The entrance to the limestone cave near Kudeng Rim village was small and easy to miss. A shallow indentation in an outcropping next to a dirt road, it appeared to only go a few meters back and then end in reddish, friable, limestone. Had I not been told what it was beforehand, I probably would have passed by without thinking anything of it. Even now I was less than confident that this was the way into anything more than a dusty, weed-choked crack in the side of a rock wall.

But then I stepped forward and, pushing aside the undergrowth that partially obscured the entrance, felt a cool draft coming up out of the rocks. This meant that somewhere ahead of me in the limestone was a large chamber. Forcing my way beyond the weeds, I saw that the growth had hidden a slope down into the indentation, which, now that I was in it, appeared much larger than it had from the road. Ahead there was only red stone, but to the left there was a narrow passageway with light from outside shining in through several small openings, while to the right there was a way down into blackness, from which issued the draft, and also, faintly, the sound of a distant river somewhere far below.

And so now the question: Do I proceed? Do I go down, alone, into that black watery place, or do I take the sensible course and retreat into the sunlight?

The depths of caves are alien places, where all of the normal reference points of human existence are shut out. There is no cycle of night and day, no change of seasons, no plants, and few animals beyond the zone where the last weak, murky, rays of sunshine reach. The pale life forms that have adapted themselves to living in the lightless conditions serve only to heighten how very different the underground truly is.

But perhaps it was that sense of entering a different world, however dangerous and bizarre, which drew me into the darkness.  I simply had to go around the bend to see what was below.  Clambering down a few meters to the edge of the sunlight coming in from the entrance, the river became more audible. The noise of the waters traveled up through the unseen passages, bouncing off the contours of the stone and becoming distorted.

I resolved to descend into the darkness, but not far.

Cave entrance

Switching on my headlamp, I turned to the right, into the black. Rounding the corner, I was immediately presented with a passage heading straight down. The air became moist and developed a muddy smell. My light cut a misty beam through the darkness.

It was clear that the as yet unseen river was somewhere below, in a larger tunnel, and the passage I had entered the cave by was only an offshoot of this primary corridor. The chamber I was in was not wide. Protruding in from either side were a series of thin, smoothly worn, limestone shelves, with spaces in-between them at strangely regular intervals. The only way to gain the lower passage was to climb down these, with one foot on one side, one on the other, the light of my headlamp not strong enough to illuminate what was below.

It did not take long to climb to the termination of the shelved passage. It opened out into a much larger room with a high ceiling. Perhaps fifteen feet below me was the river. It was closer than I had thought, but also deeper; the rays of my headlamp didn’t reach the bottom of the murky water. Looking upstream, I could only see a short distance. Several secondary tunnels, tributaries of the main river which now were dry but were probably significant streams in the monsoon season, led in from the sides.

The tunnel must have gone on a great distance, far back into the stone of Riwar. I could hear the unsettling, almost human-sounding echoes of the water far away in the darkness.  The ceiling was high above me, the walls of the chamber curving in towards each other as they went up, though there was a narrow space at the roof of the tunnel, only a few inches wide, where the sides failed to meet. Beyond this opening, just barely visible in the beam of the headlamp, was another, older, tunnel which the stream had once flowed through before it cut its way down through the crack and widened out the space below.

I climbed slowly down the side of the wall to the river. The edge of the stream was nothing more than a sloping, inches-wide projection of limestone. Keeping myself out of the water meant gripping the side of the rock wall. Pointing the beam down into the water, I saw a small white cave fish swimming around, though the floor of the river was still unseen.

As scary as this place was, I couldn’t help but be excited at the thought of exploring it and venturing further into the inky unknown. A tremendous idea popped into my head. It seemed as though the water was more than deep enough to swim in. I could simply jump in, swim upriver, and find whatever there was to find there. This would, of course, mean that I would have to keep my head above the water to prevent my headlamp from shorting out. And it would also, of course, mean that I would be placing myself at a very real risk of being plunged into absolute pitch darkness, deep underground, in a place where nobody would know to look for me, from which I might not be able to escape….

On second thought, perhaps it wasn’t such a hot idea.

There is a point at which adventurousness verges over into stupidity. Recognizing it is critical. 

While swimming upstream would have just been, in the final analysis, dumb, there was another possibility for exploration, namely, to head downriver, where the main chamber seemed to widen out. Hugging the side of the limestone wall, I made my way a short distance forward. The river here became shallower and noisier, and then suddenly vanished. Down it went into a crack in the limestone floor of the cave, draining into an unseen chamber below.  Where the stream goes from there I suspect no one has ever been, at least until it emerges out into the sunlit jungle on its way down to the river Amshkar.

