The Giraffe Whisperer – Safari West

Zebra Herd

As the hot sun beat down, I sat on the top deck of an old diesel safari truck when a giraffe approached and stopped about two feet from my face. I lowered my camera to get a better look at him and, curious about my face, I felt his breath as he tried to get a good sniff of me. Surely he smelled the wine I had just tasted an hour earlier in Napa Valley.

I’m at Safari West, an authentic African wildlife preserve in Santa Rosa, California. A wildlife safari is the last thing that I was expecting on my wine tasting getaway. Supported by the Safari West Wildlife Foundation, the mission here is to actively promote conservation, environmental education, and share knowledge that will help people make personal choices in regards to the environment and conservation efforts.

The staff here has over 800 animals of 80 different species to contend with every single day. I see several couples and families with kids who are giddy with excitement about seeing the animals up close. This is in fact the closest thing to an African safari you’ll find in the states. It is said to be the ‘Sonoma Serengeti’ and offers overnight stays in glamping accommodations. There’s no cell phone reception here but let it go, it’s for the best.

vintage Dodge safari jeep

Staying overnight sounds and looks like a real treat; I’d love to go back and experience it. Imagine the sun rising over the Serengeti and silhouetting a herd of giraffes. Safari West knows that so many of us have this fantasy and they make it possible with their luxury canvas tents imported from Africa, high on wooden platforms, with spacious decks that overlook the animals. Prices vary depending on season, but ranges from $250 to $400 per night and includes a continental breakfast.

safari west accomodations

My safari guide Leslie Thalman, a 22-year veteran staff member, talks about the animals like they are old friends and she seems to know everything about them. I want to be her when I grow up. She has a personal relationship with the animals that puts everyone at ease, even when getting close to a rhinoceros.

Leslia Thalman_Safari West

Lurching through the 400-acre grounds atop a Korean War vintage Dodge Power Wagon makes for an authentic safari experience. You’re exposed to the elements and the animals, dust and all. Belted in on top of the jeep is both nerve-wracking and adventurous. This really counts when approaching the 15 giraffes that wander free and often personally greet visitors close up. Do I pet him? Can I pet him? No, but nothing is quite as silly as watching him chew food and lick his lips. That tongue is ridiculous!

giraffe with attitude

Continuing over the dusty rolling hills, some surprisingly steep, I see packs of Gazelle, Bongo, Bontebok, Wildebeast, Watusi Longhorn Cattle as well as a couple of White Rhinoceros. There are no dangerous predators to be wary of thankfully, so no lions, tigers or bears.

Leslie is excited about our timing because we get a chance to watch a massive rhinoceros walk to his wading pool, step in, wait…. then slowly drop down into the refreshing water. She explains that because of drought conditions, the rhinos only get two wading pools when they would previously have six. (Cue rain dance.)

Southern White Rhinoceros

Cresting a hill, we approach a stunning herd of zebras eating lunch. Their stripe patterns are captivating. Leslie explains that the stripes are unique to each zebra, like human fingerprints. I wonder if they know how pretty they are. They probably do.

It’s early summer and babies are visible in almost every herd; grey fluffy baby flamingos, an awkward young giraffe, a baby zebra with a dozen protective mothers, loping baby gazelles, and a sleepy baby cow. This is also a step forward in wildlife conservation efforts when numbers of so many wild animals are dwindling. At the time of this writing, I’m told that Safari West now has three baby giraffes!

Later I meet with Guest Services member Aimee Somermeier who explains to me that the tents facing east near the entrance are her favorite because they get the morning sun with a view of the giraffes. I imagine watching the roaming animals while sitting on my porch sipping coffee. Aimee seems quite passionate about her job and she’ll happily arrange for a private masseuse, local winery tours, you name it, to make your stay as relaxing as possible.

PR Representative Aphrodite Caserta tells me that her favorite tent is up on the hillside as she enjoys the sounds of animals eating, socializing and playing. Apparently the flamingos and cranes are quite vocal by night.


American Flamingo

There are even more chances to get up close to the animals with Safari West’s internship programs, private safaris, close up animal encounters and photography workshops. Lest you forget you were in Napa, themed safaris are offered such as ‘Brews and Buffalo Safari’, ‘Winos and Rhinos Safari’ and the ‘Cheetahs and Chardonnay Safari’. Night owls can experience a special ‘Twilight Safari’ by request.

As I returned to my wine tasting weekend covered with dust, I knew I’d never forget the thrill of visiting such stunning animals just steps from their homes. While I know that my new giraffe friend is in excellent hands, I’m mostly comforted by the fact that I have video of him to watch when I get home. Safari West is an unexpected adventure on a wine tasting getaway and should be applauded for their conservation efforts. Not to mention it brought me one step closer to my life-long dream of becoming Mowgli from ‘The Jungle Book’.

As always, thank you for reading!


Wildebeest Watusi CattleWatusi Cattle Bongo giraffe face Dama Gazelle Thick-knee, Cape Giraffes on safari glamping_african safari tent


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suzetteHoly crap, you found me. That’s fantastic. I’m Suzette and I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve built a successful career as a travel photographer where I have the opportunity to work from anywhere in the world, and run this blog where I share inspiration for YOUR travel photography. This website is specifically for those of us who love to wander with our cameras. We take it slow. We are curious. We love nature and the outdoors. Most of all, we love taking great photographs.

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