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If adventure has a middle name it must be David West Reynolds. Reynolds has all the makings of a modern day Indiana Jones, (minus guns, whips and Nazi spies). Reynolds, 27, makes his living spanning the globe digging up everything from Pharaohs to dinosaurs while finishing his Ph.D in Archaeology at the University of Michigan. In April 1995 he embarked on a search that only took him back 19 years in time, but was no less interesting than uncovering extinct reptiles and ancient Egyptians; he journeyed to Tatooine. Armed with an understanding of French, Arabic, Berber, and some geographical hints from Star Wars production supervisor Robert Watts, Reynolds set out for the barren desert of Tunisia in North Africa, where filming of the Star Wars Trilogy began in March 1976. Most importantly, Reynolds was armed with inspiration from his all-time favourite film, the one thing that would help him persevere long enough to find a handful of obscure filming locations miles away from settled humanity. Here is his story.
The whole quest began when I learned from the back of a Star Wars trading card, all those years ago, that most of the footage of Tatooine in Star Wars was shot in the deserts of the North African country of Tunisia. By 1995, several expeditions to North African countries had given me familiarity with the region, plenty of field experience and some ability in Arabic and Berber, as well as the necessary French. I had tracked down ancient trade routes in the Egyptian desert, uncovered traces of a buried Roman city on the Mediterranean coast and probed on my own the sandchoked ruins of a pyramid far from the tourist routes. It seemed reasonable that I might be able to retrace the steps of a film crew from only twenty years ago. I decided that a journey to Tatooine was within my grasp.
I knew realistically that traces of the sets and props used in the film would probably be long gone, originally built of flimsy materials and in most cases dismantled and removed by the crew after shooting was complete. Even if anything remained, nineteen years of sun, wind, and scavengers must surely have polished off the last evidence of the distant planet. (So I thought.) But I wanted to find the locations. I wanted to be there, to breathe that air and feel that sand, and see all around me the reality of that movie - from the streets of the spaceport, to underground homestead, to the spectacular lookout over Mos Eisley - all of it! To step into that movie screen, and enter the realm of the greatest fantasy I had ever seen..
Unfortunately, my review of the information available on Star Wars revealed that descriptions of the exact filming sites were vague at best. Only the Hotel Sidi Driss, an underground establishment filmed as the courtyard of Luke Skywalker's home, was a pinpoint. As for the rest of the places, there were a few clues, but it was a big country to go searching at random. I needed more information.
I contacted the only appropriate person: Robert Watts, production supervisor of the original Lucasfilm crew, who probably knew the locations better than anyone else. If anyone could provide me with the missing information, it would be he. In a momentous conversation, he generously pointed out the crucial clues. I hung up the phone in a daze. He had just turned the project from a possibility into a full go. Now, nothing would stop me.
The final element was a second team member, who would document the whole journey on video. The best man for the job was Michael Ryan, a Canadian palaeontologist, and veteran of many dinosaur expeditions. who had already faced the worst Africa can offer, with terrorism and civil war in Niger during a dig he'd participated in in 1993. I knew I could depend on him.
In April 1995 I joined my fellow adventurer in Paris, and we were soon in North Africa. We began with the offshore island of Jerba, which has, for thousands of years, been traditionally identified as legendary "Land of the Lotus-Eaters" from Homer's Odyssey. Somewhere on Jerba was the plaza filmed as the spaceport of Mos Eisley. I found that the signature "look" of buildings in Mos Eisley, with the domes and vaulted roofs and all that, was all around me in Jerba. It was incredible to look around and see that all this was real architecture, but it is the traditional style of the Jerbans, and it was hardly altered at all by the Star Wars crew for the movie, just dressed with high-tech additions like antennas and vaporators. The challenge was, to find the exact place used for the film: the plaza appearing in the scenes where Luke and company are stopped by the stormtroopers, and where the landspeeder glides over to the exterior of the Cantina. This site was the first test: would anything at all be recognizable after nineteen years? I knew from my Lucasfilm source that the plaza used was not the main square of the particular town I was searching, but off to one side. "But there is no other plaza," my driver told me. This didn't sound good. We circled the city, and I saw that the old architecture had lost ground to many new apartment complexes and other buildings. "Stop!" I shouted suddenly, leaping out of the vehicle before it could skid to a halt. There in front of was the Cantina. The crashed spaceship, the dewback, the landspeeders... these were all present in my imagination. But here, surviving intact in front of me was the one most identifiable building. I talked with local people and found some who remembered the "strange people who had done such odd things" in their town almost twenty years ago. With their help I located the alley where the landspeeder was stopped, and the building at the back of the plaza, partly in ruins and concealed behind a recently built wall. It was strange, but wonderful to see the locations changed and mixed with the modern world.
Time was running out, and we had to head south, back to the mainland. I regretfully left Mos Eisley behind, but I was greatly encouraged that we had found it. This boded well for our chances along the rest of the trip.