But ahead, the primary chamber continued, though now many more side tunnels came in from several directions.  The floor of the cavern, rather than consisting of smoothly eroded limestone, was covered in sand and broken rock.

Something in the distance then caught my attention. Beyond the reach of my headlamp, studded through the darkness like stars, were many small sparkling points of illumination. Some were green, others were purplish, but they were all uncannily bright. It was like seeing electric lights on a dark night, shining miles and miles away.

They must have been reflections of my headlamp, even though they were at a sufficient distance that the walls around them were still entirely dark to my eyes. The strange objects almost appeared as though they were giving off their own light.

I really had no idea what I was looking at. Having been in several limestone caves in Meghalaya before, this was something new.  Determined to figure out what the lights were, I picked a particularly bright example and started to walk towards it. As I approached, the rough, rocky wall around the light was very slowly revealed. Coming closer and closer, I found that the light stood out more when it was in the dimmer fringes of the circle of illumination from my headlamp. But, even when I was within a few feet of the wall and could see the light almost directly in front of me, I still had no idea what it was.

There was a rounded indentation in the limestone, which was eroded back perhaps two or three feet into the rock, and the mysterious light seemed to be on the upper edge of this hollow. Trying to get another angle on the unknown object, I bent down and looked up towards the top of the indentation. What I saw was something both beautiful and horrifying. There, clinging to the stone, was by far the largest spider I had ever come across. 

Before that day, I hadn’t even known that it was possible for spiders to grow as huge as the beast before my eyes.

Giant huntsman spider. This guy was somewhere around 10-12 inches from leg tip to leg tip.

Meghalaya, particularly at the tail end of the rainy season, is an incredible place to encounter massive arachnids. A walk through the jungle may allow one to see hundreds of giant golden orb weaver spiders, monsters in their own right, sometimes known to capture small birds and snakes in their huge webs. Yet every golden orb weaver I had ever seen was dwarfed by this cave giant. It looked to be at least eleven inches across, from leg tip to leg tip. The body of the creature, though it would have seemed large if it had been the body of any other spider, appeared disproportionately small compared to the amazingly long legs. Each one of the eight appendages was farther across than the entire bodies of most other spiders. The creature was brightly colored with alternating yellow and black bands. 

Now I knew what caused the strange light: It was the reflection of my headlamp in the eight twinkling eyes of this beautiful monstrosity. I hadn’t been able to see the rest of the animal because its face had been angled directly towards me, its body clinging to the top of the indentation. Despite usually not being at all worried by spiders, the thought that I was down there in the pitch darkness being stared down by several of these vast glowing-eyed arachnids, having the closest experience one can have to visiting Shilob’s layer, really did give me the chills. Your average arachnophobe’s worst nightmare is probably far less frightening than the reality I faced. The image came into my mind of one of the spiders jumping off the side of the wall and clinging to the front of my head like the face huggers from the Alien franchise.

It was with some difficulty that I managed to get a few (blurry) photos of the animals, though the pictures are sadly lacking any sense of scale. Researching the creatures later, I learned that they were a variety of huntsman spider. One very recently discovered species of this family, the limestone cave-dwelling Laotian giant huntsman, is the world’s largest known true spider in terms of leg span, and it seems that the animals I had stumbled into in Northeast India, living as they did in an almost identical environment as their Laotian cousins, were a very similar commodity.

When I came too close to the huntsman on the roof of the indentation, the beast suddenly, and surprisingly quickly for such a large animal, scuttled away with an unusual crablike sort of locomotion. I had never seen a spider which moved liked that, and I also remember quite clearly that when it ran off, I could hear its leg tips pounding against the limestone.

Huntsman spiders are not web builders. Instead of trapping their prey and killing it once it’s been immobilized in sticky silk, they run their meals down, capture them in their long legs, and kill them with their powerful jaws. In short, they are formidable creatures.

I looked ahead now. The passage I was in narrowed and made a sharp right turn. It looked like I might still be able to continue some distance, though it would mean some scrambling.

But also ahead were many more hungry glinting spider eyes. I could proceed, but moving forward would mean placing my hands and feet in many a crack, crevasse, or hole, in any of which there could have been one of the giant arthropods. While the bite of a huntsman spider is harmless to a human (beyond simply being painful, given the size of the animal‘s jaws), I didn’t know that then, and had no intention of  finding out what the sensation of being chomped upon by a giant arachnid was like.

 In short, it was high time to retreat to the world of the living.

Go here to read the rest of The Green Unknown

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This is what the huntsman spiders sing

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