Planning for fuel in the mountains

If you are driving in the Himalayan mountains, especially away from the big towns like Simla and Nainital, keep an eye on the fuel gauge. You never know when you will be stuck for fuel.

Supplies to fuel stations in the remote parts of the mountains can be erratic or limited, and may run out fast. On a trip to the northern Indian state of Uttrakhand (formerly Uttranchal) in  June 2008, I was almost stranded in the middle of towns where one could not hope to get a decent room to sleep in. A fuel pump owner agreed to top my tank up even as he was turning everyone else away (that’s another story why he did so. But the close call came with a lesson; I sum it up for you here:

  • Carry a jerry can: Buy a good quality jerry can and always carry 20-40 litres with you. Ensure it does not spill when you go over the rough mountainous roads.
  • Fuel up in small quantities: Even when they have stock, gas stations may not give you more than 5-20 litres at a time. They would rather give a bit to more vehicles so they may at least make it to the next fuel station. Every time you come across a fuel pump and you have consumed upwards of five litres, tank up. It may seem a bother stopping often, but you can at least feel assured you have a full tank.
  • Even with ‘No-Fuel’ sign up, you may get some out: In India, things often work in ways one may not be used to. Even when a fuel pump says they are out of stock, you can wager they have some to sell. They usually keep a buffer for VIP quota (read, when locally influential bureaucrats or politicians need the fuel for themselves or those they favour), and may share some with you. You can request earnestly saying you have come from far and have far to go; offer a premium (but be careful on this one: the owner may not want to be caught black-marketing to a stranger he does not know. When I was stuck, the bribe extracted from me very diplomatically was to buy a jar of coolant for Rs. 200); gently throw your weight around by dropping some names or if your profession is one that draws awe; or just play belly-up and say you cannot move till you get some fuel as you are on empty.
  • Don’t insist when there is a crowd: Even if someone is willing to favour you but refusing fuel to others, it may not work if you are at a station where lots of people are hanging around for fuel. It may be difficult to give to one and not to the rest of the crowd; it could cause a riot. Speak the manager or owner discreetly, or seek out a station with fewer people around.
  • Try alternate channels when all fails: This may cost you a premium, but there are alternate places to try and get fuel: ask automobile service stations or public transport vehicles for some fuel. They usually carry some stocks, or know someone who may. But they might charge you extra and use measures where you  may end up with getting lesser quantity than what you paid for.
  • Ask for directions to nearby fuel stations, and take detours if need be: If your fuel gauge is dipping, keep asking people for the nearest fuel pump and take detours if need be. It may be worth the effort.
  • Don’t take risks in bad weather and at night: If there are chances you may be run out of fuel before reaching your destination, make sure you are not in the middle of harsh weather, or are on the highway after dark. Getting rescued in daylight is tough enough; the thought of camping on a mountain highway at night can hardly be anyone’s sense of adventure.

Tank up before you go belly up!!

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