From the ferry landing we rocketed off to Matmata, a distant town in the mountains where troglodyte Berbers traditionally cut homes from the soft sandstone to form large craters. The underground Hotel Sidi Driss was not only the location, but inspiration for Luke Skywalker's home. I had carefully studied photographs of the set as seen in Star Wars and in The Making of Star Wars, and had brought a number of them with me, mounted in magnetic photo album pages. John Barry's set design and decoration was terrific in these scenes; the homestead was a fascinating blend of primitive appearances and high-technology. I really wanted to visit this remarkable place, and see the parts not shown in the film.
Our vehicle, which was rather worse for wear at excessive speeds, arrived at the hotel. Full of anticipation I found the edge of the largest pit. I looked down into Luke Skywalker's home. The vaporators and other high-tech props were gone, but otherwise the place had hardly changed: it was fantastic. Down inside the place, Ryan and I eagerly collected footage of every angle; finally I got to explore the entire homestead. It only got better when I spotted traces of the set dressing still in place - linked triangular designs applied to the stair edges, and entire doorframes around several of the rooms leading off the courtyard. Best of all was the dining room, which I found just as Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had left it.
The high-tech ribbing still framed the irregular sandstone doorway, and the strange abstract mural still decorated the ceiling, absolutely unaltered. I even found the passage down from the back of this room, not quite seen in the film, that lead to Aunt Beru's kitchen. Another of the "never-seen" finds was Luke's bedroom, not shown in the movie but clearly used by John Barry to guide the design of other sets. The proprietor was very excited at our arrival, and looked enviously at my photo collection, since he did have any record at all of his hotel's historic role in Star Wars. in exchange for a couple of coveted widescreen stills, he kept many dozens of irritated European tourists while we shot our video footage at leisure.
Our route saw us crossing the Chott el-Djerid, a great salt pan that once swallowed caravans into brine mud when the salt crust collapsed beneath them. A military highway makes this a remote possibility today, but the area is still fantastically desolate: flat as a pancake all the way to the horizon in many places. The cities of Tozeur and Nefta lay on the other side of the Chott, and in this region were our remaining targets. These were much more uncertain than those behind us, mere spots in the wilderness rather than cities in any town.
On the other side of the Chott we drove through low hills, which rose to a lofty ridge on one side and stretched out into infinity on the other side. Somewhere out here was "Star Wars canyon." You may have read that the place is now formerly so called, after its use in the film and later in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Well, let me tell you, you won't go very far with those references around here. They've never heard of what some Americans and Brits have decided to call a spot. But directions from Watts and responses to my trusty photo collection had me headed towards what had to be the place. We turned on to a road leading up the mountains, after nearly sliding off it twice, reached a remote holy shrine perched on the edge of a cliff. We disembarked, and as I walked around the shrine a spectacular vista came into view. I had found the Mos Eisley overlook, there hanging on the horizon like a still from the film. An old caretaker emerged from the structure. "Are you pilgrims?" he asked. I thought about it. "You might say that," I told him.
Wind thundered out of the breathtaking canyon as we skirted the rim, seeking the exact spot where the cameras had been in 1976. Soon enough, the angles on the overlook lined up perfectly. Ryan re-created the shot from the film as I walked out there on the distant rock platform. My view looking back was not of a spaceport, but of a magnificent gorge cut deep into the Earth, far off the beaten track and completely unknown to tourists. Farther along the rim, I tried to survey the canyon floor from a precipice and nearly got blown off my feet by the wind. But down there below, amongst the titanic cracked boulders, I spotted where Ben Kenobi first finds Luke after the attack of the Sand People, recognizing the site by a particular hollow in the cliff wall (take a look at Star Wars Widescreen card #25. I had it in hand.) Another half mile up the rim I recognized the point where the Tusken Raiders try to take a shot at the landspeeder cruising along the valley. This place was full of shots from the film; we were really travelling the Jundland Wastes. To see it all linked together out here was amazing. Hollows in the tumbled rocks could have hidden Sand People. The view over the gorge could have been that of Beggar's Canyon. There was even a natural stone arch that could have been the Stone Needle that turns up in the Brian Daley radio adaptation! I could just seen the skyhoppers jockeying for position as they screamed down the canyon.
A day later we were set up in Tozeur, and I began making enquiries at the cafes and cab stands. Venturing into some of these dark, smoky dives in search of someone who could get us where we wanted to go gave me a real sense of deja vu from the movie. Our first target was the exterior of Luke's homestead, which was filmed on part of the Chott. As I've mentioned, the Chott is huge, and what I was looking for was a set of low crater rings - not exactly something that stands out on a blank landscape. I knew that the domed entrance to the homestead would be long gone, so we had very little to help us find the right place. My clues could only point me in the general direction - out here, there was really almost nothing to use as a landmark. Finally I located a man named Hedhi who claimed he worked on the production in 1976, and he said he could take me to the right spot.. I was dubious of this individual, but not a single other soul had any idea what In was talking about, and I knew that to go hunting on my own would be pointless. At least he did not demand ten thousand all in advance.
