Stuck on an Icelandic highway

by alda on December 27, 2013

Yesterday I posted a somewhat cryptic status on the Facebook page about our car breaking down on Ring Road 1. I realized soon enough [even before one of our loyal readers requested more info] that I hadn’t provided very much detail. So, for anyone who is left wondering what exactly happened, here is the story.

Icelandic highwayAs many people will know, Christmas in Iceland is steeped in family tradition, and one of our traditions is that EPI’s extended family all meets up on Boxing Day [which the ever-prosaic Icelanders call "second in Christmas"]. This year the meet-up was being held at his brother and sister-in-law’s place in Selfoss [about an hour's drive from Reykjavík].

The weather had been abysmal over Christmas, so everyone was a bit iffy about driving to Selfoss – at least us city wimps who aren’t used to it [the Selfoss denizens swore it was no problem]. We studied weather and road conditions carefully before setting off, especially conditions on Hellisheiði heath, which can be pretty dicy. We decided that EPI would drive his [elderly] father’s car and that I would drive our car [both are 4WD] and that we’d fill both cars with passengers. I was going to take my sister-in-law and her two kids [7 and 11], my daughter Aldís [22] and our dog Apríl [age: we're not sure].

However, at the last minute we decided to take my sister-in-law’s car instead of mine because we realized we wouldn’t need 4WD as much as we might need studded [nailed] tires, since there might be icy spots on Hellisheiði. We have all-season radials on our car, but she has the nails.

Thus equipped, we set off. My SIL’s car is a Toyota something [it seats seven people, that's all I know] and is about seven years old. All was well, and we were barreling along up on Hellisheiði when I noticed that all the lights on her dashboard were flicking on and off. The car seemed to be running fine, though, so we weren’t too worried about it – my thought was that it might be a fuse that needed to be replaced.

So we get to the party and have a merry old time, and decided to set off for home around 7 pm. By then it was dark and very cold, and the wind was starting to blow. Worried that the lights might flick off again, we arranged it so that EPI would drive in front of us doing the speed limit and we’d follow behind, so that if the lights went off we’d at least know how fast we were driving. That worked fine for a while until cars started to overtake us and we lost EPI somewhere up ahead.

So we get to Hveragerði and sure enough the dashboard is flickering, and my SIL comments that the car feels weird – it doesn’t have same sort of power as normally. She starts to panic a little bit because by this time we’re almost on Hellisheiði and she doesn’t want to go up there with the car acting all strange. So she decides to turn around and go back to Hveragerði but by this time there is no place to turn and cars are whizzing by [as they do - I've ranted plenty about the Icelanders' driving habits in this space so saynomore] so I suggest she pull off to the side so we can decide what to do. No sooner does she pull off [she was barely off the main road - I think we were almost half on it, still] than the engine just cuts out and the car won’t start again].

FUCK.

It’s pitch dark out there and we can’t find the hazard lights so instantly my biggest fear is that we’ll get rear-ended by someone doing 100 km/h. After a few moments of sheer panic, however, my SIL does find the lights, they actually WORK, and we all breathe a sigh of relief because at least we can then figure out what to do without being in mortal danger at the same time.

So we start a round of telephone calls to various parties, including FÍB [Iceland's version of the AAA] who say that, because my SIL’s husband is registered with them and not my SIL, he has to be in the broken-down car for them to qualify for assistance. [FUUU.] [He was at home with their third child, who was sick.] Meanwhile, EPI has figured out that we’re not behind him any more, and has called to see what’s happening.

Anyway, long story short, what happened in the end was that the in-laws who live in Selfoss sent two of their kids in two separate cars to take us all to Reykjavík. It took them around 20 or 30 minutes to get to us, and we were purretty darn cold by that time. The FÍB people decided to relent and take pity, and sent their Hveragerði tow-truck guy to the site, even though he happened to be at his own Christmas party in Hafnarfjörður [Reykjavík] which he had to leave in order to get to the car. Which was mighty big of him, I must say. [The same won't be said for everyone else passing by, because not a single person stopped to see if we were OK or needed assistance.]

The problem with the car turned out to be the alternator, which is being replaced as we speak.

So anyway, we were not in any danger at any point, except for the risk of being rammed from behind by some crazy driver. No rescue squad had to be dispatched, over and above our own personal rescuers. However, we did get a bit of a taste of what it must be like for people who get stuck in their cars in bad weather, and boy, I would NOT like to wind up in that situation. It cannot be said often enough: before you set out on an Icelandic road-trip, ALWAYS check the weather and road conditions [here], and don’t head out if there’s any doubt as to your safety. Also, take a blanket and a well-charged cellphone, though you should keep in mind that there are places in Iceland that don’t have any service.

[pic licensed under Creative Commons and found here.]

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