The-Edge Goes on Safari
in Wildest Marin County
By Gar Smith
June 6, 2002
Santa Rosa, CA -- Most residents of northern California would be surprised to discover that they can embark on a safari without having to book a trip to Kenya. For the price of a rock concert ticket, a phone call, and a little bit of luck, anyone can spend several hours at the Safari West Wildlife Preserve, home to more than 400 endangered and extinct-in-the-wild African mammals and birds.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, I joined a party of 40 adventure-seekers who opted to risk windburn in the Sierra foothills instead of sunburn at the coastal beaches. For several hours, we bounced over 2.5 miles of dusty trails and twisted our way through hills and valleys in a caravan of jeeps. Along the way, we marveled at spreading panoramas of African wildlife -- including free-ranging gazelles, elands, addax, lechwe, ibyx and water buffalo. The caravan also carried us past the dry grassland hills that now provides safe haven for two species of Saharan antelope that are now extinct in the wild - the addax and the scimitar-horned onyx.
The Safari West Wildlife Preserve lies 70 miles north of San Francisco, on a stretch of former cattle country shoehorned between Santa Rosa and Calistoga. The preserve, founded in 1978 by former-rancher-turned-naturalist Peter Lang, offers a living recreation of central Africa laid out over 400 acres of oak-covered foothills in Californias wine country. In 1982, Safari West became only one of six private facilities in North America admitted to membership in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
Nonprofit wildlife parks -- like commercial animal-based themeparks -- are sometimes looked at with suspicion by animal rights organizations. A check with nonprofit animal rights and federal agencies appears to show that Safari West is a well-run and well-respected operation. Since the preserve's founding, 24 years ago, the US Department of Agriculture has only cited the facility once. (In June 1994, two of five lechwes -- an animal related to the African waterbuck antelope -- died during the stress of transshipment.)
In 1992, Safari West began to offer its first educational tours. During the summer months, the preserve's large staff of 40-55 is supplemented by as many as 20 highschool- and college-age volunteers. Despite the introduction of group tours, the preserve's primary focus remains "wildlife conservation through breeding, education and research." The tours offer a means to "pay the bills," Safari West personnel explain. The park is not open to walk-in visitors. Tours are by appointment only.
From the Freeway to the Savannah
Thanks to Memorial Day traffic, our anticipated 1.5-hour trip from the Bay Area took nearly 2.5 hours. We arrived at Safari West well after the first caravan of jeeps had rumbled off over the heat-baked veldt.
Our small party was met by a Safari West ranger named Stephanie, who arranged to place us on the next motorized trek. In the meantime, Stephanie treated us to a walking tour of the compounds surrounding the central buildings.
The first wildlife residents Stephanie introduced us to were two year-old reticulated giraffes. These giraffes have seven vertebrae in their necks. The same as humans, Stephanie informed us. (Perhaps someday this factoid may prove useful in a future game of Trivial Pursuits.) We were next introduced to Mason, a darker-coated Rothschild giraffe who, at 18 feet, most likely can claim the title of Tallest Darn Giraffe in All of Northern California.
Improbably, a single small Chapmans zebra follows the giraffes around. She looks like a pygmy. She was born small and with a birth defect. In a herd (make that a dazzle) of zebras, any deformity can be a death sentence. The other members of the dazzle attacked the small newcomer, trying to stomp her to death. They broke her jaw and left her badly injured before park staff could come to her aid.
There was no way she could be returned to the zebra herd, Stephanie explained, so the caretakers tried placing her among the easy-going giraffes. It turned out to be a perfect match. The giraffes absolutely adore her, Stephanie reported. I think she believes shes a giraffe.
Birds of Praise
Following Stephanie's directions, two small groups of visitors enter the large net enclosure of the aviary via a holding cage thats something like the airlock in a submarine. The collection of rare birds assembled within the aviary are a testament to the labors of Nancy Lang, Nancy, Peter's partner, is a noted bird expert and former curator of the San Francisco Zoo.
Beneath the netting, a family of scarlet ibis roosts among the green leaves of a tree while water birds paddle across the shaded pond beneath.
The ibis was a sacred bird to the Egyptians. Mummified ibises were found in the tombs of the pharaohs, Stephanie announces, before leading us off to meet another bird with a less-auspicious legacy.
