Back in the 70s and 80s, we used to carry out a good deal of summer tests in Algeria and Tunisia for our major clients based in Northern Germany. Before each trip there, the question at the forefront of my mind was always the same: How do I get to the oasis this time? The Air Algerie flight from Frankfurt was always in the afternoon, which forced you to stay overnight in Algiers. I used to make a list of hotels for myself, and would rank the accommodation options from best to worst in terms of overall quality. I felt the need to do this because my first choice would often be booked up. “There’s some conference happening there,” the taxi driver would often say – and unfortunately he would be right most of the time. Although I was not always thrilled about the accommodation I ended up in, I did at least always manage to find somewhere to stay.

It would be an early start the next morning, with flights on small propeller planes to the desert leaving the domestic airport from 07:00 onwards. Picture this utter chaos: hundreds of passengers standing on the airfield, dropping off their luggage and looking for the right plane, with me in the middle of all this. It was a real challenge every time, especially given that I couldn’t read the information signs, which were in Arabic script. All this prompted me to look for an alternative solution, which led me to a new route, travelling to Algiers via Switzerland. Using this option, the plane would get in at around midday, which would enable me to connect with the afternoon flight to the oasis right away. At least that was how it would work in theory.

On the dirt track near Biskra

On the 30th of September 1978, it was time for me to test out the new connection. I arrived in Algiers and wanted to check in for my connecting flight to Biskra. At the check-in desk, they revealed that there would be no flights to Biskra over the next four days. In a state of disbelief, I went to the Swissair desk, whose staff confirmed that this was indeed the case. They told me I should head for the tourist centre and come back on Wednesday. This was not an option I was willing to accept, however, so I took the airport bus to the city centre and then went to the Air Algerie office to enquire about alternative solutions. There was only one other option: take an evening bus from the port to Biskra. A young man then collected me on his ‘sack truck’ and we headed for the port. He arranged my bus ticket for me – and even got me a seat on board! The bus was due to depart at 20:30, which meant a wait of four hours.

Berber village in the Atlas Mountains – looking down into the ravine

The bus was packed, but I had my seat. The driver took his first break shortly after midnight. We stopped at a place where you could buy drinks and sweet, very colourful, baked goods. Anyone for something green, yellow, red or blue to eat? I didn’t care because I was hungry and we were going to be on the bus for another two or three hours. Or so I thought. What I didn’t know was that the bus didn’t take a direct route to cover the 400 kilometres to Biskra – rather it was circuitous, with the bus meandering its way through many stops in the Atlas Mountains. So there I was, still on the bus came Sunday morning, when the driver announced that he would be stopping for two hours to take the nap he needed …

Hotel Zibans in Biskra

The following day was a continuation of the theme, with stops, people getting off, opening the luggage compartment of the bus, taking their luggage and disappearing. Sometimes you couldn’t tell where they were going – at a lot of the bus stops I could see only sand and palm trees. Outside temperatures were hitting the 40-degree mark at around midday, and inside the bus was no different. For me, though, the worst thing about this journey was the music: the constant stream of Arabian chimes was not exactly music to my European ears! But even an attempt to bribe the bus driver didn’t help matters.

Hotel Zibans in Biskra

We finally reached Biskra in the evening. This meant that despite getting up at 06:00 on the Saturday morning, I didn’t get to my hotel until around 19:00 on Sunday evening. When I arrived, my friends from VW were having their dinner and were very surprised to see me appear. I was just happy that I’d finally made it! Even today I still think back to ‘that stifling bus journey’ every now and again. Especially when I get out the little record of ‘very foreign’ music that I ended up buying …