CHOTT EL-GHARSA I

By 6:30 in the morning the third day of our trip had dawned and it was light enough to make our way down the windy and treacherous road that lead from Matmata to Gabes. By 7:30 we were making our way through the palmeries that surround Gabes, and onto the Nefzaoua. The Nefzaoua is the southern equivalent to the Jerid. It rims the Chott el-Jerid and Fejaj and apart from a strange Dr Doolittle-like "Push-me Pull-you" arch at Kebili and the occasional drilling rig exploring the strata for water, there is nothing to see. We followed our road west through El-Hamma, Kebili and out onto the Chott el-Jerid. This massive saltlake was impassable to all but the camel trains until the 1970s.

Nowadays a causeway crosses the "Lake of Marks" (so named because of the palm stumps that marked the old camel train route) the chott. Between its edge near Kebili in the south, and Tozer in the north an embanked road runs straight as a rod for 64 kilometres (~43 miles). The fringes of the chott have the occasional bush or wild camel, but once we were into its heart there was nothing to break the horizon for tens of miles around. The occasional mirage and the rare stall broke the otherwise uninterrupted horizon.

By eleven o'clock we had arrived in Tozeur - just in time to catch the ONTT (Organisation National de Tourism Tunisien) before it closed for lunch. Presenting ourselves to the front desk we enquired after a guide. We were told that the local Syndicat D'Initiative hires out locals as tour guides. My spritis nearly shattered at this point. Hadn't our local contact been told of our arrival? Was this all for naught? I spoke up again, mentioning the name of Lionel Noetzlin and Hamida. Suddenly a look of comprehension crossed several faces and Hamida stepped forward, with a cheery smile across his face. I introduced myself and my wife and made negotiations to secure his time and skill for the next 2 days.

As it was lunch time Hamida asked us to meet after prayer. We took this as an excellent opportunity to find a hotel and have a wash. As the ONTT was next to the start of the Route Touristique we decided that we'd splash out on a 4-star luxury suite to make up for our troubles. It was really to pacify the wife who'd had a rough time of it in the passenger seat. We leafed through our guidebook and picked the Hotel Phedra as a likely candidate. We checked in, unpacked, admired the amazing view of the oasis from our window and had a wash and lunch before we made our way back down into Tozeur. Hamida was right on time and after a brief discussion we were on our way to the Chott el-Gharsa, to the north of Tozeur.

DARTH MAUL'S LOOKOUT

From Tozeur we followed a rough track that headed north and east towards an outcrop of sandstone known locally as Angejmal (Camel Head Rock) - see below. The track we took had been built by the contruction crew of The English Patient at the request of Saul Zaentz, its director, and eventually took on the name of "Saul Zaentz Imperial Highway." It's mostly hard-packed sand that has been encrusted with mica and salt crystals, giving it a glistening lustre. For the most part it was a comfortable drive but there were occasions that Hamida detected my haste and cautioned me to slow down. After a 40 minute drive we came to Camel Head Rock, a ridge of partially cemented sand that forms a convincing simulacra of a camel.

The arrival of Darth Sideous' apprentice and right-hand man, Darth Maul, occured in the valley over which Angejmal watches. About half a kilometre north(ish) from the outcrop where two steep ridges run parallel is the spot where ILM used their flashy computers to give us Maul's Sith Infiltrator and Speederbike. I had to climb the ridges 30 metre (100 foot) face to get to the right spot.

It was hard to accept that this was the right place to take the picture. I only had my guides word for it and it wasn't like I had a 100 foot long Sienar courier-class starship as a reference point. I took Hamida's word and pressed the shutter button. When we got home I was rewarded for my faith - you can see that the low hill on the horizon (bottom left in both pictures) is the same!

I was also rewarded with the right camera angle to record the location where he began his chase once the probes had reported back.

It was in this same valley that the German magazine "Cinema" got the scoop of a lifetime. A reporter and photographer scouted out the desert during the filming of Episode 1 and managed to tag on to the back of the Lucasfilm convoy one day. During their exploration of the chott they found the area where some of the podrace scenes had been made, and took some great photographs of the sites during principal photography. One of which is this mock-up of a crashed podracer. There was no sign of it when we visited and I have never been able to work out where it fits into the film. Anyone got any ideas? Suggestions would be appreciated.

It was against Anjegmal that Maul launched his probes on their hunt for the Naboo Royal Starship. Our guide pointed out the corner of Angejmal that is visible when Maul watches his probes speed away. You can from this low angle that Angejmal really does look like a kneeling camel. This picture doesn't entirely complement the landform - from the adjacent ridge from which the aforementioned scene was filmed the viewing angle is much better. But at the time we visited a strong wind was whipping up the sand so we headed for the relative shelter of the valley floor.

The segmented ridges in this part of the Chott el-Gharsa look much like mesas and buttes, as seen in New Mexico and Arizona. They are noticeable as Darth Maul scans the desert at night, when several hills block the view of Mos Espa. This somewhat blurred photograph shows the view through Maul's viewer, albeit without Mos Espa matted into he background.

We spent about an hour here, dashing from one pile of sand to another. I'd hate to think what we looked like to the casual on-looker. Hamida brought me back to Earth with a cluck and a glance at his watch, and then it was off to Mos Espa in our trusty Polo (which was getting more beat up by the day).

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