Summer on a Jungle River (Part 2)

by Alex Townsend, PVAS

The Spider and the Wasp

This probably sounds like the title of a fable or parable, but it’s actually a description of an event I witnessed one afternoon inside Sohoton Cave. As most people know, archaeologists generally excavate a site within the confines of a carefully measured grid, selecting only certain grid units, or squares, for excavation I was in the early stages of excavating one such grid square, concentrating on delimiting one strata of deposition from the next, when I suddenly found myself sharing the square with the largest spider I have ever seen in my life Actually, "sharing" is the wrong word — the spider literally jumped into one side of the shallow hole and I jumped just as quickly out the other. Not that I suffer from arachniphobia, but the span of this spider’s legs would easily have covered the palm of my hand (and they weren’t skinny legal) Clearly, though, something was wrong. This spider wasn’t so much running toward me as he was from something else — there was something in his movement that communicated a palpable fear.

The spider never made it across the square. Just as I sensed that he was fleeing from something, that "something" (in the form of a large iridescent dark blue wasp) landed on one edge of the square. Probably realizing that it could run no farther, the spider froze. The wasp took to the air, hovered briefly above the spider, and attacked. The spider, despite its greater size, was no match for the wasp who, now firmly attached to the spider’s back, quickly injected its lethal venom. And then things began to get interesting.

As you can imagine, my respect for that wasp had just grown enormously. But I was even more impressed by what happened next. As soon as it was certain of its kill, the wasp began what seemed like a ritual of sorts. Standing on the ground a few inches from its prey, it repeatedly lowered its head in several directions, each time raising its posterior, spreading its wings slightly, and emitting a loud and peculiar noise that was a combination of a buzz and a rattle. After completing this "victory dance," the wasp then grasped one of the spider’s now clenched legs and began dragging the carcass across and, with great effort, up the side of the square to the floor of the cave.

With its prize now out of the pit, the wasp began slowly dragging the spider toward the side of the cave, a distance of about twenty feet I moved closer to get a better view and quickly learned the meaning of that peculiar noise the wasp had made just after its kill. Scurrying to assume a position between the spider and myself, the wasp repeated its tail–up, head–down performance and this time its buzzing rattle translated clearly as "Back off! This one is MINE" Several times I tested the wasp’s definition of encroachment and, whenever I came within about five feet, was given another stern warning. I found it interesting that the wasp never left the ground after it killed the spider.

Eventually, the spider was dragged into a tiny crevice at the side of the cave, from which the wasp emerged only a few minutes later. This, however, was not the wasp’s burrow (I knew from earlier sightings where the wasp made its home), nor did I ever again notice the wasp entering or leaving the crevice. My assumption is that the spider may not have been a meal for the wasp at all, but perhaps a receptacle for her(?) eggs which, when they hatched, would feast upon the spider. But this is only a guess.

The Flood

The Basey River, which flowed lazily past our cabin at Panhologan, was essential to much that we did that summer. We swam and bathed in the river, we used it as a source for drinking water, and of course we used the river for transportation. We became very comfortable with the river during the first weeks of our stay. Most of all, the river just seemed to set the pulse of daily activities. But somewhere toward the middle of the summer we were witness to, and nearly became victims of, another side to the river’s personality. The contrast between the river we thought we knew, and the transmogrification wrought by a huge monsoon storm was unbelievable.

First, of course, was the rain...lots of rain. We awoke one morning to a torrential downpour, the type of rain uniquely associated with the tropics. It didn’t form puddles on the ground, but instead gave rise to myriad little rivulets, intertwining, eventually pouring into the river. This downpour lasted throughout the day and through the night. When the lantern was extinguished late that night, the river was running a bit higher and faster than normal, but there certainly was nothing to suggest cause for alarm. A few of us joked about sleeping with one arm dangling out a window so we could sound an alarm if the water threatened the cabin, but these comments were laughed aside and none of us had any trouble falling asleep.

I awoke earlier than usual the next morning, not because of the sound of the rain on the cabin’s tin roof (which actually was soothing after awhile), but because another sound, more ominous, had taken its place. What I heard, above the sounds of wind and rain, was a dull roar. Thinking that perhaps the river was running even faster, I pulled myself up from the floor to the window sill and stared in disbelief at a rushing torrent of water that had risen to within about five or six feet of the cabin floor. Altogether, the river had risen about twenty feet above its normal level since the start of the storm and almost all of that had occurred during the night. Within minutes we were up and dressed and began packing the most valuable equipment, documents, and artifacts.

