As though traversing invisible tight ropes our arms flailed wildly as the force of the current pushed the water high up over our thighs and the rounded boulders of the river bed rolled treacherously beneath our bruised bare feet.
Ahead of us, beyond the far bank, wisps of cloud snagged in the tree tops which blanketed the precipitous muddy slopes of the Arfak Mountains.
There were five of us in the group and we had travelled from all around the globe to this remote region of Western Papua in the hope of seeing some of the most exotic, flamboyant and colourful birds on the face of the Earth. We had all met for the very first time only hours earlier but it was already evident that the beginnings of lifelong friendships were being forged. As experienced birders the others were all united by their common passion. They recognised each other as members of the same family whereas I, as a rank beginner, was inevitably somewhat peripheral to the party. I was perfectly welcome but, like a stranger at a wedding, I couldn't help feeling I did not really belong.
Suddenly Tony, playing point man, signalled a halt by very, very slowly raising his hand.
Immediately everyone stopped dead and like a well drilled military unit four pairs of binoculars were raised and began to methodically scan the impenetrable green screen ahead of us.
They could not believe their luck.
The bird that had just darted in to the foliage in front of us was one of the birds they had come all this way to see.
This was a bird that should only ever be glimpsed in the dark depths of the forest, far from the eyes of men and not here, close enough to civilisation to still be disturbed by the distant whine of a chain saw.
Despite standing as still and as silent as statues, my companions’ sense of excitement was palpable.
While I was catching tantalizing glimpses of what appeared to be a little red bird with bright blue legs they gave the impression of witnessing something more legendary than real; a Phoenix or a real live Liver Bird perhaps.
Whatever it was, it hopped along its branch, teasing us with the prospect of revealing itself in all its glory, unobstructed by the surrounding foliage but while my newfound companions all held their breath I fought for mine.
I sucked furiously on a sweet and prayed.
But I knew it was hopeless.
My cough erupted from the back of my throat like the bark of a dog and immediately, with an audible whirr, the little red bird transformed itself back into the realm of the imaginary leaving behind nothing more tangible than a sudden streak of scarlet.
Everyone reacted differently.
Strictly speaking Chris didn’t react at all. Like a life sized manikin he stubbornly maintained his stance, his arms locked at the elbows and his bins pressed firmly to his eyes.
Michael was slightly more animated. He screwed his eyes tight shut, tilted his head back and offered a silent oath to the heavens exactly as if he had trapped his fingers in a door.
Tony’s face was a mask of contempt. His eyes bulged as he searched my expression for the merest inkling of intent.
There was nothing I could say.
No words could undo the hurt.
After a moment we all set off once more and I followed as they disappeared in to the still darkness of the forest.
For the next two weeks we spent every minute of every day together.
Every dawn saw us break camp and every waking hour was spent searching until the light failed but we never ever did see another King Bird of Paradise and now I don’t imagine any of us ever will.
Even now, all these years later, I don’t know if they ever did truly forgive me but I do know, even if they don’t remember my name, they will never, ever forget me.