1971. Turkmenistan is part of the Soviet Union. A team of geologists are in the Karakum Desert looking for oil reserves. They set up a rig and start drilling on a likely spot. Unfortunately, the rig is above a cavity filled with natural gas and the weight of the rig collapses the ground beneath it into a crater. With gas leaking out of the ground the decision is made to “flare it off”, i.e. set fire to it. This is expected to last a few days.
2017. Turkmenistan is an independent state. Out in the Karakum Desert there’s a crater, 69m (226ft) wide and 30m (98ft) deep, and it’s been burning since that day in 1971. Approaching by 4×4 in the dark, you can see the glow ahead long before you reach the site. When you do reach it you’re met with the sight of “The Gates of Hell” as it is known locally.
It’s warm in the desert. As you approach the edge of the crater it’s really warm. Occasionally the wind picks up and blows across the crater at you. It’s like standing in an oven.
Darvaza was one of the things I was looking forward to most on this trip and it more than lived up to my expectations. The crater is spectacular, flames emerging from the rocks all over the surface, some small and others large and raging. And you can get as close as you dare. If this was in the UK there would be a fence 100m from the edge, a gift shop and a video wall showing what it would look like if you were actually allowed to get close enough to see it properly. Here in Turkmenistan it’s just a big open fiery hole in the ground. You can walk right up to the edge and if you’re stupid enough to fall in then that’s your own fault.
We camped overnight in the desert, got up early and watched the sun rise over the crater. It was mesmerising in the dawn light and a real highlight – in my top 10 places I’ve visited in the world.