By Dave S. Clark
I have a strange fascination with the derelict, the wrecked or the nearly destroyed – whether it is a beautiful shipwreck in St. Pierre, the abandoned Cuban planes rotting at a unused airport in Grenada or the shell of a plane than crashed in Solheimasandur in southeast Iceland.
When I first saw photos of the plane crash in southeast Iceland, I knew I had to go there and see it for myself. It seemed so eerie and amazing the way the white wreck was juxtaposed on the black sand and how it was all masked in a dense fog.
Although I really wanted to go the Solheimsandur plane crash site, I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. I was driving a front-wheel-drive Hyundai as my rental car and something tells me the rental agency wouldn’t like it if I ventured across a large expanse of moist black sand with the car. The crash site is a ways off the highway and while I suppose I could have walked, we were pretty tight for time and I didn’t want to spend a significant portion of my day wandering and potentially getting lost in a foggy desert.
We were staying in the village of Vik and the tourist information centre recommended I give the owners of the local youth hostel a call as they sometimes take people out there in their 4×4. I dropped in and asked if they could arrange something and they quickly agreed to take us out the next morning for 5,000 ISK per person (roughly $43 CAD in 2013). As we were only a party of two, they offered the other free seats to the guests of their hostel, however, nobody else took them up on it.
The next morning, we drove to the hostel and met Þrainn, who owns the guesthouse with his wife. We hopped into his Nissan Patrol and headed out to see the wreckage for ourselves. We headed west on the Ring Road until we reached the spot to pull off the highway and into the sand. My GPS co-ordinates for that spot are: 63.491338, -19.363403 or +63° 29′ 28.82″, -19° 21′ 48.25″. Once you pull off the highway, there are tracks to follow, which quickly split off in a fork. Take the left route that goes through the middle of the sand, not the right route that goes close to the grass. Follow the tracks until you see the plane.
Þrainn shifted into 4-low and within a few minutes of cruising across the hard-packed sand, the plane started to take shape through the fog. He turned off the truck and we hopped out to take photos.
Solheimasandur isn’t really a desert as it’s in the wettest part of Iceland and it was raining the entire time we were there. When we hopped out of the Patrol the rain was spitting in the howling wind. I walked up to the wreckage and, being in the middle of nowhere, all I could hear was the loose metal of nose flapping around in the strong wind. Eery. I looked around and all I could see was the black earth and low grey sky that enveloped the whole scene. As I stood there, cold and damp hearing nothing but the twisting and scraping metal of the wreckage, I wondered if that’s actually what Hell would be like. I don’t think Hell would be what most people imagine it to be, with fire and brimstone. No, it’s cold, dark, damp and colourless, with a fierce wind blowing right through your soul. I knew nobody died when the US Navy plane crashed in 1973, but that didn’t give me any comfort. It was a surreal, but incredibly enjoyable experience. It’s one of those rare places that you can stand in and think that there is probably nowhere else like it on earth.
I read later that Icelanders believed the entrance to ‘Hel’ was the volcano of Hekla, which was just 65 KM to the northwest. Not surprisingly, according to their mythology, Hel isn’t a place that would burn you. Rather, it’s just damp, dreary, dark misery. Chilling.
If you are 4×4 or AWD equipped, you can easily make the trek yourself. The co-ordinates for the plane are 63.459092, -19.364798 or +63° 27′ 32.73″, -19° 21′ 53.27″ If you’re up for the hike, it’s about 3.4 KM one way but would be unpleasant in the rain and wind. Pull off at the co-ordinates listed earlier in the article and follow the tracks. I strongly advise against walking or driving without a GPS as there can be dense fog and the seemingly endless black sand provides few landmarks.
After we viewed the plane wreck, Þrainn drove us back to Vik, then took us up on top of the large plateau that overlooks the village. Aside from the vertigo-inducing views, there isn’t much up there besides an old weather station that Þrainn actually recently purchased. He had plans to turn it into a recording studio but now is planning on converting it into an activity centre. Even if you don’t see the plane crash, you should stop by the hostel and get him to drive you up there. The narrow gravel road that climbs to the top isn’t for the amateur driver or anyone without 4WD, so don’t try it on your own.
High above the town, you’ll get panoramic views of Vik, but also the best vantage point to see the Reynisdrangar sea stacks. The plateau literally drops straight down into the rocky ocean below and when we were there it was quite foggy, which added to the danger. As we drove to the edge of the cliff, Þrainn pointed out wooden posts all along the route. They used to have a wire attached to them to guide weather station workers around in the fog so that they didn’t get lost and plummet onto the rocky shore of the North Atlantic.