Night sounds, sharper and more pronounced for being disembodied and unseen, can transport you across time and continents. They can make you believe, almost, that you are bedding down in the Serengeti, not Santa Rosa. They can captivate your imagination and assail your ears from all sides. Also, freak you out a bit.
You lie on your body-molding posturepedic mattress, snuggling with the electric blanket as the evening wind beats against the flaps of your “glamping” tent at Safari West, the 400-acre preserve for more than 50 species of exotic African animals, and this staccato symphony breaks out.
Squawks and caws and snorts come at you in an unsettling Doppler Effect, its pitch ebbing and flowing and swirling, while a cricket chirp provides the baseline. Above your tent, on a hillock next to a pond, you detect a plaintive braying, like a man trying to pass a gallstone. That is drowned out by a sirenlike WA-WA-WA, followed by an equally voluble WHOOP-WHOOP, as if these unidentified specimens are engaged in some elaborate “Lion King” call-and-response exercise. Somewhere just below your mesh windows, where various species of antelope and giraffe roam, you can detect an epiglottal rumble, guttural and vaguely dysenteric, while those OCD-afflicted cranes in the distance maintain a ceaseless screech.
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Strangely, though, you get used to it. It hardly qualifies as a lullaby, but sleep comes, eventually.
And, in the morning, the sight of a scrim of fog slightly obscuring the oak-studded hills of verdant Sonoma County lands you firmly back in reality. Silly to imagine you were carried off to Sub-Saharan Africa, right?
Yes, certainly. But then you meet a woman lounging at the Savannah Cafe, Ingrid Oakley-Girvan, who once lived in Lesotho during her Peace Corps days and has gone on safaris, real ones, everywhere from Kenya to Zimbabwe. You figure she’s going to give an exaggerated eye roll at these pretensions of verisimilitude, from the lemurs, cheetahs and rhinos down to the khaki worn by the tour guides lumbering by in open-air jeeps. You presume she’ll dismiss this as a Disneyfied version of a serious safari, akin to a cheesy Beatles cover band.
She does not. In fact, Oakley-Girvan, who now calls Los Gatos home, seems imbued with nostlagia.
“It has a feel that’s very similar to Africa,” she says. “Identical? No. Similar? Yes. There’s a lot of smells and sensory things that take me back. The grasses and the dryness and the sounds. This is, like, a Northern Californian take on safaris. It’s good.”
Like something out of Kipling, or Isak Dinesen, Safari West sprouted 22 years ago from the imagination and toil of Peter and Nancy Lang. What began as a modest spread on a former sheep ranch that featured three eland as their initial offering has grown to 400 acres and more than 850 animals, primates of every conceivable type seen in Africa, save lions, elephants and hippopotamuses. It is one of only handful of safari-themed private zoos – others in California being the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido and Vision Quest Safari in Salinas – and Nancy Lang is quick to add that Safari West is one of the few private spreads accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an industry group promoting animal management and care.
Beyond its mission of wildlife management, conservation and education, Safari West wants to give visitors an experience in the wild for those who cannot drop everything and repair to Africa for a few months. Peter Lang, 74, is a former rancher and developer whose love of nature was stoked by his father, Otto Lang, the TV director whose 1960s credits included “Daktari,” a drama about a veterinarian in East Africa. Nancy, 65, has a doctorate in biology, taught at Santa Rosa Junior College and was a former curator with the San Francisco Zoo.
“Part of our mandate is conservation and education, but we find having really fun recreational tours is the best way for people to learn and have a good time,” Nancy said. “With all the open space, and animals get to roam and the visitors are the ones (confined).”
Though the accommodations – 31 tent cabins with hard-wood floors, hand-hewn wood furniture and full baths; a restaurant, cafe and meeting rooms – lend an upscale resort air to the place, it’s all about the animals. They trod upon the dusty hillsides and encamp in tree-shrouded ravines while vintage 1960s Dodge Power Wagons cart around tourists content to ogle and photograph the massive cape buffalo, docile Watusi cattle, wary white rhinoceros, sleek impalas, long-bearded aoudad sheep and short-tempered zebras.
Guests can make a day of it with a three-hour tour or spend the night at the preserve while dining at the open-air restaurant and perhaps paying extra for a private tour of the giraffe barn, where the ungulate mammals slime you with a long string of drool as they accept the carrot you proffer.
The tour is divided into two parts – a walking segment on the lower grounds through the aviary and enclosures featuring monkeys, lemurs, porcupines and habitats for cheetahs and servals, a black-spotted golden cat; and the jeep tour deep into the open space to observe the larger, more camera-worthy hoofed mammals – and visitors’ enjoyment and edification largely depends on their level of engagement with the guide.
You lucked out and got a nine-year veteran of Safari West, Travis Murray, whose quirky humor and dry-as-the-hillside wit brought the animals to life – even those “hiding” in the shade from public view in the blistering 90-degree heat.
