Underground Homes, the Northern Desert and the Curse of Matmata

June 7, 2013

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

The road to Matmata begins as many of the roads have on our journey through Tunisia – straight but still beautifully interesting. Increasingly sparse towns are abuzz with activity as every local seems to stand roadside showing off their wares in hopes of a sale. Equally frequent are men in what look like lab-coats standing next to any number of freshly-slaughtered lambs hung upside down from hooks next to a waiting barbeque. The white lab-coats seem to insinuate that the meat has been dealt with hygienically – though skinned carcasses hanging in the late morning sun surrounded by flies hints at the opposite. Still, there are plenty of folks eating at the stands and I doubt I’ve ever eaten red meat as fresh as this. But for now Nita and I will pass these stands up in the hope of keeping our digestive systems happy.

The landscape is changing and the trees that had lined the roads are now replaced by smaller shrubs that speckle the mix of rock and sand now dominating the horizon. In the distance, the unyielding flatness of the desert is disturbed by a range of textured hills – but we’re still a long way from that. As we head southwest toward Matmata, there are fewer police check-stops and in their place are national-guard checkpoints. As we pass by a prison, an officer throws us a smile just as he pulls over a truck loaded similarly to the cars we saw on the ferry. We’re beginning to get a real taste of the desert.

Not far from the town of Matmata, the straight roads give way to some wonderfully twisting asphalt that winds it’s way through the mountains. It’s almost difficult to get our minds back into the corners that have evaded us since our arrival in Tunisia – but it’s incredibly fun to feel our bikes bob and weave between the hills and valleys. The road-surface is almost a sealed gravel which, as the temperatures rise, makes our tires feel like they’re going off – that’s to say, it feels like there’s a layer of grease on the road. It’s mildly disconcerting and we need to take it easy since the shoulder and a third of the road is covered in about three or four inches of gravel and sand. Tucked neatly into corners of the road are occasional Berber tents that seem quite welcoming in the midday heat. From the outside they seem spacious and the shaded floor covered in rugs piques our curiosity – though the few we see on our days travels have no inhabitants. For a moment we wonder if these are part of “Nomad Camps” our GPS’ seem so set on delivering us too but as it turns out, they’re “Experience” stops for tour-buses where people can get a taste of what life was like here for the nomadic tribes that wandered the desert. 

The closer we get to our destination, we also begin to see homes cut into the landscape; from the tops of passes we see holes dot the ground as if home to giant ants. As we drop to the valley floor we see that these holes are, in fact, the central space for the troglodyte homes that are so unique to this area. Well hidden from the outside world, there are entire communities of people living underground in these incredible spaces. Seeing one of these close up is quickly added to the list of things to do in Tunisia.

The wonderful road that we’ve been travelling all day winds it’s way around a final hill before dropping us into a beautiful-looking town; we’ve arrived in Matmata. Perhaps most famous for Sidi Driss, a complex of troglodyte homes featured in Star Wars which have been converted into a hotel, the town itself is quite a surprise. Splashes of color highlight buildings that would otherwise blend in with the desert landscape and the temperature here is equally fitting; the midday heat is closing in on the mid-thirties and the air is as dry as can be. The road is lined with signs for the many hotels that occupy this tourist and fanboy hotspot, and the main-street has plenty of cute cafés and an occasional restaurant with their owners rushing to the street to wave us in. We ride on to find our hotel, but our first impressions of Matmata are good. Far from the desolate outland that we expect, this town is busy with the industry of selling to tourists. 

While many people come here to see Sidi Driss, we’ve heard that it’s an absolutely abysmal place to stay and we’ve opted for a nearby hotel that’s been renovated with rooms that resemble troglodyte homes. It’s a bit “theme park” but since the authentic hotels we investigated had no parking – or doors on the rooms – our desire to venture out without our bags and a door that locks wins! We’re followed to the hotel by group of men who spot tourists entering Matmata and then try to pitch tours to them. A shady looking man emerges from the VW Golf and tells us that he’d like to show us around Matmata and that he works at the hotel – which turns out to be a complete fabrication. We tell him that we’ll think about it but we want to relax for the evening and after a few more tries he grudgingly gives up.

