Safari West: An Oakland family surprises the kids with a mystery trip

Thanks to Oakland writer Nancy Davis Kho for sharing her story with us today.

When I was a kid in Upstate New York, my parents surprised my older siblings and me one day by taking us on a Mystery Overnight. They only told us to pack pajamas and a change of clothes. Then they drove us to a little resort island on the east side of Buffalo, about ninety minutes from home, to stay overnight at a hotel that–as my sister and I both recall–had the best video arcade we’d ever seen. It wasn’t a fancy trip, but the mystery and the anticipation made it magical, and I always vowed to do the same with my kids someday.

That day was the Friday after Thanksgiving, and that ninety minute drive got us all the way from Oakland to the Serengeti. Well, at least to Safari West, a 400 acre African game preserve near Santa Rosa. Our girls, 12 and 15, knew only that it was going to be cold at night, but I tried to give them clues in the form of our road trip playlist: “Little Lion Man” by Mumford and Sons, “Dela” by Johnny Clegg and Savuka, “Waka Waka” by Shakira, and “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen. Because even though we were headed to the plains and not the jungles of Africa, every road trip playlist needs some Bruce.

The audible clues didn’t make sense until the Safari West sign loomed, but then it all fell into place. We’d booked a safari for early afternoon, and managed to snag the four-person bench on top of the Land Rover to ensure maximum joltage for our adventure-loving teen and tween.

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The tour lasts almost three hours, most of it in the jeep; Safari West advises that the rough terrain may make pregnant women uncomfortable, and there was a height restriction for kids riding up top.

The park boasts some 600 animals: giraffes, gazelles, zebras, oryx, antelopes, and wildebeests are in an open savannah setting through which the jeep passes, plus cheetahs, monkeys and tons of bird species in cages and aviaries for the walking part of the safari. Our guide, Danny, was incredibly knowledgeable and it felt like a master class in biology with units on camouflage, adaptation, and yes, reproductive science. (Birds and bees do it, but as we observed with much amusement, so do giant porcupines and rhinos, and one very lovesick antelope trying to cross species lines.)

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There’s something deliciously anachronistic about cruising around the beautiful Sonoma wine country and catching sight of a herd of Cape buffalo coolly observing the tourists. Safari West takes its role as steward of African wildlife seriously, with a Research and Education department that cooperates with local schools and universities, as well as a special “Talk Nerdy to Me” tour. For budding biologists in the household, the safari tours are bound to be memorable.

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We got back to the main compound in time for the evening BBQ, by which point the dropping temperatures sent us in search of scarves and gloves. Dinner was delicious and ample, especially considering we were still digesting turkey from the day before. The kids’ favorite part was when the staff brought out marshmallows around the firepit.

Then it was time to head up to our tent cabin, which was furnished with all the creature comforts that mattered: lush bedding, electric blankets, and a space heater. We’d booked a cabin with a full sized bunk bed and a King, so everybody was happy and, once we were under the covers, nice and warm. I expected to be kept up all night by the hooting flamingoes we could see and hear from our front porch, but the cold night air and complete dark worked like an Ambien – I fell asleep by 8 pm and stayed that way until morning.

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After a continental breakfast and another walk-through of all the animals in cages, we were ready to pack up and head home. The one night stay, including the Safari and dinner, was definitely a splurge. But how many people do you know can say they took a 25 hour trip to Africa? And the chance to recreate a happy memory from my own childhood was priceless.

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Nancy Davis Kho is a writer in Oakland, CA whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Morning News, and Skirt! Magazine. An avid music fan, she writes about the years between being hip and breaking one at MidlifeMixtape.com. She also hangs out on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

All photos belong to Nancy Davis Kho.

Visit the Safari West website for more information.

Related post in the 510 archives: Heather ignores the warning for pregnant women and takes her big belly plus two boys, 4 and 6, for a day trip to Safari West