Mark C. O’Flaherty on his journey to the wreckage of the Douglas C-117 aircraft in Iceland, and the pleasure of walking alone
I’ve been walking a lot recently. Long, long walks – elongated, skewed loops through London that bring on excruciating but satisfying foot cramps, with a bottle of Lidl-bought Barolo and half a Xanax at the finishing line. In the vacuum created by Covid-19, I’ve taken myself down empty roads, through parks and along canals I’ve never encountered in London before, clocking up 10 miles on a single trip. On the Tube, the distances I’m covering wouldn’t give me time to read more than a few pages of a book, but walking for several hours creates space for a totally different experience. You actually look at things. The world is on fire, but there’s pleasure to be had from the silhouette of a red Victorian Penfold letterbox and pondering all the stories that have been deposited in it over the last 150 years. And who knew there was so much wildlife in the city? In recent days I have marvelled at the existence of goslings on the River Lea as if they had landed from space. I am the archetypal city boy.
It was a long way there and a long way back. And it was extraordinary. And great. And awful
My walks through London are boring at times, but they are driven by a simple goal: I walk far away, ipso facto I have to get home. There can be a real physical discomfort in the act, but the alternative – the notion of boarding a bus with other humans – is marred by a dread with a Chernobyl glow around it. I give myself no choice. Walking when there isn’t another option, and with few others around, is something I’ve rarely done in my life. A hike is different – I’ve walked for miles to a waterfall and back, but to do that you have to physically engage with the terrain. It requires concentration and – because I have vertigo – a lot of measured breathing and clinging to tree trunks.
The only other time I’ve ever truly undertaken anything like these London walks was in Iceland. Again, it was because there were no other options, but the experience was in stark contrast to my ongoing urban safaris. In Iceland there was a point A, a point B and nothing in between. It was a long way there and a long way back. And it was extraordinary. And great. And awful.
On 21st November, 1973, a Douglas C-117 aircraft on a military mission crash landed on the black sand beach of Sólheimasandur. When it came down – as a result of heavy turbulence and both engines freezing – its five passengers survived. Anything reusable was stripped from the wreckage, but the battered fuselage stayed in situ. Legally the US was liable for 85% of the recovery cost, but an Icelandic landowner would have to actually claim and remove the remnants of the plane. Like Iceland developing anything close to an appealing cuisine, this has never happened.
And so, the Douglas C-117 still sits there today, denuded on the beach. It has become a kind of Ballardian tourist attraction, an implausible remnant of a terrible moment, resonant with disaster, weirdly sexy. And weird. The elements that brought it down are still present and treacherous: at the start of this year, the bodies of two Chinese tourists were found near the wreckage, their hire car found on the road closest to the site. Evidence suggests a storm hit while they were on the beach, and they froze to death. January is not the best time for a long traipse into the Icelandic wilderness.
After around 15 minutes the road and any parked cars behind you have become invisible. It’s like swimming from shore until you can’t see land.
When I walked to the wreckage, it was midsummer. The internet is full of “Iceland plane crash” directions: go east on Route 1 past Skógafoss, cross a bridge and look for a dirt access road on the left, to the Sólheimajökull Glacier. You used to be able to take a 4×4 across the sand to the wreckage, but that’s long been prohibited. The sole way to get to the plane is on foot – a 4km hike from the road. In London, any walk of that scale is full of stuff: you’ll see the change in the city over hundreds of years in contrasting architecture, from terraces that escaped the Blitz to something new by David Adjaye. On the walk to the wreckage in Iceland, there is nothing. Setting out for an hour-long walk in a straight line with absolutely no end in sight feels deeply unsettling. The beach is flat and infinite – a Sugimoto landscape that makes you panic slightly, and there’s a primal feeling that if you go in the wrong direction, you won’t just fail to find the plane, you’ll find no way back. After around 15 minutes the road and any parked cars behind you have become invisible. It’s like swimming from shore until you can’t see land.
I was in Iceland with art photographer Elissa Cray. We share a love of shooting abandoned places. Usually when walking anywhere together, we pause frequently to snap some detail of our environment. At Sólheimasandur there is no detail, just black sand and the horizon. And people. Lots and lots of people. Because no matter when you go, you aren’t the only person that day who wants to touch the carcass of the Douglas C-117. Not everyone makes it to the plane. Some give up and turn around. But wherever you are on your journey, there are people coming and going, in a place that feels like no one should really be here, ever.
I love people-watching, but solitude is integral to a good long walk. My favourite London strolls recently have been around Soho. I have never seen Bar Italia closed in my entire life, but there it is right now – doors shut, neon off. The thrill of being around the streets of W1 is that they are currently almost entirely unpopulated, when normally they would be the busiest parts of the capital. The weirdness is wonderful. But at Sólheimasandur the weirdness is ruined by other people who want to experience it.
The end was in sight. But as is often the way with these things, it seemed to get further away before it got closer
After about 45 minutes of walking, the wreckage appeared ahead, a tiny fleck on the horizon. The end was in sight. But as is often the way with these things, it seemed to get further away before it got closer. And because it had taken so long to reach, I was hyper aware I had to do this whole journey again in the other direction soon. It would be boring, but inescapable. As we got close enough to make out detail on the metal wreck, we felt a rush of excitement. Yes, this was as weird as we had hoped, but there was also anxiety – there were about 30 people around the object. Like walking into a James Turrell installation as part of a group, we knew we would never get the necessary solo time with the object to experience it as we wanted. This was going to be a pleasure shared, and much diminished.
The wreck itself, juxtaposed with the beach it will never move from, is beautiful. It is ruined and tarnished and weathered and frightening. Everything we had hoped. But the frustration of everyone else here – almost all wearing red anoraks as if part of a coordinated ploy to destroy the visual harmony of the landscape – was extraordinary. “This is one of the worst things that has ever happened to me,” Elissa whispered. She wasn’t joking. No matter how many times we circulated the plane, it was impossible to take a single photograph without someone in the frame. We stood and stared as one woman spent a solid 20 minutes being photographed, in a variety of poses and from every conceivable angle within the rotting fuselage. Her desperation to own part of the weirdness was weird in itself.
Walking back, we felt a strange mixture of achievement – the mission had been accomplished – and disappointment. The Douglas C-117 at Sólheimasandur is one of the most marvellous objects you will ever encounter. But, like the streets of Soho, we wanted it all to ourselves. Just for half an hour. Then everyone else could join in, red nylon and all. It had been worth the journey, but looking back, and going forward, I realise that one of the best ways to enjoy a walk is to look for nothing in particular. Unfortunately, nothing is almost impossible to find. C