Before my first trip to Africa, in 2006, I’d read a number of anecdotes in magazines and online promising, or perhaps warning, that once you’d been on a safari, you’d never be the same. I wasn’t sure then how that could be true, but it wasn’t long before I found out.
That first morning, at Phinda Private Game Reserve, our safari truck had slowly bounced, creaked, and rattled over ruts, rocks, and mounds of hardened earth. Under white-gray skies, we’d crept alongside grazing giraffes, and we’d watched elephants lumber lazily through the bush, rapt in our soft leather seats. Every twig that snapped under their wide, flat feet cracked like a shot through the stony silence. I thought, This is a different world than the one I’ve always known.
Some time into that game drive, our ranger’s radio crackled to life, and the hushed voice of another hissed over the airwaves—Head this way! We have a lion! My skin instantly grew tight with goosebumps, and my lungs, on reflex, expelled every ounce of air they’d held. This was it—the reason we were here. Changing course, we abandoned the zig-zagging path we’d favored all morning and took the straightest one possible to the spot from where the call had come. Our ranger cut the engine, and we idled into the grassy clearing. And there, through the grass, he sprouted into view, bit by achingly beautiful bit. First, a few tufts of his black and honey mane. Then, the amber eyes, narrowed but knowing. His massive, smiling muzzle fell into view next, and then those hulking, heavy paws. He was not only magnificent, but miraculous.
I don’t know how long we sat there, holding the big cat in our gaze, but it was enough time for the understanding to sink in that I am just a guest in this life, a very small part of The Plan. I returned to our camp that morning, and, later, home to the U.S., a different person than the one who’d set out before sunrise. And I’ve carried that awareness—how precious this life is—with me ever since.
My guess is that hundreds—more probably, thousands—of travelers have had their own transformative moment in the Zimbabwe bush and that, for them, it might have been Cecil they shared it with. And I bet that, like me, they’ll never forget how a great cat changed the way they look at life. That Cecil lost his the way he did is cruelly ironic, but I choose to think that he changed so many travelers’ lives for the better before he left.
Update: Taking a page from Jimmy Kimmel‘s book, if you’d like to make a donation to WildCRU, the Oxford University organization that was studying Cecil at the time of death in its conservation efforts, head over here.