Maybe if you lived in the heat of central-south Tunisia, a cave would appeal. Here you will find what they call les maisons troglodytes – troglodyte caves. Leaving Djerba, we were on dull flatland for a fair stretch but we saw pale red mountains looming, dotted with dusty green brush.

Soon we were switchbacking and climbing, dropping, climbing again – completely distinct terrain. We passed a town that hugged the hills, boasting several Dars – guest houses – with carved entrances leading back into the mountains. Tea houses were emerge from the mountainside, giving views over the highway and across miles and miles of dramatic and undulating land.

Welcome to Matmata and the home of Star Wars

We ended up in Matmata, a town famed for its troglodyte homes – and for the sets of the original Star Wars movie. (The city of Tatouine is a bit further south and east, but more of the Star Wars lore sits here in Matmata and in Tozeur, where we will head later.) There is a set of maisons troglodytes where George Lucas filmed several scenes of the first Star Wars movie. These now comprise the Sidi Idriss Hotel, with the Star Wars sets highlighted amongst the cave (now hotel room) entrances and Amazigh (Berber) writing.

When you look out over the landscape, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever living there – particularly in June, during our visit, when temperatures topped 100 every day. It’s dry and most of the maisons are invisible until you’re right upon them. There’s little sign of anything growing for human consumption, not since we parted ways with the vast olive groves a couple hundred kilometers to the north.

Enterprising Matmatans have decorated several maisons for visitors, and look nearly lived-in – which is less surprising after we had been in the area for a few days, and spoken to a couple of locals whose parents and grandparents had never lived above-ground. And it is genuinely much cooler in the maisons than outside.

At Sidi Idriss, however, there’s all manner of productive economy going on, particularly the kind where soft-hearted tourists are led around by guides and confronted with baby animals:

I’m embarrassed at how easily they convinced me to feed the baby camel (dromedary, I know) from a bottle. But look at it! It’s a baby!

An upscale use for the caves: Tamezret

I’d heard a recommendation to try a particular guest house for its great food. This was L’Auberge de Tamezret, run by a Belgian man and Tunisian woman, husband and wife, with complementary skill sets and a heap of flair. Tamezret is a hillside community built on what are not completely, but at least mostly, rocky ruins. This, we were firmly informed, is not the desert – it’s the mountains before the desert.

It’s also home to some of the last remaining enclaves of Amazigh-speakers. One of them, a young woman with incredible verve, has opened a tea shop at the top of the hill near the mosque. She and her puppy welcome visitors for tea made with her Berber ancestors’ recipe, containing thyme and rosemary. Here’s a video from Brut on Facebook – they must have been there interviewing her about the time we visited.

The hotel is tiny. The proprietors have carved just three rooms into this hillside. It’s a modern maison troglodyte, modern and very, very fancy. No detail has been left unattended. One room – where Ali stayed – is an actual cave, with Persian rugs and thick cushions on carved rock surfaces, and a rustic-riche shower. My room was the attic space, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and amazing cabinets of collected knick-knacks and books from the region. The bathroom was bigger than my whole DC apartment, and much more luxuriously appointed.

We watched the sunset from my balcony. Sublime.

Okay so then there was this dinner

I don’t quite know how to describe this dinner. We were really “in the mountains just before the desert.” There’s not a lot there – for lunch a guy named Abdul gave us couscous, which was very nice, but it was a roadside diner and we were slapping flies away while eating juuuuust beyond the otherwise unavoidable sun-dappled fire. I had heard from a prior guest that the meal was awesome, but when I tried to ask the Belgian guy about it, he was so coy as to seem… embarrassed. We ultimately had no idea what to expect. Mr. Patrick repeatedly told us to wait. We took in the sunset, walked around and had tea, kicked our toes in the dirt… alright already, dinner now??

He takes us through the kitchen, which is not just restaurant grade, it’s stunning with copper pots and marble countertops giving the feel of luxury. Please understand, finding a marble countertop behind the curtain was like finding an octopus in your garage. There is no Ikea here, the nearest gas station is 30 minutes away by clunky old road… The kitchen was such a shock that to move on through to the dining room, in its own cave, with a full-to-bursting wine cellar and fancy olive oils and multiple forks and stuff… we’d stepped from the hot courtyard with the dog barking from atop a ratty picnic table, on the rubble-strewn hillside set within the not-quite-desert-but-just-about-“mountains-before-the-desert” my left butt cheek into something about as surprising as the International Space Station.

After much indulgence, much deprivation

Time to visit L’oasis – the water source at the edge of the Sahara at Ksar Ghilane. It was a long drive from Matmata – supposed to be just an hour, but ended up being more. We went to find gas – thirty minutes in the opposite direction – and Google Maps led us back to our planned trajectory over an unmarked and decidedly unimproved road. It was so solitary and so damned bumpy, we thought we’d never make it to civilzation.

It led us, in fact, back to the start of the purported one-hour drive to the oasis. We were wiped out before we even got started. And so much for filling the gas tank!

The most interesting thing during that hour was the repeated sightings – not of camels – but of “Camel Crossing” signs. Otherwise it was just… road, and nothing to fix the eye upon. I ran through what I thought was a smattering of sand blown onto the road, but what turned out to be a sand berm. That was kind of exciting.

Ali and I pretty much stopped talking. We also couldn’t play much Spotify, since we were out of range of whatever satellite had once kept us in touch. I don’t mind saying, I was sweatin’ it. I checked the car’s temperature gauge obsessively – it stayed cool.

Maybe because it was oversold to us, and maybe because getting there felt so dramatic, and maybe because neither one of us had ever been in a desert before… but the oasis did not strike me as the thrilling playground it had been billed to be. Sure, if you’ve just come across the Sahara on a camel, this looks like the Atlantic Ocean.

rOf course, there were t-shirts for sale. Quad bikes for rent (LOADS of them). And a hotel, with aircon. I can’t say we’d be likely ever to stay there. On the way back to Matmata, we sped like bandits.