Monday, August 10

Sarawak, spiders, and a 160-year old mystery

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The author and his wife Angela examine a spider in the cave.

THERE was a definite air of gloom in the vehicle as we made our way from Bukit Peninjau along the main road back to Kuching. We were exhausted, dejected, and wet as we returned to our hotel. As we washed off our mud-covered boots, we chatted about the day and the more positive things we had discovered. We had found some interesting creatures, of this there was no doubt, but we were still missing the final piece of our puzzle — Wallace’s Spider.

In a brave attempt to lift our spirits, one of our colleagues asked if we were interested in flowers. A strange question I thought, but nevertheless both Angela and I answered in unison that we did. He explained that he had a friend who ran an export business growing many types of exotic flowers and would we like to see them. The day had been enjoyable although unsuccessful so far, so we readily agreed to go along the next day.

Crawling along a passageway in the cave.

A man with a beaming smile and baseball cap greeted us at the gates with an equally enthusiastic handshake. He introduced himself as the owner and beckoned us to join him. He bade us sit on his wooden porch whilst his wife appeared and offered us all green tea. Throughout all of my travels in Southeast Asia, the one thing that has never ceases to amaze me are the people. Their unending hospitality and overwhelming friendship fills one’s very soul with joy.

After enjoying the delightful repast our host excitedly showed us around his site. We were greeted with row after row of covered exotic plants of every colour — green and red bromeliads, ferns of every size, and strange succulents and pitcher plants all covered with flimsy green mesh to protect their delicate leaves from the mid-afternoon sun. His enthusiasm in showing us his collection of orchids was infectious.

We chatted for a while enjoying his hospitality and then he said it, right there out of the blue, “So, I hear that you guys like spiders?” We nodded in the affirmative whilst sipping the fragrant green tea. “I know where there are some as big as your hand … care to see them?”

The mysterious spider and its silken web.

My initial thought was that as spider hunters we had heard this type of thing before and they normally turn out to be nothing more than giant Nephila sitting in their huge webs. Impressive they may well be, but they were not what we had come to look for and we had seen our fair share of this spider already this trip. He smiled and assured me that he knew the difference between orb weavers and tarantulas, and that the ones he had found were most definitely the latter.

Our hearts lifted as he went on to say that they could be found inside a cave about 1km away. We prepared our kit, checking our torches, and pulling on our soggy boots. He picked up a machete and we set off on foot. I remember thinking to myself, “I am about to enter a cave with a man I have only just met who is carrying a big machete. Oh well!”

He told us that the walk was easy but that we would have to cross a river and depending on the depth, due to the rain, it may not be accessible. After about 20 minutes of following a trail through dense undergrowth, we arrived at the river’s edge. The river was indeed very high and to attempt a crossing would be madness. It was agreed we would return next day. The light was fading and we felt we should be better prepared for any exploration of this nature.

Close up of the mysterious spider.

The next day we once again arrived at the river’s edge and, as our guide had predicted, the river had dropped enough to allow us to wade across. It was now about three feet deep but the sides were soft mud, so we knew we had to take care. Our new friend went first followed by our young guides, Angela and then myself. The water was warm and our feet sank deep into the silt as we pushed our way against the strong current.

As we waded across, a water snake floated nonchalantly past and one of our team hurried off in earnest pursuit. Arriving on the other side we found ourselves standing before a huge cavern entrance. Amazingly from the other side it was barely visible being covered by tall trees and foliage, but now it loomed above us like a huge open mouth gaping at the sky.

We entered the chasm and looked around in the gloom, allowing our eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. It was obvious that the cave was well visited by local youths. Dead campfires were dotted around the entrance and discarded plastic bottles and cans littered the floor. Graffiti covered the walls although, it did amuse me that some of it was dated back to 1938. Tomorrow’s cave art antiquity perhaps?

Undaunted, our host signalled for us to follow him as he walked to the rear of the cave. He stooped down and disappeared into the darkness. Hesitantly, we followed and soon the tunnel began to narrow and the dim light from the entrance faded until disappearing altogether. The roof lowered and we found ourselves on our hands and knees crawling along the narrow passage in total darkness, lit only by the dim beams from our head torches. A cave cockroach ran over my hand and a Scutigera centipede sat above my head.

