My Star Wars Excursion: Exploring Mos Espa & More!
The Star Wars trilogy is a cinematic marvel! I remember watching the original trilogy with my family, but the only thing that really stood out to me was Episode VI and the cute furry Ewoks. Sure, I remember Darth Vader’s iconic line, “Luke, I am your father.” As well as the white storm trooper uniforms but the storyline was totally lost on me. Other than my older sister, who I remember insisting on purchasing the gold edition boxed VHS set of the original trilogy, my family just wasn’t that into it. I’ve seen almost all of the Star Wars movies (the exception being The Rise of Skywalker; I’m waiting for an opportune time to see it since living in the South of Tunisia doesn’t make it easily accessible).
I would definitely consider myself a Star Wars newbie. There is so much to learn and enjoy about the universe George Lucas created. As I began working at Mosaic North Africa (Tunisia Tours’ parent company) and spending much of my first couple of months building this Tunisia-specific travel site, I have come to fall in love with this groundbreaking sci-fi saga. I’ve allowed the inner-child to embrace the epic story, even to the chagrin of my wife who daily teases me and my newfound child-like ways.
February isn’t typically the high season for tourism in Tunisia, with the exception of local Tunisian tourists. Schools are closed for one week at the beginning of the month, allowing local families to travel. As my kids attend a Tunisian school, this week off offered us the opportunity to see a different side of the country. I asked several local friends and ex-pat friends what a good destination was and the unanimous reply was the desert oasis town of Tozeur in the Southeast of the country. We planned a three-night road trip as a family, including a stop in Matmata to see Hotel Sidi Idriss, the site used for the interior of the Lars Homestead in Episode IV.
When Kevin (the boss) heard we’d be traveling there, he quickly and graciously offered a half-day Star Wars excursion to my family and me. Imagine me running home as fast as I could to share the good news with my wife and kids! My wife’s eyes rolled but the teasing was only momentary as she realized that she’d get to go off-roading in a 4×4 (she’s quite the thrill-seeker).
Ong Jmal (Camel Neck)
On the day of our excursion, we were met by our driver Faouzi at our hotel. He was on-time and friendly. Faouzi said he’s been driving tourists around the country and his hometown of Tozeur in particular for 31-years! He certainly knew what he was doing as he drove across the Sahara and the dry salt flats without GPS or a map.
Our first stop was Ong Jmal, literally “camel neck”, a large sand-rock formation on the edge of the Sahara desert. The area around the rock formation was used in Episode I for Darth Maul’s lookout and the eventual duel between him and Qui-Gon Jinn as Padme, Obi-Wan, Anakin, and company were escaping on Queen Amidala’s Royal Starship.
Mos Espa (Nefta)
After my daughter successfully scaled the camel’s neck, and I cautiously helped her climb down, we climbed back into Faouzi’s 4×4 and continued our way to Anakin’s hometown of Mos Espa by way of some “wild” off-roading, up and over sand dunes and turning us sideways on the banks of large rocks. As we approached our next destination we had the opportunity to admire the yardangs, sharkfin shaped rocks protruding out of the Sahara sand, included in the Tatooine scenery in Episode I. A short and exciting 15-minute ride brought us to Mos Espa, a set built specifically for Episode I on the outskirts of the town of Nefta.
We spent the bulk of our excursion time here. My two younger kids played in the soft, fine sand of the Sahara desert while my oldest joined me in recreating shots featured in Episode I. There are still makeshift vaporators throughout the town but are likely not the originals used in the movie. There are also a few signs with a map of the set showing you which buildings were used for different scenes within the makeshift town. We roamed around looking for Sebulba’s Café, Watto’s workshop, and even the place where Anakin and his Jedi pals were warned of the impending sand storm.
Lars Homestead Exterior
After saying goodbye to Mos Espa, we hopped back into the 4×4 for another exciting ride up and down sand dunes. My older kids told us the 4×4 ride reminded them of the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland in California. My wife and I argued with them that this was way better! Bumps and dips, hard turns banking up against large rocks, forwards and backward it was all very exciting!
This brought us back to a main paved road 35 km from the Algerian border and to our final stop of the morning. We turned off this main road into another salt flat, arriving basically in the middle of nowhere. This is where we found the igloo-shaped exterior of the Lars Homestead. I ended up watching Episode IV again and see how Lucas stitched the image of this structure (only a set-piece built for the movie and later refurbished by fans) and Hotel Sidi Idriss in Matmata together to make Luke’s childhood home.
Inside the igloo structure is a metal plaque explaining in Arabic, French, and English how fans around the world financed its renovation and preservation. My family and I spent some time taking the obligatory fan photos before heading back to our hotel in Tozeur with large smiles, great photos, and hungry appetites.
Asked if they’d do this tour again, my kids answered with a resounding “YES!” And why not? My hope is that we will be able to return in the Spring this year to do it all again.
Update June 3, 2020
Sadly, the Covid-19 lockdown has prevented us from returning. We remain in our home in the South of Tunisia, finishing up homeschool as a family and enjoying the beauty of sites close to our house.