SONOMA SAFARI

Ginger Dingus

When was the last time you saw a giraffe while you were sipping wine on your deck? We're not talking about flying off to Africa. We're talking about taking a drive to northern California's wine country.

Squawk, warble, honk, chirp, whistle, tweet. Who knew birds could make so many sounds?

Throughout the warm spring night, the avian chatter alternately rose and fell. Occasionally, I heard a piercing screech. I’m certain it wasn’t that super cute, week-old giraffe seen earlier romping close to its mom. Perhaps it was the lemur I spotted as it clambered around the tree branches. It might have been the cheetah, or a monkey, or any one of the wild critters in the surrounding hills.

Strange nocturnal noises are part of the allure of a northern California getaway to Safari West, a.k.a. Sonoma’s Serengeti. A major draw is sleeping under canvas in a genuine African safari tent, wondering which of the 900 resident African animals and birds are creating the ruckus. There’s also the thrill of riding around the 400-acre wildlife preserve in an open air jeep and looking Cape buffalo, wildebeests, rhinos, ostriches and multiple species of antelope in the eye. Imagine all this on a short car trip. No long flights to southern Africa needed.

Located in California’s prime winery region of Sonoma County, Safari West is an easy to reach—not to mention unique—overnight break from anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The ranch is the dream of Peter and Nancy Lang. Since opening in 1993, its wildlife population has grown, thanks in part to countless newly born arrivals. The tent cabins have increased as well and now number 31. Each accommodates a couple for a romantic celebration or a family on an adventure-packed vacation.

This is glamping, not roughing-it camping. Each spacious tent is set on a raised wooden platform. An outdoor deck comes in handy for savoring evening cocktails accompanied by views of giraffes and pink flamingos. Step through the tent’s solid wood front door onto the bedroom’s polished hardwood floor. Together with the cushy bed or beds, the furnishings consist of hand-hewn wooden tables and canvas chairs. Shelves showcase African pottery and carvings, such as a zebra or tribal mask.

All the little details make a big difference. In our tent, the leopard skin design on the throw rug matched the pattern on two umbrellas hanging from a tree limb rack. Creature comforts included a ceiling fan, space heater and electric blanket on the king-size bed. Screened windows could be easily opened or closed via a canvas flap attached to the tent with Velcro. A door at the rear led to a roomy, modern bathroom with ceramic tile flooring. Ample hot water flowed from the rainhead shower. Grass baskets held fluffy towels and toiletries. The only things missing were robes and slippers. Tip: bring yours from home.

Once you check out your tent, you’re free to wander. Pathways lead past fenced areas where such African species as ostrich, giraffe (everyone loves them), eland, impala and onyx roam. Bright pink flamingos gather around ponds near the Savannah Café.

At the Savannah Café, a barbeque buffet takes place each evening. Only overnight guests are invited to enjoy dinner, and reservations are essential. Our dinner began with a platter of appetizers—cheeses, crackers, nuts and olives. A delicious tomato bisque followed. The buffet featured a tossed green salad, beef brisket, chicken, mac and cheese (remember it’s a family place), mixed veggies and polenta. Being the heart of wine country, a selection of California wine and local craft beer is available from the bar. You can, if you desire, drive off the preserve to a nearby restaurant. But why interrupt the African safari ambiance? It’s not every evening strolling to dinner includes guinea fowl scuttling about your feet.

After savoring dinner and a bottle of Francis Ford Coppola Chardonnay, we returned to our tent to snuggle up in the cozy bed. An exciting safari drive, a highlight of our visit, was planned just after breakfast.

Back at the Savannah Café the next morning, breakfast was laid out buffet-style. We helped ourselves to scrambled eggs, cereals, oatmeal, yogurt, pastries, fresh fruit, fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee and tea.

At 10:00 a.m., guests gathered for the not-to-be-missed three-hour tour of the expansive wildlife preserve. We were divided into groups of about eight—adults-only and families with kids. Tours are available at scheduled times throughout the day for overnight guests as well as visitors who book in advance.

Richard Horgan, our guide, began with a brief history of Safari West, its owners and the all-important animals. Next on the agenda was a guided walk through the aviary where brilliantly hued scarlet ibis nested in the treetops and tended to hungry chicks. One curious bird, a female demoiselle crane raised by humans, seemed particularly partial to the men in our group. She tagged along and did a two-step dance when the mood struck her. Richard explained that human intervention only happens when necessary. Clearly, the human touch had altered this crane’s behavior.

As we were about to leave the aviary, our attention was directed to two foot-tall antelopes. The tiny dik-diks peered out from under a shrub, reminding me that, as in Africa, animals can be lurking anywhere. It pays to keep your eyes wide open.

We moved on to enclosures separately housing cheetahs, serval cats, monkeys and lemurs. There seemed to be no end to the variety of wildlife at Safari West.

The best was yet to come. After about an hour admiring critters, we climbed aboard a reconfigured army jeep from the 1940s. A couple celebrating their anniversary claimed the rooftop seat, braving the cold and fog in exchange for a giraffe’s eye view of the savannah.

The giraffes were the first of many stops over the two-hour safari drive. Though we were instructed not to touch, the giraffes had no problem leaning into the vehicle for close-up looks at us. We kept our distance from a pair of white rhinos as well as the Cape buffalo. Numbering around 40, this group of Cape buffalo is the largest in North America, according to Richard. He noted Safari West is about conservation and breeding of endangered species. Theirs is a success story confirmed by many young animals and recently hatched birds.

Rolling over hill and dale, our list of wildlife sightings kept growing. We added zebras, lechwes, gazelles and kudus, to name a few. What’s not here? Big cats and elephants.

By the end of the tour, I was ready to do it all over again. Luckily, with the Sonoma Serengeti practically in my backyard, going on an amazing safari is as easy as packing my duffle bag and jumping in the car.

The Nitty Gritty:

Safari West is located at 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95404, or roughly an hour’s drive north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Rates for safari tents are seasonal and range from $260-425 per night, double occupancy. Three-hour safari tours are extra.

For details and reservations, check www.safariwest.com. Call 800-616-2695 or 707-566-3667.

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