Black Market Diesel.

Black Market Diesel. Even under an embargo, black market diesel is cheaper in Serbia, than at home.


Filling my Land Rover with diesel this week at an exorbitant £1 a litre came as a bit of a shock to the wallet. Whenever the cost of fuel arises in conversation I tend to drone on about how Chris Scott and I filled up in Algeria back in 2001. We took on 400 litres between us for £40. It got us all the way back to London and Leicester respectively. But, at least in the U.K. we have the stuff. I’ve been met with a shrug of the shoulders and eyes cast upwards to the Gods many times, as if getting hold of fuel was a miracle that only happened if various moons were aligned and the oldest goat in the heard had serviced the entire flock!


On a drive through Serbia in a diesel Range Rover in 1995, a state of emergency existed. That was the official description. Most would call it a civil war. However, there was a cease fire and the Embassy agreed it was reasonably safe to visit the country, but an embargo was in place and fuel was not available. My route was directly south from Hungary to Macedonia, a distance of about 500 miles, so I calculated that a full tank and a couple of jerry cans should cover me. Queuing at the border crossing at Szeged a Hungarian truck driver ambled over to admire the Range Rover and in broken English warned me, ‘No stop.... Banditos!’ pointing in the general direction of Serbia.



There was no turning back so I tentatively crossed the border and hit the main road south only to be promptly stopped by the police on a trumped up speeding charge with a fine payable, in cash, on the spot. Not the best start, but I carried on more wary of blue Renault 12’s and fat men standing at the side of the road with radar guns. Any garages I saw had a closed look about them, but I did notice kids sitting at the side of the road with dozens of plastic pop bottles containing a yellow looking liquid. There were literally hundreds of them lining the main road. I was concentrating so much on watching for Police and ‘Bandito’s’ that I didn’t give them much attention, until I saw one group tipping the contents into a car’s petrol tank. Of course! It was a way round the embargo on fuel. Resourceful Serbs were driving out of the country to Hungary, filling whatever they could find, then queuing for up to four hours in a mobile Molotov cocktail, to get back into the country and selling whatever they had. My guess is they did the same crossing every day to keep the nation moving.


By mid afternoon my fuel gauge was nudging low and I was bursting to nip behind the hedge. With the truck driver’s warning ringing in my ears, the choice of stopping place could prove fatal. Should I go for a wide open space where I would be easily visible to all, or a bit of woodland, hidden, but possibly the den of a group of ‘Bandito’s’? I figured it would take me about three minutes to empty my bladder and a further ten to empty the Jerry’s. 12 minutes of naked vulnerability. I was in wild, open, countryside with no cover and could not see any convenient stopping places of any description. Things looked pretty bleak and you know how it is when you are desperate to go to the loo. The more you think about it, the worse it gets. At last there was a small turning off to the left and I dived up it and pulled onto the grass verge.



The priority job completed, I had a good look around and, judging it to be safe, took the first can out of the boot and started filling the tank. That completed I reached for the second jerry can, just as a blue Renault 12 appeared on the horizon. My heart sank. Police. Predictably they stopped. Foreigners were a real novelty in rural Serbia and new Range Rovers as common as U.F.O.’s. These two were friendly enough though and spoke a smattering of English. They were very interested in the Range Rover and amused when I demonstrated the air suspension features. They helped me stow the jerry cans back in the boot and asked if I was ‘okay ... gasoline?’. Lifting the boot lid of the battered old Renault Police car they revealed their own stash of plastic bottles which I could purchase for a ‘good price.... my friend’. Fortunately I had ample fuel to get me out of their country, but even there, in war torn Serbia, under a U.N. embargo, black market fuel was far cheaper than £1 a litre.



Serbia 1. Pausing briefly on the outskirts of Belgrade.

serbia 2. The pull off where Toby topped up with diesel from two Jerry cans.



October 2007