Founder & CEO of ROAR Africa, Conservationist & Women’s Activist
Deborah Calmeyer spent her formative years in Zimbabwe, torn by the Rhodesian Bush War, an experience that deeply affects her to this day. In 2005, Deborah’s love for Africa and her desire to share its beauty with the world led her to found ROAR Africa, a luxury travel company that offers ultra-lux, fully guided safaris across East and Southern Africa. Deborah remains dedicated to wildlife conservation, improving Africa’s economy through tourism and uplifting women through education and job creation.
How many generations of your family have lived in South Africa?
Eleven generations. My mother’s ancestor, Daniel Hugo, came to Cape Town in 1685 from Champagne in France.
Where were you born, and how long did you live there?
I was born in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, although it was Rhodesia at the time. I attended Bishopslea, an all-girls school run by Anglican nuns. It was just sort of normal, going to chapel every day and singing hymns . . . a very English school system. I left Zimbabwe at 15, but I finished school in South Africa.
As the eldest of four, tell me about your other three siblings.
Next in line is my sister; we are very close. We went to the same school, grew up in the same sort of world. My brother and other sister are from my dad’s second marriage. I am very close to my brother. He lives in Johannesburg and has three young children. Neither the sister that I am closest with nor I had any children.
How old were you when your parents separated?
I was two, so I don’t remember my parents ever being together. I spent the years from two to five with my dad’s mom, which is the reason she was such a prominent part of my life. I do not remember too much of my mom in those years. I do remember my dad being on the farm, the Zimbabwe Bush War and that kind of thing.
The Rhodesian Bush War was a geopolitical uprising. How did that affect you?
It left me with very unsettled nerves. My husband always says that if I am sleeping, an ant can walk into the room, and I’ll wake up. I am high-strung naturally, but that experience impacted my sleep patterns forever. There was a time when if the house alarm went off at night, I had to grab my sister out of bed. We would have to leopard crawl across the floor into my dad’s room where he would be on an Agric alert system calling in with a rifle at his side saying, “We’re still alive. We’re fine.” That could happen several times a night and, consequently, is why I think I’m a very light sleeper today.
How old were you when the uprising occurred?
I was five, and it ended when I was seven. Our schoolteacher broke
the news to the classroom. I still remember her, to this day, walking past the windows, her face so red with fear, and all of us waiting to hear. We knew who we were supposed to want to be the president, but instead, it was Mugabe. It was a fearful announcement that came to seven-year- old little girls. Of course, we didn’t understand what it meant, other than it was important, and it wasn’t the answer we wanted.
What precipitated the civil war, and what brought some unity to that country?
I was quite young and just remember tidbits of conversations. I’ve put this picture together as best I can. Zimbabwe—Rhodesia was a British Colony. It was time for it to be taken back by the African people who had settled there originally. What was driving the war was land and ownership by the whites who were the minority. That precipitated the war. When Mugabe came into power, he was much better, I think, than anybody expected. He is a very educated man and continued on a very, very good path in bringing everybody together. There wasn’t apartheid in Zimbabwe the way there was in South Africa. We didn’t have the racial hatred between black and white. There was no segregation. You had a very educated majority. The school systems in Zimbabwe were all British, and everyone’s English was fantastic. It was the breadbasket of Africa, highly productive from an agricultural standpoint. You didn’t have that undercurrent that to this day, unfortunately, you experience in South Africa. I think that’s why the unity was much easier, and the transition was much more peaceful until recent times.
You have been to Zimbabwe during the civil unrest in the last decade?
Oh, yes. We go a lot. Because the poor people of Zimbabwe cannot rely on the government, they primarily depend on tourism. It’s really the only industry that is in production. We take our guests to places like Victoria Falls, safe National Parks and lodges that are secure for travel. I do all I can to support Zimbabwe and tourism. I would do anything for the people there. I have a huge fondness and love for the people, wildlife, the settings and the landscapes. If I can take people there safely, then that’s absolutely what I want to do.
At fifteen years of age, you left Zimbabwe?
Yes, I went back to South Africa, where both of my parents are from, to an English area called Natal. It’s called KwaZulu-Natal today, and Durban, I guess, is the biggest city that people would know of or recognize. So, we went there. My mom and dad actually went a year apart. I finished school in a place called Pietermaritzburg.
