The road from Metameur wound up and down through spectacular scenery and views into the mountains, taking us through Toujane – semi-abandoned ancient dwellings tumbling down across both sides of a gorge, with the ruins of old forts high above.
A large amount of touron-tat stalls, however, betrayed the fact that the road was heading towards Matmata, one of the Tunisian towns we’d most been looking forward to, but also another of the main day-trip destinations for those on Djerban package trips.
The final couple of kilometres towards Matmata saw no sign of the town itself, and it wasn’t until we’d more or less arrived that we realised it was even there. That’s largely because Matmata is the centre of “pit dwellings” – the terrain is a soft stone, with many rolls and folds, so that the ground looks almost like the surface of a giant brain.
Into this, a pit is dug – typically 10m diameter and 7m deep – with an entrance from one of the folds in the ground. Off the perimeter of the pit, rooms are then excavated. As and when finances and needs dictate, the back of one of the rooms is dug through, providing a corridor into another pit, with rooms similarly radiating. All you see from above ground is a door and a hole. As with the troglodyte dwellings around Tatouine, the natural insulation is superb, keeping the rooms comfortable across an immensely wide range of ambient temperatures.
Some of the sci-fi geeks amongst you might think this is all sounding a bit familiar – and you’d probably be right. One of the pit-dwelling hotels in Matmata was used as the set for Luke Skywalker’s home on the desert planet of Tattooine (can you see what they did? can you?). Many of the other locations in the Star Wars series of films were also round the area. As you can imagine, there’s a fair bit of living off those past glories to be done. The hotel still has some of the sets in place (shabby bits of plywood hung round the walls), and there’s plenty of tacky merchandising going on. It was all a bit, well, cheesy, to be honest.
Matmata was also going to be our last opportunity to stock up on food and drink before heading south towards Ksar Ghilene and the “proper” sandy desert – so it came as a bit of an unwelcome surprise to find that there weren’t really any shops in Matmata. A couple of fruit-and-veg places, and one hole-in-the-wall Alimentation Generale, but none of them great (even by rural Tunisian standards – we weren’t exactly expecting a Waitrose superstore!) and no sign of a butcher or petrol station – we’ve yet to brave the jerry-can-and-funnel roadside vendors of what we now know is referred to as “Essence de Libye” – it’s a small saving weighed against the potential expense and inconvenience. Nouvelle Matmata is about 15km away, so a quick detour was taken. We did manage to find a chicken-and-egg shop, and to fill up, but it was hardly any wider a selection than the old town.
We found our campsite – the forecourt of a local hotel (with museum of local life attached), our only neighbours being a couple of donkeys, some shaggy and dog-eared white dogs, and a couple of cats (called Di and Dodi – no, seriously). The welcome was warm, though, and we settled in for the evening. We had a visitor as night started to fall, a local lady collecting firewood – over a quick chat, she told us that she lived in a pit dwelling next door to the hotel, and would be happy for us to come and visit. Inevitably, all of the obviously open dwellings were marked by a tourist coach parked outside, so we were delighted to accept. Seliya’s family excavated the house in the middle of the 19th century, and have been living there ever since. She’s clearly making best advantage of the proximity to the hotel, with some tourist trappings around the place – an Italian 4×4 trip t-shirt, signed, hanging on a wall and photos of the house in use for filming – but it didn’t “feel” tacky or false at all. Just her and her little boy, with very few concessions to modernity around the place. Her other son lives 15km away, so that he can get to school more easily. We were shown around, given tea and bread with honey, and generally made to feel right at home, as we chatted and whiled away an hour or two.
Eventually, we parted, and headed on to the next village of Tamezret – again, semi-derelict, but this time built “normally” around the top of a hill.
Not much in particular to see – just a pleasant wander around, with some great views of arid not-very-much for miles around in all directions, before we hit the only route available to non-4x4s wanting to go to the desert outpost of Ksar Ghilene, the long and empty “pipeline road”.
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