The walk through the desert was a steady maintained pace across a variety of terrain, meeting a variety of wildlife – spiders, lizards, and even a desert hedgehog. It took approximately 90 minutes for us to walk across the sand and rock until we heard the crater first – a constant roar originally mistaken for a passing train on the nearby railway, or possibly even a passenger jet flying overhead at high altitude. The view we took in from the initial sight to the edge of the crater reminded us off the massive bomb fires seen at firework displays, with a light intensity similar to a sunset.
The crater roared away in front of us, standing just 2 metres from the edge without any safety fence or barrier, the heat soared up and around us. Waves of hot gas could be seen shooting upwards into the night sky, with the opposite side of the crater becoming heavily distorted from our viewpoint. Remnant of the former soviet gas rig that had collapsed here nearly 40 years ago could be seen around the edge, but nothing that would identify any particular structure. We took in the view for what seemed to be hours, taking quantities of photos and videos for our own interests, and for Hartley’s documentary footage. While we took to setting these shots up and exploring the immediate environment of the crater, we hadn’t yet noticed 2 other travellers who had also walked to the crater from the roadside. Originally from Japan, these 2 had been travelling for 3 years and 10 months respectively, happening to meet quite by change at their chosen hostel in Ashgabat. It was quite interesting to hear their stories and how far they had travelled, heading very much in the opposite direction to us, East to West. Describing to them our Nissan Micra and about the Mongol Rally, they mentioned there was another small car nearby, in fact just opposite that may well be on the same lines as what we described. Thanking them, we headed over to find WalleyRalley – an Italian team with a Fiat Panda shaped to look like Mount Vesuvius. We called out in case one of their team was close by, but no sight of tents in the immediate area and with no one in the Panda, we did wonder where they may have ended up for the night.
Answers came around with the first light of dawn, Thomas spotted 2/3 tents over to the east of the crater. Sure enough, the Italians had camped up with a French expedition of 2 Mitsubishi L200 utility trucks. Hartley, who had stayed with the team from some time through Europe took the plunge to wake them early, and with warm greetings between Alpha Squad and WalleyRalley, we exchanged a few stories of our journey, notably how the Italians had managed to drive to the crater and where the track actually lay once off the road. Dawn also brought on a sense of worry for Oli – too much sunlight over the Micra’s rest spot for the night would attract unwanted attention, so with the tracker and compass baring, made a bee line for the roadside, making it within 30 minutes and discovering an untouched and intact Micra, set about checking fluids and tidying up from last night’s off road attempts that had filled the foot wells with sand. Rhys, Thomas and Hartley stuck with the French expedition, braking ice and seeing if the tour guides would be willing to offer a lift to the rest of the team back to the highway.
Once we were reunited, car, team and cameraman, we set about heading to a secondary objective for Davaza – a failed Mongol Rally car 40km north of the gas crater. The background information Hartley was able to gain from the team “The Fault In Our Car”, was that following a gearbox problem, the team had ground to a halt in the middle of the highway, and with limited space in the vehicle they hitchhiked with, they had no choice but to leave personal effects and survival gear behind. It was down to us to recover what we could and return it to them upon meeting with them on the route ahead. We had no idea what to really expect, and guesses as to what could have gone wrong were bounced around the team. Given the environment we were in, most ideas settled on heat-related issues; the coolant had boiled off, a heat gasket failure, and in combination with the gearbox problem, there would be no going forward. We were prepared not only to tow the defeated car back to civilisation but if repairs were possible, drive it back to a pickup location.
The reality however, was more grave. After cruising at their only selectable gear – 4th – they hit a field of 2” deep pot holes, and combined with single-ply tyres and a low tyre pressure, the pothole took out 2 steel rims on the of side of the car. With no way of fitting the spare tyres to the rims they had on the roof, “The Fault In Our Car” called it a day. We quickly found the best entry point into the Panda was the rear quart panel window – left slightly open, we took a screwdriver to the inside hinge and with that out of the way, the door catches were opened, and the kit list checked over. The easy items such as sleeping bag, tent and a large duffle bag of clothes and trinkets the team had collected over their journey. These were bundled into the Micra, then we moved into what could be done with the Panda in terms of recovery or salvage. With no keys in site, it appeared the only thing we could attempt was to break the ignition barrel and get passed the steering lock. Oil and fluid levels all looked fine and the battery held a solid 12.5v charge – all seemed fine in the engine bay aside from the suspect gearbox. With the ignition barrel defeating us and no way of really getting passed steering the car, we looked to the other areas for salvage – taking a couple of repair kits and an AA recovery bag, and draining the fuel tank of some 40 litres of petrol, we considered the recovery a success. WalleyRalley, showing up a short time later, salvaged a new wing mirror for their own needs, having lost theirs to a lamppost a few days prior. The Italians headed North, and we South back to Ashgabat and a chance to resupply and replenish from a day in the Turkmenistan heat.
Returning to the Yimpas Shopping Centre, we quickly sat down to a large meal and plenty of fluids, meeting Worst Case Ontario who were also planning on visiting the gas crater later on in the day. Also driving a Nissan Micra, the patched team of 3 (taking on 3rd member Steven from a failed Yaris team) had suffered a 4th gear failure, but were making steady progress. Hartley was on hand to help the team with accommodation for Worst Case Ontario; a contact he had made in Ashgabat was close by to guide the team to an AirBnB house he had nearby. The American-voiced international student was also incredibly helpful in providing a cheat sheet of a 3-language request for accommodation or camping, written in English, Turkmen and Russian.
Feeling our timeframe for our next scheduled stop was closing in, we wished the team good luck, exchange contact details and made a move for Tejen – a smaller town West of Mary – explicitly denied by Turkmenistan customs for any stopping, reasons for which we were still unsure about. The beauty and colour of Ashgabat faded away into the distance, and we arrived in Tejen after dark. The roads returned to rough pothole-filled tracks, and the houses far more traditional, courtyard facing and brick built. No marble or gold to be found here. Driving through the town at a snail’s pace, we looked for any signs of accommodation and decided to utilise our contact’s cheat sheet straight away.2 local men happened to be walking down the main road, and with a short introduction, we handed the paper over. A short discussion was had between the 2, and with some smiles and nods we were guided not 2 metres down the road into a farmstead with a raised platform in the courtyard. Sleeping bags were setup, and with farm animals close by and a vine covering our immediate skyline and warm draft, we settled down for the night in the warm open air.