Murray, a keeper as well as a guide, will regale you with stories of his doofus moves that resulted in animal attacks, including getting quilled by a porcupine while trying to give it eye drops. He’ll also pass along salacious (but safe for kids) details about animal sex lives, disabuse you of the notion that a cheetah in captivity is inherently “sad” because it does not have the space to reach its 75-mph running speed, and pass along the secrets of animals with mild personality disorders, such as Mara the giraffe, a stalker and peeing Tom, and Strasan, the 2,000-pound cape buffalo, whose establishment of male dominance in the herd sometimes causes more violence than a Tarantino movie.
About those cape buffalo. They reside deep in the hillside, munching on the tawny stubble of grass and waiting for the truck to come by with bales of alfalfa signaling dinner. Despite their alarming size and protruding horns, they seem pretty chill, until Murray ticks off facts such as the cape buffalo is one of the top four killers of humans in the African wild.
He mentions this only after he’s parked the open-air jeep not 10 feet from them.
Not to worry, he assures. He’s only had one close call in the truck, where he’s been charged.
“No exaggeration, that was one of the most terrifying experiences in my life,” he says, as a few visitors squirm in their seats. “Seeing something that big run that fast straight at you is terrifying. She got pretty close, actually. I think what happened is that one of the big girls stepped in a yellow jacket nest and got stung and just flipped out. For us? Wrong place, wrong time. She stopped in time. The responses I got from support team were great. The animal collections manager told me, ‘No, she wasn’t attacking you. If she wanted to hit you, she would have. Peter (Lang) asked, ‘Did she lift the jeep? No? Then you were fine.’”
You make the mistake of asking where, exactly, this close call took place.
“Just about here,” Murray says.
Visitors, truth be told, are never (OK, almost never) in danger on “safari,” provided they don’t do something stupid, he says.
“Something about being around big, fluffy animals makes some people make incredibly bad choices, like getting off the truck in front of the cape buffalo,” he says. “Don’t be that guy.”
No one budges. But the group loosens up a bit on the walking segment of the tour, where animals are safely in enclosures. But Murray couldn’t help but pass along another anecdote from his personal “When Animals Attack” portfolio.
“See that guy with haircut like Doc Brown from ‘Back to the Future?’ That’s a demoiselle crane. Incredible bird,” he says. “We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ Animals? Not good with that one. Watch how this crane walks. Notice how those joints are bending, knees bending backward? Those are ankles, not knees. Anyway, when they attack as you’re feeding them, they jump this high straight off the ground, pull those ankles back and slash down with both feet on your face. First time it happens to you, it’s terrifying. Then, sadly, you get used to it.”
There are, occasionally, animal-on-animal attacks. The helmeted guinea fowl, a sort of exotic chicken, has free range to roam the premise. Sometimes, Murray says, that means flying into the cheetah enclosure.
“Nine times out of 10, nothing happens to the guinea fowl,” Murray says. “The cheetah will just roll over. The 10th time, there’s a flash of feathers everywhere. What I love, on tours, at that moment when the cheetah is bearing down on the guinea fowl, someone will ask me to sacrifice myself for the fowl. Without fail, these are the same people who’ve previously enjoyed our chicken barbecue bar (at the restaurant).”
Cheetahs garner much visitor interest. They are not out in the open range; instead kept in enclosures that are a few thousand square feet. The entire five minutes Murray filled us in on the cheetah’s back story, the animal did not move, staring into the horizon.
“The cheetah kind of bummed us out,” says visitor Sage Raval, of Los Angeles. “I almost wish they didn’t show us it. It didn’t look happy.”
Murray: “That shows a misunderstanding of wild animals. How many of us ever run as fast as we possibly can for no reason? Anyone? They don’t either. They don’t want to run that fast, unless they are chasing their food. Predators are smart. They don’t work if they don’t have to. We feed them what they need. All the diets are calculated for daily caloric needs without excess. These guys are happy not having to work for it.”
Not doing the hunter-gatherer thing does, indeed, give the animals time to pursue other pastimes. Near the end of the tour, the jeep was stopped by the looming presence of Mara, the reticulated giraffe, blocking the path.
“She’s kind of a creeper,” Murray said. “She has a staring problem. And space issues. You’ll be looking at another (giraffe) and suddenly feel a pressure on the back of your neck. You turn, and she’s there. But she won’t look you in the eye. A creeper.”
You note, for later fretting, that Mara and the other giraffes frequent the range that just happens to be within spitting distance of your cabin. You can’t be certain, but you suspect it was Mara who, in enveloping darkness, was responsible for that periodic guttural mewling. Better her, you suppose, than Strasan, the cape buffalo.
If you go
Where: 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa
Safari times: 9 and 10 a.m.; and 1, 2 and 4 p.m., April-August
Cost: Adults: $94-$98; Seniors: $86-$92; Children (3 to 12): $40
Overnight stay: $285-$350, depending on type of room and time of year
More info: www.safariwest.com