‘Phantom Menace’ Set Getting Buried By Tunisian Desert

Phantom Menace
Andy Carvin

Darth Vader’s childhood home will soon be covered by a giant sand dune, the BBC reports.

The collection of buildings in the Tunisian desert was used to portray Mos Espa, a spaceport on Tatooine that was home to Anakin Skywalker, later Darth Vader, in “The Phantom Menace.” Unfortunately they were built on a dune field, a large open area where windblown dunes called barchans gradually migrate over the desert.

Scientists studying the movement of the crescent-shaped dunes, slowly pushed in the direction of the prevailing wind, have used the buildings as a marker point. One barchan is now approaching the set and will eventually bury it. Of course, the dune will move on and the buildings will be revealed once again, but the massive weight of the sand may crush the roofs, while the moving sands will abrade the surfaces.

This isn’t the first Star Wars set to be under threat from the harsh terrain of Tunisia. Last year we reported how the childhood home of Luke Skywalker was saved by a group of fans after it was found to be in a state of disrepair.

Who knows? Maybe a small army of science fiction fans, armed with shovels, will descend on Mos Espa and defy nature by moving the barchan in a different direction. May the Force be with them.

(And by the Force I mean the original concept of the Force as a metaphor for the eternal struggle of good vs. evil in all of us, not the lame-ass subatomic virus it became in the later films. Yeah, give me a shovel. I’ll be there.)

Plane Crash Memorialized In The Deep Sahara

Google Earth

In a lonely corner the Sahara Desert, Google Earth shows what looks like a tattoo on the sun-parched sands: a dark graphic blot amid the vast remoteness of Niger’s Tenere region. The negative space in the center of the dot forms the shape of a DC-10 jet plane. Four arrows outside the circle point in each direction, like a compass.

The dark mass large enough to register on a satellite is actually an arrangement of boulders improbably hauled to the desolate area and hand-placed to create the precise image of a DC-10 – a memorial for the 170 victims of the UTA 772 plane crash on Sept. 19, 1989. A terrorist’s bomb downed the aircraft in Niger en route from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Paris, leaving no survivors.

Fifteen years later, victims’ relatives from the group Les Familles de l’Attentat du DC-10 d’UTA used some of their $170 million settlement to fund the memorial. (Last year, another commemorative site opened at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.) This photo gallery offers an up-close look at the arduous labor of love, illustrating such daunting tasks as excavating one of the wings, later incorporated into the design. Parts of the wreckage remained in the sand when the work began (a testament to the remoteness of the crash site), and the gallery includes stirring images of loose, twisted aircraft seats and other debris. Other striking photos show how the group spent two months moving stones by hand to outline a circle 200 feet in diameter and then fill it in with rocks, leaving an empty space in the shape of the aircraft with remarkable accuracy. Broken airplane windows ring the circle, one for each of the 155 passengers and 15 crew members who perished.

Considering that Lonely Planet describes the Tenere as a classic “endless, empty desert,” the photo gallery will be the closest look most of us ever get of this amazing memorial.

Azawad: Africa’s Newest Nation?

Azawad, MaliA Tuareg rebel group in Mali has declared the northern two-thirds of the country as a separate state.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has kicked out government troops and declared the independent nation of Azawad. The region is marked out in green in this map courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The remaining part of Mali is in dark gray just below it.

The Tuaregs are a distinct desert culture living in several African nations. They have complained of being treated as second-class citizens by the Malian government and took advantage of a military coup in the capital last week to take over the Tuareg region.

So far no nation or international body has recognized Azawad as an independent state. There are a lot of politics behind this, beyond the fact that Azawad is home to at least four rebel groups, at least one of which rejects the declaration of independence. Since the coup leaders in the south plan to retake the north, it’s an open question whether Azawad will exist next month or next year.

