Standing on a sand dune overlooking the set of Mos Espa the spaceport in Star Wars, I swear I had a strange feeling. It was as if my landrover was some kind of parked interplanetary space vehicle and I was being spied upon by a terrestrial power.
I had flown south from Tunis to Tozeur, a sprawling desert oasis resort town perfect as a base for exploring the region. The small airport was dwarfed by two Iraqi jumbo jets that had been sitting like extraordinary silent sentinels for 28 years after being impounded by the UN following the Kuwait invasion.
The authentic bustling town centre was in full flow when I turned up. A rampant donkey, freed from his cart harness, was causing chaos in the marketplace and date stalls were doing great business selling Tunisia’s famed Deglet Nours, the queen of dates, at bargain basement prices.
Hidden away in a nearby lush palm grove, the just-opened luxury Palm Beach Palace Hotel was an oasis of calm and serenity; with 128 rooms, 7 suites, two restaurants and a huge spa complex, I felt like a prince in my own desert palace.
The Mos Espa set sits in a remote area called Ong Jemal, part of a vast mixture of sand dunes and salt lakes that stretch for thousands of kilometres between Tunisia and Algeria. But for me, no more than a 90-minute drive from Tozeur.
It was eerily quiet when I got there, not a soul around save a few Bedouin traders camped by the entrance looking to sell me a local souvenir or three. I say entrance, but it’s simply a gated wire fence presumably erected to keep the wild camels out at night. Walking in I felt the spirit of George Lucas whispering in my ear, “welcome to Tatooine. Pretty cool huh?”
The set is remarkably well preserved; even the clutch of crew and cast bathrooms remain next to what was the generator plant that powered the set. In a welcome nod to tourism, boards are dotted about in front of important structures showing them in stills from the finished movies and explaining their roles in the plotline. Quite extraordinary really, a glimpse into the world of Hollywood before CGI when sets had to realistically imply size and scale.
I walked under an archway around a tall communication tower and thought of Watto. Perhaps it was because I was the only one there, or maybe because it was so quiet – just the whistle of desert wind ruffling my hastily drawn keffiyeh, but if I had a light sabre in my hand I swear I could have fired it up I was so in the moment.
The Force was definitely with me that afternoon.
It was with more than a little reluctance that I moved on from Mos Espa, but after all, there’s only so much excitement a budding Jedi Knight could take. On the way back to Tozeur’s welcoming embrace I stopped off for a coffee at an oasis at the foot of the Djebel el Negueb mountains at Chebika, a mountain oasis that was once an important Roman outpost. Many scenes from Star Wars Episode IV were shot here and clambering up the mountain paths I could see why. Aside from the oasis valley it remains a desolate place but yet stunningly beautiful; the sandstone rock a work of natural art.
Back at the Palm Beach Palace Hotel I washed the desert off me and spent the night dreaming of spaceports and sand dunes.
Before catching my flight home, I popped into the Eden Date Palm Museum to understand just why those Deglet Nours are so regal. It is quite a story dating back thousands of years. They are doing some extraordinary work with the syrup from these majestic dates. Finding exciting new ways to harness the well-documented health benefits of Deglet Nours in a number of delicious condiments.
Tunisia is, at last, making a comeback as a tourist destination and for me, it’s a beautiful country with so much to offer. Fortunately, it’s not in a galaxy far far away.
All images (c) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about visiting Mos Espa and Tozeur
Full details of programmes and itineraries available in Tunisia can be found at Discover Tunisia