Down a river bank, Stephanie introduces us to the African hammerkop, a bird in serious need of a PR makeover. They build the worlds largest nests, Stephanie informs us. But, despite this claim to fame, they are considered unlucky. A tradition holds that if a hammerkop flies over your cattle, they will die. Because of this superstition, cattle owners shoot these birds on sight.
Stephanie forms the kids into a line to peer over the leaves at the hammerkop, one at a time. The kids have been given strict instructions to stay together, to walk not run and to speak quietly so as not to disturb the birds.
As we leave the hammerkop, two small duck like birds emerge from the bushes and begin to march forward with black webbed feet held tentatively straight in front of their bodies. A gaggle of green-and-blue crested wood partridges called "rouls-rouls: (pronounced roo-roos) skitters past.
A bit further on, a flash of color announces the arrival of an Asian golden pheasant. An astonishing array of feathered color leaps to the ground, gathers itself and strides toward the shade of a tree. The pheasant's head and shoulders seem sheathed in a helmet of pure dazzling gold.
I ask if the vast netting that surrounds the aviary also serves to protect these rare birds from local birds of prey. Large hawks are a constant feature in the skies above these valleys.
There is a great horned owl that has poached some of our guinea fowl, Stephanie replies. The guinea fowl, along with some parrots and other birds, are left free to fly about the central area without cages or nets. But the birds are brought in at night to protect them.
One of these birds is Delilah, an East India Hornbill, who was given to park founder Peter Land 25-30 years ago from a game warden who saved her from poachers. Delilah is a touch old bird. In a face-off with a horned owl, Stephanie says shed put her money on Delilah.
Meet the Cheetahs
Do you want to meet the cheetahs, Stephanie asks and the kids yell back enthusiastically. Well, then, I need you to promise me, she says, growing serious, that you will not run or talk loudly. And, this next thing is particularly important. You must stand near your parents. Dont walk off by yourself and dont squat or bend down. If a cheetah sees something small, its going to want to run over and pounce on you. These cheetahs are only nine months old and they want to play. But one of them has had surgery and if she jumps up on the fence to try and play with you, she could hurt herself.
Once all the kids have lined up and yelled out the word Promise! we set off across the compound in the direction of the cheetah enclosure. As we approach, the air is rent by an alarming set of screeching, hissing yowls. This, in turn, triggers answering outcries from other animals nearby. I assume this growling is coming from the cheetah compound, but I am wrong.
These are lemurs, Stephanie informs, gesturing towards a large wooden cage where two large, long-tailed black and white lemurs are cavorting. The larger lemur is content to cling to a large branch. The other lemur leaps about, marking graceful arcs from one platform to the next.
Why are they yelling? one of the kids wants to know. Theyre just saying Hello. How you doin? Stephanie says.
If thats what they sound like when theyre exchanging pleasantries, I ask, What do they sound like when theyre angry. Stephanie replies, You dont want to know.
One of the children, a thin, pretty dark-haired girl named Lisa, somehow manages to slip under the rope guarding the lemur house. When Stephanie spots here and warns her never to cross under the rope, the little girl, embarrassed, dissolves in tears. She runs into her fathers arms and plasters her face to his chest. Another little girl walks over and pets Lisas head. Stephanie stoops down and reassures Lisa that she hadnt done anything terribly wrong and eventually Lisas tear-streaked face emerges from her fathers rumpled shirt. With an encouraging smile from the other kids and adults, Lisas self-esteem begins to reassemble itself and we move on.
Before we leave the lemurs, however, Stephanie points out a small brood of babies in the chamber with the two adults. Well be seeing more new faces during the rest of the day.
The cheetahs weigh about 60 pounds, about half their eventual adult weight. They are nine-months old, Stephanie explains, and they came to Safari West from a collector in Oklahoma.
Safari West claims that its not a zoo, but the animals are kept within fences on large swaths of open land and the few meat-eating mammals are not encouraged to indulge their predator instincts. The gazelles, ostriches, and water buffalo are all free to graze but the cheetahs are growing up on a diet of horsemeat and beef fortified with vegetables and minerals.
