The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged fire

Hawaii: Kilauea Lava Lake

For the last few weeks the level of the lava lake at Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has been unusually high, meaning it’s visible from the Jaggar Museum viewpoint, 1.1 miles away.  This is as close as the Park Service will let you get. So I seized the moment and visited. Unlike Nyiragongo, Kilauea was merciful and did not eat my camera.

During the day, the lake surface was mostly a dull gray, with only faint hints of red cracks at the edges. But there were also two lava fountains, frothing up lava and flinging it up to 30 ft in the air. Through a good lens, this was extremely striking and very cool. dsc09202b
By night the lava lake is much more striking, with the cracks in the lake now bright red and the glow from the fountains reflecting off the smoke and crater edge. dsc08900
I also hiked out to near where the flow from the Pu’u O’o vent is entering the ocean. Lots of steam, but also some bright red lava. A tour boat captain came in, cutting in very close to the lava.  Clearly a fine lunatic, so I took that boat ride next day! dsc07886

DR Congo: Nyiragongo

“I survived Nyiragongo, but he ate my camera.”

When I was about ten, I had a very clear idea of what a Real Volcano should look like. A steep cone, with a razor sharp rim and sheer cliffs down to an inner caldera with a bubbling pool of lava. Aah, it is to dream.

Nyiragongo is that volcano.

It’s 3470 meters tall, in the Virunga National Park in DR Congo. Complete with steep inner cliffs and the world’s largest lava lake. He only slaughters people occasionally, but he can act decisively: during the 1977 eruption lava flow was clocked at up to 60 kph on the volcano slopes.

I took the trek up (4.5 miles, but 4800 vertical ft, a lot of it on loose slidey volcanic rock) on Wednesday and overnighted at the top.

The mighty volcano graciously gave us a good view of his lava lake. There was mist (and smoke from the lake) but we could clearly see the bright red lava. Most of it was simply red cracks between caked surface slabs, but there were periodic localized bubblings up of fresh red lava, sometimes leaping up in small fountains. We could hear a continual grumbling and rumbling from the lake.  It was mega cool. I just sat and stared!

Unfortunately on the way up we had hit rain. I had thought my camera was safe deep in my day pack, but I deceived myself. Other electronics survived OK, but the camera gave up the ghost and wouldn’t recover. So no exciting Nyiragongo lava pictures for me.  Aargh!  But it was still a great experience.

The photo below from the Virunga National Park website shows a typical night time view of the lava lake, very similar to what I experienced.

© 2015 Virunga National Park

© 2015 Virunga National Park

I highly recommend Nyiragongo.  I arranged my visit (transport in DR Congo, lodging, trek) though the Virunga National Park and it all worked out well.

Tbilisi AteshgahThe Tbilisi Ateshgah (aka Atashgah or Fire Temple) was under restoration when I visited it in 2007.  That work is now complete and, mercifully, the restorers have been gentle.  The old brickwork has been cleaned, and in a few places discreetly repaired, but has largely been left “as is”, without any gross tampering.  A perspex roof has been added to protect the site from the elements.

Authentic Zoroastrian fire temples are extremely rare, especially outside Iran.  (The Atashgah at Baku is an 18th century Parsi construction.)  According to the sign outside the Tbilisi temple, it is believed that it was built between the 5th and 7th centuries, and later spend a while as a mosque, while retaining its old name as “Ateshgah”.  This seems reasonably plausible as Tbilisi was under Persian occupation and influence for a while.  Zoroastrianism (like Christianity) was loosely tolerated under Islam, so the Ateshgah might easily have survived in active use for several centuries after the 7th c. Arab invasion.Tbilisi Ateshgah Sign

Tbilisi Ateshgah InteriorThe Ateshgah exterior is a largely featureless brick cuboid, perhaps 20 feet on a side.  There are steps leading up to a pair of stout wooden doors just to the left of the Ateshgah.  These open into what at first looks like a private family courtyard, but if you turn right actually leads into the Ateshgah interior.  There is a new wooden floor, but they have left parts of the original floor exposed.  There are no windows, but instead there are blank arches on each face.

Back in the day, a sacred flame would have burned here and there would likely have been a matching pool of clean water nearby.  A small hollow is visible in one corner, but it isn’t clear what purpose (if any) that served.

The Ateshgah is at GPS = 41.68885,44.80559 around 100 meters East of the Betlemi Church, on the Old Town slopes NE of the Mother Georgia statue.   You can find it by first heading South from Freedom Square,  then heading east along Asatiani Kucha, then take the first right (South) onto a short road that leads up to the Betlemi stairs, then take the 135 steps up to the Upper Betlemi Church, and then head East, past the Betlemi Bell Tower.  Look for the ancient brick building with the protective curved perspex roof!

Zoroastrian Yazd

The city of Yazd is the main remaining Zoroastrian center in Iran.  Zoroastrianism is (along with Christianity and Judaism) one of the three recognized and protected religious minorities under the Islamic Republic’s constitution.  So worship and pilgrimages are officially  tolerated, although probably not exactly encouraged.

