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Planet Appetite: South Tunisia - Film Locations for Star Wars, The English Patient and Life of Brian

08/01/2015 09:54 GMT | Updated 09/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Star Wars Rebels: Path of the Jedi threatens to be one of the movie events of 2015, so a pilgrimage is long overdue to the South of Tunisia, where the earlier films were shot, along with The English Patient, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Life of Brian.

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I'm on the edge of the Sahara, in the back of a 4WD, terrified and hanging on tight, as we climb up a dune and plunge down the almost vertical slope on the other side. This is the 3rd time we've done this and seems to be an integral part of the Star Wars tour, although I don't really see the connection unless it's to give you a thrill, cheap or otherwise.

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I've already spotted the famous Camel Head Rock or Onk Jemal, and climbed to the top to see where The Phantom Menace was shot. I get confused about the chronology of the film but apparently this was where Darth Maul arrived on Tatooine and released the Sith Probes to search for Queen Amidala's ship. The same location was used for Maul flying over the cliffs after he found Anakin and Qui-Gon, or so I'm told.

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Tozeur, an hour's flying time from Tunis, makes a good base to explore the Star Wars locations. It's the archetypal desert oasis, home to over 400,000 date palms, and an impressive brick-built Medina. Wandering round its narrow medieval alleys, you get a sense of the importance of this town when it was the main cross roads between Africa and the Mediterranean.

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These days, the Arab Spring has put a brake on the tourist trade, which is a shame as there's much to see and do. After all where else can you enjoy a plate of Camel Couscous, and a plate of dates, before setting out for a spot of Star Wars hunting?

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Other films have been shot in the area, notably The English Patient which built a road into the salty desert of Chott el Gharsa, really just hard packed sand encrusted with salt crystals. It's known as the Saul Zaentz Imperial Highway, after the film's producer, and it leads me 50kms from the nearest settlement to the Camel Head Rock. At its base is where the desert camp of Count Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) was located and other desert scenes were shot nearby. Interestingly, Tunisia's capital, Tunis, doubled for wartime Cairo, as too much had changed in Egypt for it to be shot there.

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George Lucas famously declared that Tunisia was the only place on earth to shoot the Star Wars series, and I'm about to arrive at Mos Espa village, specially constructed for the Phantom Menace in 1997. I suppose the crazy driving does give me a sense of what it must have been like to lug all the equipment out here, although the actors and Lucas himself, were reportedly helicoptered in. After 17 years it's still remarkably intact, and I'm surprised to find nobody asking for money at the gates.

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In the Mos Espa streets you can see Watto's Shop, Qui-Gon's Alley and Sebulba's Café, but, inside the buildings, it's all chicken wire, plaster and nails. After all this was built as a film set, not guaranteed to last, but you'd certainly be fooled by the exteriors.

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Outside the walls is the site of the famous Boonta pod-racer course, although I couldn't really make out anything. There are a few artisan craft stalls here but no Star Wars memorabilia, although you can don a rather worn Darth Vader costume and have your photo taken. It's all strangely beautiful, particularly at the end of the day when the sun is low, and well worth a visit.

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I'm anxious to see more so leave Tozeur and travel west, crossing the great salt lake of Chott el-Jerid, where Luke Skywalker contemplated the two suns in the very first Star Wars film. I don't stop at the restored Lars homestead igloo, sitting in the middle of nowhere, as I'm on my way to Matmata, Skywalker's home.

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This is one of the strangest places on earth, where people genuinely do live underground to shield themselves from the burning rays of the sun. When I arrive, it seems completely deserted, but then I realise that the landscape is peppered with huge pits. At the base is a courtyard, complete with garden and goat, and families live in cave rooms hollowed into the sides of the rock.

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For Luke Skywalker's home on the desert planet of Tatooine, (the real town of Tataouine is over 100kms south of here), Lucas choose one of the inner courtyards of the Sidi Driss Hotel, where you can still see some of the set dressing from the movie.

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The dining chamber, where Luke argued with Uncle Owen over the fate of the Droids, is actually the hotel's restaurant with the murals more or less intact. You can stay here, although these days it's a bit run down, and you could bang your head on the low ceiling if you woke up with a start in the middle of the night.

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If you're not remotely interested in Star Wars then a local family will take you into their cave complex and offer you mint tea and homemade bread. They'll also show you traditional weaving and demonstrate how they grind corn with traditional stones.

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What's impressive in this area is the barren desert landscape, miles and miles of sand with scattered ruins of empty fortified villages, scarring the landscape. It's no accident that the famous crucifixion scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian was shot here. You can see what they mean by "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".

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Come to Tunisia has tourist information.

The Hotel Ras El Aïn makes a comfortable base in Tozeur. A double room with breakfast starts from £21 per person per night.

Tunisair flies from London Heathrow to Tunis, 6 times a week. Prices start from £165, including taxes. The connecting flight from Tunis to Tozeur starts at £31 each way, and flies every day except for Monday and Friday. For reservations, please call 020 7734 7644.

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All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.