In the wild, Stephanie explains, cheetahs would get their minerals from devouring plant-eating animals. Since these cats won't be allowed to supplement their diet by snacking on the occasional free-range gazelle, the solution to this dilemma is a product called Dallas Crown, or, as Stephanie calls it, Fortified Cheetah Chow.
The two cheetahs are lounging at the far side of the football-field-sized compound, taking advantage of the shade afforded by some low-lying trees. A Safari West ranger named Maria is inside the enclosure trying to encourage the cheetahs to move about. Maria kicks a small soccer ball through the ankle-high grass a few times. The cheetahs stare back with seeming disinterest.
At the far end of the compound, youll see some springboks, Stephanie announces. In the wild, cheetahs would prey on springboks. The rangers figure that having these animals bounding about in an adjoining corral would provide some useful visual stimulation for the cheetahs. I call it Cheetah-Vision. Stephanie believes the springboks are enjoying the set-up more than the cheetahs since they can tease the cheetahs and they know the cheetahs cant get at them.
Stephanie notes with alarm that two of the children have drifted away from the crowd of visitors. Their hands have become intrigued by the green ribbon marking off the forbidden zone that runs around the cheetah compound. While their parents have been preoccupied training their digital cameras on the somnolent cheetahs, the kids have wandered about 20 feet away. (I fantasize the subsequent home-movie narrative: And heres a shot of little Emily being taken down by a 60-pound carnivore
When Stephanie spots the two truants and calls out, the little girl starts to run. One of the cheetahs is suddenly up and racing across the grass.
Stephanie fast-walks over and scoops up the two strays, hoisting them onto her hips. Stephanie is not a tall woman and the combined weight of the two kids is probably equal to more than half her own weight. As she staggers back with the kids squirming and wiggling on either side of her body, none of the parents make any effort to assist her -- they are still lost in the digital world framed on the small screens of their video cameras.
Into the "Jungle"
By now the jeeps from the one oclock tour are returning to base camp. There are five in all and each can carry from 12 to 15 passengers - 2-4 perched precariously on seats mounted on a metal frame over the drivers cab.
We pile aboard a vehicle driven by Billy, whose accent could have been an acting stunt contrived for the occasion but it turns out he really does hail from South Africa. When I ask how he discovered Safari West, he explains that he mother, Sheila Sharman, has been park of the park for several years and now runs the gift shop. (Shaman also owns Zanzibar, a string of Africa-themed gift stores, the closest of which is located in nearby Calistoga.)
Before we embark on the tour, Billy fixes us with a stern eye and issues an improbably warning. Along our route, he intones. We may encounter a zebra who likes to rub her bum against the vehicles. When she does this, please do not attempt to pet her. She will bite.
Zebras, Billy will later inform us, are nasty-tempered creatures. One of the few animals that has never been domesticated.
The jeep engines rev and the vehicles start to lumber down a dirt road toward the vast grassy compound that holds the giraffes. Billy pulls the jeep up to a large gate, turns off the motor and jumps out to work the lock.
The gate swings open, Billy vaults back into the drivers seat and cranks the ignition. As the vehicle lurches forward through the gate, the moment has definite Jurassic Park overtones.
As the jeeps roll down a road occasionally interrupted by mud holes brimming with leaf-green water, the first group of animals that we come upon is a covey [collective?] of camels. Billy turns off the engine to chat about camels and offers a priceless mnemonic for telling a Bactrian from a Dromedary. I like to picture the D in Dromedary as having one hump while the B in Bactrian has two.
The jeeps cross the mini-savannah and encounter a convention of ostriches. The ostrich is the worlds only two-toed bird, Billy explains as the caravan lurches to a stop and the drivers turn off their motors.
These birds are similar to the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, Billy explains, owing to their ability to slash and kill with a single well-placed kick. And then Billy delivers one of those informational tidbits that make excursions into the exotic worth the price of admission. If you are every attacked by an ostrich, Billy consuls, the best thing to do is lie flat on the ground. If you remain standing, you are a target for a lacerating kick. Spread-eagled face-down in the dirt, the worst they can do is peck at you. (Of course, if no one comes along to rescue you, this a hardly a recipe for survival with any dignity.)