ZoroastrianTower of Silence

"Tower of Silence" near Yazd

I hired a car and guide for the trip out to the Zoroastrian shrine at Chak Chak.  We stopped first at one of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence atop a steep hill near Yazd.  The Zoroastrian religion forbids the polluting of the pure elements (especially water, earth and fire) with a corpse.  So both cremation and earth burial were disavowed.  Instead, bodies were exposed to be devoured by vultures in these “towers of silence”.  This is an odd inversion of the normal Christian or Muslim customs: the emphasis is not on preventing disturbance to the body, but rather on preventing the body disturbing the elements.

The tower was much lower and flatter than I expected.  It is really a circular wall, around 15-20 feet high,  around a raised platform.  This example is about 180 years old.  According to my guide, after the bodies had been devoured by vultures, the bones were collected in a central hole and then periodically dissolved by nitric acid.  It is now disused: the modern practice is to perform burials in concrete lined tombs.

Road to Chak ChakThe Chak Chak site is about 73 km from Yazd and is revered as a miraculous place of refuge for the pious daughter of the last of the Zoroastrian Persian Kings.  In 640 AD the Princess and a few retainers were fleeing in despair from the Arab invaders, across the Iranian desert.  According to the tale, they were close to death from thirst when the Princess tapped her staff on a rock and miraculously a tiny drip-drip of water appeared.  That drip-drip, in Persian “chak chak”, gives the name to the site.

The Chak Chak  ShrineThe site is on the side of a forbidding craggy mountain, a long drive from Yazd across an arid gravelly desert.  The mountain side looks entirely dry and desolate. I can well imagine that after emerging from the desert, the discovery of an entirely unexpected tiny spring, literally only drips, may have well seemed like a miracle to the pious.

The shrine, at the top of many steep steps, is covered by a fairly recent dome and protected by a modern stone wall and stout bronze doors.  Tree trunks grow sideways out of the wall in front of the entrance.  Inside, there is still a drip-drip of water, now being caught in silver bowls.  It is a small site, but it is both simple and charming.  The shrine is the target for annual pilgrimages each June and various Zoroastrian communities have built their own hostels near the site, to shelter their pilgrims.

Yazd Zoroastrian AteshgahBack in Yazd, I visited the Zoroastrian Ateshga, or fire temple.  The current building dates from only 1934, but the holy flame is reputedly the continuation of a flame that has been kept burning since 470 AD.  The flame burns in an urn in a separate room, and we may only view it through a protective glass window.  To complement the fire, there is a large water pool in front of the temple.

Zoroastrian Holy Flame, YazdSigns on the walls carefully explain to visitors that Zoroaster preached monotheism, and they emphasize similarities with Judaism/Christianity/Islam.  We are assured that Zoroastrians do not “worship”  fire, but merely use it as a convenient focus for worshiping Ahura Mazda, the universal god.  (Well chosen messages for friendly co-existence in an Islamic Republic.)

The Darvaza Gas Crater

The Darvaza Gas Crater is the debris from a disastrously failed Soviet gas well. After the failure, the escaping gas was left to burn itself out. It has been merrily burning for over 30 years now.  (More Davaza photos.)

Through StanTours, I had arranged a 4WD, driver and guide for the trip, about 150 miles North from Ashgabat across the Karakum desert. The Karakum desert is known as the “black sand” desert, but I’m afraid the sand looked regular sand colour to me. Most of the desert was scrubby desert, with occasional small shrubs, like the outer parts of the Taklamakan.  But there were occasional sections of pure sand.

We visited three craters. The first was a deep crater with a pool with green water at the bottom, with small bubbles of gas bubbling up.  The second was another deep crater with a pool of mud at the bottom, bubbling merrily and emitting gas. This was quite interesting.

The third and by far the largest, was the Darvaza gas crater itself, eight km east of the road. This was about 40 meters across and perhaps 20 meters deep. The sides and bottom were lined with flames from many fault lines in the rock. It was bright daylight, so it was all relatively subdued, but it was still very cool.

There was a dull roar of sound from the fires and much heat from the crater. I walked around it and when I was downwind, it was oven-like. I could see pipes leading into the top of the crater, so my suspicion is that this was a working gas hole, which blew, destroying the top section. But perhaps the deeper drill pipe hole is still open, which is making it easy for gas to get near the surface and it then percolates up through the loose rock in the crater?

After the rather touristy Baku Atashgah, I took a taxi out to see a more modest, but more authentic natural flame, at “Yanar Dag” (Fire Mountain).

The story is that several decades ago a wandering shepherd accidentally set light to a small natural vent.  And to general amazement, that small vent has kept steadily burning ever since, apparently fed by some tiny natural leak from Baku’s vast gas fields far below.

Steps have now been built around the site, but the site itself seemed convincingly natural.  And no one was asking for money, which is also a good sign.

Despite its grand name, it is a fairly modest.  The flames run intermittently over a length of about 10-12 feet, with erratic flames varying from little 1-2 inch flickers to occasional 1-2 foot spurts.  However across the entire length it was generating a lot of heat.  Despite its small size, I found it genuinely impressive and a delightful example of the occasional oddities of nature.  I surprised my taxi driver by laughing with simple joy when I first saw it.   I can well understand why some pious traveler, on discovering such a strange natural vent, might have venerated it and made it a temple site (as probably happened at the Baku Ateshga).