Car hire fiasco in the Icelandic Highlands

We were meant to be going to Greenland with a short stop over in Iceland on the way, but our flights got cancelled a week before we were due to go. We even had our bags packed complete with all the food we'd need for the 10 day hike - meticulously calculated to maximise calories, and minimise weight. Quick change of plan, we decided to go ahead and take the flights to Iceland (which we couldn't get refunded anyway), forget about Greenland (as we couldn't get any reasonably priced replacement flights) and extend our car hire in Iceland to cover the whole 3 weeks. The Greenland flights could take a few months to issue a refund, and so the additional car hire was leaving things a bit tight, but since we already had all our food, and planned to wild camp, we thought it'd all work out ok in the long run. But that was before the hurricane hit.

We didn't waste any time at all heading into the Highlands in Iceland's interior. This was our third time in Iceland, but we'd always been in October before and in a smaller car, so that Highlands hadn't been as accessible. So, on night one, we camped by a lovely big river in the middle of nowhere, about 80km, off the ring road, just off a gravel road. Next day, after a bit of exploration around bubbling mudpools and steamy sulphurous mountains, we set off even deeper into the middle, where the road worsens into a pot-holed lane. We knew there was a storm due as we were keeping a close eye on weather warnings, due to a volcano that was in the process of erupting out to the west that we didn't want to get caught up in. The storm was due to hit the next morning, so we thought we better set up camp before we got too far away from civilisation, and head out of the highlands first thing the next morning.

By 2am, the winds had picked up so much that all the pegs had been pulled out of the soft gravel that we were camped on, and our waterproofs had started to get sucked out of the vestibule. If we'd been camped on better ground, we probably would have stayed put, as our tent was probably the safest place for us until it died down, though the car probably wouldn't have fared too well - we'd seen pictures of cars entirely stripped back to the metal after being caught out in an Icelandic storm. But with the pegs gone, we were worried about the tent breaking in the wind - this is saying a lot about the strength of the wind - our tent is practically bomb-proof, and was double-poled. We threw all our stuff into the back of the car, and got the tent down in a hurry, with surprisingly no mishaps, and retreated to the car to think.

Initially we thought we would hang out where we were and wait for daylight, since the road was so bad. But the wind was starting to pick up gravel and debris, and we were a bit worried about the car, so we started to drive back along the road, in search for some shelter behind a hill or something. We found a lay by with a bank along one side, where a few other people were seeking shelter in their vehicles, and tried to settle down for a few hours sleep. Although it was a big 4*4, it was impossible to get comfortable, especially with the howling wind throwing gravel at the car throughout the night. At first light, we saw another car pass, trying to get out of the highlands, and we thought we would follow suit. As we followed them, we noticed their back window had been smashed in, which made us all the keener to get out of there.

And then we heard a bang, and the car started to fill up with dust and grit. Our back passenger side window had been smashed by a stone the wind had picked up. We had to put our hoods up to protect our heads from all the debris flying around inside the car, and all of our stuff that we'd pulled from the tent and thrown into the back of the car is covered in broken glass, dust and gravel. We kept driving, past the river we'd camped at on our first night. The wind was so strong, it was blowing a waterfall back up, and over the road. It was really hard going driving through these conditions, and didn't feel very safe. Then we approached an area used as an airstrip - a big flat dusty expanse. There was no visibility at all - we lost the car with the smashed back window, and we thought by the time we drive through this dust cloud, we'd probably have lost another window or two, and all our stuff would be completely destroyed.

So we turned back, and looked for somewhere a bit sheltered to think. There was a campsite somewhere close by, so we called them to explain where we were, and what had happened, and to ask for advice. They told us to come and take shelter with them, as it wasn't safe to try to get out of the highlands.

And what a welcome - there were hot drinks, puddings, comfy chairs, hot showers. We booked a little cabin for the night as it was going to stay way too windy for camping until the next morning. They even patched up our broken window with plastic for us. The winds at this stage were around 80 miles per hour, and even sitting in our cabin was quite scary, as it shook and shuddered in the howling wind. There were lots of fellow campers sitting out the storm in the cozy common room, some of which had come off a bit worse than us - more windows smashed, tents destroyed. One girl had got a lot of cuts and grazes from trying to pack her tent away while the wind threw gravel at her back.

Everyone who we spoke to with broken windows was having a new hire car delivered out to them as part of their car hire deal, but not us - the grumpy guy we phoned told us to bring the car back to us for assessment. We'd been through what felt like a bit of a traumatic night, and I thought he really could have been nicer. That was, until we met him, and I realised what a nightmare he really was.

As soon as the storm subsided the next morning, we got all of our stuff dusted off and put away, and cleaned the car out well. Apart from the broken window, there was a bit of chipping on the paintwork, and on one of the other windows. We knew it was going to cost us, as we'd not paid extra for the glass cover insurance. When we took the car back in, the guy kept us waiting for a few hours while he sent the car off for a detailed assessment. When he finally came back to us around 5pm, he told us the damage - 1.5 million Icelandic kroner.

