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Excuse Me, Is that Your Ruff Tailed Lemur: A Night at Sonoma County’s African Wildlife Preserve

Monday May 6, 2013

(This week is brought to you by: Dear God, this child will not nap. This is my attempt to wipe the slate clean before our next trip. You should expect little to no research, poor editing, and mostly incoherent sentences.)

What business does a 400-acre African wildlife preserve have in the wine soaked valleys of Sonoma? None. It has no business being there. Thankfully, that didn’t stop Peter Lang from building one of the weirdest pit stops on our trip to the north country.

Oh, and that’s also where we decided to celebrate Thanksgiving. If you’re going to spend Thanksgiving dinner away from your family, you have to do it right. Sure, there are plenty of places all along the northern California coast offering ocean sunset views and sophisticated takes on traditional Thanksgiving fare. But, you know, boring. Thanksgiving dinner amidst the giraffes, rhinos, and gazelles? It was a no brainer. 

Safari West is only 7 miles from US-101 and 10 miles from downtown Santa Rosa. As your cell phone loses reception and you get lost in the winding hills of backcountry Sonoma, it’ll feel more like 60 miles. Civilization is dashed away. One of our guides later on confessed that he grew up just down the road from Safari West and had no idea it was there. Or that he shared a neighborhood with cheetahs. We had no trouble believing him.

Dave and I had dreams of kitsch as we pulled into the gravel parking lot. We were still giggling to ourselves when we got to the parking kiosk. What followed was a whirlwind of Safari West staff showing us to our parking spot, loading our luggage into an open air safari jeep, and driving us past the reserve headquarters and fields of giraffes, up to our immaculately-appointed army tent in the trees.

Safari West, Sonoma

I mean, we knew we’d be spending the night in a tent (prompting all sorts of concerned “you’re 7 months pregnant and spending Thanksgiving night in a tent on a wildlife preserve? And you are sure about this?”). This was about a hundred times nicer than anything we were expecting. Built on pilars overlooking a large pond, with thick canvas walls and a fully functioning bathroom outfitted in granite and slate tile, it felt sturdier than our San Francisco walk-up.

We opted to hike back down along the pond and animals to the dining hall, the Sonoma hills glowing in yellows and reds all around us. Dozens of people were already milling around the open air smoking pit and Thanksgiving spread. The adults sipped glasses of wine while their children darted between the complimentary drink tables, concocting one-of-a-kind beverages out of the hot apple cider, hot chocolate, and teas available.

Thanksgiving dinner at Safari West, Sonoma

Thanksgiving dinner had all the usual suspects, but kinda upclassed a little. Like, a fresh twig of rosemary may have made its way into one or two of the sides. Classy, you know? And for dessert, you automatically got a slice of apple and pumpkin pie, which helped me feel slightly less self-conscious scarfing down all the pie I could get my hands on.

Safari West, Sonoma

What you need to know about the safari tour: A) it’s pricey — $68-80 per adult, $32 for kids. They even charge for infants ($15). B) you’ll go on it anyway because it’s the only thing there is to do.

Our safari tour took us through the giraffe enclosure, past a couple of rhinoceroses, on to the Watusi Cattle (who had adopted a stray dog during our visit). You’re not going to see any lions or cheetahs or elephants or any of the animals you’ve been dreaming about ever since you heard there was an African wildlife preserve in Sonoma. (THere It’s probably for the best, though, since I’m not sure how the local vineyards would respond knowing that there were lions prowling around a mile away. You will get an eyeful of wildebeests (unfortunate looking things), gazelles, elands and antelope. The prey, basically. If you’re lucky, the zebras will be feeling social and might come out for you to see them.

Giraffe at Safari West, Sonoma

(Also, as you pass another jeep “on safari” (as they say), it’s proper to wave and smile and point back and try to yell out something about the zebra you just saw. Just do it, it’s fun. You do this even if you just saw the same set of folks not 5 minutes before. If you see a jeep mired in feet of mud, it’s best to put on your best sad face before looking at each other all, “Suckers.”)

Safari Tour at Safari West, Sonoma

The ride is 2.5 hours long, and by hour 2, my mind had wandered off the impala (or were they gazelles? Who knows.) and focused squarely on the overlapping hills of fall foliage and quaint creeks.

Safari West, Sonoma

Back at home base, Dave and I picked up some more hot chocolate (leave a pregnant lady alone) before settling in for the night. With no TV or cell service, everyone is stuck talking to their families for entertainment. Dave and I sat out on our porch, looking out over the pond as the sky turned to shades of mauve and dusty indigo, thinking and talking.

Safari West, Sonoma

In the morning, we rolled up the canvas windows to a crisp fog hovering over the pond and making its way through the trees. We were ready to begin our Northern California adventure.


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