AN unsuspecting treasure hunter got a sinister surprise when he found a handgun and stash of live bullets hidden inside a hollowed-out tree trunk.

The gun was found in a secluded area of Langdon Nature Reserve, Laindon, by a lone “geocacher” out practising the tranquil hobby.

The revolver and the ammunition had been stuffed inside a sock and then placed in a plastic container before being concealed inside the tree near to the Plotlands area of the beauty spot, off Lower Dunton Road.

Geocaching – which is popular with adults and children – involves participants using sat nav and GPS devices to find hidden containers and treats hidden in woodland and open spaces.

The man posted about his find on a geocaching website, saying he almost “had a heart attack” when he pulled out the weapon at 4.30pm on Wednesday.

He said: “I was out by myself in Langdon Hills when my sat nav ran out of juice.

“Having a keen eye for potential cache sites, I saw a hollow tree trunk with the tell-tale signs of bark sticking out.

“I removed the bark and there it was, a very large screw-top plastic container.

“Inside was a long object covered in a sock and a large pillbox, also covered in a sock.

“Removed the socks and what did I find? A revolver and about 30 live bullets!”

He alerted the police and an armed response unit was sent to the reserve.

A spokesman for Essex Police said the gun was recovered and is undergoing tests.

A probe into where the weapon came from is under way.

Geocaching has become increasing popular in the county, with almost 3,000 “geocaches” hidden in parks, streets, woods and public areas in Essex.

One avid geocacher from Laindon, who asked not to be named, said: “This must have been quite creepy for the man.

“A lot of young people, including Scouts and Brownies, are into geocaching so I’m just pleased it wasn’t them who found the gun.”

Michelle Hopkins, who works for Essex Country Park and helps run geocaching activities, said: “I heard about this incident on a geocaching website. It’s very unusual.

“People shouldn’t worry that geocaching isn’t safe. It’s just this man was out and looking around when he came across the gun. It wasn’t connected to the sport.”

Geocaching fans have been speculating about the handgun find on online forums, with one saying: “I reckon the Krays had something to do with it as the Plotlands was a local holiday retreat for East Enders after the war.”