Dave the motorhome is parked in the shadow of the minaret belonging to the mosque in Matmata (N33.54478 E9.96711). He’s been vigorously waved into the car park of Chez Abdul, a restaurant in the middle of town. A small sign by the roadside told us camping cars were welcome, our friend Wim told us the deal he had struck with Abdul so we knew what to expect. Tonight we’re dining in his restaurant – a three course meal with drinks (non-alcoholic) including parking and a top up of water from a very dirty hose-pipe (prolonged boiling to follow for the next few weeks) for 30TD (about €15).
Last night the banging party tunes, some of which I recognised, ended around 10pm as we drifted off to sleep. I’ve kindly shared my manflu with Jay, so he now feels grotty and all I have left is a hacking cough, it’s a good job the campsite was empty as I kept everyone in Dave awake for a large portion of the night.
This morning we couldn’t resist one last wander out into the dunes – their lure is indescribable. Transfixed by the ripples of red sand flowing like a sea towards the horizon we were drawn in. With vast expanse of sand to ourselves we had a play in it, well who wouldn’t? The wind put an end to our fun. There wasn’t any yesterday, today it whipped up around us and our camera, but it seems to have survived the worst of it.
Charlie chased sticks and dried camel poo and found himself covered in sand, so when we reached the oasis spring Jay decided to wash him off a bit. Of course what we hadn’t realised was just how sandy everything around us was – I guess we’d got used to it. Charlie however knew just what fun it would be to run around and get super sandy. His fur thickened to resemble that of a camel, and overall he simply went orange. With no other option we sat out in the sunshine to let him dry, then paying our 16TD for the night we headed off back down the sandy road towards tarmac heaven.
Driving the long, straight boring road I spotted a dot in the distance, as it drew closer it took on a familiar form, it was the Swiss couple returning for another dip in the pool. We stopped next to each other, totally blocking this busy stretch of road, and chatted for about 10 minutes. Swapping places to see and email addresses before setting off again, having held not one person up! As we reached the army post there was no sign of the armed guards we encountered yesterday, driving through one of them appeared from a canvas tent which offered more robust protection from the wind and sand than the stick shelter.
Ahead of us the long, road looked very much the same as yesterday but with a haze of sand over it. The sky went orange coloured towards the earth as the wind carried sand across the barren landscape. Eventually we reached Cafe Jelili and turned right towards Matmata. Almost immediately the landscape changed. Gone were the vast flat vistas of the desert, replaced by large, bare hills of earth with rocks almost drawn in lines around them – looking as if they had been combed. The valleys between the hills housed the winding road and thick soil terraces called jessour. The water from the hills is channelled into them to enable olive, almond and fig trees to grow and protect the plains around from flooding.
Perched on top of one of the hills was the town of Tamezret, our Rough Guide promised ‘stupendous’ views from the nearby village of Taoujout, seeing the signpost Jay decided we’d have a quick detour. Then followed a buttock clenching journey along four kilometres of tarmacced, but very, very narrow road. Reaching Taoujout we realised that the wind and sand had wiped away a large percentage of the view over the hills to the desert, but undeterred we headed off for a look around.
Back in Dave we clenched again for the journey back, we now knew we could fit, we simply had to hope no one else had been tempted to use the road at the same time.
Dropping down a slight hill we were welcomed to Matmata by the sight of a hotel/museum that looked out of this world, fitting in totally with the lunar style landscape around us. A fork in the road heralded the start of the main part of the town and Abdul spotted us almost before we spotted his place. He waved us in and showed us where we could park. Jay completed the negotiations after which Abdul’s friend Mohammed introduced himself and offered to take us on a tour of the local pit dwelllings which the town is famous for. The offer included the magic name of a local hotel, Sidi Driss, another Star Wars set.
After a quick bite to eat we followed a cold filled Mohammed a few hundred meters down the road into and around the hotel, both inside and from above. If you’re a bit confused, you have every right to be – it’s the magic of Hollywood. Luke’s house on Tattoine is in two parts, the little white cube with a dome you see sitting in the middle of nowhere – we’d already seen about 200km away near Nefta – and a pit area containing the rooms, which is here. But in the film it looks like they are only a couple of steps apart – magic!
After the most famous hotel in town, we visited the museum. This was another pit dwelling containing artefacts to show how people would have lived in them, a bedroom (with en-suite shower!), living room and kitchen. As we toured Mohammed told us how they built the homes in the soft sandstone, in the 1950’s everyone here lived in a pit dwelling, then in 1959 the Government started to build a new town 15 kilometres up the road to house the growing population. Now only 25 families live in pit dwellings, but we got to visit one of them, as the last place on our tour was the home of an 82 year old lady. Seeing my concerned face as he let himself in Mohammed assured me that she was never there in the day, as she spent time with her family who live in the new (brick) house next door.
From Dave’s window I can see across to the pit dwellings, above them white domed Marabout buildings stand out against the red sand hills surrounding the town. The call to prayer is being sung from the minaret and the sun has finally set. We’ve an hour to relax before dinner – I’d better keep away from the biccies and wrap up warm, restaurants here are always chilly!