The Hotel Marhala is huge and practically empty – much like the pool we’ve been so looking forward to! It turns out that the nearly two-year drought in the area means water is simply too precious to waste on swimmers. A fair point I’d say! Dinner and breakfast are included for the €25 we pay for the room – a stark contrast to the prices we were finding in Europe and this is considered expensive for the area. The front door is once again adorned with stickers from other adventure seekers of all sorts and a tag from the Avventure GS group we met in El Jem lets us know they made it to Matmata on their cannonball run south. We proudly place a Motogeo sticker near them to mark our own arrival in the desert.

The hotel is set just outside Matmata and, with a little walk, provides a fantastic view of the mountains to the south and a dirt road that leads enticingly into them. After watching some giant beetles make their way through the sand, the quiet is suddenly broken by a barrage of high-powered 4×4’s barrelling down the road. Screeching to a stop by a Berber tent, groups of people pile out of them in a rush that resembles more a security detail scrambling to protect a politico from gunfire than a gaggle of holiday-goers. Quickly they move from station to station, ushered on by a group of men while the drivers, who’ve retired to the tent, are brought tea by a lovely looking man who waves as he passes in the distance. Soon, everyone piles back into the SUV’s and, with spinning tires and clouds of dust, they make their way back to the main road and down the highway.

The quiet returns for a while before a loud hee-haw breaks the silence. Looking into the hills we see a lone donkey looking our way. Hee-haw, hee-haw. When we wave and ask him what all the noise is about, he slowly backs behind a hill – never breaking his gaze. After a few minutes he emerges – still looking at us. Hee-haw, hee-haw. Seeing us still looking, he again backs up behind the hill. In fact he sounds more like a Tusken Raider from Star Wars than a donkey which has me thinking that this guy was Lucas’ inspiration. After a few more appearances, he gives up on the idea of us leaving and simply stays hidden behind the hill. Poor fella. Can you spot him?

We continue our stroll down into the valley and, unwittingly, seem to end up on the roof of a troglodyte house. Realizing where we are, we move back to the dirt track where we’re greeted by a man laying in the shade of a small lean-to. He has a wonderful smile and, after exchanging plenty of smiles and handshakes he offers a tour of his home. His wife emerges from the central area to show us around while the husband disappears into one of the rooms that lead away from the courtyard. Over the entryways to the various rooms are painted hands and fish – traditional Berber symbols: the hand (Hamsa) protects from the evil-eye while the fish is a symbol of luck. Just inside the entryway is a nook where our host grinds seed into flour; she shows us the process before giving us both a go at the stone wheel. It’s heavier than we think it would be and our struggle to get it going gets a great smile out of her.

Taking us into the courtyard, we can see each room that extends from this area. The rooms are all very simple but beautifully colourful and it’s hard not to feel the love put into this home. There are fragrant boughs of herbs hanging by doors, a cured dog-skin bag filled with something mysterious and a plastic bottle with a chameleon inside it wishing he were anywhere else. The husband emerges from the kitchen and invites us in for bread and tea which we gladly accept. Perched on tiny plastic stools, we’re left alone in their home while we enjoy the treats he’s prepared for us – he’s even covered the food with a towel to protect it from the flies that constantly bombard the food, the tea and our heads. Somehow though it doesn’t bother us in the least – we’re having an amazing time in this beautiful place thanks to the kindness of these people.

