Story by April Rosenthal
Photos by Paul Rosenthal
You wake up to the sound of exotic animal cries that start out low in pitch then crescendoing. You roll out of your deep, soft bedding in a wooden bed carved with figures of Masai warriors onto a cold, smooth hardwood floor.
You look out of your South African tent-cabin to see the first light of day breaking over the golden hills. There is movement a few hundred yards beyond your mesh-screened window. You see a statuesque figure on four long, stilt-like legs ambling gracefully toward a smaller creature of similar build lying down on the plains stretched out before you.
As the bright light of morning captures the scene, it highlights the female giraffe gently nudging her two-week-old baby. Other creatures seem to come to life in this surreal picture as the sun continues to rise. A blue wildebeest, a camel, a few sable antelope, and a herd of endangered white addax. You know this isn't going to be an ordinary day.
Sleepy children are roused and perk up quickly when reminded of where they are. Everyone takes turns getting ready for the day in the cabin's bathroom complete with hot shower, sink, all the comforts of home, with madrone branches for towel racks which also adorn the ceiling, decoratively supporting light fixtures.
The family eagerly heads out the door and down the dirt road past the dozen or so giraffes and various other African fauna. The children stop as one of the adult giraffes nuzzles them in the hopes of a corn stalk leaf. Behind us a serval big cat with bat-like ears surveys the scene.
Going to breakfast in the Savannah Cafe, seeing ostrich eggs lying about and wondering if that is the morning fare, you have to remind yourself that you are not in Africa. An endangered Great Indian Hornbill hops up onto a long redwood table beside you hoping for a blackberry. This is even better than anything you ever imagined Africa to be and you don't even need a passport. This is, in fact, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Safari West is a one-of-a-kind 400-acre African wild animal preserve only six hours from Brookings. It is home to black and white ruffled and ring-tailed lemurs, cheetahs, impalas, zebra, warthogs, African porcupines, Thompson's gazelles, and fearless cape buffalo, to name of few of the animals.
It has vast numbers of birds like African spoonbills, East African crowned cranes, Egyptian geese, sacred ibis, and white-faced whistling ducks, among many other African species, some of which are endangered or extinct in the wild.
These animals move freely on the preserve, interacting much as they would in the wild.
The Safari West concept began in 1978 when Peter Lang decided to relocate his herd of elands away from the encroachment of Beverly Hills. He found the current 400-acre parcel between the Napa and Sonoma valleys to have much in common with South African topography.
Here his elands did indeed flourish and grow and soon Lang added others to his menagerie. He married Nancy Schoffield, curator at the San Francisco Zoo for 20 years, and together they now own and operate the most unique African wildlife preserve in North America.
This premier safari park offers a deluxe camping overnight adventure, with accommodations in 31 authentic South African tent cabins for up to five people and a cottage for eight. Continental breakfast is included with the price of accommodations. Gourmet wine country lunches and dinners can be pre-arranged and are served buffet-style beside a huge open-pit barbeque.
South African wines are featured as well as delicious white and red homemade sangrias. Tradition at Safari West dinners, even after a desert of pie, cobbler, cake or ice cream involving native seasonal fruit, includes gathering around the barbeque pit to craft your own s'mores.
It is a memorable picture to see children and adults surrounding the barbeque, toasting marshmallows, while the fire of the barbecue lights up the cut-outs of African animals in the wrought iron housing the pit.
A big emphasis of the African-inspired wonderland is education about the importance of conservation and fostering an appreciation of all creatures, especially to Safari West's primary VIP guests - children.
Safari tours are given by naturalists in the same type of military jeeps used in African safaris, with seating for four atop the roof, which children and photographers go wild over.
The tours are two hours long and include a walking tour of the open-air aviary filled with exotic species.
Rangers regale you with stories like the one about the cape buffalo while you drive within a few dozen feet of five of them, including a baby about 2 months old. The cape buffalo are the most fearless animals of Africa. They never turn away from a predator and often charge when approached or are being cut off from the herd.
They are as fearsome as the ultimate predator in Africa - the lion. In fact, it oftentimes takes two lions to bring down a cape buffalo. There are only 31 in North America - five of them at Safari West.
Other stories include why color is so important to African animals. The blue wildebeest is a creature the Masai say andquot;God threw together using spare parts.andquot; On observation they do appear oddly proportioned.
The wildebeest's young are born brown to blend in with the environment, and are, therefore, more protected from predators.
Another favorite example of camouflage is the greater kudu, a tan-colored antelope-like animal with streaks of white running vertically through its coat, simulating sunlight streaming through the forest.
The lemurs are truly fascinating creatures that capture the imagination and are popular with children. They are the acrobats of Africa, seeming to fly through the air from tree branch to bush, then back again. The rangers teach that black and white ruffed and ring-tailed lemurs are found native to only one place on earth - Madagascar.
Both species are endangered but flourish at Safari West, as many young are born there. Children are mesmerized by the movements of these magnificent creatures, captivated in a way no television can rival.
Private sunset safari tours can be arranged with picnic baskets of wine, cheese, fruit, and juice for the children.
The rough ride over some deep ruts in the dusty roads of the 400 acres of Sonoma backcountry makes the Indiana Jones Ride at Disneyland seem like a andquot;walk in the park.andquot; Other treats the resort offers are Swedish massage with pressure point therapy and reflexology in your own tent cabin. Also photo sessions with cheetahs, lemurs, porcupines, fennec foxes, or any new baby born on the preserve, are possible for families, groups, or individuals.
The staff at Safari West do request andquot;absolutely no running, growling, leaping, throwing, taunting or loudness anywhere near the cheetah enclosure.andquot; A special moment was posing for a photo with Gijima, a 2-year-old, 105 pound cheetah. Her deep, guttural purr could be felt under our hands as well as heard, as we were instructed to lay our hands upon her, not stroke her which might agitate her.
Our daughter was allowed to hold her favorite of the creatures - a fennec fox baby, barely 2 months old.
This is the ultimate place for wildlife enthusiasts and anyone seeking adventure.
Family would find this a perfect reunion venue. Corporate gatherings can be planned here for getting away from it all and finding fresh perspectives (they advertise andquot;sterileandquot; meeting rooms.) It's a great place for honeymoons or romantic getaways, without TV, radio, or phones in rooms to distract from this unique experience.
For information, contact Safari West Wildlife Preserve and Tent Camp at (800) 616-2695 or, as they say, andquot;take a trekandquot; to their Web site at http://www.safariwest.com .