Safari surprise in hippie hamlet

One of California's tiniest towns counts endangered zebras among its residents, writes Julie Miller.

Sarah the Grevy's zebra looks ready to pop and clearly she's eating for two as she pushes her way past other herd-mates to the front of the feed bin, long mule ears laid flat. "If you're lucky, there might be a foal in the morning," Frank Mello tells our small tour group as he scatters hay around the enclosure to ensure those less pushy than Sarah also get a feed.

The youngest of our party, a 12-year-old boy, claps his hands with glee and I too can't think of a nicer sight to wake up to than a stripy baby, still wobbly on its spindly legs.

As far from the wilds of Africa as you can imagine, Sarah and about 65 other hoofed exotic mammals live at the B. Bryan Preserve in Point Arena, northern California, a privately owned preserve dedicated to the breeding and preservation of rare African zebras and antelopes. Started by Frank and his wife Judy as a hobby, the 45-hectare preserve (named after Judy's grandfather) has become one of the most important breeding facilities in the world for these animals.

Anywhere else in the US, a couple stocking their land with ungulates and equids for reasons other than riding or hunting would be considered the height of eccentricity. Indeed, Frank and Judy aren't your average suburban mall-rats, Frank resembling a nutty professor with long, straggly grey hair and a PhD in biochemistry and Judy a southern belle with a corporate background who developed a passion for African wildlife during her youth.

But in Point Arena, no one really blinked an eye when the former executives from Sara Lee Corp moved from Mississippi in 1998, bringing with them 11 "pet" antelopes and some unusual dreams. This tiny town - one of the smallest incorporated cities in California, with a population of just 480 - has been luring hippies, bohemians and artists since the '60s, its Grateful Dead-obsessed population responsible for its brightly coloured shop facades, organic cafes and backyard yurts.

The greater kudu cuts an impressive figure as we wander by.

Wedged between the wild Pacific Ocean and dense redwood forests, Point Arena is a "blink or you'll miss it" hamlet 209 kilometres north of San Francisco, as pretty and quirky as a movie backlot. In fact, the town has been well used by Hollywood, with its 1928 art deco vaudeville theatre featured in the Jim Carrey drama The Majestic and its magnificent lighthouse - the tallest on the west coast of the US - the star of the final scene in Mel Gibson's 1992 time-travel melodrama Forever Young.

Like Mad Mel, I also feel as though I've fallen into a time warp as I stock up on organic snacks in the town's wholefood grocery. A wander along Main Street is only a five-minute commitment, pausing to admire lurid murals adorning shop fronts before stepping into the brightest facade of all, Franny's Cup and Saucer. A tiny hole-in-the-wall bakery, this gorgeous nook sells handmade trinkets as well as pastries, cakes and candies - an essential stop for everyone driving through on Highway 1.

Back in my cottage on the grounds of B. Bryan Preserve, I crack open a bottle of a local pinot noir and watch the sun set over a duck pond. Built to capitalise on growing interest from tourists in the sanctuary, the three cottages gracing the Mellos' property have all been constructed from reclaimed materials. My two-bedroom accommodation is named Chapel Cottage, its windows sourced from a 100-year-old church in southern California; and while boards from its deck are also from a Catholic church, other furnishings have been hauled from less holy dwellings - the kitchen windows salvaged from a mobster's home in Chicago, while the brass bed in the master bedroom once earned its keep in a Montana brothel.

All the comforts of home are on hand in the cottage: a kitchen with all the essential utensils and a microwave, a cosy lounge scattered with books and warmed by a circa-1900 French parlour stove, and two spacious bedrooms. An outdoor hot tub is a welcome and surprising addition on a chilly spring evening, while Frank's personal collection of psychedelic music posters lining the stairwell seems highly appropriate in this NoCal location.

In keeping with its "low carbon footprint" philosophy, guests are encouraged to pluck fresh vegetables from the garden and even steal eggs from the hen house. But while they are welcome to wander around the property, animal enclosures are off limits, their inhabitants locked safely away to preserve their wild integrity.

The opportunity to observe the animals beyond the fences, however, is available on a daily tour, offered to outside visitors as well as cottage guests. With Frank driving ahead in a pick-up loaded with lucerne hay, we follow on foot with Judy, whose knowledge about her hoofed charges is impressive. Each of the species kept on the preserve is either endangered or conservation dependent; for instance, there are just 2500 Grevy's zebras left in Ethiopia and Kenya, with B. Bryan Preserve's herd making up 1 per cent of the world's population.

The largest, wildest and most untamable of the three zebra species remaining in Africa, Grevy's zebra is also the most handsome, tall and long-limbed, with narrow stripes running perpendicular to the spine and curving around the tail in a triangular form. Its mane is coarse and stands on end, its ears comically large and silky, and its tail ends in a cute tuft of hair.

The Hartmann's mountain zebra, on the other hand, is a quirkier character, with a peculiar pouch under its chin, a gridiron pattern adorning its back and wide stripes marking its rump. It is also much stockier than the Grevy's - a trait that makes it the preferred target of poachers. Extinct in Angola due to legal hunting, it is now found only in pockets of Namibia, where an estimated 5000 remain in the wild.

While the showy zebras are clearly the stars of the tour, Judy speaks just as passionately about her antelopes. With its spiral horns and striped grey coat, the greater kudu cuts an impressive figure, standing tall and proud as we wander by, while the shy Roans tend to hide out in the shrubs, mothers leaving their babies hidden while they graze with the herd.

In the Sable enclosure, we ooh and ah over Leroy and Luigi, two calves born just a few weeks earlier. Much lighter than their chocolate-coated mothers, the babies are dozing in the afternoon sun when Frank arrives to check on their welfare, springing to their feet as he approaches.

In the middle of the property, a new construction heralds the preserve's latest acquisitions - a pair of giraffe, due to grace their new solar-heated home by the end of the year. Two new cottages overlooking the giraffe enclosure with raised decks will allow guests a unique view as they soak in the outdoor hot tub.

Just like the proverbial kettle, a watched zebra never boils, with Sarah failing to deliver her promised foal before my departure from Point Arena. I later discover that baby Lisa was born just three days after I left, one of 15 youngsters born on the property that summer and testament to the Mellos' commitment to increasing the world's population of these lovely, endangered animals.

The writer was a guest of California Tourism.

Trip notes

Getting there

United Airlines flies Sydney to San Francisco direct, Point Arena is a three-hour drive north of San Francisco.

Staying there

The Chapel Cottage and Bridge Cottage each sleep four people and cost from $US185 ($178) a night. The Carriage House sleeps up to three people and costs from $US135 a night. Two-night minimum for all stays.

Touring there

A 1½-hour tour of the B. Bryan Preserve costs $US20 an adult and $US10 for children 10 and under. Tours free for cottage guests.

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