With the bread and olive oil gone, we rejoin our hosts in the courtyard where she offers to dress Nita in some traditional clothing. Again, the process and our clumsiness seems to bring a smile to her face! We’re happy to be the fools if keeps this lovely woman smiling. This incredible home is decorated from the land; there are so many bits and pieces that have been gathered from the surrounding area and placed thoughtfully here and there to make it theirs – it’s beautiful. All too soon our time with them comes to an end – we don’t want to intrude anymore than we have already. We offer payment for the hospitality which they gladly accept; showing people around their homes augments their income and while payment doesn’t seem required, it feels like the right thing to do. On our way out, he joins us for a quick tour of his nearby animals. He works the ground and has some beasts for trade and food – and its something he’s obviously proud of. Again we say our thank-you’s before slowly walking back to the hotel giving our experience some time to sink in. What a wonderful day this has been!

Our bikes are parked outside the hotel restaurant and, as we pass by to check on them, a man pops his head out of the window to say hello. Literally. After a few minutes of talking through the screen he decides that the barrier is annoying enough to simply rip the corner up until he can fit his entire body through it! He tells us about his own love of bikes and, for a while, he toys with the idea of returning to Sfax to grab his bike and rejoin us the next day for a ride. Failing that, he thinks a drink in the evening could be a possibility though we’re not sure how serious the offer is considering none of us actually trade any info. Needless to say, we don’t see him again (perhaps because he’s been jailed for vandalism) but watching him tear the screen away to chat is something we’ll never forget!

The next morning we plan to spend some time in the area and start with Sidi Driss (Lukes home) just to see it. I’ll happily admit that I’m a Star Wars junkie and I’m pretty stoked to wander the rooms of sci-fi’s whiniest hero. Stopping outside the tourist office in Matmata, I’m not even at a full stop when a guy on a scooter pulls up asking if we’d like a tour. “Fifteen dinar! I take you to all the Star Wars places, to a troglodyte home. We have a tea. I work here.” We say “No. Thank you.” about a hundred times and, rather than leaving, he drops his price to ten dinar. He continues to tell us he works at the tourist office which, like the guide outside our hotel, is an complete fabrication. Eventually he leaves, we get the information we need and we head to Sidi Driss which is literally less than a minute up the road.

Outside the hotel, another man asks if we want a tour which we decline but, predictably, he continues to insist before Nita and I simply head inside. He runs in front of us and explains what everything is – in French – and we do our best to let him do his thing but make it clear we’re not interested in his tour. The hotel itself is a shambles; it’s interesting to see the remnants of the sets but in reality the styrofoam around the doors is all that remains from the original picture. The man continues talking in the background while we take pictures and look through doorways, and as we enter the “active” hotel he tries to sell us on a room. Opening a door the room is literally two narrow tables with a wool blanket pulled over it. A table. We explain we’re not interested and begin to make our way to the exit.

Outside, the man is talkative and smiley before asking ten dinars for the tour we didn’t want! I tell him there’s no way – I can get a moto-tour of the area for the same price. The smile instantly disappears from his face and he insists that the cost to enter the hotel is five dinars per person. We continue to refuse and, obviously agitated he gives up on the ten dinars and then demands money for two men – who’ve just shown up – as payment for watching the bikes! It’s all Nita can take before going “New York”. With a fierce glint in her eyes, she lets him know that he should be upfront about the costs, and if he isn’t then he shouldn’t expect a thing. With his tail between his legs he changes his tune and begins to give us information on good places to see – but the damage is done. We suit up and leave with a nasty taste in our mouths from the experience. Unfortunately, Matmata is turning out to be one of those disingenuous places where people seem to be reaching for your wallet wearing a fictitious smile.

