Securing fuel in rural Zambia can be an iffy thing. Our first fuel stops in Livingstone and Kalomo were pretty straight forward transactions, after getting comfortable with handing over hundreds of thousands of kwacha (the Zambian currency). But, it was our third stop that really presented a challenge.
We had very detailed instructions regarding the fueling procedures in Itechi Techi – a small town on a hill, based along a large dam on the Kafue River. The dam was built years ago with international funds, with the promise of delivering electricity to the region. However, the manufacturer of the generators did not have faith in the installation contractors hired over the manufacturer’s objections, and so the generators sit in a warehouse in Lusaka, gathering dust, becoming obsolete. Or, so we’re told.
Anyway, the fuel pumps are surrounded by a high chain link fence topped with barbed wire at the bottom of the hill. In order to purchase fuel, you must have enough remaining in your tank to get to the top of the hill to the fuel company offices. There you must project how much fuel you need, prepay that amount and then drive (or coast) back down the hill to present your receipt to the man at the pumps to receive your fuel. As convoluted as this all sounds, the folks in Itechi Techi take this as normal. Oh, and there are no refunds if you estimate too much. It’s diesel roulette.
In the US, someone who pumps your fuel is usually you, as the days of full service fueling have long gone. But, in Itechi Techi, it’s the best job in town. Here’s why: many self-drive trips (like us) make the stop in Itechi Techi for fuel, as there are so few places in the Kafue area with reliable fuel. And (like us), many visitors are unfamiliar with the fuel tanks of their rented vehicles. So (as we found), estimating the amount of empty space in your fuel tanks is a tricky thing. And remember, there are no refunds if you “overbuy.”
In our case, we had two fuel tanks on our Landrover: one held about 80 liters, and the other about 23 liters. The gauge on the dashboard shows that the tank is full while you burn through the first tank, and only starts to register fuel levels when you tap into the second one. The trick is to know which tank is empty when the needle starts moving.
Since we had been driving all day for 2 1/2 days with the air conditioner on, and mostly in second gear, we assumed that we had burned through the larger tank, and were tapping into the smaller tank. We thought. Doing some quick math based on the fuel gauge level, we paid for 60 liters of fuel, and headed back down the hill with our receipt. Imagine our surprise when only 29 liters of fuel went into the tanks. The pump man rocked our vehicle, squeezing in a few more liters. At 6999 kwacha per liter, we paid nearly twice the price for 31 liters.
We asked the pump man if a refund was possible: he politely called the office (so he said), and reported that the response was “no refund.” Steve negotiated 100,000 kwacha out of the pump man for some of the pre-paid fuel we were leaving behind. We suspect that the pump man’s phone call was to a friend, who probably pulled in minutes later with 20 liter gerry cans to sop up our unclaimed diesel.
With $1 equaling 4800 kwacha, it was just a $21 mistake. But now we know which tank empties first. And the pump man has the best job in Itechi Techi, selling pre-paid fuel on the black market that tourists like us leave behind.