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On safari ... and close to home

SONOMA COUNTY – There's one rule when you go on safari in the wine country: Should you drop something, do not jump out of the rumbling Dodge Power Wagon to retrieve it. Your guide will get it for you.

"Unless," says safari leader Terry Cotter, "we're around the cape buffalo, and then it's theirs."

The fearsome animal, with its funny little beard and horns shaped like a perfectly waxed mustache, has been "accused of deliberate savagery," according to the African Wildlife Federation, but is usually placid if left alone.

That's why the herd stares menacingly at tourists from a safe distance.

Safari West is an anomaly in a generally lush region famous for its verdant vineyards and exquisite wines. This dusty parcel of paradise is the Serengeti, California-style.

It's a 400-acre private wildlife preserve between Calistoga and Santa Rosa populated with 800 exotic mammals and birds, representing 89 species.

It's one of a few private operations certified by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which also counts among its members the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Sea World in San Diego and the Sacramento Zoo. It also has an active breeding program.

Best of all, Safari West offers a taste of the safari experience for folks who have neither the time nor money in this troubled economy to travel to Africa. Here you will pay $68 for a three-hour safari (spending the last hour on foot) and less than $300 to stay overnight in a nicely appointed African-style tent cabin.

Compare that to a real African safari, which runs $6,000 to $10,000 per person, says Mindy Crenshaw, leisure team leader at Sacramento's Travel Store. A deluxe tour of two to three weeks can cost as much as $20,000.

"You will have, and I say this unabashedly, a better three-hour safari drive here than you're likely to have anywhere in Africa," says Safari West owner Peter Lang, "because we have animals from throughout the continent.

"Nancy (his wife) and I just got back from South Africa, and we went on a staged safari, and we saw just nine species. I left there and gave myself a high-five. We produce a better experience here."

Here in Sonoma County, you'll encounter zebra, giraffe, Watusi cattle, all sorts of antelope (impala, eland, kudu), springbok gazelle, white rhino, aoudad sheep, oryx gazelle, crested African porcupine, fennec fox and more. The vast bird population ranges from scarlet ibis to Juicy Couture-pink flamingo.

Safari West attracts both curious tourists and people who work with animals for a living, such as Sacramento Zoo director Mary Healy.

"It's wonderful for people who want the flavor of Africa, especially when they talk about affordable trips," she says. "The overnight experience is phenomenal. You leave the rest of the world behind. You hear animals all night. You can stand on your deck and look over this beautiful valley and see the giraffe and hoof stock and flamingos.

"But if you don't want to hear flamingos all night, this might not be the place for you."

Lang opened his ranch to the public in 1993, built 31 luxury tent cabins (with king-size beds, hardwood floors, handmade furniture and verandas overlooking Catfish Lake) and purchased nine Korean War-era Dodge Power Wagons he converted into safari vehicles.

The wagons are noisy, and the bumpy ride on graded dirt roads feels like Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure. The "E ticket" moment is a short downhill drop that elicits tourists' squeals every time.

The safari begins inside the giraffe compound, where you may come close enough to touch the animals, but probably shouldn't. On a recent day, two males of different breeds – Masai and reticulated – stalked each other on opposite sides of an electric fence.

"They've been doing this all morning," Cotter, 68, says to his seven passengers in a Power Wagon. "It's a standoff. They want to find out who's top dog. Giraffes will fight with their head, slap it against the other one's neck. Usually, one will realize he's overpowered and say, 'I'll come back next year and try this again.' "

Cotter's guide patter is educational – a herd of zebra is "a dazzle" – and funny enough to leave his passengers chuckling.

"That's the bachelor herd," he says of lazing aoudad. "They've been kicked out and sit around drinking beer and talking about how great they used to be."

And this: "We have mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks that get in here. We're always on the alert and checking the fences. Coyotes are so smart. They go home and build a ladder and come back."

Cotter has traveled to Africa 20 times and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro four times. He's been friends with Lang for years.

Lang's father, Otto, was a Hollywood director and producer whose credits included the "Daktari" and "Flipper" shows on TV and the movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

"I got to hang around the sets and got to know the animal people." Lang says. "I raised a couple of lion cubs from Easter vacation until going back to school in September. It was a different era. I'd hop on the bus and go to the beach with a lion cub.

"I'd give the animals back and they'd use them for shows. That's where I learned how quickly lions get big and how tough they get. They're amongst my favorites, but we don't have them here."

Twenty years ago, he bought this property and started hauling his collection of African mammals from his Southern California ranch. His wife is a San Francisco Zoo curator.

"I drove all night with a load of animals, unloaded them and turned around and made a few more trips," he says. "My animal collection was always private, for myself and my family and my friends. I had intentions of doing a park and tent camp, but it wasn't until I got here that it made sense."