We choose to ignore his advice and instead head toward Tataouine, the city that gave Lukes home-planet it’s name. Nerdy, I know. We don’t care if we make it there; we’re really just interested in seeing as much of this area as we can. The roads become increasingly twisty and, while this particular route doesn’t exist on our GPS, it is fantastic. In every direction the desert extends without interruption; to our right the hills roll on into infinity and to our left they dissolve into the Golfe de Gabès. It’s like a dream. More common now are the holes in the hills that reveal the presence of another troglodyte home. It’s still hard for us to get our heads around the idea that these humble entrances disguise the homes hidden inside. Equally hard to process is the revelation of the Mediterranean as a backdrop to the beautifully barren desert as we climb higher into the hills; a juxtaposition of the band of blue that defines the end of land and it’s inability to feed green into the sand that dominates this part of the world. The view is breathtaking.

Just to keep the day exciting, we notice a shepherd rallying his flock into the hills and, as we pass, one of his dogs races towards with teeth gnashing – he’s absolutely ferocious. We both hit the gas and swerve to miss him in the road but it’s an eye-opener for us – this pup wasn’t out as a show of strength, he wanted to sink his teeth into us. He chases us down the road a ways and the anger never subsides; in my side mirror I see him finally stop still baring his teeth viscously. And he’s not the only one we deal with – in Toujane a heavy chain and muzzle barely stop a dog from getting us as we pass by. It’s seems the dogs here have issues. Maybe it’s the adrenaline of the near-miss with the dog, or possibly the heat, or perhaps it’s the incredible landscape that’s revealing itself to us as we slowly make our way through it’s hills, but Nita and I are both starting to get a bit giddy. Songs begin to fill the helmets followed by plenty of laughs and, after a stop to enjoy the growing desert, I’m overcome with the need to ride a mile-marker on the side of the road. It’s quite a nice shape to sit on and besides, a trip like this shouldn’t be taken too seriously!

The road continues it’s ascent into the hills and, around a long corner, we suddenly see Toujane nestled into the hillside. Houses the same color as the surrounding landscape are interspersed with white homes and the long-dry river bed is lined with palm trees thirsty for rain. On a road that runs along the other side of the valley we watch a herd of sheep make their way up the road while a young boy gets a good hiding from his very displeased mother – a spanking that includes a threat of being tossed into the ravine below. This is not a mother I’d mess with. Toujane is the biggest town we see today and, as we pass through, we see it’s street lined with handmade signs to artisanal cafes. While the sound of our engines bring a couple of folks out to wave us in, people are mostly laying in the shade and enjoying a cool afternoon breeze.

We press on, but turn around in the next town and opt to stop for a thé nanah at a small café high atop the hills providing us with a fantastic view of the valley. The young man who greets us runs the café – The Magic View – with his three sisters, mother and father with the women producing beautiful hand-woven Berber rugs. While the tea is brewing, he demonstrates the quality of the rugs by burning them with a lighter! The color of the fabric browns and then, with a little rubbing, the color returns to normal though the smell of burnt wool lingers considerably longer.

With our tea ready we settle along the cliff and look down on wonderful Toujane. Our host tells us where the hospital is, the post office, explains that it hasn’t rained in two years and that only the white houses are now inhabited. While we talk about life in Canada he mentions that it snowed here a few years back – the first time in his twenty-five year life that he’s ever seen the white stuff. Recounting the story his face lights up and it’s impossible to miss the joy in his eyes at the memory of it.

His disposition is lovely – he reminds me of my brother Yusef in many ways. We want to buy something from the café but on a bike everything needs to be practical. Worried that we don’t have enough money to make a purchase, he offers to let us take a carpet and send him money later – something that strikes us as remarkably trusting. We settle on two small rugs for the outside of the tent – a bit of a luxury but it’s nice to step out onto something other than dirt or sand in the morning and it’s something we’ll get to use soon since we’re camping on the northern edge of the Sahara tomorrow.

