Today we set out with our Motobecane Mobylette 88, Habib, back to Nefta after my mom discovered Ross Pringle's account about a major Star Wars set just hanging out in the desert only a few kilometers further than where we were yesterday. Thanks mom (and Ross)!
The ride to Nefta is easy. Habib, a real trooper, takes the thirty kilometers in stride. The tricky part, we discover, is finding our way to Ong Ejamel, the location of the set. We ask directions a few times, finally find the signs leading there and soon we are on our way. The dirt road starts out okay but quickly deteriorates into a buckled washboard of hard packed sand. We decide it is still passable as long as we go very slowly.
As we make our way bumping along the road gets even worse, quickly gathering several inches of deep sand. I get off so Tyler can push Habib through the rough bits. I am highly doubtful that this plan will work; our Mobylette just isn't cut out for the job. One guy on a scooter like ours passes and says he goes to Ong Ejamel and back every day. Armed with this confidence, we carry slowly on.
Four kilometers down the road it becomes apparent that continuing is a terrible idea. The road is now un-ridable for two people on a single scooter. We'd be forced to push the rest of the way there and all the way back, nearly 30 kilometers in total. Since we didn't think the road would be difficult at all, and were planning a quick morning trip to the set and back, we aren't prepared with food or water.
In the end we decide to push Habib back to Nefta and either give up or find some alternative way to get to Ong Ejamel. As long as there are cars passing, we'll see if we can hitch a ride. We haven't gone very far when we see dust rising in the distance. Several zoom right past us (it's a good thing we're not dying out here or anything!), two are completely full, one refuses to give us a ride, and one offers to take us to the set in two hours when he returns his last load of tourists back to Nefta. We thank him but decline when he says the ride will cost us 100 TND ($75 USD). We even ask a man on a horse-pulled cart, but he says he isn't going all the way.
Finally, we hit the jackpot: a man in a 4x4 stops when we hail him down. There is another man in the passenger's seat, and a young man holding a baby boy in the backseat but there is still plenty of room for two more passengers. The driver's name is Salem and he is bringing his son and two workers out into the desert where they are preparing Bedouin style New Year's celebration for wealthy tourists.
We agree on the price of 50 TND for the ride there and back. He even offers to drive us to his house so we can store Habib in his garage. Our ideas of "for less money, we'll walk back" and "we'll lock up Habib by the side of the road" are immediately rejected; Salem informs us that it is crazy to walk back the thirteen kilometers through the desert, and as barren as the place seems, there are indeed people around who could possibly steal our Motobecane.
To get our scooter to Salem's house I jump in the 4x4 with the men while Tyler is going to follow with Habib. Instead of taking it slowly, Salem peels out and suddenly Tyler is far behind. We veer off the main road, onto a dirt track across open desert.
I look back, relieved to see that Tyler is giving chase as fast as he can, standing up on the pegs, skipping over the rough roads, rear wheel flying around like he is riding a dirt bike. In this moment I realize just how vulnerable we are right now, how I don't like being split from Tyler, and how much trust we're putting in these men we've only just met. The fact that there is a little boy in the car eases my mind for some reason, as I keep my eyes peeled for Tyler and Habib out the back window.
Shortly, we arrive in a barren little village and Tyler pulls up soon after. Salem helps Tyler put Habib in his garage, and we all pile back in the car for the ride to Ong Ejamel. I feel better squeezed in by Tyler's side.
As soon as we hit the road, we are infinitely glad we heeded the advice of our driver. The road buckles and bumps and soon Salem turns the wheel sharply and heads off-road down an embankment onto a driver-made path through the desert. Apparently the deep rutted sand is better to drive on than the rock-studded pavement. The desert doesn't mess around.
We sway and jostle and bounce our way out into the middle of nowhere: on road, off road, across open desert. Salem turns on his iPod and cranks up the volume on the catchy rhythms of Arabic pop/snake charmer music. The man in the passenger's seat claps his hands to the beat, and the young man squeezed in next to us snaps his fingers in time while holding Salem's two year old boy on his lap. Bouncing around the Saharan dunes with a group of Tunisian guys and the perfect soundtrack, we look at one other, grab each others' hands, and vow to imprint this moment in our memories forever.
Finally, we arrive at the Bedouin tents where Salem drops the men off for work. Unlike the tents we've seen—simple tatty fabric draped over poles—these are beautiful black and red ones that are filled with round tables, chairs, and fancy leather footstools. Men are preparing the crisp white tablecloths, and are draping the chairs in covers that look like they might belong at an expensive wedding reception.
There are hundreds of candles in white paper bags, weighted down with sand and spaced evenly across the dune. Men hurry around, scrambling to assemble a sound and light system (there is to be a DJ and dancing, no doubt), while others prepare more and more and more candles to grace the orange sands. Whoever is lucky enough to come here for their New Year's celebration is in for a real treat. It is going to be stunning!
After Salem drops his men off at the site, he drives us back over the dune to the Star Wars set. We agree that he'll pick us up in an hour and take us back to get our scooter. We thank him and he leaves us to explore. Here, in the middle of nowhere amidst real life Saharan sand dunes, is the real Star Wars. We feel like we're IN the movie.
In our guidebook, this set is sort of glossed over. What we find here in Ong Ejamel is stunning. Unlike the Sidi Driss hotel, which was really cool, but a little disappointing in the Star Wars department, this is unreal. We are IN the movie. Anakin and Shmi Skywalker's hometown of Mos Espa rises out of the sand, a village of earthen terracotta domes and spacey water vaporators. It all looks so perfect we expect a pod race around every corner!
Though the overall effect is incredibly stunning, it is also amusing to look at each part of the set up close. On the homes, there are the backs of old television sets, random tubes and slinky-like things, and my favorite, a diner-style maple syrup pitcher! Behind the carefully crafted facade is a fake, empty room of plywood, chicken wire, and plaster. It must have been a blast to create this set!
Just a few hundred meters over the dunes from the main set of Mos Espa is another older set. We're not sure which part of Star Wars this one is supposed to be, but it is in much poorer shape. Getting there and back is great though! Under a remarkable blue sky, we run and skip and climb up and down the beautiful orangey dunes.
The sand is unlike any I've ever felt. It isn't granular like it is back home, but is instead very fine, dusty, and powdery, hot on the surface and nice and cool when I dig my feet in. It packs down pretty hard, though, and hurts when I fall on it. On the way down a really steep dune, I have to dig my feet in deep with each step, lest I trip and go tumbling down the side.
After climbing back over the dunes, we return to the Mos Espa set and wait for Salem to take us back. As promised he arrives and we trundle back to his home, slower this time than on the way here. Habib is waiting and we wheel him out to the road for the quick ride back to Nefta. Another day, another crazy adventure.