California’s unlikeliest destination is an amazing experience

NEWS has a habit of moving on. The January 2018 mudslides that ravaged Montecito in Southern California took the headline attention away from the aftermath of last October ’s wildfires in the northern part of the state, which torched 199,000 acres and took 39 lives.

After dining under the stars we slept soundly in out tent against a backdrop of wild sounds. Luxurious enough, but still with real camping’s dewy chill in the morning.

Since then nature, aided by serious resources, has been healing itself. It will take a while for the wooded mountains north of Santa Rosa to properly recover from the Tubbs Fire, the most destructive firestorm in California’s history, but as the tendrils of new growth everywhere in burnt out meadows demonstrate, life goes on.

In the case of Safari West, the lives of giraffes, zebras, rhinoceros, cheetahs and a hundred other exotic species saved from the blaze as it threatened to engulf their idyllic 400 acre sanctuary, known as the ‘Sonoma Serengeti’.

Across the Atlantic via newsflashes we followed every step of the struggle to contain the fierce conflagration. The flames were kept at bay and no animals harmed, but the off-site homes of owner Peter Lang and some of his warden team were destroyed. When the 77-year-old finally came through he had only his truck, his passport, his Levi’s and a shirt, he told a San Francisco Gate reporter in a blow by blow account.

Our interest was personal. Less than a month before we had stayed in one of its treetop glamping tents after a glorious day’s adventure in this private wildlife preservation/conservation centre. 

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It was a highlight of our San Francisco-Seattle road trip and is well worth a detour from the Sonoma Wine Country. Day visits resumed surprisingly swiftly after the wildfires, in time for Thanksgiving, and now the accommodation package is back. The 30 tents were imported from Botswana, each with a private viewing deck, en-suite bathroom and polished hardwood floors. After dining under the stars at the Savannah Cafe (braii style grills and good local Pinot Noir) we slept soundly in out tent against a backdrop of wild sounds. Luxurious enough, but still with real camping’s dewy chill in the morning.

We never met Lang, who founded Safari West on a former cattle ranch back in the Seventies before opening on the current site in 1993, but the meticulous attention he had poured into the project was obvious with hugely knowledge and loyalty among the staff.

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Most visitors take a Classic Safari Tour, which lasts up to three hours and includes both walking and open air drive sections for groups of up to 10 people. The reserve’s expanse shares similar environmental features with an African savanna (split into pens) and here various species can roam free.

Smaller animals are kept in enclosures reached by walkway, while the open-air aviary is home to a glorious array of technicolor birds, including cranes and flamingoes. Cutest is the sociable demoiselle crane who offers to act as a guide to visitors.

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Mother and baby giraffe

The giraffe breeding programme is a key element and stopping up close to the graceful youngsters – two were born in 2017 before the wildfures – was a top stop-off our on our Private Sunset Jeep Safari. The lemur were mega engaging too, but we were warier about the evil-eyed ostriches!

Our tour finished on a hilltop surrounded by antelope as a mellow sun went down over the Mayacamas Mountains. Our personal guide Alex poured us a selection of craft beer, local except for the appropriate Kenyan Tusker lager (we had opted for the Brews and Buffalo rather than the Winos and Rhinos tour). It felt like paradise. 

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As small talk we asked Alex if they had evacuation plans in the event of fire. How do you rescue  a giraffe, say or a rhino? He confirmed various options to transfer the wildlife to zoos in San Francisco to the south and Portland, Oregon, to the north, after which we didn’t give it another thought. Earthly paradises can be more fragile than you think.

180505 Meditate

There’s so much to enjoy in Wine Country and Northern California. Check out my 10 Luminous Spots.

Fact file

Safari West, 3115, Porter Creek Road, CA 95404. The website has a full list of species at the reserve. Check glamping availability and rates here and safari tour rates here.

A variety of airlines have services to San Francisco from the UK, including British Airways, Virgin, American Airlines and Thomas Cook. Safari West is one and a half hours away by road.

Neil Sowerby’s car hire for his US West Coast road trip was booked through Affordable Car Hire

To plan your trip of a lifetime go to Visit USA and Visit California. For full tourist information about Sonoma go to Sonoma County. Their latest post-wildfires bulletin tells me new hotels and restaurants are opening, the Artisan Cheese Festival is growing into a new location and there’s a huge new Russian River Brewery facility coming to Windsor, outside Santa Rosa.

Manchester Airport parking:

Neil Sowerby left his car parked through T3 Meet and Greet. Here are all the options:

VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.

Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.

Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.

Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

JetParks –  low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link.