Out of Africa in California: Barrier-Free Travel

Safari WestIt all began with a quick white flash. Then, there was a slight movement in the bushes off to my right. A few seconds later I was able to make out a couple of amorphous shapes.

Just as I was about to query our guide, Sherry slammed on the brakes of our safari vehicle. With a thunderous roar, a heard of animals ran across the road in front of us and bounded up the adjacent hill. In a few seconds they were gone. “Thompsons Gazelles,” quipped Sherry “Aren’t they beautiful?”

Though a common sight in Africa, we weren’t exactly in the wilds of the Dark Continent. In fact, we were just an hour from San Francisco, at a unique wildlife sanctuary that offers visitors an accessible and intimate taste of Africa.

The brainchild of Peter Lang, Safari West is a wildlife sanctuary with a twist; it also boasts an African-style tent camp. This 400-acre (1.6 square kilometer) game preserve is home to a bevy of exotic animals and birds, most of which roam free inside the gated compound. Visitors can take a safari tour or stay overnight in a luxury tent cabin, or both. It’s almost like visiting Africa; except you don’t get jet lag, you save about $3,000, and you can do it in a weekend.

Visitors explore Safari West’s gated compound in an open-air safari vehicle.

The 2.5-hour safari tour is conducted in an open-air vehicle. Half of the “safari” is a driving tour, and the other half is a ranger-led walking tour. The driving tour covers the gated compound, where watusi cattle, cape buffalo, gazelles, zebras, ostriches and oryxes roam free. Some animals approach the vehicle; in fact, one ostrich with an attitude took a peck at me. It’s all part of the unscripted wildlife experience.

The standard tour is not technically wheelchair-accessible, as you must climb up a few steps to transfer into the back of the high safari vehicle. It is suitable for slow walkers, because you don’t have to get out of the vehicle until it returns. Alternatively, if you can transfer out of your wheelchair and climb up one large step, you can sit in the front seat.

The walking part of the tour covers the enclosures near the tent cabins in the main area of the preserve. The total distance covered is about a city block, and golf carts are available for visitors who cannot walk the distance. This part of the tour is excellent, as it includes a look at the cheetahs and lemurs, some close-up giraffe interaction and a stroll though the spectacular open-air aviary.

Although the standard tour is moderately accessible, wheelchair-users can request a modified tour if the standard tours does not suit their needs. The modified tour covers the same area as the walking part of the standard tour, but it includes transportation by golf cart and a private naturalist guide. The plus side is that it’s a more personalized tour with your own guide, but the down side is that you don’t get the driving tour of the compound. Advance reservations are required for all tours, so just explain your access needs when you call.

Of course, the highlight of any Safari West experience is an overnight stay. Safari West has two accessible tent cabins and two additional tent cabins that are good for slow walkers. These luxury tents all have hardwood floors, canvas sides and tops, indoor plumbing and electricity, just like the upscale safari camps in Africa.

Cabin 1H is the most accessible choice. It has a paved parking area, a ramped entry, wide doorways, ample room to maneuver a wheelchair, a roll-in shower with a fold-down shower seat, a hand-held showerhead and grab bars in the shower and around the toilet.

Cabin 2H is located up a slight dirt grade. It has the same access features as cabin 1H except it has a grass parking area, and there are no toilet grab bars. Cabins 3 and 4 are located near the dining area, have steps at the entry and are a good choice for slow walkers. The other tent cabins are located up a rather steep incline. Golf cart transportation is available to the tent cabins, but there are no phones to call for a downhill shuttle.

All four of these tent cabins have a roomy porch with great views of the giraffe enclosure. It’s the ideal place to watch the sunset and enjoy a glass of wine. Plan ahead, and bring the fixings for a picnic dinner. It’s the perfect way to end your African safari day.

And of course, nothing beats sleeping near the animals!


Safari West

3115 Porter Creek Road

Santa Rosa, CA

707- 579-2551


Janna Graber
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