It became clear as we packed that the river was still rising. One after another, more landmarks disappeared beneath the churning water In the time remaining, we hurriedly rigged safety lines from the largest trees to the mouth of Panhologan Cave, spanning a low area between the cabin and the cave that now had itself become a rising stream. As I recall, we managed to get most of our equipment and belongings across to the cave before the rising water made passage impossible. Each of us was completely drenched, of course, and the last couple of trips were possible only by holding tightly to the safety lines as the water swirled above our waists.

We spent much of the next several hours standing in the mouth of the cave, staring across the gorge as the water continued to rise, fearful that we might have to abandon even the cave and crawl up the one accessible embankment At mid–morning, however, the river reached its highest point — just inches below the bottom of the cabin and, coincidentally, the entrance to the cave. It was a strange sight, watching the water sweep smoothly through the trees and beneath our cabin while, just beyond, the water churned and rushed in a mad torrent far above the normal course of the river.

A8 the flood reached its maximum strength, the sound of the water crashing through the gorge became a deafening roar. Standing just outside the cave, shoulder to shoulder, communication was possible only by shouting as loudly as we could. A11 sound was quickly drowned in the roar that surrounded us. Entire trees, uprooted somewhere upstream and swept into the Panhologan gorge, for example, were routinely smashed against a jutting cliff on the far side of the gorge with only a few faint cracking sounds able to penetrate the roaring of the flood. There was, however, one exception — a very large tree, much larger than the others we saw go past, was carried through the gorge and pinned against the same jutting cliff. At first, the tree simply stopped moving, as if there was a stalemate between wood and rock. But after a few seconds, the tree was pulled beneath the surface and huge grotesque splinters began to burst through the waves. With a sound like a terrible shriek that cut cleanly through the roar, this giant too was torn apart and swept away downstream.

It stopped raining completely in the early afternoon and the floodwaters subsided even more quickly than they had risen. We were able to return to our cabin by the end of the day, but only with a newly acquired wariness of, and respect for, the river.

The next day was actually calm and sunny and, because our assistants were busy repairing damage to their village downstream, we were left to ourselves. Surveying the area surrounding the cabin, which had been wept clean of all debris by the flood, I discovered a tiny pool left by the receding waters. Lying in the middle of the pool was a large bright blue prawn, about six inches long. The irony was obvious — a raging flood with the power to uproot and crush huge trees had deposited, apparently unharmed, a shrimp in a tiny temporary pool. I figured the shrimp deserved a ride back to the river.

As if signaling a rebirth of the jungle after the maelstrom of the monsoon, the nights following the flood were literally alive with insect life. Our cabin, spartan as it was, had no screens on the windows and insects were free to attack our Coleman lantern at will. Most amusing were numerous iridescent green beetles, little more than an inch in length, that would come buzzing through the windows at dizzying speed and strike the hot lantern with a loud and fatal "ping." It was nights like these that I came to understand why the cabin had been built with a small gap around the circumference of its two rooms between floor and wall — when the pile of dead insects became an obstruction, it was simply swept (pushed, really) to the edge of the floor where it disappeared beneath the cabin. I still wonder how many species of insects yet unknown to science were summarily swept off the edge of our cabin floor.

Included amongst the jungle’s insect population were examples of both the beautiful and the bizarre. Of the latter, our hands–down favorite was the Coconut Beetle. These shiny black monstrosities, for those who have never seen one, have thick oval bodies perhaps two and one half inches long, matched by three curved and serrated probes of equal length that project forward from the head (one from either side and one from below). They are marvelously adapted to cutting into coconuts, probably otherwise harmless, and one of the most fearsome looking insects one could hope never to meet. We had several of them nailed to one wall of the cabin as "trophies.".

But the jungle also held more delightful surprises. One evening, while I was writing at a small makeshift desk, an immense silver moth flew slowly through the open window at my elbow and landed on my shoulder. Measuring perhaps six inches in length with wings patterned in soft iridescent silver, the moth rested for about a minute or so (long enough to pose for some photographs) and then quietly flew back into the night. We never saw another.

Therewith, memories of a summer on a jungle river. Looking back, I think that what I gained that summer, above all else, was an appreciation of the incredible variety of life in a jungle environment — of so many forms of life interacting with each other and with their physical surroundings in a dynamic, often bewildering, but incredibly beautiful complexity.