At the heart of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert sits a crater of fire the size of a football field that’s been perpetually burning now for almost fifty years.
Locals have suitably dubbed it the ‘Door To Hell,’ officially it’s known as the Darvaza Gas Crater. It’s not volcanic. That’s not magma, this sinister flame pit was man-made and thought to be the result of a Soviet-era gas drilling accident, yet Turkmenistan has no official record.
To those travellers who’ve defied all odds in having their visas granted to this closed nation, reaching the ‘Door To Hell’ is at the top of their list. I was no different, and on an overnight camping trip, I finally got to visit what camel spiders everywhere have been talking about for years.
Read on for a photo essay covering my visit to the ‘Door To Hell’:
On my journey to the crater, it was commonplace to see herds of wild camels roaming freely.
These ships of the desert blindly followed the motorway, chewing their cud, and didn’t show great respect to passing traffic. We also saw camel carcasses lining this same motorway, so it appeared that, for drivers, the feeling was mutual.
Without further ado, I present the ‘Door To Hell.’ Darvaza Gas Crater. This was my first shot of the site, and my initial impression was that it looked like an impact crater from a meteor strike.
Gas prospecting gone wrong, however, is the accepted explanation — Soviet engineers in 1971 bit off more than they could chew, drilling and hitting a gigantic underground gas cavern which then collapsed, forming a sinkhole and sucking the entire drilling rig into it. But nobody knows for sure. The Soviets allegedly concealed the extent of the disaster, leaving no paper trail, not even an incident report. As for fatalities? The official line is that there were none. But how we ‘know’ this, I am unsure.
This is the only remnant of the collapsed drilling rig still sitting outside the crater’s rim. It’s thought the sinkhole swallowed and buried everything else that was above it.
You may be wondering why steps haven’t been taken to either harness the crater’s energy or just extinguish it entirely. It’s likely because people simply do not care. Turkmenistan has the fourth largest natural gas reserves on earth, so an investment here at such a volatile site would be high risk, low reward prospect. If extinguished, the gas wouldn’t stop, you’d have to find a way to cap every fissure within proximity of the site, which would be expensive and inefficient. And, without that investment, dousing it would be counter-intuitive; burning the natural gas is preventing its toxic components from lingering and hinders the methane’s potential as a greenhouse gas.
It also looks damn cool at night. This was our first ominous taste of what the ‘Door To Hell’ had in store for us after nightfall.
Here’s me sitting out on what they’ve nicknamed the ‘Diving Board,’ a section of the hardened mud rim that juts out just far enough for you to feel like the crater is your bitch.
As for the name? There’s an alternative theory. As the only light and heat source at night, animals are naturally attracted to the crater. It’s been said that camel spiders, seduced by its warmth, will approach and plummet to their deaths like a scene out of an apocalyptic, arachnid remake of the movie ‘300’. The stuff of nightmares.
There’s no restrictive fencing at the ‘Door To Hell,’ so you can get up close and personal.
I must say, it did strike me how blasé we all became to the obvious risks. The edges were nothing but dry mud, and you could see it crumbling under your feet, yet taking that photo just a tad closer remained almost a magnetic enticement. Falling in would truly be horrendous, a painful death by asphyxiation, slowly cooked by the flames as the sounds of those panicking above are drowned out by its roar. You’d be helpless. I asked, and apparently no tourist has fallen victim, but there was an urban myth of one local who wasn’t quite so lucky.
At a distance, it appears as if the earth has switched on a spotlight. The crater’s glow was really accentuated without any light pollution nearby.