In a land where Pinot Noir, not Primates is the order of the day, most people who aren’t familiar with Sonoma County and its boundless offerings are stunned when I share that there’s more than grapes flourishing in our golden hills. Like giraffes, rhinos, buffalos, zebras, exotic birds and cheetahs. Yes, all of these animals are living- and thriving- in this region’s best-kept secret: Safari West.
Tucked away in the rolling hills of Alexander Valley, just 15 minutes east of Highway 101, lies a stunning private wildlife preserve. This 400-acre savannah is chocked-full with wild animals–900 to be exact– totaling 90 different African species of mammals and birds, all roaming freely throughout their natural habitat.
I was recently given the opportunity to visit this incredible wildlife preserve with some of my friends to experience their Brews and Buffalo Private Safari. And oh man, what an adventure it was! Visiting Safari West was something I had always wanted to do, so needless to say, I was very excited to take this early evening tour… and test drive a new camera lens along the way. Oh, and the fact that this outing also included some of the West Coast’s top micro-brews, well, that guaranteed we were all in for a great time!
First, some background on the park. It all started in the early 1970s, on one of the last remaining cattle ranches in Beverly Hills. Peter Lang, son of Otto Lang (Hollywood film director and producer) took inspiration from his father’s work with animals in his 60’s hit TV shows Flipper and Daktari, and began keeping wild animals on the family ranch. When the property sold in 1978, cattle ranches in Beverly Hills had become extinct. So Peter relocated the growing conservation center to some acreage outside Calistoga in Northern California. A few years later, the park expanded yet again to its present location on an old sheep ranch in Santa Rosa. When Peter met his now-wife Nancy, he knew a kindred spirit was found. She holds a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in Biology, and is the former General Curator of the Avian Conservation Center at the San Francisco Zoological Gardens. Nancy realized the importance of the conservation work Peter was doing and encouraged him to share it with others. So in 1993, Safari West officially opened to the public with tours for children and schools. Today, this twosome has grown the animal care and breeding center into the nation’s largest of the six accredited private zoos by AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums).
Our line-up of micro-brews
If you crave a slug of cold beer on a hot day (and who doesn’t?) then this tour is for you. Our expert guide, Nate, drove us around in one of their restored 1950s military Dodge M37 Power Wagons in search of the animals. These machines are not speedy, but they’ll climb over any rocky terrain effortlessly. The easy-going pace of the 3 ½ hour safari allowed for plenty of stops along the way to snap some photos and to receive a briefing from Nate about each animal as we encountered it. Tip: Take advantage of the upper deck seating if you want to get up close and personal with a Reticulated Giraffe. Slobber alert! These gals are known to drool (a lot), so get ready for a very wet welcome! The park’s giraffes know the sight and sound of the vehicles, so they’re very comfortable with you riding right next to them. Giraffes are curious creatures by nature, and honestly, one of my favorite animals and undoubtedly the best camera-hounds on the trip. Look closely across the paddock as you may event spot the baby Masai Giraffe.
You’d never know it, but Nate just came aboard the Safari West team in December 2015. In a former life, he sold insurance and was a wedding photographer. Now he’s hooked on exotic animals. In just a short time, he’s become a walking encyclopedia on each species, spending countless hours out on safari with the seasoned guides to offer visitors the most fun and educational experience possible. Nate’s also a self-proclaimed “hop head”, so go ahead and try to stump him with a question about the delicious local micro-brews he pours; it’s simply not possible. Our libation break happened about midway through the tour, perched atop a hill overlooking the valley and the long-horned Watusi Cattle bred on the property. We tasted six or seven beers from producers like Petaluma Hills Brewing Company, Napa Smith Brewery, Bear Republic Brewing Company, Third Street Ale Works, St. Florian’s Brewing, Heretic Brewing Company and feasted on a generous sampling of charcuterie, cheeses and crackers. We even received a souvenir “Brews and Buffalo” mini beer mug to take home!
As the tour name suggests, you’re going to come across buffaloes… and some pretty tough-looking Cape Buffalo at that. These 2,500-pound beasts are known to be one of the most dangerous mammals on the Serengeti. Not to worry, you’re safe with Nate, as he will steer you away from the herd even though they have become accustomed to visitors passing through their habitat. Cape Buffalo are the only mammals in the wild kingdom that will turn an entire herd around (and we’re talking thousands of buffalo here folks) to go back for just one felled animal. No buffalo is left behind. They have a highly acute sense of smell and memory too, so a lion that may have attempted to take down one of their own years previously, will be tracked for hundreds of miles and then killed by the herd. Amazing! Also in store for you: Zebras, various Antelope such as Gemsbok, Greater Kudu, Wildebeest, Rhinos, Gazelle, and more. Over in the more tame surroundings of the Aviary, you’ll find the brightest Scarlet Ibis you ever did see, along with Blue Crowned Pigeon, Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, Mandarin Ducks and plenty more birds of all shapes, sizes and colors.
When visiting Safari West, be sure to leave plenty of time for the kiddos to walk around and see the Primates and Pink Flamingos too. Overnight guests can bunk down in traditional South African safari tents and fall asleep to the chirps of cockatoos and monkeys while surrounded by herds of African animals. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
The Trading Post Gift Shop offers postcards and mementos of your spectacular journey and if you’re planning a full day at the park, consider the safari-style barbecue lunches and dinners available by reservation-complete with local Sonoma and Napa wines to sip on as well. AAA California rates Safari West as a “must-experience” venue (second only to Disney Land), and Sunset Magazine listed it as one of their top 300 destinations in the Western United States.
From the fun jeep ride and excellent beers and nosh, to the time spent with friends watching in awe as various animals crossed our path, this adventure completely lived up to its expectation…and more. I took heaps more pictures that I didn’t include; otherwise, you’d be reading an even longer post- ha! Going on this urban safari will allow you to see some of the most spectacular wildlife on the planet, so haul all your camera gear with you, it will be totally worth it!
For all tour packages, pricing and FAQs about the park, visit safariwest.com or email email@example.com.
3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95404 | Ph. (707) 579-2551
Disclaimer: this tour was generously provided at no cost as part of a freelance assignment. All photographs, thoughts and opinions are my own.