After what felt like an eternity, we emerged into a large, dark cavern. Our voices resonated in this huge cave. Our head torches illuminated the walls but did not reach the ceiling of this cathedral of stone. The air was hot, humid, and the gloom all-consuming. I reached for my powerful torch at my side and as we all switched them on the chasm was flooded with light. It was indeed a magnificent site to behold.

I stared at the floor as my jaw almost hit it. Surrounding me were hundreds (and I mean hundreds if not thousands) of burrows all lined with pure white silk that radiated over the edges. They ranged from the width of a pencil to ones that a man could easily put his arm down (should he wish to do so). The burrows were in close proximity to each other.

Along the walls at ground level where the substrate met the vertical wall one could see long silk sock burrows covered with detritus whilst sitting on the walls were a number of large tarantulas. This should be the stuff of nightmares for some but to the seasoned archno-hunter it was heaven.

The habitat of the spider is a very deep cave well below ground level situated in a small de-forested area now covered with secondary forest. The cave sits in a limestone outcrop that has now been isolated as it became surrounded by civilisation. It is in close proximity to human habitation but far enough away and inaccessible enough to avoid interference from anyone other than the most determined visitor. A small shrine had been built at one end and a number of offerings of cigarettes and flowers lay at its foot.

We agreed that we needed to see one of these larger tarantulas in the light to be able to photograph it adequately and to ascertain its genus and species. I would point out here that we are not collectors. We have no interest in capturing these spiders. Our passion is finding new species and furthering our knowledge of these much-maligned arachnids. Should we find one then we all had the understanding that we would return it unharmed. We did, however, need to photograph it in order to assign it to a family.

After two hours the air in the cave became oppressive, with no visible source of external light the torches were in danger of failing. There seemed to be no obvious influx of fresh air apart from the narrow passage through which we had entered. The water that hung in the air was clearly visible in the beams and we had all begun to start feeling nauseous. It was time to leave.

We collected our kit, replaced the rocks we had moved, said a few words at the makeshift shrine and we made our way out back along the narrow passage. As we crawled further we felt the strong current of air blow over us from the entrance. It felt good as we emerged from our makeshift tomb into the light again. We sat and pondered on our find. We held the plastic container in our hand and all marvelled at this tarantula. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and to many I suppose this would be just another dull brown spider. It is not colourful, nor is it I suspect collectable — something in its favour.

We immediately noticed that the eyes were white and milky. It had made no response as we shone our torches over it in the darkness and I wondered if this animal was on the way to losing its eyes or indeed had already lost its sight. After all it lived in total darkness and would have no need for vision. It would detect its prey by the setae on its legs as the current moved gently across them.

To an arachnologist, finding any spider in the wild gives a monumental feeling of pride but to find what is quite possibly a new species or maybe even a new genus is the eureka moment we all seek on our travels. We carefully photographed the spider in daylight. It made no attempt of aggression towards us: in fact it was remarkably placid. I would have liked to have spent longer examining the spider but time was not upon our side. Having satisfied ourselves with our photographs, our host returned to the cave and returned the spider to its original home. It was agreed that we would return the following year and revisit the caves to make further indepth observations. We had simply run out of time and we were due to return to the UK the next day.

The indigenous researchers will work upon the spider soon and hopefully we will be able to ascertain if it is a new species and if so to what genus it belongs. The smaller species within the cave looked at first sight like a Phlogiellius sp. but it would be impossible to say with certainty unless collected and taxonomically inspected. It is my hope that this cave system stays undisturbed for the foreseeable future and that any visitor affords the cave and its occupants the respect they deserve.

In 2018, we returned to Sarawak and captured more photos of this amazing creature. The cave had remained undisturbed and the population seemed to be static. It is our hope that it stays this way for many years.

Ray Hale is vice-chairman of the British Tarantula Society. He and his wife Angela are true arachno-hunters with expert knowledge of Alfred Russel Wallace’s life and times in the UK and the Malay Archipelago. Following in Wallace’s footsteps for many a year, both in Sarawak and in the Indonesian islands, they still hope to find ‘Wallace’s spider’, which has proven elusive to date. They have not given up their quest yet!