Six places to explore whilst in the Tunisian Sahara

posted in: Tunisia | 27

Tunisia in North Africa is a country worth checking out for its amazing landscapes. From its oasis, mountains, desert and sea views, Tunisia does have it all. Most visitors (especially those from Europe) usually head to the resorts near Sousse and soak up the sun and do a few nearby day trips, or maybe even a city break in Tunis up on the northern coastline. However, one of my favourite places to check out in the country was to hit the Sahara desert and check out a few places. I headed to the area surrounding the Chott el-Jerid, a huge salt lake in the Sahara.

Sahara, Tunisia
Camel trekking in the Sahara

Basing myself in Sousse, I headed to the Sahara for a couple of days with a guide and to break up the journey we stopped off in El Djem to see one of the country’s historic monuments. The Roman Empire sailed over the sea into North Africa and built an impressive amphitheatre in the city of El Djem, to which the arena is known as El Jem. Built in 238 AD, this is one of the biggest arenas in the world which can hold around 35,000 people. What I love about this arena is walking around the seating area, getting a view of the centre of the arena, thinking about the fights and shows which were taken place here. Visitors can actually walk around the basement of arena as well. Here is where the gladiators prepare for battle, tigers were held and a lot of wine stored from the African sunshine. What is more impressive is that I was walking around the set of Gladiator (the film which came out 2000 AD with Russell Crowe in it). For more on Roman Arenas in Northern Africa and Europe, check out our post here.

Roman Arena, El Jem, Tunisia
Roman Arena in El Jem

Further south I arrived in the town known as Matmata. It is here I got to visit local Berber people (the folk who have lived in the Sahara all their lives and were the first settlers to the region) who live in traditional underground structures, where the locals dig up a large pit in the ground and around the perimeter of the pit, artificial caves are then dug to be used as rooms.

Sahara, Tunisia
Matmata
Sahara, Tunisia
The town of Matmata
Sahara, Tunisia
Berber house in Matmata

In this town I also visited the Hotel Sidi Driss which was used as a filming location way back in 1976 for the huge motion picture, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, to which the hotel was featured as the home of Luke Skywalker and his family on the planet Tatooine. The hotel was also featured again in the 2002 film Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I am not a Star Wars fan but I have seen the films so to walk around this building, the set, was just amazing. I have to admit it did feel weird seeing all the souvenir tack near the entrance of the hotel and I can see why people flock to Matmata.

Sahara, Tunisia
Star Wars set in Matmata
Sahara, Tunisia
Star Wars set in Matmata
Sahara, Tunisia
Star Wars set in Matmata
Sahara, Tunisia
Star Wars set in Matmata
Sahara, Tunisia
Star Wars set in Matmata
Sahara, Tunisia
Star Wars set in Matmata
 Sahara, Tunisia
Star Wars set in Matmata

One place of outstanding beauty which really took my eye was when I was in Chebika, which is a mountain oasis and lies at the foot of the Djebel el Negueb mountains. It has the nickname of Qasr el-Shams (Castle of the Sun) and I can fully understand why with the amazing views of the surrounding area. In the past the village was once a Roman outpost and then was used by the Berber people as a mountain refuge. Also this area was used in many scenes of the movie Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (as previously mentioned in the town of Matmata) and The English Patient. However, I wasn’t here to spot movie locations, I was here to chill out besides the water gushing through the rocks in the oasis and sit in the shade of the only palm trees located in this area.

Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
Chebika
Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
Roaming camels near Chebika
Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
Camels are just everywhere here
Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
The oasis of Chebika
Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
The oasis of Chebika
Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
The village of Chebika
Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
The mountains north of Chebika
Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
A view over the village of Chebika
Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
I just love these camel road signs….
Chebika, Sahara, Tunisia
….and this one caught my eye

One activity I did take part in was camel riding whilst in Douz, known as the Gateway to the Sahara. Here I dressed up in traditional clothing for trekking across the desert and made sure I had the shades on. This was an fantastic experience, trekking out into the desert, seeing nothing but sand. Those camels sure love to grunt a lot and by god, their breath did stink but still, I had the time of my life. Afterwards I made sure my camel was fed and heavily watered after all the hard work.

Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
Camel trekking in Douz
Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
Camel Trekking in Douz

Afterwards I was picked up in a 4X4 and driven around for an hour, further and further into the desert until I arrived in this make-shift camp. The camp had about twenty Bedouin tents which just had one room inside, with a bed. Despite it being hot during my sleep inside, I was so tempted to open the door but then that would let in all the bugs. Whilst here I did a walk in the middle of the night out into the desert, away from the light to check out all the stars and the full moon. It sure got cold out there. When I got back there was this small pool here which I had to do a dip under the stars. That is one moment I will never forget.

Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
Off roading in the Sahara
Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
Watching the sunset over the Sahara
Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
Sunset over the Sahara
Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
The camp for the night in the Sahara
Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
My bed for the night
Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
Checking out my room for the night
Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
Enjoying a dip under the Sahara night sky
Douz, Sahara, Tunisia
Up there, there are beautiful skies. The perfect place to check them out with no light pollution around

The next morning I was checking out the massive salt lake of Chott el-Jerid before exploring the beautiful gorge in Tamaqzah which are two amazing places worth stopping off when exploring the area. Both have their equal share of beauty but for me it was the peacefulness. There’s nothing like getting away from it all, looking at a stunning landscape and captivated into your own thoughts. Well, that is what I felt that morning anyway.

Sahara, Tunisia
Checking out the salt lake
Sahara, Tunisia
Part of the salt lake besides the roadside.

I am not usually a big fan of hot sandy places but exploring this area of the world and looking into the Berber way of life I found really interesting and I also found the locals I met were very helpful and wonderful people. Tunisia is a fantastic country to visit and I know since the problems in Sousse a few years ago with the terrorism and a lot of European governments banned tourists to travel for a while. However that has now been lifted but the tourists are not flocking back to this amazing country. I never encountered any problems and I totally love this country. I highly recommend people to go and visit here, even if it’s just a trip to the beach.

Sahara, Tunisia, Tamaqzah
Tamaqzah
Sahara, Tunisia, Tamaqzah
Tamaqzah
Sahara, Tunisia, Tamaqzah
Tamaqzah

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27 Responses

  1. Hi Danik,

    How incredibly cool.

    I don’t know what fascinates me more: the Star Wars set or the oasis in the middle of the desert? Gotta go with the oasis although seeing the film location brings me back to childhood. Brilliant.

    It feels like you are stepping back many centuries when exploring the Sahara in Tunisia.

    Cool thing too; at my old job I worked with a dude from Tunisia. He goaded me to visit his country and has a few select places set up for me to see. I may need to follow his advice and your helpful post here.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Ryan

  2. Tunisia seems like an amazing country to visit – hope they continue to recover from the damage done to their reputation a few years ago…

  3. I’ve been to all these places – brings back memories how nice Tunisia is; hope they settle their political problems, soon, so I can go back to the stars…without the wars!

  4. Wow – I had no idea so many different movies were filmed here! Sleeping in the Sahara sounds like an amazing experience, I would not have guessed that there would be a little swimming pool available as well.

  5. Ive never visit Tunisia before and to be honest I kind of forgot about it but I did really wanted to visit especially because of that Star Wars Episode. It looks really beautiful there, especially that sunrise! Ive been on Sahara only ones just for a little bit, for short camel ride in Egypt. Looks like you really enjoying that swimming pool! 🙂

  6. When I first started reading this post, my first thought was about the Star Wars movie! I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so it was really fun to read about your experience in Matmata. I had no idea that it was really there and would love to trek out there!!
    Rachelle recently posted…Cheers to the Non-traditional Travel Pictures!

  7. Now, when and how can I take my Star Wars’ husband and son fans to Tunisia? You’re trip was really cool!

  8. What a great place. Though it is a desert, there are plenty of places to explore in Tunisia. The pictures are amazing. Thanks for sharing such an informative post.

  9. Very cool that there were a couple of movie locations here. Didn’t know Gladiators was filmed here either… and I love the Star Wars set!

  10. I’m not a big Star Wars fan but that’s pretty cool how they filmed it in Matmata! Of the six places, I think my favorite is Tamaqzah. The landscape just looks absolutely beautiful and I’d definitely love to see it in person myself someday!

  11. What a beautiful landscape and fabulous experience! So ironic that I was just reading a star wars book to my son tonight 🙂

  12. Absolutely incredible! A destination so high on my list! Would love to compare the Tunisian Sahara with the Moroccan Sahara 🙂 The Oasis of Chebika looks amazing too!

  13. Wow thanks for showing us your time machine adventure. It is as if you went back in time with the remnants of the Roman coliseum and a galaxy far away with the Star Wars sets. I showed my Star Wars fan husband the Star Wars pics and he was giddy. Ironically an archaeologist David West Reynolds who was a Star Wars fan went on the quest to find and map out the Star Wars sets and was in a USAtoday article published 14 July 2017. Even the Lucasfilms could not help locate the original Star Wars sets. So amazed you stumbled upon them on your journey which in itself is a story to tell. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Very nice! Is it very hot there? It looks excruciatingly sunny. But I also read that desert becomes really chilly at night as well. Beautiful landscapes indeed, especially the sunset.

  15. The houses of Sahara look as unique as the landscape itself. And I had no idea there’s a Roman Arena in El Jem. I visited the Colosseum a few months back. And I can tell, it’s a true replica of that. Wonderful places to explore!

  16. I like the tone of the place. And lucky you! You were able to see in person some of the places that have been used in Star Wars.
    Kevin del Prado recently posted…3-Day Caramoan Itinerary With Side Trip To Albay For Less Than 6000 Pesos All In

  17. I have never been to this part of the world but this trip looks AMAZING! I hope to get to this part of the globe in a few years (right now my life is consumed exploring everywhere in Spain since I live here). Great photos as well

  18. I had no idea there is such an amazing arena at El Jem. I love roman sites so this is one to add to my list. It is amazing that you can even walk around the basement area as well. Thanks for sharing this!

  19. Great guide. You should have had a lot of fun. Keep telling about such lesser known places. I’m always curious

  20. This looks like an amazing getaway! Living in Europe, you’re so lucky to be able to take a jaunt like this. I’d love to experience the Sahara. I can just imagine how the stars in the sky must have looked over the desert darkness. That colliseuem looks epic, too. Not surprised that it was the one in the movie, Gladiator.

  21. I didn’t even know these places existed (even if they were in movies!) – so I am so glad I read this. I love history, so the amphitheatre is of real interest. I adore all your camel shots, especially the signs – they are such amazing animals to live in such harsh environments. This is now definitely on my to-do list, so thank you so much for sharing.

  22. Oh my gosh Tunisia looks like a dream. I’ve always wanted to visit the old Star Wars set. It was always a favorite movie of mine. Even though that’s always been an interest of mine, I have to say Chebika is the place that piqued my interest most in the post. It’s just exactly how I pictured an oasis to look!

  23. What an incredible coverage of a country I hardly knew about. After the terror attacks last year, I am sure tourism would have taken a hit. Loved your pictures of Tamaqzah! the place looks so rustic and raw. Dune bashing in the Sahara desert is like a dream 🙂 Places like Qasr el-Shams make you travel back in time, truly with their fantastic views:) The Star Wars set at Matmata is so so cool! Those yellow doors <3 Thanks for this wonderful insight to this beautiful little gem!

  24. Megan Jerrard

    I would love to visit Tunisia – being a big fan of archeology and ancient history, I’ve come to know that Tunisia has the largest gathering of roman ruins outside Rome – but unlike Rome it’s not overrun by tourists and you can virtually walk over them! Would love to visit the Sahara though – the Berber towns you visited along the way look incredible – what an experience! So authentic, and it genuinely looks like it’s straight out of a film – I can see why they used the Hotel Sidi Driss in Star Wars films!

    The oasis of Chebika looks like it belong in Indianna Jones (while we’re talking movies!) camel riding whilst in Douz sounds really fun too – you look the part in your traditional clothes!

    Super cool trip, thanks for sharing!

  25. This is the first time that I’ve read a blog about Tunisia though I have Tunisian friends. I am always interested in places where people don’t usually go and I was quite surprised when they told me that they speak French and Arab there. Roman Arena in El Jem looks more like the Colosseum in Rome and your Matmata photos make me wanna teleport there now! So cool! Thanks for sharing. And oh, I’ve heard that they got one of the best olive oil in the world, how true is that?

  26. I heard a lot about Tunis and Tunisia being a popular tourist destination for Europeans while I was in Casablanca, Morocco.
    I really love the pictures and now I know where that picture of you sitting on the road band from…lol
    El Djem sounds really cool and the amphitheater looks impressive. I didn’t know Gladiator was filmed there. Great movie. Awesome. I must add it to my to go to list.

  27. Thanks for the inspiration. Looking forward to visiting Tunisia.

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