80% of Turkmenistan is made up of the Karakum Desert and 270 km northwest of capital Ashgabat there lies one of the nations gas fields.
In the late ’60s gas was discovered near a small oasis settlement called Darvaza, with drilling commencing in order to tap the fuel for commercial gain. Whilst drilling in 1971 there was an accident when the drilling equipment collapsed allowing gas to escape.
The decision was taken to burn off the surface gas to enable drilling to recommence. The gas engineers estimated it would burn off in around ten days. 47 years later it is still burning!
We arrived in the late afternoon after a three and a half hour drive from Ashgabat in our 4WD vehicle. The last seven km were off road, up and down dunes being shaken about like tomatoes in a tossed salad. In daylight hours the crater was I have to say slightly underwhelming. A few fires burned away but were largely anonymous with no sign of a collective burst of energy.
I had expected the crater to be like a gas ring on my cooker back home. Instead it was more like a small collection of fires the like of which we used to make as kids after discovering what matches do to kindling wood. We were however promised a more spectacular sight after sunset.
It was time to be shepherded into yurts for dinner. We had asked for a vegetarian option, which consisted of mutton stew without the mutton (cooked separately from the rest of course!), grapes, an apple and an orange. We had also brought some beer with us, nicely chilled by the camp fridge.
Feast over it was time to venture out. The sun had long since set and now in the pitch darkness the crater glowed orange, a giant peach hanging in the black void.
We all gasped at the ethereal spectacle, which we were now drawn towards spellbound like the morlocks in the H G Wells classic ‘The Time Machine’.
Once we were around 100 metres from the quarry we started to feel the heat on our cheeks. By the time we reached the perimeter fence it felt akin to getting as close as you dare to a bonfire on Guy Fawkes night back home in the UK.
I slowly circled the fiery pit a couple of times, mesmerised by the flames that were a whole lot more impressive than earlier. The gate to hell was beckoning, it’s red hot surface dancing in the crescent moonlight like Satan beckoning his followers to join their master. Take a look for yourself by clicking GATE TO HELL.
After an hour staring into the eye of the malevolent tiger, it was time to retreat to our tented accommodation, stopping every now and then for another glimpse of the raging fire pit.
The wind had also started to strengthen, creating a sand storm as we tramped to our canvass. Sleep was at a premium in our two-man berth that night as we were convinced that the guy ropes would snap and we would be staring at the night sky at any moment. In the event the ropes stayed intact, even though we took a pretty heavy battering.
The howling wind and smattering of sand on our tent walls sounded like we may well have arrived in hell after all. Happily our only devil was the 07.30 alarm and we unanimously agreed that one fitful night had been worth it for our night vision.
There has been talk of putting out the fire using new technology available and to start drilling once more. However, it seems that the government recognises the tourism value of the crater, so it should be safe for a good while yet. Unless nature dictates otherwise of course…..
Coming Next – In The Footsteps Of Alexander The Great