In 1971, Soviet engineers discovered a site in the desert of Turkmenistan that they believed to a large oil field. The engineers set up their drilling rigs in the Karakum Desert near the village of Derweze to begin assessing the the oil field. Soon they found that they were sitting atop of a natural gas pocket. The drilling caused the land to crumble and a massive crater was formed, swallowing up the drilling rig and camp. Now the engineers were faced with a worry that dangerous gasses would be released into the atmosphere making it unsafe for the surrounding villages. They decided to ignite the crater with the assumption that any remaining gasses would be burned off. They expected the flames to last for a week or so, and then die out. Instead the flames have continued to burn ever since that day with no foreseeable end.
Officially known as the Darvaza Crater, locals began calling it the Door to Hell, a name that has stuck. The crater has a diameter of 226ft and is 98ft deep, with a total area of more than 57,586 square feet. Since the safety of the area around the crater is unknown, authorities have gone back and forth as to how they feel about the site drawing visitors. In 2013 Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the president of Turkmenistan declared the Door to Hell a nature reserve in the hopes of bringing more tourist to see the phenomenon to boost his country’s economic standing. Several years later, a man from Italy visited the Door to Hell and brought home stunning images of the crater with the help of a drone.
Alessandro Belgiojoso was born in 1963 in Milan, ITL. He became a photographer, traveling the world capturing images that focus on exploring boundaries and how to reach beyond their limits. In 2004, he began a new project exploring these boundaries and their relationship to light and the Earth. This brought him to the Door to Hell where Earth and light, in this case from fire, are ever pushing against each other. Though you can walk up to the edge of the crater, getting quality photographs and film of the site has been difficult due to the extreme heat emanating from the flames. These temperatures can sometimes reach upwards of 1,830F. A drone with an HD camera however can fly over the pit to safely capture never before seen aspects of the crater. Even still, Belgiojoso had to be very careful flying his drone, as most can only withstand temperatures up to 104F.
Alessandro first set up his drone during the day time to grab some intense details of the crater. As the drone pans over the Door to Hell, the contrast between the boundaries of the stark desert landscape and the roiling pit are unmistakable. Grey, flat, almost desolate looking sand covers the land around the hole. This sands seems to go on endlessly. Then the blackened walls of the crater reach down to the pit of the crater with an almost complete ring of fire snaking around it. Smaller fires are scattered around the basin of the crater, but as the drone zooms in you see that the fires are clearly much larger than they at first appeared. The drone’s HD cameras picks up in stunning detail the char around the base of each individual fire, and the mass of ash covered rocks that have cooled. When the sun starts to set, the images captured by the drone turn to something otherworldly.
Alessandro sent the drone back in the air around dusk, when the sky first begins to darken. The light from the pit of fire is noticeably brighter as the flames make the surrounding sky take on an orange hue. Then we see the drone fly over the pit in total darkness and the true gravity of this pit of flames burning for almost 50 years is hard to ignore. With no artificial lights from nearby cities, the desert is in a compete shroud of darkness. The contrast between the massive fire in the Door to Hell and the surrounding desert once again marks a distinctive barrier. The pit almost looks like it is floating in nothingness, just a massive ring of flames lighting up a black expanse. The barriers of light and Earth clearly visible.
Little is known about the conditions within the crater. In 2013, Canadian explorer George Kourounis became the first and only person to enter the crater in the hopes of gathering geological samples. Wearing a special breathing apparatus, a heat reflective suit, and a Kevlar harness George repelled to the bottom of the crater. He spent 15 minutes walking across it’s surface and collecting samples. “I was in a spot where no human had ever been,” George said. “It was like stepping onto an alien planet – more people have been on the moon. It was exciting, adventurous, dangerous, a world first and a contribution to science. The expedition had everything I love.” Since both George’s and Alessandro’s encounter with the Door to Hell amazing advancements in drone technology have been achieved. There are now drones that can hold up to the extreme temperatures inside of the crater. These drones could be sent in to collect air and ground samples to give scientists a better understanding of the crater. The samples collected by George showed that bacteria was present inside of the crater, despite the methane-rich environment. How this is possible is something that drones could be used to investigate. For now thousands of tourists flock to the Door to Hell to simply stare in wonder at this ever burning fire in the middle of the desert.