There are sounds of the jungle just outside your tent's thin canvas walls, the incessant birds, the occasional shriek by creature unknown, the rustling of trees. You're frozen in place under your warm blankets not anxious to stick your head out of the tent door because you don't know what might happen to lunge at you from the darkness. It sure would be good to have that bear gun cocked and loaded but, of course, you don't.
One reason you don't is that the owners of Safari West really frown on guests bringing guns along on their weekend getaways to this unique outpost just a few miles outside of Santa Rosa, California. The other reason is that none of the wildlife you hear during your overnight stay is going to get you. All the really dangerous animals are fenced off or caged. But that in no way diminishes the feeling that you are well, on safari.
By day, Safari West is a beehive of activity with numerous day visitors and tours, especially on weekends. By night, Safari West turns to black with absolutely no outside lighting to spoil the illusion you are in Africa. Guests are advised to bring flashlights if they plan to walk the grounds after dark. But the creature sounds make it clear you are not alone and we're guessing most people just hunker down after dark and read a good book.
The accommodations do lend themselves to just that. They're cozy and inviting and when we say tents, we really mean tent cabins that are tent walls erected over a solid foundation that comes complete with an indoor bathroom and shower. The big beds are warm and luxurious and the layout inside the cabins, while a bit Spartan, is really quite comfortable. No television or radio, but there are hardwood floors, a few shelves and benches and reading lights. What else do you need when you are on safari?
We arrived after dark which just added to the feeling we were some distance from civilization. We actually were only a few miles outside Santa Rosa, but the road to Safari West seems longer than it is with its twists and turns and with trees and hillsides shutting out even the stars and whatever moonlight there might have been. In darkness it's easy to drive right on by the entrance to the park but our trusty GPS alerted us that we were close. We only went by it once.
Checking in at the main gate around 9 p.m., we were greeted by what seemed like the only living soul on the premises and he quickly and helpfully packed our belongings onto his jeep and drove us to our tent cabin, one of a few dozen spread throughout the property. He loaned us flashlights, which came in handy for the exceedingly brief walk around the grounds before settling in for a night in the wild. The sounds were constant and mainly, we're told, coming from a particular type of bird. But it was not so noisy we couldn't get a comfortable night's sleep.
The next morning we awakened to a fuller sound – it was like the evening animals had been playing as a quartet but, by morning, had been joined by the full orchestra. We walked out our front door and the first thing we noticed was two giraffes, side by side, directly across the road from us, doing some sort of mating ritual or play thing with their necks. Giraffes, if you've spent any time with them, are incredibly tall animals and they seemed to tower over the fence that was separating them from us. But since we haven't heard too many stories about man-eating giraffes, this was not of major concern.
The sheer size of them, however, made this feel like a kind of Giraffic Park and our movie memories were brought to mind once again as we hopped on board one of the Safari West tour vehicles to be driven out into the furthest reaches of the park where we would observe wild animals in their own habitat doing their own thing, as it were. Maybe you remember what happened to those people in the movie who thought they could get up-close and personal with dinosaurs.
Fortunately, no dinosaurs here – just creatures like the cape buffalo and the rhinos, who both seemed to be on their best behavior as our informative guide parked our two-level jeep-style safari vehicle where we could observe the goings-on. The park has 85 species of animals altogether, 700 individual animals, roaming on more than 400 acres of hills and forests. The mammals are all native to Africa, while the birds come from different places all over the globe. There are no lions, tigers and bears but there are cheetah, lemur, zebras and many other fascinating species.
The two-hour tour goes by quickly and the safari vehicle takes you through some rugged back country where the animals you see can vary from tour to tour. It just depends on which ones are out in the more visible areas. For example, the zebras are often congregating well off the tour path but the day of our tour there were more than a dozen we spotted in different locations.
As you can imagine, it had to take some effort to put all of this together – to buy the land and animals, build the structures and hire knowledgeable staff. The owners are Nancy and Peter Lang and it's interesting to note that Peter has a connection with animals dating back to the television shows his father, Otto Lang, once directed. Those shows included Sea Hunt, Daktari and Flipper, among others. Peter met Nancy – where else -- while on an African safari and, at the time, she was the curator of the San Francisco Zoo's avian collection. And, if you'll pardon just one more reference to Jurassic Park, Nancy happens to be a raptor specialist.
The Langs chose to locate Safari West near Santa Rosa because the weather is ideal and the combination of forest and grassland is quite similar to Africa. An added bonus for visitors is that the Santa Rosa area is well known for its high-quality wineries.
Guests who stay overnight at Safari West also have dinner and breakfast on the grounds, although we arrived too late for dinner. The continental breakfast is plenty to get you going and the park also serves up sandwiches and other lunch items you can order if you're spending the day at Safari West.
In addition to the safari truck tour there are other things to do while you're staying at the park. You can make arrangements to get private access to the animals or attend educational presentations. Swedish pressure-point massage is offered and you can even go hiking with Nancy Lang around Watusi Lake.
But most of all, an overnight trip to Safari West is about the overall experience of being in the wild, sleeping with the animals almost like you would if you were on an African safari. The difference is you're never in any real danger – until, that is, Nancy figures out a way to study real, live raptors.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Santa Rosa is just 55 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 101 and is in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country. With its hills and fertile valleys, the region is one of the most beautiful in California and offers quick access to Sonoma, Napa and coastal areas.
WHAT: Safari West is an unusual opportunity to be able to visit and spend the night with wild animals and will appeal to visitors of all ages. The park's size allows it to raise and nurture a wide variety of mammals native to Africa.
WHEN: Any time of year. Be prepared for much cooler weather in the winter and the rains can be intense at times. Tours still go out on rainy days, but dress accordingly.
WHY: This is a family attraction that is both educational and easy to reach, and staying overnight at Safari West will make you feel like you're a million miles from civilization.
HOW: For more information on Safari West, visit www.safariwest.com or phone 707-579-2551.
Photos, from top: Guests enjoy ride into the back country on safari vehicle (photo courtesy Safari West); giraffes next to tent are playful; plenty of zebras on this trip into the park; tent-cabins have cozy semi-luxurious interior
Photos by CARY ORDWAY