I puzzled over this for a while, thinking I must have got the exchange rate wrong, as £1000 seemed way too much for the damage. So I got out my phone and did the currency exchange calculations - I had indeed got it wrong - he was actually asking for £10k!

It was only day 4 of a 3 week trip. We had so much camping gear with us, and no money for accommodation, so we really needed to be able to wild camp, and for that we needed a car, but we also couldn't afford to go to another car hire company, as we'd already paid for this one upfront in full, and we were still waiting on the Greenland flights to be refunded. But we couldn't get hold of £10k without re-mortgaging the house!

We sat in the office for another few hours, through tears, panic, and a lot of googling. The guy seemed to think asking for £10k was pretty normal, and had a lot of stories of this happening to customers before, and they just handed over their credit cards - ours had about £500 of available spend on it! Aaron found the same model from the same year for sale in Rekjavik for £8k, so we started to chat with the guy about the possibility of just buying the car off him for £8k. We figured we could maybe get a loan somehow, and then quickly re-sell the car and pay off the loan before flying back home in a few weeks. Mad as that seemed - it felt like our only option at the time.

The guy let us go for the night, as he was as tired and hungry as us, and he gave us a replacement car. We headed off into the lava fields out towards the airport, and set up camp for the night. As we settled into the scenic surroundings, we started to think a bit more clearly, and came up with a plan.

The next day, we went to a garage, and showed him the report we'd got from the car hire company, and asked him how much he would charge for the same work to be done - £2.5k. So we knew the guy was already ripping us off four fold. We then took a really close look at the report - he was charging for a new logo badge, new windows throughout, a complete respray, new wheels, new speaker system. All for a car that had over 100,000 miles on the clock, 8 years old, that had been driven all around Iceland's gravel roads by tourists, in windy weather! The mechanic advised us to go to the police, but we really just wanted to be able to enjoy the remainder of our holiday.

So we cancelled our credit card, in case it was charged without our permission, and armed with both reports, we set off for the next camp spot (in the Highlands, but this time we checked the weather before setting off!) and tried to put the whole experience behind us. We figured that we would deal with the pending litigation once we got home., and in the meantime, if the guy called the police, and they pulled us over, we would have enough evidence at hand to argue our case. Pretty stressful really, and it meant we'd paid nothing at all towards the broken window.

The rest of the trip continued without mishap, with the usual stunning Icelandic scenery, and isolated camping spots. It slightly spoilt our fond feelings about the country, as we'd always really liked all the Icelandic people we'd met in the past, and this guy trying to scam us had left a bit of sour feeling for us.

When we got home, I checked my email, waiting for the court summons to come through. Just a few threatening emails from him talking about the police in the few days after we met him - nothing since. I've kept all the reports, and the vague fear that we'll have to go back some day to discuss the ordeal with a judge. If we do, I'll be very careful in the car hire company I choose!

Survival tips for wild camping & car hire in Iceland's highlands

  • Choose car hire company carefully. We had hired previously with companies with a fairly relaxed attitude. They didn't make a big deal of all the extra insurance options, and their cars were a bit chipped and scrapped when we took them. This company should have aroused our suspicions from the start. He inspected the car in infinite detail before giving it to us, and then went on a hard sell for the additional insurances, and all the things that could go wrong.

  • Keep a close eye on the weather - don't go too far inland if strong winds are forecast

  • If the weather takes a turn for the worse, try to stay calm. You will make better decisions than if you get into a panic.

  • Make sure your gear is up to the Icelandic challenge - a good robust tent is vital, the winds in Iceland are often fierce, even in low lying areas closer to the towns.

  • The roads into the highlands can be very difficult - pot holes, rocky, river crossings. You need a large 4*4 if you want to go into the highlands, and not all companies will allow you to take their vehicles in - check with them first. Read up a bit on how to make river crossings - if you can't walk it, you definitely can't drive it.

  • Petrol stations are very sporadic - make sure you have a full tank before you go in, and fill up every chance you get after that. Don't rely on stations being open or having fuel that you can see on the map - we drove miles to reach one to find it closed down. We had to exit the highlands by the quickest route, and were lucky to make it to another station before we conked out.

  • Try to find solid ground to pitch your tent on - if the wind picks up, the pegs will be pulled loose from gravel or sand camp sites

  • Do your research about what is around the local area - knowing how to find the campsite near by for shelter was a bit of a life saver for us

  • Don't be too quick to pay out if the car hire company tells you you owe them a small fortune. Try to get some time on your own to think clearly, and maybe call someone from home for an objective view point.

#iceland #wildcamping #storm #icelandichighlands

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