As the massive birds peck at the ground and swallow helpings of grass and gravel, Billy paints a colorful picture of ostrich libidiny, detailing how, during mating season, the birds legs and beaks turn pink. The mating dances are a wonder, Billy gushes, and the act itself is fascinating to behold.
Lecture over, Billy strides to the far gate and opens it for the caravan. As hes swinging the gate open, the other drivers begin to shout Biiiillly, youve got company.
On the left side of our jeep, one of the ostriches is making straight for the opening. Billy turns and yells at the bird which flares back indignantly, spreading its voluminous wings and opening a startlingly wide mouth only a few feet from our faces. Its another Jurassic Park Moment. Until that moment Id never thought of the awkward ostrich as a bird of prey.
Climbing up from the valley floor, the caravan winds through hills of oak scrub and dry grass. And blue wildebeests. When crossing rivers, wildebeests are easy prey for crocs, Billy observes. The crocs will seize a wildebeest - any body part will do - and execute what we call the death roll, spinning the poor animal around underwater until it drowns. After the animal is properly drowned, the croc will stuff it into a subsurface den to marinate for awhile.
Billy calls the wildebeests the grandfather of the bush, owing to their long faces and whiskers.
On the slope to our right, the scimitar-horned onyx hold court near a granite outcropping while teams of gazelles convene within easy gait of some woodland shade. We are asked to take note of the defining stripes on the gazelles. They run boldly and horizontally down the length of the sleek animals bodies. These marking are typical of grassland animals. If you see an animal with vertical strips, they are most likely to be found in wooded areas where they blend in with trees.
The week before, a furious, unseasonable rainstorm had raked these hills. Two gazelles had been born that night. Park rangers managed to bring the newborns in from the rain and kept them warm and dry through the night. The next day we returned them to the exact spot where we had taken them. And, sure enough, as the jeeps prepare to negotiate a hairpin turn, the two three-week old gazelles can be seen trotting gracefully after their mothers.
Descending a steep stretch of road, the ride gets bumpy. One particularly bad jolt, dislodges a pen I had tucked into my boot. I dont notice it but Billy does. He suddenly pulls the jeep to a halt and leaps out. A pen! he yells. Whered it fall? driver of the following vehicle yells back. It takes Billy less than a minute to find the pen and return it. He hands the pen to me and I take care to store it securely in a shirt pocket for the rest of the journey.
With animals grazing on these hills, we have to be careful that they dont pick up anything thats bad for them. Billy explains. The dropped pen offers an impressive demonstration of the extreme care and attention that these rangers devote to taking care of this land and the animals that live on it.
Zebra Bites and "Masai Milkshakes"
Topping another crest, we encounter a herd taking shelter from the midday sun beneath some low-branching boughs.
The watusi are bigger than Texas longhorns. They are a sacred cattle in Kenya, Billy relates. The Masai Mora will only kill these cattle for two occasions: Circumcision (male and female) and weddings.
Billy then recites the makings of the infamous Masai Milkshake. The Masai first draw blood from the jugular vein of their cattle They mix this in milk curdled in the sun and top it off with cattle urine. After a well-timed pause, our guide states off-handedly. And yes, I have consumed one.
A large pond appears, drawing our attention from bloody curdled urine cocktails to a snapping turtle holding court on a dark log and a flock of Canadian geese patrolling the green-mossy shallows. The inevitable Ohhs rise from the caravans passengers as two Canadian goslings are sighted, small handfuls of brownish fluff paddling energetically away from the bank in the wakes of their parents.
Billy (who, by virtue of his close encounter with a Masai Milkshake, now enjoys Full Cred' with his doting passengers) regales us with stories of his days working as a game catcher in South Africa. He illustrates why zebras have such a bad reputation. They have a vicious kick and a vicious bite, he says. One afternoon, working above a platform over a dazzle of confined zebras, Billys foot crashed through a rotten plank. Before I could pull my foot completely back, one of the zebras took a bite. He took off the entire bottom sole of my boot.
Now what animal do you think kills the most humans in the wild? our guide asks. The obvious answers - lions, elephants - are obviously off target. The answer, however, surprises us. Hippos are the worst killers, second only to cape water buffalo.
