Most people never realize a real African experience is as close as Northern California’s Napa County. Unlike many of the drive-through “wildlife safari” parks, Safari West is the real deal. With nearly a square mile of habitat, in which African wildlife roams freely, as well as giraffe, free-flight aviaries, monkeys, lemurs, and cheetahs, Safari West is a total immersion experience. You can even stay on the site in cabins, to experience even more of its African ambiance, sleeping close to an amazing collection of wildlife that will give you the authentic sounds of Dark Continent as you drift to sleep.
When I first encountered Safari West, I was expecting something closer to a zoo or one of the standard animal parks. However, Safari West is a true African wildlife sanctuary, and participates in breeding programs and helps maintain healthy populations of animals that are having issues in their native habitats, which are then used to help populations in the wild on their home continent. California is an ideal place, as it has ecology similar to where these animals live in Africa.
When you sign up to go on one of their safaris, you are assigned to a vintage Range Rover, which might have actually seen service in Africa. You can sit inside, or up on top of the cab, for the best view. I definitely recommend sitting topside, which brings you almost within reach of the giraffes! Many of the guides have actually lived in Africa, working with the wildlife in their native habitat, and are incredibly knowledgeable.
The first stop for your safari group is the giraffe paddock. Giraffes are rather delicate creatures, given to joint problems, our guide explained, so they keep them closer, where they can keep an eye on them. They actually chew their cud, so you can watch a tennis-ball-sized lump move up and down their neck, as they swallow, then regurgitate, to chew on it some more. After the giraffes, it’s out into the wild! You pass through a fence, and head out to find free-ranging wildlife such as Watusi cattle, gazelle, and zebra amid the oak woodlands and grassy savanna.
It’s a bit more challenging than you might think, as the animals move around the property, and behave naturally, so you might drive around for a while before finding any of the wild residents—rather like a real safari! Expect to find anything from zebra to eland, to ostriches to cape buffalo. Our guide warned us to be sure to stay inside the vehicle and not do anything to provoke the cape buffalo. They are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, and are known to kill people. We were happy to obey, and stay in the Range Rover! We moved through a number of habitats, finding slumbering Watusi cattle, antelope, and mountain zebra. Mountain zebra are not the standard zebra we all know, having shadow stripes of gray and brown, to help them better blend into the forests. Even looking directly at them, they were hard to see under the trees. As we drove, we passed through a number of discrete gates, which keep animals that might not get along from encountering each other too closely.
The tour takes several hours, and gives you a real feel for the wildlife. Once you return back to the center, you can see exotic birds in free flight aviaries, hobnob with macaws, or watch lemurs leaping from branch to branch on their own island. There are also several “ambassador cheetahs.” These gorgeous big cats range through huge enclosures, checking out visitors and nearby wildlife. You can learn more about these endangered animals, or even arrange a behind-the-scenes tour. I like to spend time with the lemurs, little stuffed-animal fluffy primates who are always the epitome of cuteness.
I have returned several times since that initial safari, always finding something new to see and do. On my to-do list is actually staying in one of the tent cabins offered by the park. These actual African tents feature luxury accommodations, and a chance to be close to the wildlife, literally allowing you to wake up with the sounds of Africa right outside. If tents aren’t your style, they offer cottages, as well.
They also offer an assortment of special events, such as their “Wild Nights in Wine Country,” including accommodations, a safari, dinner in their Savanna Café, and wine tasting at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. There are also romantic getaway packages, and special events for holidays such as Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. You might even want to join the Safari West Wildlife Foundation, a 501(c ) nonprofit dedicated to wildlife protection and preservation.
So if you want to get wild in Wine Country, stop by Safari West! As they say on their web site, “a sip of chardonnay pairs well with a spot of cheetah!”
3115 Porter Creek Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
Phone: (707) 579-2551; 1 (800) 616-2695