If there’s one travel memory so strange – so remarkable – it’s practically tangible, it has to be my night of wild camping at the Door to Hell.
Last year, my husband and I made our way to the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan – a poetically desolate setting like something from Mars. Here, in the middle of No Man’s Land, we pitched our tent beside the ‘world’s biggest campfire’.
The Door to Hell, or Darvaza Crater as it’s also known, is an imposing sight. Diving 30 metres into the ground, like an angry wound on the earth’s skin, this blazing cavern is the size of an American football field!
The site was originally identified in 1971 by Soviet engineers, who mistook it for an oil field. Eventually, they discovered it was a natural gas reserve – one of the biggest in the world.
Daunted by the prospect of poisonous fumes leaching into nearby towns, the engineers ignited the site to burn off its gases. While the flames were expected to fizzle out in a few weeks, they continue to flicker and flare more than four decades on.
It’s hardly surprising the Door to Hell has become a bucket list destination, seducing adventurous travellers like moths to a flame. Despite how challenging it is to reach the middle of Turkmenistan (especially in a private vehicle), the investment is totally worth it.
The Door to Hell is one of the most bizarre yet beautiful sights my husband and I have ever encountered. Creeping as close as we dared to its crumbly rim, we peered into the belly of the beast – a giant pit of glowing embers, boiling mud and dancing flames. It was both terrifying and hypnotising.
With our legs singed to baldness and shaking at the thought of falling into the depths of hell (can you believe someone’s actually walked amongst the flames – by choice?!), we decided to call it a day and enjoy the safety of our roof tent. Needless to say, we didn’t need our arctic grade sleeping bags that night. Could’ve done with a bag of marshmallows, though.