Southern Tunisia was very different to the other parts of the country I had visited. From the underground troglodyte dwellings in the village of Matmata Ancienne that was used as the film set for Star Wars, to the palm groves of Douz, to my first time camping in the Sahara Desert – this is the final instalment of my Tunisia series.
Where is Matmata?
Matmata Ancienne is a small village in Central/Southern Tunisia
The troglodyte dwellings of Matmata
Home of the underground troglodyte dwellings made ever famous by Star Wars. Welcome to Matmata, Southern Tunisia 🇹🇳. This tiny town (Matmata Ancienne) with barely a 1000 people resembles more an alien universe than a human one. It looks like several bombs have exploded leaving behind large craters – a slightly bizarre inverted skyline. While this may have shot to worldwide fame as being Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars, the original rationale behind building these dwellings by the Berber people is far more sophisticated. In these hot, barren lands, the underground cave dwellings helped create a natural air conditioning to make life more manageable.
The dwellings are constructed by digging a big pit in the ground, with artificial caves (used as rooms) dug around the pit. Some homes comprise multiple pits connected by trench-like passageways. You can even stay in one – there are quite a few troglodyte hotels in Matmata Ancienne.
Hotel Sidi Driss (spread out over 5 pit courtyards) was the one used as the setting for Luke Skywalker’s childhood home in Star Wars. You can still see some remains of the old set here. Hotel Marhala has the most beautiful tunnels. Musée Dar Khadija is modelled after a Berber Troglodyte dwelling and well worth a visit.
Take a louage (shared taxi) from Gabès to Matmata Nouvelle (2 TND) and then take another louage to Matmata Ancienne. Beware of cheeky taxi drivers who will tell you the last louage has departed for Matmata Ancienne to try and get you to jump in their cab and pay much higher prices
Sunrise in Matmata
Ever accidentally trespassed a secure military facility to be chased by armed men? Little did I know what was to befall me when my alarm rang at 4:30am the next morning. Guided by my torch I walked in the direction of sunrise, saw some hills and started climbing.
I saw a fort of some kind and thought it was an ideal vantage point. I frowned for a moment thinking it strange that no one mentioned such a perfect sunrise spot…and because this ‘fort’ didn’t exist on the map.
Nevertheless, I started climbing along the fort walls to get higher up to see the changing colours on the horizon. The sky slowly changed from blue to fiery pink over this dry, brown, pockmarked desert. A far cry from the poetic sand dunes of the Sahara that you read about which magically transform in the wind. Seconds later, three armed military men from the fort were coming towards me, shouting in Arabic.
Not knowing what to do, I stood very still, threw both my hands in the air and yelled hello. As they came up close, they realised my Arabic was limited and the one soldier who spoke English told me that I was trespassing a secure military facility and had to leave immediately. I told him I genuinely didn’t know what this area was, showed him my map which had no marking of the facility and said all I came to do was to see sunrise.
While all three of them were baffled that I was roaming around this secure facility by myself at 6am, they eventually told me to delete some of the photos I had taken, to enjoy the rest of Tunisia to my heart’s content but never to trespass a secure military base (let alone in the middle of the night). What a relief. Apparently I had triggered some kind of emergency alert!
Where is Douz?
Douz is a town right in the heart of Tunisia – even more central than Matmata, right by a large oasis.
Douz Town Centre
Douz has two distinct parts – a grid-like centre around the souq & a ‘zone touristique’. The souq has a wide variety of souvenirs – particularly focused around Berber clothes and traditions. The famous sand or desert roses featured heavily in the souq. These bizarre looking flowers are actually crystal clusters of gypsum, which form after surrounding water evaporates in arid conditions. According to local tradition, these desert roses have the power to absorb excess energy and negativity – so can be used to defuse the atmosphere!
Ever seen half a MILLION palm trees growing in the desert? Just walk into the palmeraie (palm grove) in the oasis town of Douz. Douz’ palmeraie is the largest in Tunisia.
It’s surprisingly productive with an unexpected range of fruit and vegetables including the revered ‘deglat ennour’ dates. The most important plant in the oasis is the date palm. It keeps the sand at bay and provides much needed shade for other plants like fruit trees to grow at the second level and cereals and vegetables to grow at the bottom. Tiered oasis agriculture at its best.
The big question on my mind was how on earth all these plants got water in the desert? The answer lies in a system that is fed by several hundred springs that produce millions of litres of water per day. The water is then distributed via a complex system devised by ancient mathematicians.
Matmata to Douz has no direct transport connection and requires backtracking to Gabès to connect. I started in Matmata Ancienne and took the direct bus at 9AM to Gabès (a transport hub) for 2.08 TND; duration: 1hr. Apparently there is another bus at 10AM. There’s also the option to take a louage (shared taxi) to Gabès: take the ‘yellow line’ louage to Matmata Nouvelle and then the ‘blue line’ louage to Gabès (total cost approx 3-4 TND). From Gabès I hopped in a louage, waited 45 min for it to fill up and then headed to Douz. This took 2.5hrs and cost 10.65 TND. I sadly just missed the 12pm bus to Douz since it had left early – which happened quite a few times in Tunisia!
Camping in the Desert
Ever gone camping in the desert with no GPS or no route to guide you? Hello, Sahara.
️I went into the desert from Douz with Kara, Sam and Azzdine – our funny, knowledgeable guide – together with 3 dromedaries (Arabian camels that only have one hump). These unassuming creatures can carry heavy loads and go for ~100 miles without water.
They carried all our tents, food, drink and mattresses. Word to the wise: riding them is a pretty bumpy business – I wouldn’t do it after a big meal.
At 4.30pm, after just over 3 hours with Azzdine’s brain being the only GPS we had, we set up base before sunset. No Google Maps here! While Azzdine started preparations for dinner, we searched for dry wood which we miraculously found in the middle of the towering dunes. Note: these dunes are massive; it’s easy to get lost!
We didn’t get to the beautiful sand sea of the Grand Erg Oriental which has an unrivalled beauty, so for now this would be my first taste of African desert life 🙂 The Grand Erg Oriental begins 50km south of Douz and continues all the way into Algeria (~500km). Massive doesn’t even begin to describe it.
I was very proud of my first ever campfire and kept fuelling it with wood. Azzdine, Sam and Kara were most amused at my enthusiasm and smiled knowingly when I told them it was my first camping experience. I was even more excited because we cooked my favourite Tunisian food – brik – over the campfire.
More lessons were in store for me. The desert was so cold, I shivered the whole night and barely slept despite wearing 3 layers and being wrapped in 2 blankets. I was quite surprised the following morning when everyone else said they slept like logs. Was my temperature tolerance that low?!
It was by accident we later discovered what I thought was a pillow was actually a thermal sleeping bag which was meant to keep me warm! Lesson for life. We all had a good laugh about it and suddenly the others had a newfound respect for my resilience to the cold.
But shivering in the night was worth it, just to stand in the complete vastness of the desert and see sunrise with the pink light softly illuminating the powdery dunes. That sight and feeling may never come back again.
There are a thousand and one operators who organise overnight camping trips into the desert. I chose Libre Espace Voyages. They were responsive via email, reliable and great value. It’s obviously cheaper if you join a group, rather than going solo. Their rates were 110 TND (~$39) for a solo overnight camping expedition or 80 TND (~$28) if I joined a group of two others. This included transportation (via taxi and then dromedary) to and from the desert, all camping materials, our guide, food and drink. We left Douz just after lunch and returned by noon the following day. I contacted them about 2 weeks in advance, but I’ve heard you can even book things the day before as long as it’s not peak season.