We left Ashgabat this morning bound for the Darvasa Gas Crater. By the time we were 10 kilometres from Ashgabat it had become apparent the pristine state of the roads in the city were not typical of the rest of Turkmenistan. We bounced and rattled our way north for the next six hours.
Our vehicle is a sturdy lorry, adapted as a Dragoman vehicle, which has clearly been built to survive damaging roads. It lurched from pothole to pothole with resilience. A bad bump caused the glass from a window to fall from it’s frame and slide into the wall cavity. Neil (the group leader), and Brett (in charge of the vehicle), stopped, patched the hole with plastic bags and duct tape as makeshift protection and we carried on. The passengers clung on to their seats, safety belt or table and settled in for the long haul.
I’ve developed a squiffy tummy – not a pleasant situation when we’re going bush camping this evening. So far Imodium has everything under control. I’m concentrating on sipping water and imagining the resultant weight loss I could achieve from a couple of days of fasting.
The country is bleakly desolate in all directions. Large chunks of Turkmenistan are covered by the Karakorum desert. We passed no towns and only a couple of miserable looking settlements during the entire journey. A few scruffy goats and camels graze the scraggly vegetation at the side of the road and we may have passed one human being.
To avoid the worst of the potholes, the truck and other road users are forced to weave from side to side of the highway. On several occasions the truck elected to drive along the wide gravel verge which while also pitted and corrugated, was still a smoother track than the promulgated road.
We reached the first of three craters about 5pm. All three are the result of the search for gas and oil by Russian engineers. The structure of the ground here is less stable than they’d imagined, and water runs close beneath the surface. Once they started drilling they penetrated the layer. Gas pressure beneath forced the water to the surface, and Turkmenistan acquired a new swimming hole. It’s a deep hole, regrettably full of plastic bottles and other detritus.
The second disaster was not dissimilar. Here the ground had simply collapsed into a deep crater. Far below we could see bubbles of gas escaping from the layer of mud on the bottom. It was not unlike Rotorua.
The third, and most spectacular crater at Davasa was caused when the engineers, still looking for oil, found only gas. When the ground collapsed into a crater they were worried about the gas they’d inadvertently released into the air and deliberately set the crater on fire, assuming the gas would burn off in a few weeks. This was in 1971.
It was a real plus when our group finally bounced over the dusty road to the site so we could camp the night beside the crater. The fire is still burning furiously, and at night is the most spectacular sight to see. The temperature had dropped and a chill wind was blowing, so the warmth from the crater was very welcome.
Camping was surprisingly good fun. It’s been years since Cavan and I erected a tent, but we old skills came back to us. We had dinner under the stars cooked by other members of our group. I took a couple of Imodium and headed for bed about 10pm, but not until I’d taken a range of photos of the crater. As the night got darker, the scene became ever more spectacular. Birds, lit up by the crater’s reflected light, flew over looking for all the world like lovely fireflies.
It rained for a short while during the night, but the heat of the furnace soon had the tents dry and it was fine when we got up at 5.30am to watch the sun rise over the crater.
The water crater
The fire pit
Camping by the crater
The gates of hell
Late at night
Fire and fury
On the road to Darvasa