There are only 25 Cape buffalo in the US and four of them reside in these hills. And, as if on cure, as the caravan enters another fenced area, two Cape buffalo appear on our right, moving slowly down a gully about 20 yards away. The Cape buffalos only predators are lions and man. These guys have been known to kill lions - no problem.
The passengers are admiring the animals but Billy is wary. I can hear him on the walkie-talkie that he uses to stay in contact with the other drivers. Nicole, he hisses. I dont care! Lets go. I dont want to hand around here any longer. I notice that both buffalo have now turned their faces in our direction.
The massive structure of their horns completely encases their brows, making them formidable battering rams. I can only guess from Billy's whispered plea the kind of damage these animals could do if they suddenly decided to charge into a fully loaded jeep.
We quickly make our exit up-road, leaving the Cape buffalo to roam their turf in peace. Another gate is unlocked and the caravan parks in a semi-circle uphill from a truck-sized metal feeding trough surrounded by about a single male eland and nearly a dozen females. The eland looks to be as large as an elk.
A truck with Maria and another ranger is already in the feeding area. The rangers are clearing out the through and removing the old salt licks. The elands are drawn by the prospect of food but, as the rangers step from the vehicle, the entire herd moves strategically downhill. These elands are beautiful creatures but they have no desire for human company.
Further up the road, as we pass beneath a huge electric power transmission tower, several kudzu amble across the road directly in front of our lead jeep. They are followed by two ngala.
Looking over the left side of the jeep, down a nearly vertical drop, we can make out two groups of impala clinging to the slope, marvelously lit by several shafts of sunlight that have managed to penetrate the broken canopy of oak leaves.
Breaking out over the top of a hill, we come upon a small lake and a great expanse of grassy slope dotted with pale, graceful silhouettes. A tribe of white ibex. The scene is absolutely idyllic. Until someone spots what appears to be the body of a dead ibex, contorted and unmoving in a crevasse in the hill. We call this to Billys attention and he reassures us that the body is a young ibex asleep. That calf is only seven-days old, Billy tells us. The young can be left close to the ground beneath the cover of grass, he explains, where their scent will not be detected by predators. This leaves the parents free to graze. These animals will go their entire lives without drinking a drop of water, Billy claims. They get all their water from the grasses they eat.
As we slowly roll by the curve at the bottom of the ibex hill, the children in the third jeep back spontaneously break into song. The sound of the voices of children singing in the sun suddenly seems as natural and ancient as the wheeling shapes of the hawks cutting circles in the sky.
Coming Full Circle
In the distance, we now can spot the compound where our trek began. There are the giraffes, loping across the meadow. The camels grouped by a fence. The tour is coming to a close.
The jeeps pass by some of the 22 tent cabins that house overnight guests at Safari West. Men and women lean from the tent windows, smiling broadly and silently as we rumble by.
Back at the compound, we disembark, wash off the road dust and spread our picnic lunches out on wooden tables beneath trellis mounted with spinning fans. A group of young park rangers is preparing a blaze in the elevated fire pit in preparation for the evening meal.
Before leaving, we visit the gift shop and look over the collection of art from several African nations. A small, carved elephant catches my eye.
The tusk on that elephant, I ask guardedly. Its not made from actual elephant ivory is it?
Oh no, the shopkeeper assures me. The tusks are made from chalk wood. We would never use ivory. We try to be environmentally aware in everything we do at Safari West. The crafts are made from native African wood but the wood used comes from recycled railroad ties.
Several years ago, a fire swept across some nearby hills. The Safari West crew salvaged the burned timber and milled it into lumber that was used to build a giraffe barn.
Across the US, municipal governments are battle with the economic repercussions of recession. Public services, including city zoos, are facing cutbacks and struggling to survive. This makes the existence of Safari West -- and all the privately run animal sanctuaries in North America -- even more remarkable.
Nancy and Peter Lang seem to have found a unique calling. They have transformed a small corner of northern California into an African Ark. And, with the continued backing of volunteers, visitors and financial supporters, these 400-acres may remain a living celebration of wildlife - and open space - for a good while to come.
For more information contact:
Safari West Wildlife Preserve and Tent Camp, 3115 Porter Camp Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95404, (707) 579-2551, (800) 616-2695, www.safariwest.com. Tours, 1 - 3 PM: $58. Overnight tent stays for two: $225.