The excitement is palpable as we gather around the meeting point across from Delilah’s Cafe at Safari West. A row of rugged jeeps is lined up in front of us, adding to the anticipation of adventure. We are awaiting further instructions from our safari guide who will be taking us across 400 acres of Safari West’s lovingly maintained wildlife preserve. Set in picturesque Santa Rosa, the Sonoma savannah is the perfect home for nearly 90 species and 900 individual animals and birds.
Having spent our previous night glamping at Safari West, we’ve already seen several magnificent animals right across from where we slept. From the private deck of our tent, we saw giraffes, eland, impala and oryx grazing in the open grasslands, as squawking Canada geese flew overhead and grey crowned cranes danced about. Bright orange flamingos raised a ruckus whenever anybody walked past and we could hear the distant cacophony through the night. It gave us the wonderful feeling of being truly out there in the wild.
Our canvas tent was an exotic room on stilts, complete with a king sized bed, hand-carved wooden furniture, a private attached bathroom and to top it all, a bottle of chilled wine on arrival. It was a very memorable luxury glamping experience at Safari West. Read more about our glamping experience.
The next morning our expectations ran high for the upcoming safari tour. We hadn’t seen the African Big 5 yet. Although Safari West does not have big cats and elephants except for cheetahs, we were excited about seeing the rhino and Cape buffalo. Our safari guide was Richard, a veteran at Safari West who had been at the wildlife preserve for several years. Having previously been a teacher, teaching about animals and explaining their behavior came naturally to him. He guaranteed us a great time.
The bright yellow jeeps used at Safari West are customized military-era jeeps, rugged and made for going on rough terrain. They have been completely opened up on all sides ensuring a fantastic view of the animals and birds as we drive by. The jeeps can be driven over any form of terrain and we had plenty of excited squealing and stomach-churning moments whenever the jeep bounced over a steep slope.
The most coveted seats on the safari are the seats right on top of the jeep. Three to four people can sit on these seats at any given time, so if there are several people who want to experience the safari from this vantage point, everybody takes turns. We got to sit on top midway through the safari and it was the most exhilarating part of our experience!
Richard gave us an overview of what we might see on the safari and once everybody was seated, we took off on our adventure. First up was driving through the open area where giraffes and several ungulates were grazing. The giraffes were naturally curious and approached us boldly. The other animals like the impala, oryx and gazelles continued grazing on peacefully. One of the giraffes decided to come right up to our jeep and leisurely strolled past us as Richard expertly maneuvered the jeep around.
We also saw Safari West’s pride and joy, a baby giraffe named Phoenix who was just two-weeks old. All the baby animals at Safari West are born at the wildlife preserve and raised there. We learnt that there are two distinct types of giraffes which can be told apart from the markings on their bodies. Both the reticulated giraffe and masai giraffe have typical rectangular shaped, brown-color-filled markings, but the masai giraffe’s markings are much darker and seep into the white borders when compared to the distinct polygonal markings on a reticulated giraffe.
Next up was Safari West’s newest resident, a massive rhino named Waldie! They had just acquired him the previous day and he was taking a rest after his long journey getting to Safari West. We got a good look at him because he was standing upright. Did you know a group of rhinos is called a “crash”? It’s probably because rhinos don’t see very well and rely on their sense of smell to find their way around. So a rhino might crash into you if you don’t see where you’re going!
Midway through the safari tour, it was our turn to sit on top. We quickly clambered up and strapped ourselves in (yes, there are seat belts!) and got ready for the joy ride. As the jeep took off down the trail, we looked around with wide-eyed amazement. The view from up here was glorious! Tree branches were within arms reach, the sky was an unobstructed sea of azure blue and the warm sunshine felt sublime. We could see the animals far and wide as our view extended towards the horizon.
As we turned a corner on the rugged trail through the hills, we came across an entire herd of zebras! Some looked fervently towards us and pranced off to the side, while others just continued grazing. Zebras are amazing animals with their mesmerizing patterns. There are many hypotheses about why zebras have stripes. The most popular theories are that they help with camouflage and keep predators at bay. Recent research however favors the theory that these stripes help with keeping biting flies and insects away from the zebras. Another interesting tidbit, did you know that a group of zebras is called a “dazzle”? No wonder, because when they all stand together with their interweaving patterns, you can’t tell one from the other and it’s quite a dazzling sight!
We saw many more animals up close as we drove on through the wildlife preserve. Cape buffalo were a magnificent sight, with some massive specimens sitting in the shadows. We also came across a group of fleet-footed gazelles who seemed poised for flight as soon as they saw us. Huddling together, they appeared to be deciding whether to stay or run. They eventually decided we were harmless enough and continued grazing as we drove past.
The wonderful safari experience at Safari West lasts approximately three hours, including a 45-minute walk through some sections of the wildlife preserve where you can see monkeys, cheetahs and exotic birds like Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. This guided walk was led by Richard who knew all the animals by their first name. He told us about their history and story, their personalities and how they came to be at Safari West. We also saw several humongous tortoises who had been given up by their owners once they got too big to take care of. Safari West took them in and they have a good home now.
Safari West aims to educate visitors through conservation and a hands-on approach to teaching about wildlife. For visitors both young and old, visiting Safari West is an eye-opening experience where you’ll not only learn a ton of great information about animals and birds, but you’ll also feel like you’ve stepped out of California into Africa. Go here for more information on planning your visit to Safari West.
Disclosure: Safari West provided for my safari jeep tour and dinner during my visit in exchange for writing about my experience at Safari West. Regardless, everything I have said in this post reflects my honest observations and opinions.