In Our Own Backyard – February 2007

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “In Our Own Backyard” February 2007.

Safari West

In Our Own Backyard – Safari West
By Kathleen Dreessen

In Our Own Backyard is a series of articles about destinations around the valley. Napa county residents enjoy fabulous weather, picturesque vista and abundant natural resources-so, when was the last time you got out and became a tourist in your own backyard?

It takes less than an hour to travel from Napa to the African Serengeti. Okay, it’s not exactly on another continent, but Safari West feels a world away.

The first animals you see when entering Safari West are Ring-tailed Lemurs, tumbling together and climbing tree limbs on their own Isle of Lemur, which comes complete with a lemur condo. Visitors are only a few feet away from the creatures whose bright, curious gaze seems to follow every human movement.

You stand entranced for only a few minutes until you notice what lies beyond-giraffes walking gracefully against a background of green hillsides.
There are over 400 exotic animals on 400 acres at Safari West, a wildlife preserve on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. From antelopes to zebras, visitors get up-close to the animals from the vantage point of an authentic open-air safari vehicle.

Tours are two and a half to three hours long and are led by a guide who explains the habits and habitats of each creature encountered. The first portion of the tour is a drive through the 12-acre Extreme Africa Exhibit. In any direction you might spot herds of antelope, gazelle, Cape Buffalo or wildebeest. All roam freely and interact with each other as they would in their native lands.

Various herds are separated and kept on the preserve by a series of ingenious and unobtrusive fences. These separations are necessary to ensure the animals eat their customized food and to keep animals from interbreeding. For example, the 10 giraffes a visitor sees when entering the park are the more common Reticulated Giraffes. Safari West also has three rare Massai Giraffes. There are only 67 Massai Giraffes in North America in 20 facilities. These two varieties are kept separate to insure the purity of the breeds.

That is part of the mission of Safari West, to propagate endangered species. The organization also wants to raise awareness of exotic animals and promote understanding that only face-to-face contact can achieve. This is completely different than a zoo experience, where caged animals have only a limited amount of space. Here, it is exhilarating to watch impalas sprint across a grassy meadow or observe the goofy gait of an ostrich as he races up a hill.

In the winter months at the end of the driving tour, visitors are invited to warm up in Safari West’s Savannah Café for hot tea, cocoa and coffee.

Afterwards, guests walk with a guide through the inner compound, which includes a visit with the world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah, along with other wild animals. The walking tour ends in the enormous open-air aviary, where there are dozens of colorful birds, including Scarlet Ibis, White Faced Whistling Ducks and African Spoonbills. If you’re lucky enough to have African native Gideon Bendile as your guide, your tour may conclude with a triumphant song from the musical The Lion King.

Peter Lang, who owns the preserve with his wife, Nancy Lang, Ph.D, established safari West in 1979. They started a non-profit foundation, the Safari West Wildlife Foundation, to support the objectives of Safari West, namely to protect and preserve exceptional animals and to educate adult and student visitors.

Director of Operations John Roberts has been with Safari West for 16 years. His former career was in Southern California in the wood business. That’s where he met woodworker Peter Lang. Lang still makes most of the furniture in Safari West, including floors and headboards in the luxury tent cabins.

“We built this giraffe barn, too,” says Roberts, one of the few giraffe transporting experts in the United States.

We walk into the high-ceilinged giraffe barn at the end of the day, part of the behind-the-scenes tour, which is available at an additional charge.

“I grew up on ranches in Oregon, but there were no giraffes or zebras there,” says Roberts, who is nursing a sore torso from the kick of a renegade antelope. “It’s never dull here. It’s the most fulfilling job you can have, but it’s not really a job, it’s my lifestyle. I’m here every day of my life.”

Roberts lives on the property, as do the owners. He lets the giraffes out of their heated barn stalls in the morning and tucks them back in at night.

“I come back around eight o’clock at night and just make sure everything’s okay,” says Roberts, who is single and doesn’t have children. “These are my kids.”

While he talks, giraffes poke their heads over the tall stall doors. “That’s Tucson and that’s Fresno. Guess where they were born,” he says and chuckles. “The oldest one is Mason. He’s 15 years old and retired. Mason is 18 feet high and weighs about 4000 pounds.”

Mason is also the father of Zena, Safari West’s youngest giraffe. She is not shy with strangers and don’t be surprised if she comes up to the window of her stall and gives you a tentative lick with her prehensile tongue.

The animals are all fed a specific diet for their needs and given supplements.

“These animals are very healthy and cared-for,” says Roberts. “They are well, fit and happy. We know this because they don’t engage in negative or destructive behaviors.”

For people who want to extend their wildlife experience, Safari West has plush tent lodging. The tents were imported from Africa and built on wooden platforms with decks. Tents have polished wood floors, copper basins in the private baths, hot showers and king-sized bed (or two double beds) with hand hewn one-of-a-kind furniture.

Safari West gets racy around Valentine’s Day this year with its Sixth Annual Rumble in the Jungle, a so-called “Sex Tour” for adults only. It takes place on Saturday February 10 at 2:30 and includes a tour, dinner and reception for $110 per person. This is a different spin on the educational safari tours that details the exotic animals’ wildlife courtships and the mating habits of African mammals and birds.
Additional group tours with wine and cheese are February 11 through February 14, by appointment only, and cost $720 for up to 10 adults.

Through March 2007, Safari West is offering winter safari specials. Receive $10 off all Safari Drives, excluding the Rumble in the Jungle Sex Tours. Adults are $52; children (3-12) are $18. For lodging, receive $50 off each night through March 2007. Mention website specials to receive these reduced rates.

Behind-the-scenes tours are $200 for 2 and $50 for each additional adult, $30 for children. Additional programs include a cheetah presentation, Keeper for the Day, an animal presentation and the opportunity to pose for a photograph with a cheetah. Reservations are needed for these activities.

Winter tours leave at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Private tours and group events are available with advanced booking.

Visit for additional details and to make reservations.

Safari West Wildlife Preserve and Tent Camp, 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95404, phone (707) 579-2551, email

If you have suggestions for future In Our Backyard adventures, please send them to


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