super/collider takes us to the remote Karakum region in Turkmenistan, where an unearthly fire blazes in the desert night
Where on Earth?
GPS Coordinates: 40°15′N 58°26′E
Seen from a distance, at dusk, it must be one of most eerie and unsettling sights on Earth: a vast cauldron of fire burning in the middle of the empty desert. The mysterious glow at Derweze can be seen from miles around, and there’s not much else to block the view. As evening falls and you approach the edge of this glowing chasm, hundreds of little patches of flame rise from the sands, illuminating the night. Flickering and leaping in a mesmerising conflagration, they’ve been burning for over four decades.
Getting to this part of the world isn’t for the faint-hearted. Derweze is located amid the shifting sands of the Karakum Desert – a vast expanse that covers about 70% of Turkmenistan. To the northeast, the evaporating waters of the Aral Sea have added to the desert’s size with their retreat, and a toxic mixture of dried salt and pesticide now blows on the wind. There’s only one person for every 2.5 square miles here, mostly Turkmens of the Teke tribe living amid an arid landscape of Saksaul, Acacia and Kandym bushes.
What on Earth?
The flaming crater at Derweze (known variously as the Derwaza Gas Fire, the Gates to Hell, the Door to Hell and the Crater of Fire) is a combination of natural and human activity. In the late 1960s, Soviet geologists began exploring the area for oil and gas deposits. In 1971, the site was identified as promising, and a drilling rig was set up with the expectation of finding a rich oil field beneath the surface. Instead, they stumbled upon – and into – one of the largest gas reserves on the planet, with the rig collapsing into the ground to form a crater 69 metres wide and 30 metres deep.
The toxic methane gas escaping from the newly-formed hole in the planet posed a hazard to nearby villagers, so engineers decided to burn it off, fully expecting the process to take a few days. Instead, the fires have been flickering continuously for 44 years, with no sign of stopping. The gas seeps up from underground deposits and passes through the rocks and sand to ignite in a continuous cycle – a semi-natural version of many country’s ‘eternal flame’ war memorials. In 2009, Turkmenistan’s president visited Derweze and decided the hole should be filled in, but that doesn’t seem to be happening – especially given its increasing attraction as an unplanned, unique and entrancing ‘natural’ attraction.
How on Earth?
Weirdly, the nearest settlement to the crater is a tiny village called Aeroport that doesn’t actually have an airport. If you feel confident driving a 4x4 vehicle across a remote desert you can get to Derweze from Ashgabat on your own, but it’s probably safer and definitely easier to travel there with a company like Stan Tours. Either way, be sure to camp in the desert close to the crater, watching as it lights up the sky at dusk and fades again with dawn.