What precipitated both of your parents move from Zimbabwe?
My dad was a big agricultural farmer in Zimbabwe, and farming became really difficult. He had a huge Friesian Holstein stud, and things just started to fall apart, from the mechanics of farming to the reliability of systems. He couldn’t farm at the high production level that he used to. So, it was the time for him to movie on. Meanwhile, my mom remarried somebody who owned a private charter airplane company. When he sold that company to the Red Cross, they essentially retired and moved back to South Africa next to my mom’s parents along the coast. They retired and played a lot of golf.
Why did your parents move to Zimbabwe originally?
My grandparents ran all of Harry Oppenheimer’s farms and agricultural production in Zimbabwe. My grandfather worked for Harry for 50 years. My dad actually went to school in Cape Town. He would travel down on the train as a little boy and go to a school there that all the men in our family had attended. However, it was really my grandparents that were based in Zimbabwe on a farm. My mom and dad met at University, and Dad took her to Zimbabwe.
Where did your husband and you meet?
We met at work in Johannesburg. He was the managing director of a tech company where I worked as a salesperson. From there, we moved to New York City.
What was the impetus for that move?
You’re going to laugh, but I’ll tell you-watching too many episodes of Friends. When you sit in Africa, you look out at the world, and you always want to be something more because you feel you are at the bottom of the world. I thought life in New York was what I saw on Friends. It was a very humbling experience and far from what really was here. I kept saying, “We have to go, we’ve got to go, I want to go.” I mean I was 24.
How much time alone do you need daily?
I don’t like my own company. I think it comes from being moved between parents as a little girl and never ever feeling secure and safe. My husband’s the first person who ever made me feel safe, and I knew I wanted to marry him in the first three weeks. I could trust him. And so, I hate being alone. I’m scared of it.
How did the idea for ROAR Africa come to you?
We eventually got our green cards and moved on to other companies. For a brief stint (all of three weeks), we moved back to South Africa. I suddenly realized everybody was married and most had children. I thought, “I am too young; let’s go back to New York.” So, we came back to New York. My dad was visiting, and he was struggling and didn’t have much money or a job in South Africa. As a white male at 65, he was last on the list of people to hire. We were brainstorming ideas for something we could do together, and I said, “I’m always getting asked questions by people wanting to go to South Africa.” They would show me their itineraries, and I would offer my opinion. Having been an animal scientist himself, I said, “Why don’t you get your guiding license and start taking some people around. I can send you a couple of trips a year, I’m sure.” At the time, I was thinking four or five. He was delighted and enthused, so we got going, and our first year we just did four little trips with families. They took a chance very thankfully, and that’s where we started.
How long ago was that?
That was 13 years ago.
When is the best time to go on a safari?
Seasons there are always the reverse. When you’re having winter, we’re having summer. That’s the general guideline, though we don’t have the four distinct seasons like you have here in New York. We have about 300 days of summer and maybe a little bit of cooler temperatures in July and August. The weather might not be ideal in July and August in Cape Town because it has a Mediterranean climate. That’s the only outlier. As far as safari goes, you can really go anytime. There are times that are cooler, and the hot months are October and November. But the rest of the year, you can go and see great things and be very comfortable.
How did you develop the programmatic portions of your Safari?
You know, it’s been a great blessing that I didn’t know what I was doing because I had to make decisions that weren’t in line with what was normal for the industry. I did another job for six years as I was starting ROAR Africa. I pieced together the trips based on what the guests told me. I would meet with them in person. I would find out what worked on other trips, what they loved, what they didn’t like what they were nervous of, what was beautiful to them. I tried to use my knowledge and just instinctively decided how to do this, when to do it, what order to do it in and how to make it cost effective as possible. Everything was word of mouth. I didn’t have any money invested in a company. I didn’t have a budget for marketing or PR. The guests would come over me, I would build the experience, and then my dad would take over. He would meet the guests on arrival, and they would be with him throughout. And that’s how we started. Most people who plan and provide tours and safaris don’t live between two continents like I do. They hand the guest over to what we call in the industry, a ground operator, who delivers the trip. Our guests get to stay with one company all the way through, which provides the quality and consistency we offer. It was one of the smartest things we could ever do. It is a big differentiator and the fact that my team is all African is as well. We cover all of Southern Africa and a little bit of East Africa. Most of my team, our operations team, is located in South Africa, but then we have people in the 13 countries that we serve. Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda would be our East Africa component. We are in all of Sub-Saharan countries from Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Zambia. Finally, my team covers Indian Ocean islands, Mauritius, Madagascar and the Seychelles.
