I am falling asleep to the exotic calls of wild animals from the comfort of an authentic safari bush tent. But I am not in Africa. I am about 65 miles north of San Francisco at Safari West in Santa Rosa.
Yes. Santa Rosa--the only place in North America where you will find such accommodations. And there are plenty of animals--gazelles, wildebeest, and curved-horn ouodads among them--but no man-eating lions or body-flattening elephants to cause concern. Some, like the addax antelope and scimitar-horned oryx, are actually extinct now in the wild.
How, you might wonder, did an African compound filled with exotic wild animals find itself in California's Wine Country?
It began over 17 years ago as the dream of Nancy Lang (a former curator at the San Francisco Zoo) and her husband Peter Lang (his father, Otto Lang, directed "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"), who decided to devote their lives to preserving African species. Their 400-acre compound now holds more than 350 rare and endangered African animals and birds. Public tours help pay the dedicated guides and workers and help finance the great expense incurred in maintaining their beloved menagerie-the animals' monthly feed bill runs more than $10,000. Nancy and Peter tend to sick and injured animals as lovingly as if they were their offspring, and it is a testimonial to their dedication that Safari West is one of only six private facilities in North America to attain membership in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
But sometimes the animals get confused about just who their parents are. During my visit, a young helper named Kim was seen wandering about followed by Thandi--a baby zebra who was temporarily without her own mother.
True to Safari West's goal of propagating endangered species, eventually most of the animals move on to zoos where they help promote healthy breeding.
We arrived in early afternoon to check in and prepare for a 3 p.m. safari tour. After being delivered by golf cart to an attractive hillside tent set back among some mature, lichen-covered oak trees, we rested for a while, observing through our mesh "windows" the unbelievable sight of several giraffes loping across the parched expanse below (for safety's sake, they are penned).
Delightfully simple in design, our tent had nice hardwood floors and a log bed frame and some other furniture made from local woods. The thoroughly civilized bathroom had slate floors and a canvas ceiling with mesh sides to let air in and keep insects out. There was no TV or phone.
After gathering in a shady reception area, where several colorful parrots held court to a rapt group of admirers, we piled into an authentic four-wheel-drive safari tour vehicle. Several agile participants climbed up into the seat mounted above the driver for a bird's eye view of the sights.
The tour began with a visit to the large penned grazing area closest to the compound, where roam the reticulated and Masai giraffes, some feather-fluttering ostriches, and a herd of African antelope. This area also holds Peter and Allie, two dromedary camels who were once rides at the Fresno Zoo. We also saw a newborn Impala and, in another pen, some Cape buffalo.
We then moved on to another vast enclosure where we encountered a herd of enormous, impressively-horned Watusi cattle. We learned that Africa's Masai people rarely sacrifice a live cow. Instead, they prepare something called a "Masai cocktail" as their primary source of protein. It is composed of the blood, milk, and urine of these cattle. Fortunately, we weren't thirsty.
In another area we got up close to a herd of zebras. While we were snapping away with our cameras, our enthusiastic guide provided interesting details.
Back at the main compound, after refreshing ourselves with a snack of juicy watermelon slices, we headed off on foot to view some caged smaller animals, including ruffed lemurs from Madagascar and several gold-tipped African crested porcupines. We also entered a large aviary holding a rare and endangered bird collection that includes pink roseate spoonbills, scarlet ibises, and dark-blue Victoria crowned pigeons.
As the day guests departed for home we overnighters headed up the dusty path to our tents to freshen up for dinner, stopping along the way to visit the giraffes who were gathered by the fence.
Appetizers were served as guests assembled, followed by dinner in a vast, rustic dining room cooled by ceiling fans and furnished with massive wood-slab tables and comfy canvas chairs. The buffet consisted of delicious barbecued ribs and chicken, a salad, and corn on the cob. Substitute zebra mommy Kim stopped the show when she walked in followed by her darling black-and-white baby. They both stayed for dinner.
Though we all started out seated at different tables, by the time the apple pie a la mode arrived we had moved together to a central table to swap stories with Nancy. Peter departed earlier to do chores.
Sated, we gathered again in the central compound to take pictures of Delilah, a tame Indian hornbill who hops around the area unrestrained.
All too soon it was dark and time to head off to bed, where we were lulled to sleep by a cacophony of crickets and the intermittent grunt from an unknown wild beast.
After a restless night brought on by the day's excitement and the sound of passing road traffic reminding me that I wasn't actually in the bush, I finally fell into a deep sleep just before daybreak and missed the sound of birds singing back and forth at dawn. My husband says it was magnificent.
A basket filled with pastries, yogurt, fruit salad, orange juice, and coffee was delivered to our deck, where we basked in the warm morning while reading the newspaper.
As we departed to visit a few wineries in the area before driving home, we noticed the phrase "Kwaheri rafiki" on the exit gate. In Swahili it means, "Come back, friend." What a delightful good-bye.