We say our goodbyes and make our way back along the beautiful roads that line this part of the world. There’s no gas in Matmata except for roadside vendors peddling fuel smuggled in from Libya in plastic containers. We’ve heard that the quality is hit and miss with some people adding water to the mix to pad the sales. We opt to pass Matmata and backtrack to Matmata Nouvelle to fill the tanks at an OiLibya station where the familiar stickers of fellow travellers line their windows. All filled, we’re soon back at the hotel and settling in for the evening. After dinner we work on honing our skills at cutting our own hair and don’t do a bad job! Every time we do it, it seems to get a little easier though using scissors in the mirror is still remarkably difficult. Who knew we’d leave this adventure with a promising career in hairdressing!? Okay, maybe not.

We’re excited for our journey tomorrow. We’ll be camping along the northern edge of the Sahara, a place that’s fed our imagination for most of our lives. It’s the landscape that’s inspired so many adventures and for the next few days we’ll be lucky enough to call it home. It doesn’t take long for us to slip into a sound sleep and dreams filled with camels and dunes. We’ve ridden our bikes to the Sahara.


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I’m a Canadian writer, adventure motorcyclist and world traveller of British and Libyan descent. I’ve spent the past two and a half years travelling the globe by motorcycle as one-half of We Love Motogeo, following a route that makes little sense to anyone else, while supporting our non-profit organization, the Lost for Good Project. I’ve been chased by all manner of animal, detained as a spy in North Africa and waited out a hurricane in the bowels of a ferry. While I’m no spy (honestly), I am a lover of decent coffee and great yarns sewn around a campfire.


  1. Comment by George F

    George F June 7, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Amazing pictures. You guys speak French and are Canadians, do you guys think it would be safe for Americans riders to be there?
    I can’t wait to see the pictures on the edge of the Sahara. I would love the visit the Sidi Driss, I’m a Star Wars geek.
    Seems like they have nice roads with little traffic.

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish June 7, 2013 at 2:46 pm

      Thanks George! Well, we *try* to speak French :)

      Right now I think you’d be totally fine travelling through Tunisia. At no point did we feel unsafe. For 90% of the time I’d say it was just the opposite – we were made to feel incredibly welcome. I’d give 9% to indifference and maybe 1% to grumps. Also, if you weren’t French and you spoke English everyone seems to assume you’re German – perhaps because there’s not a huge North American presence here right now.

      The cities *are* busy and the rules are pretty much non-existent but outside of them it’s a joy to ride – little traffic and mostly decent roads. Construction zones almost always mean riding off-road and there were spots where sand meant three hours to make thirty clicks… but they seemed to be the exception and talking to other travellers had us aware of trouble spots.

      You have to go to Sidi Driss even with the sales pitches. It was pretty cool to be there. There are other spots that are less-travelled but equally cool – like the outside of the home on the Chott el Jerid….

  2. Comment by Beela

    Beela June 7, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Thanks for continuing to sharing wonderful pictures and stories, Issa and Nita.

    What did the woman have tattooed on her wrist? Curious if she was Berber.


    P.S. If you guys are headed towards Qatar let me know as I would love for you to meet my friend, the pearl diver.

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish June 8, 2013 at 4:38 am

      Hi Beela!

      The woman – Fatma – had four points to ward off the evil eye tattooed on her hand and the pillars I need to look into… she was indeed Berber :) There’s some interesting info on Berber tattoo’s here:


      We’d love to make it to Qatar and meet your friend – we’ll keep our fingers crossed that we can make it happen!

      And thank *you* for following along on our adventure, Beela!

  3. Comment by Jan Thain

    Jan Thain June 8, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    How surreal it all seems. The lay of the land, your visit to the Star Wars “exhibit” ,Nita being dressed in traditional attire and the fact that you ALWAYS manage to find a little coffee bar no matter where you are! The pictures-again, just beautiful, depicting a generous people that seem to so freely offer their hospitality. I’m always looking forward to what is in store for the two of you next!! :) xoxox

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish June 13, 2013 at 8:16 am

      Mum – it’s always something special. It seems that everyday in Tunisia has something new to offer… good and bad. We have to take it all in and distill the experience over time – and even with some distance between us and Tunisia it remains such a special place for us! xo.

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