Wow, there's been a lot of celebrating around these parts lately. Not that I'm complaining or anything ... having reasons to celebrate is pretty darn awesome.
For Alan's birthday this year, his last before the big 4-0, I took him up to Sonoma County to visit Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife preserve and natural habitat in California’s famed wine country, that is home to 900+ exotic mammals and birds, across upwards of 90 species. We had considered staying overnight in one of the safari tents, but we waited too long to get our reservation so we missed out. In hindsight it's a good thing because I came down with a nasty cold on Friday, and being out and about on Sunday ended up knocking me flat on my arse again and I'm still sick today. Instead, we drove up early Sunday morning for a 10 a.m. safari tour that began with a walk around some of the habitats featuring birds, monkey, and big cats, and concluded with a trek in a safari jeep through the hills to view free-roaming wildlife.
Founded in 1993 by Peter and Nancy Lang, Safari West started offering authentic African safaris on that year. At the time of opening, the park had 150 acres of enclosures that allowed naturalists to promote wildlife advocacy and conservation by providing three-hour educational excursions. Safari West gained full accreditation in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, one of only six private facilities in North America to belong to that prestigious organization. The ongoing mission of Safari West is wildlife preservation through breeding, education, research and public interaction.
In addition to the safari excursions, guests have an opportunity to experience African style tent camping. Sourced in Ladysmith, South Africa by the Langs, the luxury tents allow visitors a unique adventure to sleep while surrounded by herds of African animals. Now with over 60,000 annual visitors, Safari West was rated by AAA second only to Disneyland as a must experience location in California. This year, Sunset Magazine listed it as one of the top 300 destinations in the western United States.
To say that it was an amazing adventure is a bit of an understatement. As we were on the tour, I kept thinking to myself, "this is my favorite thing ..." and then "no, THIS is my favorite thing." By the end of the day, all of it was my favorite thing. That said, at first I was a bit skeptical because when we arrived we found one of the servals pacing back and forth in his pen, looking quite agitated. It turns out that Bubba is 23 years old, and he was just mad because it was breakfast time and someone was taking too long to bring him his morning meal. In all other instances, the animals appeared to be quite healthy and happy, and were certainly well-cared for. The staff we met were enthusiastic about the animals, about their jobs and the preserve, and very knowledgeable about everything you could have asked them. Our guide, Jenna, had been there five years, and she had her degree in Zoology from UC Santa Barbara.
I could go on and on about what a wonderful experience our trek at Safari West was, but instead I'll let my pictures tell the tale.
Sometimes, you just gotta lick something.
I included this one so that you could see the camp tents in the background.
Look! A unicorn!
This was taken seconds before she decided that she wanted to eat my face.
This was her, coming in for the kill. No, not really. She just likes shiny objects and I happened to have a small telephoto lens that she could see her reflection in and she wanted a closer look.
Wildebeest are the animals that are most hunted by other animals in Africa. If it weren't for their prolific ability to pro-create, they'd likely be extinct by now, but these guys really like to have babies.
The cape buffalo is my new hero. It is one of the big five animals that asshole big game hunters try to kill in the wild. It takes eight death shots to bring one down with bullets that are larger than my pinky. And you better hope to goodness you bring it down, because once you shoot it, the buffalo - and all of his friends - will charge the shit out of you in an effort to bring you down. Unless you're trying to mess with it, however, they're pretty placid. We were twenty feet from a herd of 23 buffalo and they couldn't have cared less about our presence. Our guide told us about a safari camp in Africa that one of their previous guests had been staying at, where big game hunters were also staying. Apparently they failed to bring down the buffalo and when they got back to camp, the hosts made them leave because they knew the buffalo were coming for them. The other guests were allowed to stay, and come morning the tents the hunters had been staying in were completely trampled and torn apart. Apparently they have a *very* keen sense of smell and memory and they are all about justice and vengeance. I like their style.
If you're interested in knowing what it's like to stay at Safari West, you can read this article from my friend Matt Villano (also a senior editor for Expedia's Viewfinder blog) about his experience staying there last spring with his wife, an anthropologist.
I've always said that I want to do an African safari someday, and this has only fueled my desire to do so.