With a bit of imagination, you could easily picture C-3PO and R2D2 roaming across these desolate plains, stranded on a foreign planet, in search of a settlement. You could see Luke Skywalker gazing out into the distance, dreaming of pitched battles in a galaxy far, far away.
You could picture these things, because this is exactly where they happened. The fictional planet of Tatooine, the desert land that was home to Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker, that was the meeting place of Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that became the most iconic setting in the now seven-part Star Wars saga, is actually Tunisia.
Specifically, it’s the central part of Tunisia, a land of desert and rocks, the beginning of the Sahara, which proved the perfect location to fulfill George Lucas’s vision of a faraway planet. The name even came from here – there’s a Tunisian city called Tataouine just a hundred or so kilometres away from the main filming locations. Hence, the planet of Tatooine was born.
Those first scenes involving the robots C-3PO and R2D2 were shot almost 40 years ago, but still Tunisia remains a favourite destination for Star Wars fans, particularly as the release of Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens looms at the end of this year. The country has featured in every Star Wars episode except The Empire Strikes Back.
There are still several sets from the films left standing, as well as plenty of desert locations easily recognisable from the movies. At least, if you’re a proper Star Wars fan they will be.
There are problems, unfortunately, with visiting these locations at the moment. After two recent terrorist attacks in Tunisia, the New Zealand government has warned travellers of a “significant threat from terrorism”. Yet tourism in the country continues, and companies such as Peregrine Adventures are still running tours. It’s visit at your own risk.
But the rewards are there. Perhaps the most impressive of the old Star Wars film sets is the fictional spaceport town of Mos Espa, the home of Anakin Skywalker in Episode I – The Phantom Menace. This is an entire city that has been left standing in the desert close to the town of Tozeur, where plenty of companies run tours out to the site at sunset.
A stroll through here is a journey into the film itself, as you walk past “Watto’s Shop”, through the pod-racing arena, and past Sebulba’s Café. You can peer into the empty houses; stand next to the huge radio antennae. Some sections of the city have now been taken over by local trinket sellers who spread their wares out on plastic tables, but for the most part this looks exactly the same way as it did when the film was shot in 1997.
Even getting to that sight, however, you’ll recognise certain other landmarks. “Camel head rock”, an outcrop in the middle of the desert, was the site where Darth Maul arrived on Tatooine. The “yardangs” – large chunks of sandstone shaped like shark fins – were used for the duel between Qui-Gonn and Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace.
So far, so nerdy. For true Star Wars fans, however, it’s essential to make the pilgrimage to the city of Matmata, set high in the rocky mountains that separate the lush coastline of Tunisia from the dry desert interior. Here you’ll find the Hotel Sidi Driss, a working hotel that also served as the Lars family home in Episode IV: A New Hope.
That’s right: here, you can sleep in the same room as the young Luke Skywalker. While many of the props have now been taken away – shooting here finished almost 40 years ago, remember – it’s still possible to dine in the room Luke Skywalker dined in, and to walk through the interior courtyard that will be so recognisable to Star Wars fans.
There are plenty more sites to visit in Tunisia, too. Anakin Skywalker’s fictional home is in Medenine, in the south of the country. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s house is on the island of Djerba in the east. Toshi Station, from Episode IV, is also on Djerba.
For those hanging out for the release of Episode VII, still two months away, this is about as close to the real Star Wars as you can get.
Kiwi travellers can fly Emirates Airlines (via Australia) to Dubai, with flights from there on to Tunis.
Peregrine Adventures’ “Highlights of Tunisia” tour includes a visit to Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata, as well as a stay in Tozeur. The sets for Mos Espa, however, are in an area of the country that is currently considered risky for travellers. There are still tour companies in Tozeur who take tourists out to this site and a few others close by, but travel here is at your own risk and may not be covered by insurance. Peregrine’s 10-day tour starts from $2735 per person