ROSA, Calif. — A dazzling herd of zebra thunder across
the valley, their stripes shimmering in the blazing sun. A
rowdy gang of Cape buffalo hold court on a hilltop and a
fuzzy baby giraffe wobbles near its mother. Cheetahs
warily prowl nearby, eyeing each other.
the wilds of Safari West, a 400-acre nature preserve
tucked amid the golden hills of Santa Rosa. The next best
thing to going on safari in Africa, this wildlife oasis is
the perfect family-friendly getaway. Riding high atop an
off-road jeep, we bounce down bumpy roads on a quest to
encounter more than 900 species of animals, from hyenas
and antelope to ostriches and rhinos. If you want to be
amazed by the dramatic spectacle of gazelles rubbing
elbows with Watusi cattle on golden rolling hillsides, as
hawks soar overhead, look no further.
day, you ride around this epic preserve, where most of the
animals roam free in vast sun-drenched enclosures. During
the three-hour tour, our guide, the redoubtable Terry
Cotter, regaled us with tales of African safaris and
animal anecdotes. Cotter delighted us with stories of
scaling Kilimanjaro and tracking down apex predators on
the Serengeti. He also gave us the inside scoop on animal
out zebras have a bit of a nasty streak, while rhinos are
quite chummy, almost doglike in their friendliness.
Ostriches, by the way, often have sticky fingers, ahem,
beaks. They’ll reach into the jeep to make off with a
tube of sunblock or a baseball cap. Cotter has been on
more than two dozen African safaris and he knows how to
outwit poachers, follow animal tracks and survive where
the wild things are. He’s also a fount of information,
particularly about the fate of the rhino, which is
about the urgency for conservation of these magnificent
creatures from someone who has been on the front lines
helped my daughter Daphne, 6, truly understand the threat
of extinction and the special nature of her experience at
Safari West, an animal sanctuary that’s fully accredited
by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
you are staying overnight, the adventure has just begun as
darkness falls. You tuck into a hearty camp-style dinner
of spice-rubbed chicken, barbecue ribs and apple crumble
with ice cream. After dinner, the children frolic on wide
green lawns, doing cartwheels in the evening glow as
parents sample a nicely curated wine list.
everybody beds down amid the luxury of the high-end
glamping experience. Safari West has 30 plush tent cabins
imported from South Africa.
bedding, African art and gorgeous woodwork decorate these
lavish tents, which can be open air or tucked up tight.
One definite edge over camping: There are bathrooms with
showers. This is high-style roughing it.
to bring along some ear plugs unless you want to hear the
hot-pink flamingos squawk all night. Toting along a
flashlight will also make it easier to get to and from the
canteen in the dark. (Of course, some children will be so
stimulated by the adventure of the place, they may not
have any interest in shut-eye. Sigh.)
are other treats to be had here during special animal
encounters and specialty tours. You can venture inside the
giraffe barn to feed these adorable (and drooling) giants.
It’s as if it’s raining in there, but there’s
nothing more enchanting than having a long-necked fellow
eat right out of the palm of your hand. My little one
smiled so hard, it could have been Christmas morning.
Other possibilities include a close encounter with a
cheetah, as you get to know each of their distinctive
personalities and histories, or a private safari tailored
to the kind of adventure you’re after.
next morning, you wake to the sounds of kookaburras
chirping and red river pigs snuffling about. As you
saunter toward the canteen, many of the animals shuffle in
your direction, perhaps thinking you may be delivering
the preserve in the early morning in the soft dawning
light, before the caravans of visitors arrive, is magical.
Stroll through the aviary and you may make fast friends
with an audacious avian, a dainty little demoiselle crane
named Kovu. She was hand-fed as a baby bird and now she
bonds instantly with anyone who comes to visit. She’ll
try to come home with you.
safari tours (3 hours) range from $45-$115. Overnights,
which include breakfast, are $250-$425.
3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa