Operation: Return to Tatoonie
Operation Return to Tatooine was a joint event organized by Prometheus Design Werx to gather together a group of friends and peers in our industry and community who shared a love of Star Wars, overlanding, exploration, and possessed a healthy sense of good natured fun. Starting from PDW HQ in San Francisco, we headed to Southern CA to circle up with the rest of our team and continued east to our final destination in the BLM area by the CA/AZ and US/Mexico borders known as the Imperial Sand Dunes.
The Imperial Sand Dunes is the largest mass of sand dunes in the state of CA and was formed by the windblown sands of ancient Lake Cahuilla. Popular with today’s OHV set as well as having served as training grounds for desert warfare and backdrops for numerous Hollywood films, including scenes from Return of the Jedi. It is the opening sequence of this film which involves Jabba’s Sail Barge, the Sarlacc Pit and takes place on the fictional desert planet of Tatooine, that brought us here to this location where it was filmed in 1982.
Our guide to this area was our friend Eddie Dennis who had been in this area on 4 occasions over the years, and after flagging up and airing down, we followed behind his 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser with trailer laden with Star Wars props, costumes, camping supplies, and firewood to arrive at our basecamp which we believed to be within a few dozen yards of the actual site and location of the studio constructions that served as Jabba’s Sail Barge and the Sarlacc Pit.
Wheeling on the sand dunes is a unique driving experience. Some of us were new to this terrain, and some of us old hats at it. Our friend Elias had the good fortune of testing out his new suspension and drivetrain he installed in the weeks prior to this trip, in this environment. His Jeep JK along with the other Jeeps and Toyota FJ Cruisers were worthy ships in this dune sea.
While we entered the area in fair skies and light winds, within a few hours into the early afternoon, we found ourselves setting up our shelters and tents in the middle of 29+ mph winds and unrelenting clouds of stinging sand.
After managing to set up our tents and shelters in the high winds, the participants on our mini expedition adapted to the conditions and explored our area. Some broke off into pairs and used metal detectors to search for the remnants of Jabba’s Sail Barge and the Sarlacc Pit, and some of us worked our way up the sandy dunes to get different vantage points of our desert dune sea.
Despite the harsh conditions, there was the beauty of our environment that still revealed itself as stark contrasts, windblown patterns, and animated gradients.
The afternoon light in these dunes and winds provided us with an intriguing environment to capture the numerous memorable moments of our adventure.
As the sun set we found ourselves pondering the options to make dinner. Some of us having found ourselves in similar conditions before with even higher wind speeds in the deserts of Nevada, we knew we had a refuge to cook and eat within the relative sanctuary of a sizable 12-man pyramid tent that we had wrestled up earlier on in the day.
The following day we awoke with the sun rise to warm temperatures and clearer blue skies. Being able to prepare breakfast, brush our teeth and wash the dust and grit off from the day before in the open and calmer air of the day was a welcome start.
This day proved to be ideal to don the Star Wars costumes our guide brought and photograph those of us who wished to wear them in the very place where a part of Return of the Jedi was filmed 33 years ago. One of the things we enjoy most about our circle of friends is our ability to have a great laugh and revel in the moment. While we take our work very seriously, we do not take ourselves so much. How dull and leaden life would be without an ability to apply generous measures of levity. Easily laughing with others and even at yourself is a personal freedom those who choose to live in a culture of fear and rigid dogma will never enjoy.
With improved visibility and ease of moving about in agreeable conditions, our guide Eddie was able to locate the exact location of the outdoor sound stage. While in the film Jabba’s Sail Barge was demolished as part of the climax of this sequence in the story, the stage and set crew left much of the debris on site and only cut down the support posts and fence posts, but left the cement bases which were clearly visible with a sharp eye and knowledge of what to look for.
While any larger sections of the stage and set have been recovered over the 33 years, there are still ample pieces to be found. The Sarlacc creature depicted in the Return of the Jedi was constructed with layers of styrofoam, glue and other materials. We were able to find and recover numerous Sarlacc pieces, but one artifact in particular clearly displayed the construction materials and even the exterior Sarlacc “skin.”
Jabba’s Sail Barge itself was constructed mostly of painted wood and many rusty nails and small wood pieces were still found partially buried in the sand. These Sail Barge wood pieces could be difficult to distinguish from more unremarkable wood bits, but a layer of light gray-white paint was a strong indicator that is was used in the set that was the Barge. If you choose to ever visit this unique piece of movie history watch your step and where you wheel as the high volume of rusty nails seemed to be everywhere.
As temperatures rose in the mid afternoon sun we all took some down time in the shade. Our vehicle awnings provided a welcome respite from the desert sun.
With light pleasant breezes to arrive with the evening, cooking dinner, a few spontaneous light saber battles in the dark of the night, and relaxing by a campfire under the evening desert skies were a great way to end our weekend in the Imperial Sand Dunes, aka Tatooine.
The following morning we again woke with the sun, broke camp and policed our camp site for any man made debris, refuse or overlooked gear to not accidentally leave behind. As the organizer of most of our outdoor trips into the field, I make it a habit to always ensure we tread lightly, leave only footprints or tracks, and pick up after others who came before us who and may have left refuse behind. The natural spaces we have the great fortune to enjoy in our great nation need to be looked after, so those who follow you may enjoy it in an unspoiled condition as possible. Whenever you can, we strongly encourage you to leave it a state that is better than when you arrived. If everyone does their small part to look after the outdoor spaces we use, we can all be part of improving and maintaining these areas for our future generations to enjoy as well.
Team Members: Chris Whitney (PDW), Eddie Dennis (Tactical Outfitters), Elias Fedorowski (Exploro.co), Chris Van Loan (BAE), Agustin Bella III (BAE), Nathaniel Bella, Gabriel Bella, Ravi Nation (TOMs), Kevin Ong (LBPD), Fred Quintana (Google), Patrick Ma (PDW) Photos by: Chris Van Loan (BAE) Agustin Bella III (BAE) Patrick Ma (PDW) Story by: Patrick Ma (PDW) As we aired back up before we got back on the road our thoughts turned towards the return journey home, and the numerous new lessons we learned with each outing. From paring down our load outs, discovering better ways to do things in the field, sharing insights with each other about our personal gear during our campfire chats, and the possibilities of our next journeys. Perhaps a trip to the tall redwoods of NorCal (Endor) should be next.
Each trip in the field is time in the classroom of life.
For those of us who have enjoyed the world of Star Wars over the years, and have made it a part of our popular culture lexicon, this location is within reach to many of us. To combine this pilgrimage, seeing first hand the stage and set remnants, along with wheeling and a weekend camping outdoors, made it a trip worthy of our adventure journals.
Team Members: Chris Whitney (PDW), Eddie Dennis (Tactical Outfitters), Elias Fedorowski (Exploro.co), Chris Van Loan (BAE), Agustin Bella III (BAE), Nathaniel Bella, Gabriel Bella, Ravi Nation (TOMs), Kevin Ong (LBPD), Fred Quintana (Google), Patrick Ma (PDW)
Photos by: Chris Van Loan (BAE) Agustin Bella III (BAE) Patrick Ma (PDW)
Story by: Patrick Ma (PDW)