Sandmatting up the first dune into the Darwaza Gas Crater, Turkmenistan. We were still full of beans at this point..
‘Portal of unknown building’ in Konye Urgench, Turkmenistan
Right, so if anyone has read any of my other posts on this topic, you’ll know that I’ve recently been out running our Central Asia trip and that it involved a whole lot of visa-related headaches. I now have the luxury of sitting in the Oasis office on a gloomy English-Autumn day reminiscing about my time out there. All that pre-trip stress seems like a distant memory that has been washed away by the awesome, and sometimes ridiculous, experiences and memories that I have taken away from the trip. The thing is, I’m finding it quite difficult to sum these up. If I had to say one thing about that area of the world is that it is a land of extremes and contrasts. There were mountain passes over 3500m, and long straights through empty deserts. It was the hottest, it was the coldest. I had my longest border crossing and 4 days later had my shortest border crossing ever. We drove on some of the best, empty
8 lane highways in Ashgabat, then drove into central Tehran that is so ridden with traffic I struggled to even cross the road. We got stuck in the sand, then on mud, then we got stuck in
mud, then we never thought we would get out of the sanddunes we were stuck so deep.
This last incident is one of those experiences that I think will stay with me forever is the day we took Habibi (our big yellow 16T truck) to see the Darwaza Gas Craters in Turkmenistan. This relic of soviet gas exploration (which is now a continually burning hole in the ground) lie about 8 km off the tarmac’d highway in the middle of the Karakum Desert, half a day’s drive north of Ashgabat. We were coming from the other direction and arrived at the turn off around 3pm after an early start. It was still pretty hot at this stage, so at the foot of the first climb into the dunes, we all jumped off the truck and stocked up on water and sunscreen before Colin took off in the truck without us for his first attempt up the dune. I would say he made it about 3/4s of the way up before stopping short of lodging 6 tyres in the sand.
Then out came the sand mats. For those of you unfamiliar with these, they are long, heavy metal mats that allows the truck traction on mud or stops it sinking in sand. 6 of these bad boys are stored on the truck for just the occasion as this. It became a process of lying them in front of the front and back tyres, driving forward until the truck was off the last set, stopping, dragging them to the front, re-positioning them, and doing it all again. It took us about an hour to get the truck up to the top of the dune where the sand was hard enough for it to finally go on without us…
It took all of about 50m for it to hit the deep stuff again. The next couple of hours was filled with digging, sandmatting, pushing, and more digging, then some more sandmatting. A couple of times Colin managed to get a run on, only to sink in again after a painfully short amount of time. All the while the sand mats were bending, requiring un-bending and more digging and pushing. Also, to my distress, I had met a driver of a 4×4 tour that had told me of another, easier, road in. Apparently, we were taking the scenic but sandy road. Oh well, we were here now!
Sandmatting, Photo thanks to David Wanderlust!
After a champion effort we hit the downhill and were away and running, well driving. So we all piled in with the sandmats in tow, and made some significant progress on the stoney desert floor. Until we hit the next sandy patch that was. I’ll make this one quick, suffice to say that the sun had set at this point and exhaustion was setting in (evident by our state-assigned guide refusing to even get out of the truck, having done nothing to help the first time round apart from advising Colin to ‘go faster’). Everyone pitched in a stellar effort and we were out in under 2 hours (we were getting a well oiled routine down by this point). For a second time we all jumped in and made our final approach to the gas crater.
In the darkness we could see the glow of the gas crater behind the next sand dune (which we went around, rather than over). When it finally came in view, all our hard work was rewarded with one of the most stunning, breathtaking sights of the whole trip. Made even more dramatic when Colin turned off the headlights and made to drive straight into it! Luckily he stopped a safe distance from it before our Turkmen guide needed new underwear.
Beers were cracked, photos were snapped and eyeballs were scalded when the wind changed direction and blew burning hot air in our faces!
We learnt our lesson and set up camp far enough away so that if the wind changed during the night we wouldn’t melt, and cook group did an amazing job of pulling 2 courses out of a sandstorm next to a giant burning hole in the desert. By the time we had eaten and everyone had settled their curiosity with the giant burning hole, we settled down for a solid (or not so solid) 4 hours shut eye. 6am we were up and about ready to do it all again, back the way we came…
Luckily, we followed some local advice and took a different route out, with much more success. After a short breakfast stop, which the boys used to run a recon mission, we made a break for the tarseal…. and got stuck. This time for only an hour which ended by being towed out by an ancient Russian 4×4. Success!
A a couple of 100 kms later we were in the capital, Ashgabat, freshly showered with cold beers in front of us, talking fondly of “that night we spent in the Turkmen desert”. Although I think I was getting sand out of my ears for days to come!
So a massive thanks to everyone who was there and suffered with me to make that a very memorable night!