Of all of the wonderful adventures that you put together, is there one that is a crème de la crème?
There always is something that one can build which includes your very top end properties. You put in private aviation, private guiding, and there is a lot of choice. You have only to look at some of the world’s best hotels to see that about 25 percent of them are in Africa to know there is a huge selection. I would say the crème de la crème is Botswana, South Africa and the Seychelles. Those are top destinations for the absolute top level of hospitality.
When you meet with a client, how do you decide?
I ask them what is their objective, what do they want to do, how do they want to feel, what mode of transport and what their budget is because we generally only do four-and-a-half to five star trips. But even within that range, the budget can vary drastically. You can stay somewhere great for $700.00 a night versus $3,500 a night per person. A lot depends on the length of the trip, how much money they want to spend and their specific travel DNA. It is different for every person. I often ask the client to define what luxury means to them. If you come from New York, luxury might be space, no noise or buildings and beautiful landscapes. Somebody else might be drawn to hotel amenities, a spa, Wi-Fi, Michelin Star restaurants. It is interesting to actually explore that with people who often don’t know that themselves.
You recently held a Women’s Empowerment, ROAR and Restore safari. Can you tell me about that experience?
That has been the highlight of my career so far. America has taught me all about gender equity and that it’s not equal in the workplace. America leads the world in so many ways with its more balanced corporate boards, even though I know we think not. If you look at the safari industry, it is about 50 years behind in comparison to the U.S. The idea of this trip was to highlight women, African women, who are now doing jobs that have traditionally been male dominated. I am fed up with the Crocodile Dundee white, male safari guide always being the glam safari experience because that’s the picture that everyone conjures up. I’ve even had clients ask, “Are we safe with a woman guide?” I’d rather be with a female any day. We’re a little bit more precautious in the bush. So, the idea was to try to highlight these women by giving them a platform to come center stage. We also brought in a group of global travelers, international women of consequence, who have achieved amazing things in their lives. We had 24 in attendance with five speakers from different countries, Kenya, Congo, India, New York, to share what they had done and their huge accomplishments. It was really extraordinary to take them and show them the Girls College of Tourism. It was a deep, behind-the-scenes, intimate thing to see. Typically, they are only going to the front of the beautiful lodge where there might be some females working. You don’t normally get to know where the women come from, what they’ve struggled with and what they’ve accomplished. Through the philanthropic work of another South African woman, there is a tracking academy (with a few men who came from completely destitute backgrounds), a herding academy . . . all are largely females. They might have, if they were lucky, had a job as a housekeeper, but now they are being trained to work in five-star lodges and hotels around Southern Africa and East Africa. It is just a beautiful program to see this incredible philanthropy at work changing not only that person’s life but also changing the lives of their family and their community. It speaks to giving hope and is the inspiration for so much more. These women are overcoming not only western social barriers in terms of gender but tribal barriers. Most of the men in Africa leave their villages to work in the cities. So, the women are left behind as subsistence farmers with goats, cattle, pigs and sheep to graze. No one’s ever taught them that bad grazing habits affect climate change, while with proper grazing, water is absorbed by the land or funneled into the right place. It is just extraordinary that this philanthropist in South Africa has recognized this. There are about 30,000-woman herders in South Africa alone. This is a “train the trainer” program for these women to now learn how to effectively herd their animals on the land which feeds into a holistic view of tourism at the end of the day.
How intense was the nine-day trip?
We try to roar, and we try to restore with very nice accommodations with lots of wellness components to it. I think there is something very special that happens to you when you’re in the wild, a reconnection of DNA that is preprogrammed into all of us, a sort of wholeness that we feel. We really wanted to make time for people to be out there with the animals, enjoying the landscape, and the sky, and speaking to some of the conservationists that work every day in this area. The trip was mainly in three areas. We started in Cape Town, and then went to an area called Crawford, where these programs were, and then to the Oppenheimer’s property in the Karoo called Swallow. There, guests got to see lions, cheetahs and all sorts of different animals and have a true safari experience. Many had not been on safari before.
