In 1971, Soviet geologists, drilling for oil deep in the Karakum desert, were greeted with a surprise. They tapped into an underground cavern that was soon to become part of world history. Instead of oil, the geologists drill tapped into a massive natural gas pocket, which almost immediately collapsed, taking the drilling rig and surrounding land down with it. Because they expected poisonous gasses to soon be released from the open crater, the scientists decided to burn off the gas. They expected it to burn itself out within a few weeks, however it’s still alight, delighting the world and becoming legendary.
Now known as the the “Door to Hell” by the locals, the crater has grown in size to almost 100 feet deep and 225 feet across. And although it’s located in the middle of a desert in Derweze, Turkmenistan, the flaming crater has become a tourist attraction with over 10,000 annual visitors. People visit to feel the searing heat and to see the boiling mud and constant flames emitting from the crater, with the nighttime viewing considered to be quite spectacular. What’s amazing is the lack of smoke coming from the steady fire, as the natural gas burns so clean. The Turkmenistan President ordered the pit closed many years ago, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The burning hole’s reputation grew even more when explorer George Kourounis became the first living human to descend into the pit and come out still breathing. Mr. Kourounis is known for challenging nature and coming out a winner. This expedition was different than just harmonizing with nature, it could have been deadly. Donning an amazing set of gear which included fire proof ropes, a Kevlar harness, and of course a custom fire-retardant and heat-resistant suit, he repelled into the pit. As part of the mission, he took special tools to take soil samples from the very bottom of the hole. He was specifically trying to find evidence of bacteria to determine if they could exist in extreme conditions. It surprised everyone when they were found in the soil and were actually thriving because of the high heat. The complete details can be found on National Geographic.
For now, the Doorway to Hell remains open for business. A three hour ride on a dusty and pothole filled road is the price of admission. You can camp near the crater to experience the site at night. Just keep an eye out for the desert spiders. The locals say they frequently jump into the pit to their deaths, lured by the glow of the fire.