There are places on Earth that are a little creepy, places that feel a little haunted and places that are downright hellish. The Darvaza gas crater, nicknamed by locals “The Door to Hell,” or “The Gates of Hell,” definitely falls into the latter category—and its sinister burning flames are just the half of it.
Located in the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan (a little over 150 miles from the country’s capital) the pit attracts hundreds of tourists each year.
It also attracts nearby desert wildlife—reportedly, from time to time local spiders are seen plunging into the pit by the thousands, lured to their deaths by the glowing flames.
So how did this fiery inferno end up in the middle of a desert in Turkmenistan? In 1971, when the republic was still part of the Soviet Union, a group of Soviet geologists went to the Karakum in search of oil fields.
They found what they thought to be a substantial oil field and began drilling.
Unfortunately for the scientists, they were drilling on top of a cavernous pocket of natural gas which couldn’t support the weight of their equipment. The site collapsed, taking their equipment along with it—and the event triggered the crumbly sedimentary rock of the desert to collapse in other places too, creating a domino-effect that resulted in several open craters by the time all was said and done.
The largest of these craters measures about 230-feet across and 65-feet deep. Reportedly, no one was injured in the collapse, but the scientists soon had another problem on their hands: the natural gas escaping from the crater.
Natural gas is composed mostly of methane, which, though not toxic, does displace oxygen, making it difficult to breathe. This wasn’t so much an issue for the scientists, but for the animals that call the Karakum Desert home—shortly after the collapse, animals roaming the area began to die.
The escaping methane also posed dangers due to its flammability—there needs to be just five percent methane in the air for an explosion to potentially take place. So the scientists decided to light the crater on fire, hoping that all the dangerous natural gas would burn away in a few weeks’ time.
Adventure photographer Ryan Deboodt does his best work in Earth’s underbelly.
His otherworldly photographs of the caves of Vietnam’s Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park illuminate a vast subterranean realm.
Located in central Vietnam near the border of Laos, Phong Nha Ke Bang contains one of the most expansive cave systems in the world, with over 60 miles of limestone chambers, underground rivers and grottoes.
During the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese soldiers took shelter here during American bombing raids.
The park was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003 for its distinctive geologic features. Hang Son Doong, one of the largest caves, is greater than 2.5 miles long, and at points is over 300 feet wide and 600 feet high.
Born in Nebraska, but based in Beijing, Deboodt has been living in Asia for nearly four years.
He set off to explore Phong Nha Ke Bang’s caves after learning about them in a National Geographic article, and even though he was a novice spelunker at the time, he’s now made 12 underground excursions, often working with the British Caving Research Association.
Often times, caves’ absence of light, tiny passages, and vertical faces, can lead to dangerous falls, getting lost, or being subjected to rapidly rising floodwaters.
Knock on wood, still no close calls for Deboodt yet, but he chalks that up to good help and less-than-extreme conditions.
“Most of the caves in the system are horizontal (without a lot of upward vertical climbs), which makes things a lot easier,” says Deboodt.
Once he finds a suitable vantage point, Deboodt often needs assistance setting up his shot. “Most require at least four or five people helping me out at a time, setting up all the lights and people in the photos,” Deboodt explains.
“Photos take 30 minutes to three hours each.”
His inclusion of people for scale only increases the grandeur of the already dramatic landscapes.
Deboodt is also adept at incorporating the piercing beams of sunlight that come streaming into the caves through dolines—cave skylights formed in collapsed limestone.
This system includes many unsurveyed and underexplored caves–opportunities for Deboodt to lay eyes on never-before-seen structures.
His favorite cave, Hang Va, features eerie, stalagmite-like cones rising out of what appears to be glowing green water. “It’s incredibly unique, and when you’re walking through there it seems like you’re on a different planet,” he explains.
“When I first went there, there were maybe only ten people who had been there before me.
Just knowing how few people had been there and how weird this place is and how otherworldly it is made for absolutely incredible experience.”