Peter Lang first heard the call of the wild as a little boy, scampering around Hollywood backlots in the ‘60s as his filmmaker father, Otto, worked on TV shows such as “Flipper,” “Daktari” and “Sea Hunt.”
Beguiled by the lions and chimps he befriended on the “Daktari” set, the young Lang felt a deep connection to nature. It sparked a passion for animal conservation that led him to raise African eland, large antelopes with oxlike bodies, and eventually inspired him to found Safari West, a 400-acre nature preserve tucked amid the rolling hills of Santa Rosa, in 1993.
For Lang and his wife, Nancy, a zoologist, this is more than just a wildlife refuge. It’s their life’s work. During the devastating 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, Lang refused to abandon the preserve. As the flames approached, he made everyone else evacuate, grabbed a garden hose and a shovel and fought the fire. He stood guard all night, making sure that all 1,000 animals — from the giraffes and the cheetahs to rhinos and hyenas — were safe. The Langs lost their home to the inferno that night but not a single animal.
That fierce sense of devotion is what makes this more than just a zoo where most of the animals roam free. A trip to this wildlife sanctuary feels like an escape from mundane reality. Certainly, it’s the closest many of us will ever get to the magic of the Serengeti. Here are four must-dos for the next time you visit.
Go on safari
A dazzling herd of zebras bolts across the road, perhaps spooked by your off-road jeep. You never know which creatures will wander into view, as you bounce up and down the winding roads on a three-hour quest to encounter more than 90 species. But it’s common to spot leaping antelopes, fuzzy baby zebras and perhaps a rowdy cape buffalo, the most dangerous animal in the preserve, grunting in a standoff.
You can’t touch the animals, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try to touch you. Be prepared for sneaky ostriches who want to steal your sunglasses and giraffes who fancy a nuzzle. And there’s a dainty little demoiselle crane in the aviary, Kovu, who may try to sneak out with you.
Indulge that baby fever
The birth of any baby is cause for celebration but the arrival of a Southern white rhino is close to a miracle. Bouncing baby Otto, a 100-pound bundle of joy named after Lang’s father, represents a major environmental milestone. Safari West zoologists have been trying to breed rhinos for almost a decade to help save the endangered species, and this is their first victory. Decades of poaching have rendered the Northern white rhino almost extinct, which makes the arrival of Otto, a cousin of that species, all the sweeter. Best of all, he’s a real scamp, barreling around on chubby limbs until he falls over or trying to coax his mother, Eesha, into a game of tag.
Check out some of his antics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9w9-P4ADXDI
Go behind the scenes
Specialty tours include a variety of behind-the-scenes encounters with wildlife, from cheetahs to the gregarious giraffes eager for their favorite snack. You won’t be feeding anything to the cheetahs — obviously — but the giraffes are a delightfully different story. Just hold onto those acacia leaves tightly; giraffes pull hard.
And a photo safari combines the thrill of the expedition with the art of the camera. Learn how to compose eye-popping pictures, from lighting tricks and interesting angles to framing details. A guide helps your party snap the perfect shot of flamingos striking a one-legged pose or ring-tailed lemurs whirling by their tails. The photo safari goes out twice a day, once in the early morning and again in the late afternoon, when the light shimmers. Tip: Look for tableaux that are rich in intricate detail, such as impala horns overlapping and zebra stripes seeming to zigzag as a herd thunders by. The symmetry of nature is high art.
Make the magic last by staying overnight. Tuck into a traditional South African braai, a hearty barbeque of spice-rubbed chicken or brisket, for dinner, then sip wine by the fire as children and grandchildren cartwheel on the grass near the aviary. Once darkness falls, you can explore a bit by flashlight before bedding down in one of 30 luxury camping tents imported from Botswana and decked out with zebra-print bedding, African art and gorgeous woodwork (some made by Lang). Fall asleep to the chuckles of the kookaburra and wake up to flamingos squawking for breakfast. (Bring earplugs because the jungle can get noisy.) Once morning arrives, go watch the fluffy little fennec foxes begging for food and belly rubs.
Details: Safari West offers reservation-only safari tours ($45-$148), as well as specialty tours and overnights, at 3115 Porter Creek Road in Santa Rosa; www.safariwest.com.