Yet another beautiful day. We breakfasted on toast and then set off. For some way the sand was piled high on both sides of the road.
We had to stop off for supplies for our truck lunch, so pulled off the road to visit what was described as a ‘market’. Now markets have taken many forms on this trip but this was certainly the least market looking. We were confronted with two white buildings, which when you opened the doors looked like offices. On closer inspection, doors off of the main entranceway revealed ether a large room with people displaying their rather frugal wares or small shops. The people behind the counters looked back at us shyly. Some smiled but others just stared. My recollection of the whole thing is of shelves of goods – jars and tins – neatly laid out in rows with gaps between each item to make the shelves look as full possible…….. There were no other customers.
We managed to find a bottle of cold drinking water and someone found the bakery. We piled back into the truck. The day wore on and got hotter and hotter.
We pulled off the road at lunch time onto a track into the sand, with the truck as our only shade. Tufts of a mauve tinged dry grass was the occasional thing growing.
Early in the afternoon we came to our first crater. I was not aware of these craters, but knew others talked of the ‘fire crater’, the final crater of the day, as one of the highlights of the trip. I was totally unaware of their existence, so I did my homework.
It appears that the craters are a bizarre combination of human error and natural phenomenon. In the soviet era of gas exploration in the 1950’s they dug a number of very large holes in the desert and as a result have created three large craters of increasing size with three different outcomes. This first one was perhaps 15 foot across and contained water about 25 feet blow ground level. The edges had been concreted.
After inspecting the crater from every angle, we all piled back in the truck and some twenty minutes later came to the second crater. This had a larger diameter and we peered down on bubbling mud.
Before we reached the third crater we had set up camp in the desert. A four wheel drive vehicle had been arranged to take us to the crater site. It was not big enough to take everyone together so the cooking group went first (of which I was one) so they were able to return first to start cooking supper. A rather battered vehicle arrived and we piled in. The guidebook makes it clear that you should not attempt to get to the crater on foot as finding your way out would be difficult. The whole excursion got more and more intriguing…..
We bumped along over the sand dunes at speed (supposedly so we did not sink) and kept going for about twenty minutes, passing what looked like a drilling camp on the way. As we went over the final hill we were confronted by an enormous crater. A yawning hole in the ground which, as we neared it revealed the fire – or more accurately – many fires that burned within it. The heat shimmered above it in the setting sunlight. It was incredible. The Russians had unexpectedly found this seam of gas, in the ’70’s and no knowing quite what to do next (?!) so thought the only thing to do was set fire to the gas – and it is still burning! We neared the edge and saw that in the centre huge flames shot up. The heat was immense. It looked like the original inferno.
We walked round the circumference trying to photograph it to show how impressive it was but it was impossible. Meanwhile it continued to roar and the flames flickered. There was no smoke and no smell, just a fearsome heat. What a sight! The sun set behind us and we eventually set off back to the camp. It was truly one of the most exceptional experiences of the trip thus far.
It is the 24th September. Just one month left of this incredible journey.
As darkness fell we were to have another treat. The Milky Way emerged – one of the clearest experiences of it I have ever had. What a day!