"In wilderness is the preservation of the world."
- Henry David Thoreau
The phrase "well kept secret" is one of those two-edged swords. On one hand it connotes that it's somehow something special and something that deserves attention. On the other hand, "secret" isn't exactly an ambition for most of the people who are promoting a thing.
So it is with all due respect and admiration that I refer to Safari West complex outside Santa Rosa, in northern California, as a well-kept secret. It is deserving of as much attention as other facilities of its kind, but as a traveler and seeker of adventure I like the fact that it isn't overrun with tourists and daytrippers who are looking for nothing more than cotton candy and animals in cages.
First, few of the animal...well, wait. I'm getting ahead of myself.
Safari West, nicknamed the Sonoma Serengeti, is a large wildlife park located in the hills between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, neatly positioned between the twin wine regions of Sonoma and Napa. It is a research complex which funds a lot of their work through tours and safari-tent overnights on the grounds.
Taking their own description off their web page:
"Safari West serves two important functions: first and foremost, we are a wildlife preserve, with several important ongoing projects such as:
- The propagation of endangered species. Safari West is the home of zebras, giraffes, cheetahs and many more exotic creatures.
- Under the directorship of Nancy Lang, Safari West is breeding several endangered bird species.
- Several Research and Conservation programs are ongoing: Conservation through Education.
But Safari West is more than a preserve. We are dedicated to raising awareness of our exotic neighbors and promoting understanding through in-person contact. That's why we offer safaris year-round. If your only experience with a zebra or giraffe has been at a zoo, you should see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat. You owe it to yourself, and to them."
And therein lies the key difference between a zoo and Safari West, and that is the experience of visiting an operating preserve, and touring through open-meadow grasslands and semi-rugged terrain visiting truly wild animals in what passes for a natural environment for them.
The park itself is some 400 acres, with more than 900 different animals (everything from large secretary birds to predatory cats to giraffes and zebras).
Again, their words:
"Come through our gate and be transported into an exotic, new world. A captivating tapestry of raw sounds and earthy smells; a magic place with the sights and sounds of the Serengeti where the air is filled with melodious chirps from the aviary, squawking calls from gregarious parrots, and a occasional lemur screech. An African style oasis where guests experience a rare sense of freedom and gain renewed inspiration. "
|A couple of the cabin-tents at night.|
So the park is unique and fascinating, but the best adventure of all, particularly for younger ones, is a night or two inn the relative comfort of your own luxury safari tent. The accommodations are excellent, with a comfortable bed and good sized room -- the only drawback during our stay was a midnight call to the bathroom, which is located outside of the very cozy center part of the tent. This also made the shower a bit of a cold versus warm challenge requiring a swift drying off and dash through the canvas door back into the warm main room of the tent. (The bathroom is attached and completely enclosed, but outside of the area well-heated by a space heater.) If you're going during the off season be prepared for this very little bit of roughing it.
The tour itself, on board a safari vehicle, is excellent. The driver conveys a lot of good information about the animals without becoming overly academic. If you're tempted to sit on the upper deck just be aware that giraffes drool. A lot. One poor visitor didn't wear her raincoat and the sounds from the upper deck (we were seated below) were cringe-inducing in a Monty Python sort of way.
The tour lasts three hours, and is certainly worth the side trip if you're electing to stay in either Santa Rosa or Calistoga. But, again, our own selection was to stay the night, enjoying the ambience of the park. The sounds of the animals as you drift asleep is exciting and relaxing at the same time.
(CAVEAT: If you're prone to nightmares, be aware the secretary birds screech out something awful, particularly in the dark when you're not expecting to hear anything but silence. One let loose with a banshee-esque shriek directly across from our cabin door at around 2am, which left me crawling the ceiling until I was able to piece together what I'd heard. A few too many horror films as a kid, I guess.)
|The giraffe compound was directly opposite our door|
|Inside the tent, a comfortable bed|
|Relaxing the California sun|