We set out, and passed the oasis of Nefta to reach open territory. This was the road to Algeria, and there would be no other trace of human presence for a hundred miles. I felt sure that the man I had hired was putting us on, and that we didn't have a chance. We turned off the road and drove out onto the Chott itself. After some considerable distance, our guide Hedhi said simply "there," and pointed. I saw nothing out on the salt flat... but maybe a smudge on a low mound... Ryan followed me with the camera and step by step I drew closer to this impossible find. I might as well have been on the moon, out here in this desolation, and indeed I felt as if I had come that far to make this landing. The crater rings lay before me, and I could hardly believe it. All traces of set dressing, of course, were gone, but the rim where Luke stood to watch the sunset was there as if the Lars homestead had only been filmed yesterday. I imagined the sandcrawler pulled up there nearby, the landspeeder parked just behind the dome. Hedhi had come through.
Objectively, one might say, there was virtually nothing here. Why the heck had this idiot come halfway around the world to look at nothing in the middle of a huge expanse of nothing? But those crater rings were the threshold of another world for me, a nexus of dreams. Luke Skywalker, especially in that sunset scene, expressed for so many of us the longing of adventure that stirs our spirit. In a way i felt that I had fulfilled part of that longing that the movie crystallized for me so many years ago.
The harsh desert night was approaching. Time pressed, and pulled me away from this site, and all to quickly it was lost to view in the wide wastes. We were now headed out to find the Dune Sea. I knew that this lay farther out towards Algeria than the homestead site, but as the sand rolled by I thought to myself, this one is the most unlikely yet. Who can tell one sand dune from another? Even our guide had only a vague recollection. We took the vehicle into the sand, then disembarked to proceed on foot. Our small expedition came upon some camels and desert Berbers, who (those surprised to see us) instantly produced trinkets and sand roses from the folds of their cloaks. Tourism, I reflected, is getting out of hand. But I queried them about my mission objectives. They were as mystified as most everyone else had been about my bizarre endeavour. Try explaining that you are in the Sahara looking for a particular group of sand dunes in broken Arabic and Berber and have it sound remotely sane. I got out my photos and went through it all, but only our guide had ever heard of the production. The escape pod or the krayt dragon skeleton would have been the only things to really mark the right location, but the one had probably been removed and the other surely blown halfway to Egypt or buried by nineteen years of sandstorms.
I tried again to explain to some of the Berber kids, and emphasized the giant skeleton. A light dawned in the eyes of one of them, and he gestured East. He thought he remembered seeing something three or four years ago. The whole troupe of us set out: camel, kids, Berbers, our guide, me, and Ryan with the camera. Our parade marched up and down the landscape, crossing scenes that might have been from Laurence of Arabia. We crested a final dune, and the chief of the Berber group pointed down dramatically to his son's rediscovery. They waited for me to descend alone. There, under the harsh glare of the sun, sticking up from the sand, were bones. I knelt, laughing. It was also impossible. I have hunted dinosaurs in the field, and I know the thrill of bone discovery well. It keeps many of us out there at it year after year, waiting for the one gleam in the dirt that makes it all worthwhile. I had been among the small group in 1987 that recovered rare dinosaur eggshell from Devil's Coulee in Alberta. But all that paled before these few Fiberglas bones in the lonely Tunisian sands. Ryan recorded it all, smiling with me as he fought to stay upright in the rising winds.
The remains were rather accurate copies of real sauropod bones, not mere Miocene impressionistic fakes. I rose from this amazing discovery to seek more. And soon found them, scattered far and wide across the dunes. This has been most of a real sauropod dinosaur, painted bone color on to one side and left plain grey on the side that faced away from the camera. Amongst the other remains I found a giant claw. That stopped us again, and I confess that this piece seemed simply too good to pass up. But I wanted to leave everything for any future travellers who might seek this place. Ryan responded that such were likely to be damn few. "You're not appreciating how weird you are," he said. "Who else is into the movie this much, speaks Arabic and Berber, and knows that this is the right place to search, out of all the sand in Tunisia? And are they going to run into that Berber kid? Pick it up." So... I did. I had not disturbed any of the other traces we had found, like the set details in the courtyard, but Ryan seemed to have a point about this particular case. As I was packing it Ryan held out our satellite locator and called on our orbiting allies in space to pinpoint these exact coordinates to within 30 feet. He tucked the device back into his belt, saying, "you never know."
I went on to discover the location of the Tanis Digs, the Map Room, and even the Well of Souls, since Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed here in 1980 - but that's another story. My Star Wars expedition was complete.
By the time we returned to Carthage I was completely exhausted. I had been getting something like four or five hours of sleep most nights, and we had often had to skip eating for time's sake. I hardly remember the blur of returning home. Once back in green hills of the Midwest I pulled the Fiberglass claw out of my pack. Here in my hand was a relic from Tatooine; the soul physical link between the wonderful adventure I had just completed, and the wondrous adventure film that had inspired me to travel there.
Extract taken without permission from Star Wars Fan Club magazine "The Insider", issue #27, written by Dr David West Reynolds, published by Fantastic Media, 1996