This begs the question: when is a country really a country? I was once asked in an interview how many countries I’d been to. I answered, “29-31 depending on your definition.” I have been to 29 countries that are recognized by most or all of the world. I say “most of the world” because I’ve been to Israel, which is obviously a country even though it isn’t recognized by 32 other nations.

%Gallery-152666%I have also been to Somaliland, which, despite not having any international recognition, has a functioning government, police, elections, civil institutions and all the other things one associates with nationhood. Somaliland has had these things since it separated from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Ironically, all the world’s nations still consider it to be a part of Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991.

The other hard-to-define nation I’ve visited is Palestine. I know it’s politically incorrect to say anything in support of Palestine, but I consider it a country even if the US government doesn’t. The governments of 130 nations do recognize Palestine’s statehood and that’s good enough for me.

Just like with Palestine and Somaliland, Azawad has to travel a long, rough road between creation and recognition. Since several neighboring nations have offered to send troops to help Mali’s government fight the rebels, an independent Tuareg state is obviously something that scares them. A report that Islamic fundamentalists have taken over some of the northern towns doesn’t lend confidence either. I’ve spent a few months in the Sahara and I can tell you that life there is hard enough without a bunch of wackos banning music, movies and women’s faces.

But assuming Azawad fights off the Malian government and any other enemies, and assuming they get rid of the Islamists, it’s a country I’d love to add to my passport. It’s an adventure travel paradise. The Tuareg are a fascinating culture with their own dress, music, language and traditions. Azawad is also home to Timbuktu, an ancient center of trade and learning that’s home to an amazing program to preserve more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as early as the 12th century. For people who like things a bit more modern, the region is home to two popular music festivals: Sahara Nights and The Festival in the Desert.

Now all that’s in danger because of a war. Hopefully the current crisis will be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed, either leading to Azawad’s independence or reintegration into a more egalitarian Mali. With so many outside interests staking a claim in the region’s affairs, however, it’s doubtful that either Azawad or Mali will be safe for travelers anytime soon.

The Marathon des Sables begins today

One of the longest running and most challenge endurance races on the planet gets underway today when the 24th annual Marathon des Sables, or Marathon of the Sands, begins in Morocco. Over the course of the next week, competitors from around the globe will challenge themselves, and each other, in a race through one of the harshest environments on the planet.

This year’s race is approximately 243 kilometers (151 miles) in length, with the competitors running the equivalent of a marathon each day for six days. As if that weren’t challenging enough, they’ll be doing so in the heart of the Sahara Desert, where temperatures routinely hit 120ºF and blowing sand can make a challenging run turn extremely brutal. The combination of long distances, heat, and sand is unforgiving on the racers’ feet as well.

To add to the challenge, the racers are required to carry all of their gear (minus tent) with them at all times, including food and water. They’ll receive resupply on the water when they hit checkpoints along the way, but otherwise they should be completely self sufficient when they head out on the course each morning.

This year’s field is the largest ever, with 1031 runners from 43 different countries taking part in the race. Most of those will be just happy to finish, but the elite runners amongst them will finish the entire course, spread out over the six days, in a combined time of roughly 20-25 hours. Pretty impressive considering the challenges the desert provides.

Al-Qaeda suspected of kidnapping aid workers in Mauritania

The Spanish government fears that three Spanish aid workers kidnapped this week in Mauritania were taken by Al-Qaeda’s North African group.

The three were taken by masked gunmen from their vehicle as it was driving in a caravan to deliver aid for the group Barcelona-Acciò Solidaria en Mauritania. They were riding in the last vehicle and were apparently stopped when the gunmen fired some shots. There is no information about whether anyone was injured. The caravan was driving on a road between the capital Nouakchott to the city of Nouadhibou, shown here.

While no group has claimed responsibility, the Spanish government suspects Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, which recently kidnapped a French aid worker in Mali. In Mauritania they claimed responsibility for killing an American teacher in June. The spate of attacks and kidnappings are making travel in several Saharan nations increasingly dangerous.