In Search of the Sólheimasandur DC-3

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The plane has been there since 1973. To look at the thing now – the torso of an aircraft, riddled with bullets, left to erode on a black beach in southern Iceland – you’d imagine something sinister happened. A tragic crash, a plane shot down in battle, a Bermuda-triangle-style missing airliner. The eeriness of this rusting wreck is its greatest allure.

If you’d prefer to keep it cloaked in mystery, skip this part… But  the truth – or as much of it as I or anyone can gather – is quite charming. This Douglas Dakota aircraft (often referred to as a “DC-3”) was part of the old Icelandic US Navy base at Keflavik. Nobody is certain why it was forced to land in Sólheimasandur (theories abound) but everyone on board survived, dusted themselves off and went home. Once the military had claimed the wings, cockpit and engines, the rest was left to rust on the beach, on what was – and still is – a farmer’s private land. Later, the tail was sawn off by the farmer’s friend, who dragged it back to his place and used it to build his house. As for the bullet holes… the farmer had some buddies over to take pot-shots at it for target practice – because what else do you do with a
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None of this information should remove the mystique of the plane; that remains, simply in its strangeness. It’s a fish out of water. A stark white plane-wreck on a vast, black beach. It’s mesmerising enough that you will create your own stories: certainly ever since Sigur Ros featured the wreck in their music doco Heima, people have been drawn to it. This broken husk of a machine somehow enhances the wild beauty of the Icelandic landscape. To me it says: the land is bigger than all of us, and it can claim us.

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FINDING THE SOLHEIMASANDUR PLANE WRECK

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I wanted to come here in early 2014, when on assignment for a magazine with photographer Adrienne Pitts. She had told me about the mysterious wreck, but restraints of the job meant we didn’t get there. I’ve thought about it ever since.

Until recently, you could drive right up to the plane. This year vehicles were banned due to the increasing number of visitors who were using the land for a bit of an off-road joyride. The folks who own this land are farmers, and they want people to have access to the plane, but they can’t afford to be fixing damages. (See, people, this is why you can’t have nice things!) Now, one must go by foot, some 50 minutes from the access point. Personally, I’m glad that you have to walk there. Something like this calls for a little dedication.

Directions: Driving eastward along the south coast, you want to pay attention after leaving Vik. Once you pass the Skogafoss waterfall on your left, start looking out for a bridge with blinking yellow lights, then a road leading to the glacier. Carry on for about 1 mile (if you reach another bridge you’ve gone too far), until you see a large gate on your right. And seemingly nothing beyond it. This is where you begin.

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Once you’ve found the access point, head towards the horizon. Keep in mind that over the years a lot of travellers have lost their way, got stranded, and a surprising number have had to be rescued. So if you’re going at an unsociable hour, or in bleak weather, I’d definitely take along some form of GPS with co-ordinates. There are no landmarks out there.

The day my brother and I went was clear and sunny, as perfect conditions as you could ask for – but even on the best of days the land can play tricks on you. The horizon was a hazy mirage that not only made it look like people far ahead were walking into the ocean, but it was impossible to gauge distance. For almost an hour, it felt like we were walking into nothing. A road to nowhere.

Then suddenly, the land dipped – and there she was.

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Once I was done having a moment (“we’re actually here!”), Chris and I approached the wreck, taking in the decay of the metal body, the gnarled bullet holes and initials – old and new – scratched into the interior. There were a few people padding around the plane trying to capture it, so we took ourselves off for a picnic against a boulder: tomato sandwiches with lashings of salty Icelandic butter. This is the great thing about having to walk to the plane – everyone who was there had made time. We’d all committed to it. We were not in any hurry.

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Shortly after – before we’d even constructed a second sandwich – the other people left, and my brother and I were alone with the Sólheimasandur plane. I hadn’t expected to get the place to ourselves. That was special, if not a little eerie, being the only ones there.

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Eventually some fluorescent specks of visitors appeared over the rise, so we gave Sólheimasandur’s ghost one last glance before setting off on the long walk back to the car. Within a couple of minutes a worried-looking woman came towards us, pleading: “Is this the right way to the plane? Is it far? I cannot see it!” A few steps more, we explained, and she would see it. The land, like I said, will play tricks on you. So don’t worry; if you’re seeking something mysterious, it’s there, for those willing to find it.

 

(Most of these photos were taken by Chris Nelson – please do not use without permission.
Thanks for the epic pics, bro.)

 

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