What did the guests/participants have in common?
These women are all activists; they are all out there fighting for causes that they really believe in. This was something they were fascinated by and wanted to be part of. The travel was interesting and exotic and comfortable, but it was an expensive trip. You could have done that travel without some of these elements, but these women are curious and wanted to make an impact, and they really did.
Will you do this again?
Yes. Absolutely. If it takes me until the day I die to drive this conversation and ensure that at least 50 percent of the employees on these properties are women, then that’s what I am here to do. I saw the reward and how much it meant to the women that were working at the lodges; even our pilots were female. It was so incredible because they had never been on the front lines and usually were relegated to housekeeping and reservations. They were not used to hosting and being in front of the guests and listening to the speakers. That was not normal. So many of the women that worked at the lodge came to me and thanked me for making them important. It chokes me up every time I say this because I didn’t know it was going to mean this much so fast. And so, absolutely, I need to take more strong American women leaders to Africa to help me do this because I can’t do it on my own.
So, how would a person engage with you?
They would just call us, email us or go to our website. I would welcome anybody interested.
How large is your organization?
We are small, 25 full-time people: twenty women and five males, as well as a couple of freelancers.
When a person calls you and says, “I have this budget, I want this experience,” what happens next?
Assuming that we can meet those requirements, I would do everything I can to meet in person. That’s really important. I’ll get on a plane and fly to Bermuda or wherever the client is to meet with them, particularly if it’s a family adventure. Otherwise, we can do a call on Skype or over the phone and try to really understand as much as possible. We will build our first draft much like an architect. We never are going to get it right the first time. So, we do a few reiterations until it looks like the dream that person is picturing. After we define the experience, we invest a huge amount of time and money vetting the properties and partners on the ground, which is the advantage of living between the two places. Having a team on the ground is critical because these places change, the chef changes, the owner changes, the guides change. And so, it’s important to me, as an African, that people experience my home the way I would. I’m not just selling a destination. It’s my home, and I’m very proud of it. A lot of the South Africans that work in this industry are very proud too. It’s important to be sure of the products we’re putting on the table, so then my team is able to pick and make those decisions and design trips now. Some trips, like the woman’s empowerment, are ideas that I generally create.
How many safaris do you currently run a year?
We have over 200 booked this year. I’d prefer that to be 100- 150, higher grade trips with fewer people. It’s the same amount of work for two people or 20 people. I am up and down about four to five times a year, a month to six weeks in each place. It just depends on what’s going on.
What brings you the most joy, today?
Today, the most joy I have is when I go on safari with clients who’ve never been before, and I can see it bring them to tears ROAR Africa founder Deborah Calmeyer takes a stroll alongside the native wildlife of Jamala Madikwe, Royal Safari Lodge, which is located in the Madikwe Game Reserve. In a way that I often forget in my day-to-day job. I realize it is important for people to have the emotional weight that a safari brings with it because, without that, we can’t care about saving our wildlife. The more people I can see go through that, the more I know we’re having an effect, and that’s very important to me. Every time an animal goes extinct, whether we know it or not, we lose something in our psyche. We live with all of this around us, and we forget how important nature is, the role that animals play in our lives. We’ve only got 20,000 lions left in the world. Look how many people are rushing to see The Lion King. Imagine if we didn’t have that real lion.
What’s your greatest accomplishment?
Honestly, I think this women’s trip. I really do because it’s got legs, and its reach is so significant. It hasn’t even started, but I can see what it can do, and the lives that it can change.
What does it mean to pay it forward?
Well, I think everything that you do comes back to you in some way or another. I feel better when I’m doing things for other people. I took care of my sister my whole life. She was epileptic. I didn’t mention that earlier but being an adult at five and taking care of somebody was very much part of my growing up. The people traveling with me, I’m taking care of some of the most precious times of their lives. Does that come back to me? It doesn’t have to come back to me in any way other than people telling me that was the best trip of their lives.
What is your purpose?
I think to try to be the best person that I can in the world that I’ve created, making the most of the opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to have from education and exposure. I’ve met some extraordinary people in New York. This business has brought me so many opportunities, and I want to do the best I can in terms of changing women’s lives and saving wildlife in Africa. That’s my purpose.