Gateways to Hell have a long history in western imagination. In Classical times, Homer believed it lay at the River Acheron in north-west Greece, where it meets the Styx and the Pyriphlegethon. Virgil thought it was the Crater Lake Avernus in Italy. In the middle ages the poem Voyage of St. Brendan locates it as Mount Hekla in Iceland which erupted in the twelfth century and again in the fourteenth. The latest epithet for the Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan is the ‘Gates to Hell’. With the idea of the underworld being one which originated in western imagination it is somewhat appropriate that its latest portal is one formed by humans.
During oil exploration in the area during the 1960s and 70s the discovery of a natural gas deposit led to the ground collapsing leaving a twenty-five metres deep, seventy metre wide precipice. Methane gas was released from the crater creating fears amongst the engineers that it could be harmful to surrounding settlements. As a result, it was decided to ignite the gas, estimating it would take several weeks to burn off. Yet, for over forty years it has been emitting a spectacular orangey hue.
The journey to the crater is one that adds to the sense of desolate inaccessibility.Two hundred and fifty kilometres into the interior of the Karakum Desert you are stationed in the heart of its sandy folds as you roam only with the camels. During the previous week in Turkmenistan we had cycled across the deserts eastern quarter and have become accustom to the flat, featureless landscape which is in many ways typically Central Asian.
During this day trip to Darvaza we had a 4x4, but even with the luxury of speed and climate control the sense of detachment and isolation was palpable. Within ten kilometres of the crater you are forced to leave the main road to traverse and climb the layers of scarcely vegetated dunes within nothing to guide you but the knowledge of your driver.
We arrived at 6:30pm, at the eve of dusk in order to appreciate the crater in the day and then during the constantly changing spectrum of colours during sunset into the darkness of night. During the day and from a distance it appears as a giant sinkhole; or the devil’s saucepan if you like. A several metre sheared blackened edge surrounds the crater which is sunken into the plain. There are no signs of permanent habitation in sight, although a few tents from adventurous tourists spending the night are set on a hill overlooking the spectacle.
Closer still, you can see dozens of individual vents of fire forming an inconsistent ring just below the sheared walls of the crater, acting almost like a surrounding corona. The edge overhangs slightly as the fire heats up the baked clay beneath your feet. Peering down, you dare not get too close as there is no way back up if you fall.
The next twenty metres of descent in the pit is a fiery scree slope of apocalyptic proportions. The flames speckle the slopes down, burning in an avalanche of angry light, jumping around in an uncontrollable rhythm of inexhaustible exorcism. Standing right on the edge the heat is intense; so intense in fact that you cannot stand their long enough to start sweating. You would pass out and cook first. The wind is strong and blasts you like the heat from the hot exhaust of a jet engine. The vast difference in air density between the already hot desert air and the superheated air above the pit causes a hallucinogenic shimmering mirage turning the surroundings into a pixelated image. Several times we cowered from the flames, turning our eyes and staggering back away from the edge in respite. There is no safety barrier around the site; the gates of hell are open to all.
A flat section twenty-five metres down in the middle is a rocky basin, predominately free of flames, apart from a central iris. From here a blazing flame thrower of light shoots upwards several metres. Its pattern is inconsistent jibbing around in an uncontainable fashion, twisting and turning. You can hear the hiss and rush of the flames below against the crackle of the wind. Combined with the whole spectacle it is a mesmerising experience, almost hypnotic, capturing your whole attention.
It is hard to identify exactly what makes the site so absorbing. The fire worshipping religion, Zoroastrianism is said to have been born only several hundred kilometres from here. From seeing such a sight one can see why they chose it as the element to worship. We sat watching its glow for several hours and could have easily have stayed for many more. With computer-generated imagery and constant exposure to both natural and human-constructed grandeur from information streams, it is rare to be shocked. This however was something so unique; the scale so immense and the feel, smell and sounds so palpable I was shocked. It is suicidal of course but part of you is urged to jump in and immerse yourself in this beautiful but malignant broth.
The crater’s elemental nature makes it refined and focused. It creates a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness which, for me, only the highest peaks equal. By coming straight out of the ground it inverts the conventional image of the soil as a life giving force. Instead it raises a 1000 degree centigrade pit of death.
During sunset, from the vantage point of a hill a hundred metres away, we had our own mockingly small fire to warm up some bread as we sat and stared. The colours became more intense and above the pit was a smouldering hue. It castes light upwards and outwards for kilometres and a deep blackness rimmed the sky just above the land. No stars could be seen nor any artificial light as the crater belched up sparks of flames as surveying tourists were silhouetted against it.
Before we left we could not resist, going to the crater’s edge one more time. Again we were hit by a sauna of heat and curled under its strength. We winced as our eyes struggled to adjust to the lights intensity and dared not get too close as if one might lose sense and walk straight in. Even as we drove away it was hard not to turn around as the light faded into the surrounding hills and the night became domed by a planetarium of stars.