters, interrupted only by visits to the ‘all you can eat’ food buffet at meal time. Down by the beach they would be enticed to shell out a few denars to engage in a host of water activities ranging from paragliding, catamarans sailing, jet skiing, paddle boating, through to being towed along by speed boats on what looked unmistakably like a giant rubber banana. If they felt inclined they also had the option of heading further out to sea on one of the many cruising boats. We spotted one in particular that was decked out like a cliché styled pirate ship, but judging by the music blaring out it was clearly for the younger crowd. Being the height of summer, other resort guests would race out well before breakfast to lay claim to a place near the swimming pool by placing their towel on one of the many hundreds of sun beds that would eventually become fully occupied as the day became hotter. Once in position and nicely roasting, they would be regularly hydrated by one of the many waiters keen to keep the drinks flowing. As this was our first time taste of the Mediterranean holiday scene, Jules and I had much to learn about this type of holiday. While it was certainly nice to feel the warm sun on our backs, it all made us feel strangely uncomfortable. It may have been the confinement or the self indulgence, but it was just not our style, although it had taken a visit to such a resort for us to truly realize it. Fortunately, the resort was prepared for recalcitrants such as us and with a few tour options available, we soon began to plan an adventure beyond the guarded walls to see what the real Tunisia had to offer.