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Where Lions Roam Free

If there’s a heaven, I’m sure it’s a place where giraffes glide by beyond the forest, where herds of elephants lumber down trails flattened by their massive footsteps and where the amber eyes of lions speckle the night.

It would be a land of bird sounds and animal noises, of leopards prowling through seas of grass and of twilights as long and sweet as a lingering kiss.

That kind of heaven would be the spiritual essence of Africa and Patrick Pape would surely be there. He understood with childlike grace the depth and beauty of the land he loved beyond the routes of the tourists he led.

The son of British expatriates, Pape was born in Kenya and grew up to lead safaris through the plains and forests he had roamed as a child, as much a part of Africa’s wonder as the wildlife he deeply respected.

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I met him years ago and wondered how a man so soft-spoken and gentle could be so integral a part of an environment that existed on a cycle of predator and prey, where death could be sudden and savage.

But I came to understand that he considered himself a guest in the kingdom of the lion, and his deference was a sign of homage to the free-flowing life that surrounded him.

It was fitting that when he died recently at age 52, they would scatter his ashes over this vast and haunting kingdom to make him an eternal part of the cycle that is and will always be Africa.

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I wrote about Pape 18 months ago. It was a love story of sorts, of two people in pain meeting at a camp in Africa and finding in each other the magical qualities that lovers seek.

Susan Brenneman, a woman of culture who once soloed for the San Diego Master Chorale, was coming away from the end of a 20-year marriage. Pape, also recently divorced, had been diagnosed with skin cancer.

She was in Africa with her brother, Dr. Charles Steinmann, a Laguna Beach anesthesiologist, and his wife, Pat, a surgical nurse, who wanted to get Brenneman “away from it all.” One of their stops was at a camp led by Pape.

There was instant chemistry between the rough-hewn safari leader and the willowy blond. Pape made her laugh. He shared with her the glories of his Africa in a way that was both moving and meaningful.

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“I wanted it to be real,” Pape said to me months later in the Laguna Beach home of Charles and Pat Steinmann, “but how could it be? Thousands of miles separated us. She was a lady and I was a bushman.”

The miles and the differences dissolved in the closeness they shared. Their relationship offered more than love. Pape’s cancer had recurred and he was without the funds or insurance to have it treated. Dr. Steinmann offered to see that he got free medical help if he would come to California.

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Pape left Africa for only the third time in his life, a man at home with roaring lions who was terrified by roaring traffic. He longed for the open country every moment he was here.

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But cancer surgery seemed successful and when he returned to Africa, Susan Brenneman, the new love of his life, went with him. Months later, they would return again to the Steinmann home, but this time it was to be married.

I felt close to Pape because I was mesmerized by a trip to Africa that found my wife and I in his care. She had to talk me into taking the safari, but once in Kenya I too fell in love with the wonders I viewed through Pape’s eyes. Africa will always be a part of me.

Last year, when the bushman and the lady returned to Laguna Beach to marry, we were there and I wrote about the culmination of a love story more soft and real than anything Isak Dinesen could have ever imagined in “Out of Africa.”

But life doesn’t always emulate fairy tales. Love stories don’t always have happy endings. Pape’s cancer had spread to his carotid artery. A final medical diagnosis determined that it was terminal.

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I saw him for the last time two months ago at a restaurant in Long Beach. It was our goodbye. He was in pain, but the essence that was this gentle man remained. If he seemed distant, it wasn’t because death’s shadow was darkening his eyes. It was because Africa was on his mind.

As we parted, he smiled slightly, the smile I had come to recognize at peace in the kingdom of the lion, and said, “Well, I’ll see you in heaven.”

He’s there now, where a soft wind blows down the Aberdare Mountains and across the endless savannas of the Masai Mara.

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Al Martinez’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com.


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