Fuel issues in North African countries

One of the biggest factors when considering equipment for an overland trip is that of fuel. It can cause all sorts of issues, especially when travelling in developing countries. Living in Cairo there were many times when I found decent diesel unobtainable, thanks to the woeful economic policies of various Egyptian governments (that of Morsi was especially useless). The military control the fuel supplies, which come in part from the oil companies who extract it from the desert. When the Egyptian government has no cash to pay the oil companies for the oil, the companies simply take it from their refineries directly to their port facilities, load it on tankers and ship it abroad.

However this is where things get interesting – if the tanker captains are Egyptian they often in turn anchor their vessels outside Egyptian territorial waters, and then resell the oil ship-to-ship to anyone who can pay their hiked-up prices. Of course this causes endless chaos in Egypt itself – leading to the military and/or fuel companies hoarding supplies of fuel to artificially create and manage shortages, the watering-down of diesel by as much as 10% with plain water (to increase volume at the filling station) and the lack of fuel oil for power plants and heating plants. Those of us needing hundreds of liters of diesel for Land Rovers and long African wilderness trips have been rather stymied by these developments.

One vivid example was when a column of five of our gang of Land Rovers was winding its way back to Cairo after a few days away in the desert. We paused on some rough terrain for my wagon to take the lead as I knew the route up a rocky escarpment we had to climb. After a quick chat and a gulp of water to cope with the desert heat I pulled away, and the car coughed and stalled, the engine dying. Hmm. More awkward was the fact that she wouldn’t restart. At the time the Defender was fitted with a Daihatsu engine with which I had had endless trouble, and so this added to my ‘I hate Japanese engines’ rant (and the amusement of the rest of the gang). We fell upon the hapless engine with spanners gleaming. Injectors seemed ok. Fuel pump seemed ok. Fuel feed from tank seemed ok. Odd. What, then? Cutting the main feed from the diesel tank we spliced in a jerrycan of fresh diesel from a different batch– and lo and behold, she started up. Dirty fuel, or fuel adulterated with water, or filthy fuel tank – one of the three. At any rate we carried on, with the jerrycan lashed in the passenger-side footwell with a ratchet strap, and a fuel line leading directly to the fuel pump. When we returned to Cairo (getting past a later desert roadblock and attempted armed hold-up by opencast quarry workers who hadn’t been paid for months) I stripped down the fuel system and filtered all my diesel, discovering it was both filthy and at least eight percent water.

Cutting out contaminated fuel system by running fuel straight from jerrycan

At various other times I have needed to filter diesel through chamois leather and even coffee filter papers, and as a routine fitment all our desert Land Rovers at the time of writing are equipped with extra aftermarket Separ water separators – but a recent trip to the deep desert, and the Gebel Uweinat region, saw one Land Rover temporarily halted by fuel in a barrel obtained from an oasis village that was so contaminated it looked like Guinness. The water separator was clogged with particulate contamination, the fuel filter was also jammed solid with the same stuff, and a complete stripdown and clean of the whole fuel system in the middle of the Great Sand Sea was the only thing that got the wagon moving again.

Availability of the fuel is also a major issue, with huge queues at filling stations and massively ramped-up prices being common for quite some considerable period. Service stations have refused to fill jerry cans at times as they are being used by terrorists to make petrol bombs, so if we want lots of extra fuel for a long trip it’s a case of filling the tank on the vehicle at a gas station as normal, taking it to our Workshop, siphoning the fuel out of the tank and into jerry cans, taking it back to the gas station to fill the tank again, returning to siphon the fuel into more jerry cans, back to the gas station… and so on. Handily I have struck up a friendship with Hassan, a piratical rogue who manages to get me black market fuel whenever I need it – admittedly at twice the market price, not including the handsome tip I always give him – but twice the Egyptian market prices is still a massive amount less than the price in the UK, US and Europe, so it’s a win-win.

Syphoning fuel from jerrycan to tank

We all reached the point during the Egyptian revolution where we were stockpiling the diesel, and at one stage Cairo ran out of jerry cans – everyone was having the same idea. In my second-floor flat in the well-off Cairo suburb of El Ma’adi I had twenty ex-Soviet steel jerry full cans of diesel, and a further ninety liters in a large plastic waste bin, and this one day led to an event which at the time was stressful but with hindsight was very funny.

It was four days before I was due to move out of the flat, and before my landlady was due to check the place over and to (hopefully) return my cash deposit on the place. I woke at 3 am one morning with a vague feeling that something was wrong, but unable to identify exactly what. Wandering through into the lounge I was struck by a smell that was vaguely familiar, though in my just-woken state it took me a while to recognize….diesel. Oh shit.

There was a steady stream of diesel gushing from a finger-thick hole in the side of the plastic fuel container in the lounge, and adding to a growing flood on the (mercifully tiled) floor. Momentary panic was followed by a wedging a paper bung in the hole, and a dash to the cupboards to find anything replaceable and absorbent. Sleeping bags looked a good option – opening out two, I dumped them in the middle of the flood to soak up as much of the stinking fuel as possible, followed by a couple of towels. It helped, but there was about seventy liters of the foul stuff all over the place, so more was needed. I headed out onto the sleeping streets, looking for an all-night store. Mercifully at the fourth attempt I found one, frantically driving round Cairo in my Defender 110, with a mental image of diesel soaking into the structure of the apartment block….

Bemused Muslim staff in the Metro market were entertained by the frantic diesel-stinking Brit who raced into their shop, frenziedly tore up and down the aisles of products, and grabbed two huge hundred-packs of jumbo diapers, four bottles of bleach and six four-packs of kitchen towel, flung high-denomination bills in payment and then hurtled out again to a large waiting 4WD, vanishing in a squeal of tires and exhaust smoke.

Back in the flat I bundled up the squishy sleeping bags and towels into the holed bin and dumped them outside, sneaking past the still-sleeping bawwaab, or caretaker, which all Egyptian apartment blocks have. There is an unofficial refuse collection system in Cairo, where pickups roam the streets looking for refuse which has been dumped by householders – they then sweep it into their trucks and take it to a section of the city, a small village, where it is sold, recycled and reused. As soon as the bin of diesel-soaked fabrics appeared, a tatty locust-like Chevrolet pickup roared up and grabbed the lot. Excellent. No evidence to be found. Back upstairs. Two hundred diapers arranged all over the floor, especially rammed on the joins between tiles, where the diesel had visibly soaked into the grouting. Next, kitchen towel unrolled everywhere in great swathes like some demented 90s rock video.

Boiling water and bleach next, after another trip to the kerbside with garbage bags full of two hundred diesel-soaked diapers (God knows what the zabaleen, the recycling villagers, made of that lot). By now 7 am had come round and I needed to get ready for work, so a shower, pulling on suit and tie, and off for seven hours….

Coming back later I had visions of an apartment block fire, diesel leaching through mortar and concrete and coming in contact with dodgy sparking Egyptian wiring… or brown ceiling diesel stains and fumes causing the evacuation of the pristine and white real estate office directly under my apartment … or the bawwaab greeting me with alarm and consternation at discovery of my early morning “calisthenics”… relief, then, when I drew up outside an intact apartment block, was greeted by an unconcerned bawwaab and passed the realtor’s office, still white with nary a peep of brown.

The room reeked of diesel, of course. So when the landlady came round two days later to inspect I made sure it reeked even more of strong bleach (“Oh yes, I gave it all a good clean”). Note to self – diesel corrodes plastic storage containers…..

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