I had seen the Big Five before I knew what they were. It happened Wednesday January 28th at 5:50pm in Kruger National Park in South Africa, the moment I caught sight of a leopard — the last of the “Five” — hidden in the grass and about to pounce on an African gazelle. I had spent almost two full days scanning the horizon from our ten-person open-top safari Jeep, seeing zebras, giraffes, hippopotamuses, baboons, wildebeests, impalas, wart hogs, vultures, hawks, and the other Big Four — lions, elephants, water buffalo and cheetahs. I really hadn’t been paying attention to what the Big Five were, too enraptured by the sunsets and the blue sky, the peaceful coexistence of zebras and warthogs and impalas grazing together — and an inexplicable affinity for a chicken-like bird with a huge red eye spot that would suicidally cross the road. Don’t ask why.
I might have overlooked this Big Five thing entirely, had not the manager of our lodge that evening asked a British couple in our Jeep how our magnificent day had been. “It was pretty disappointing,” the glum bride-to-be replied. “We missed seeing the leopard, which ran away before we could spot it. So we only saw four of the Big Five.”
I thought about her comment the next two days of my safari trip. I thought about it when I was back in New York last month, listening as people shared their concerns about their careers. It echoed in the back of my mind when talking to friends about failing relationships, about challenging grad school applications, nerve-wracking job applications, indeterminate health checkups, volatile pension savings. It seemed everywhere there were people looking for, and just missing, elements of their own Big Five, whatever they were — career, family, love, health, house, finances, future.
And yet, despite this financial crisis, despite illness, and breakups, and losing jobs and identities, so many of you, unlike the British couple, have found the good in all this. You’ve come to appreciate the blueness of the wide open sky, and the vividness of the sunsets. You’ve found your red-eyed chicken. You’ve deepened your friendship with your fellow travellers.
Look, I am glad that we have the Big Five to look for: it’s a great excuse to go on safari.
But I guess I’m not too bothered if we don’t spot that last leopard. In the end, I just really enjoy being here, watching chickens cross the road, spending time with you on this ride together.