Exploring Urban Wilderness
By Sunny Bleckinger
Urban explorers scout for anything man has built and left behind. They wander through abandoned buildings, scale derelict towers, open manholes and crawl through underground drains. The term Urban Exploration (UE) was coined in the mid-1990s. Although curious souls have always gone where they’re not supposed to, it’s now become a genuine movement, somewhat akin to nature explorers. They’ve even adopted the Sierra Club’s motto: ‘Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.’ The obvious difference for the Urbex folks is that their explorations are usually illegal, and avoiding the cops can be part of the excitement. However, far beyond the fear of being caught is the thrill of charting new territory in old structures populated by nothing more than ghosts and mice.
Breaking the law, breaking the law
‘We’ve only been caught twice by security,’ says explorer Erik Plug. ‘The first time was in this abandoned mental hospital we went to in Bloemendaal. We were taking pictures of this old safe they had in the basement. I heard footsteps above us, and then two security guys came in. But they were cool. They didn’t call the cops. They just said we had to delete our pictures because they didn’t want to attract more people into the building. It was a weird old hospital though. In some rooms, the lights were still on, flickering.’
Plug, along with friends Maurice Wesseling and Matthijs Gringhuis, regularly embark on urban explorations—some-times in the Netherlands, but more often in Belgium. ‘It’s just easier to access buildings in Belgium,’ he says. ‘There’s less security there, and most of the empty spaces in the Netherlands are filled by anti-kraak.’
But one Dutch structure that awes him and his friends is an old hydraulic laboratory in Flevoland. It’s made up of three large hangar-like halls once used to simulate various scenarios where water meets land—research of obvious importance here. ‘Now they just do that with computers,’ explains Plug.
As with most urban explorers, Plug does not eagerly advertise the whereabouts of his visited sites. ‘Too often, people come to these locations just to vandalise them. In one building, we saw two kids inside throwing rocks at the windows. The place was already falling apart; there was no need for that.’ He doesn’t, however, want to deter the non-delinquents from coming. ‘Usually, serious explorers will give clues on how to find [sites].’
Keeping in line with that, we’ll just say that the old hydrolab resides in a small, planted forest near the village Kraggenburg. (If you see five elephants made of stone, you’re going the right direction.)
‘No Entrance, Dangerous Area’
Once there, you’ll see the large lab resting peacefully among the trees. A sign in front of it reads ‘Geen Toegang, Gevaarlijk Terrein’. In Urbex language, this means ‘Welcome, step inside’.
The only obstacle blocking the path is a line of square stones, each one roughly half a metre high. ‘As you can see,’ smiles Plug, ‘it’s not that difficult to enter.’ There is no fence, and all the doors are open, some swinging loosely on their hinges. Many windows are broken. It’s a good spot for the novice explorer.
The first hangar is a vast, empty space. A large rectangular depression takes up most of the concrete floor, now partly filled with rainwater. Shards of broken glass and pieces of roofing are scattered about. The only clear evidence of the projects that occurred here is a few pieces of paper from an old user manual, evidently for one of the machines they used. Plug and his friends take photos of various angles, and then move on to the next hall.
There they find the floor covered with a thin black powder—possible remnants of a fire. Most of the floor is also filled with shallow pools of water, banked by short concrete walls in various shapes, perhaps used in tests to represent lakes or ocean beds. Everything is generally dirty and stagnant, but on a windy day, the entire building comes alive. Doors are blown open and then slammed shut at unpredictable intervals. Water drips incessantly from the ceiling. Loose pieces of metal make occasional rattling noises. And the walls moan when the wind blows hard. ‘It can be a bit spooky sometimes,’ says Plug. Outside, the clouds blow by and for a moment, the entire hall is filled with sun-light via semi-transparent panelling.
The third hall is easily the biggest and most interesting to the explorers. The models of land and water masses are particularly detailed—something like a Madurodam for nature. Bright green ferns are planted where the land is supposed to be, stale water sits next to it, and huge pumps line the hall. One curved wall next to an apparently deep body of water is labelled ‘Noordzee’. Another reads ‘Zeeuwse Meer’. There is a model of a riverbed with a rocky bottom, and a dry canal with rivets along its base. In the back of the huge space are large sand pits, filled with synthetic sand. It looks real until you touch it. Each grain is a type of plastic, probably manufactured for specific tests.
‘It must have been cool to work here,’ says Plug. ‘It looks like they were quite expensive projects.’ Now, of course, it’s completely abandoned, prohibited for visitors, and regularly invaded by urban explorers: just one in a long list of great locales for getting away from it all.