Trek to the heart of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert and you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled upon the gates of the underworld itself. Locals and travelers call the surreal crater the “Door to Hell” — an apt moniker for the Darvaza Gas Crater, which has been perpetually burning for nearly half a century.
There’s no official report for the mysterious fire pit that’s about as big as a football field, although it’s widely believed to be the product of a drilling mishap, according to a report from National Geographic. Purely through word of mouth, the story is that the ground under a drilling rig collapsed and Soviet scientists tried to set it on fire in an attempt to burn off noxious gases in the early 1970s.
Needless to say, it proved to be ineffective, likely because of the massive amounts of fuel that are underneath. After all, Turkmenistan possesses the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the entire world. Instead, the “Door to Hell” is still aflame, a perpetually burning hole lighting up the typically dry and empty desert.
Earlier this year, Elliot Davies, the man behind the Earth Nutshell blog, shared a video and a photoessay of his trip to Turkmenistan’s “Door to Hell” on his website, describing his experience camping beside the inferno in vivid detail. Davies revealed that venturing by the edge of the crater was intensely hot, saying that his “face almost melted off” as he posed for a photo.
“The crater’s heat was brutal, the afternoon sun made it worse, and every now and then a gust of wind would force me to run for the hills,” he wrote on his blog. “Imagine the sweeping heat that hits you when opening the oven, except far hotter, over your entire body and without being able to step away. Being this close to the crater isn’t dangerous, methane gas isn’t toxic, but it does displace oxygen, so extended visits to the rim made it difficult to breathe, and you’d walk away with mild dizziness or a headache.”
Few locals visit Turkmenistan’s “Door to Hell,” but foreign travelers who make the long trip to the country will be rewarded with relative freedom onsite.
Explorer and storm-chaser George Kourounis went on an expedition to Turkmenistan’s “Door to Hell” back in November 2013, collecting soil samples and discovering bacteria surviving at the bottom of the crater.
“Once you’re in the country, very few people go there,” he told National Geographic, who funded the trip. “But once you’re there — if you can find the place — you can drive up, get out of your car, walk over to the edge, and jump right in, if you want. The choice is yours.”