As the CEO and founder of ROAR AFRICA, Deborah Calmeyer’s hazel eyes glisten when speaking of the African continent, showing both passion and emotion. Chatting via Zoom from her offices in New York, she tells Upscale Living magazine why traveling should form a cornerstone of one’s life.
Deborah, tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Zimbabwe and that’s very much who I am at heart. I feel Zimbabwean – I feel very connected when I go there. When I’m there, I can smell the soil, I can smell the air and I can feel ‘wow – this is part of me, this is who I am. I don’t think that ever leaves you.
What are the fondest memories of your formative years?
I lived in Zimbabwe until I was 15 and can look at my life through two lenses – the traumatic experience of being exposed to a bush war at the age of 5; we had sandbags all around the house, bulletproof tape on the windows, and we weren’t allowed out after 6 pm and before 6 am and there were armed tanks circling the farm. My dad slept with a rifle next to him. It was a frightening time in my young life, but I loved being on the farm, and really enjoyed horse riding. When the war ended, my dad opted to forego all the alarms and fences and get a lion as a pet. We were four children under the age of 12, and this cub thought she was a Labrador because she lived in the house with us. She slept at the end of the bed with my dad, drove in the car with us to school, and enjoyed her freedom in the garden. Carmel behaved like a typical dog, albeit a strong one. My dad was her everything – he would call her, and she would run towards him, put her paws on his 6’3 frame and just adore him. That is probably where my love for wildlife came from. I got to witness so much similarity between ourselves and animals, and see Carmel’s affection and love.
As a young girl aged nine, you were trapped in a swimming pool when a young bull elephant came to drink. May I assume that at that moment, the mutual respect for animals you still have today, was formed?
I was by myself, and I was absolutely terrified. I knew I couldn’t run, it was too late for that, and all I could do was stay still. The big bull elephant came over, he drunk and the non-verbal ‘I won’t hurt, you, I’m just doing my thing, you do yours. It was beautiful and amazing, and I think in our own way, we form connections with animals, whether it’s a dog or a cat. I was incredibly privileged in many ways because I had two parents who really liked being in the bush. I got to inherit their passion and love for the wild, which is amplified when I left Africa. I didn’t know how intense the love was and how much a part of me it was. When I moved to New York, it was this desperate longing and ache for Africa that I don’t believe ever leaves anyone that has left Africa. The love is there, it’s ingrained in us.
You were born in Zimbabwe and have a deep love for the country and the people. Apart from the obvious attractions like Victoria Falls and the incredible landscape, what gets you going every time you visit?
The warmth of the people, hands down. The landscape speaks to me, it’s part of my makeup, the rich red soils of Zimbabwe, and the msasa trees.
The saying ‘home is where the heart is’ definitely rings true. You alternate your time between NYC and Cape Town. NYC is vastly different from Cape Town; it has bustling urban jungle energy and truly is the ‘city that never sleeps. Cape Town has just been ranked the third greatest city on earth by the UK’s Telegraph and it’s easy to see why – beautiful coastlines and incredible wineries to name but a few aspects. How do you adapt to each place and what makes it home in your books?
I’m fortunate to have homes in two such incredible cities. When I arrive in Cape Town, I try to have at least three days to myself so that I can decompress, and try to not talk too fast or move too fast. New York is so different – you compete for space on the subway, your coffee at Starbucks, and even your space on the pavement. It vibrates at such a high frequency. As a woman building a business, it’s really been empowering and exciting, something I never imagined, fueled by a deep passion and love for Africa. I’m delighted to come back to Africa wherever I’m going. When I’m in Cape Town and I open the doors and I look at the Atlantic Ocean in front of me, I can breathe. I love being in the outdoors, and there’s an energy in Cape Town that I’ve never experienced anywhere in the world, and I’ve traveled extensively for the last 22 years. Cape Town holds you in a way that I’ve never felt anywhere. It is the best city in the world! It’s so beautiful and amazing. It feeds my eyes, it feeds my soul.
Why the name ROAR AFRICA?
My husband and I were bouncing names around and this one just stuck.
How has your self-confessed inquisitive nature helped you in your business?
So much of my South African and Zimbabwean makeup is entrepreneurial. Whatever is happening, you have to make a plan and it’s ingrained in us as youngsters in Africa. ROAR AFRICA is mostly female which is very different from your typical safari company. There is a depth, a sensitivity, a real emotional intelligence that is present and our travelers are subject to this. This is potentially transformational both for Africa and for the people who travel here. Our mission statement is “If African women rise, wildlife will thrive.” This is threaded into every trip we do. I believe tourism is in our DNA as women. We are caregivers – we’re mothers, we’re sisters, we’re teachers. Hence there should be many more women in Africa working in this space, and not just at low-level positions but leading ones.
It’s clear that you absolutely adore Africa. I know it’s like asking a parent who their favorite child is. But is there a favorite and why?
There are two. There’s Zimbabwe because it’s my home and reconnecting with everything that’s part of me. Botswana and the landscape; shift my soul, and it paints me with some type of soothing balm when I fly over the Okavango Delta. The beauty of the wilderness and nature. And the sunrises. It knocks you right out.
Africa really changes people, in a good way. Which life-changing moments have you experienced?
When I visited Botswana in April this year, I was grieving the loss of a family member and was full of grief and pain. Waking up to the painted landscape of the Okavango Delta was a prescription for the pain. Nature and her beauty almost seemed to paint away from the pain.
The pandemic did not deter you from launching The Greatest Safari on Earth in 2021. I guess there were a number of stumbling blocks – navigating PCR tests and convincing people to travel during this uncertain time. What do you think made it such a ROAR-ing (pardon the pun) success?
There were so many stumbling blocks and there was so much fear. It was terrifying! I launched it in 2019 and it sold out immediately. Then it got canceled and I had to refund everybody and try to resell it. I had to manage my own fear, as well as the clients’ fear. Guests were really nervous about the PCR tests – we had 8 PCR tests in 12 days! I work with an incredible team, and they kept everyone vibrant, happy, and joyful, they kept the movement and the flow, kept everyone safe. My team had done the logistical brain surgery and cleared the way so we could float through on our magic Emirates carpet. What I was not expecting was the wonderful welcoming response from everyone on the ground that touched the trip. They saw this as the Olympic torch of tourism.
The Greatest Safari on Earth for 2022 has been sold out – congratulations! You had to add another one in August this year. With its popularity of it, will it become a regular trip on the itinerary for ROAR AFRICA?
Yes, what an absolute blessing! Guests can look forward to a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Zimbabwe, Botswana, Kenya, and Rwanda on The Greatest Safari On Earth every year.
You managed to get Emirates on board to partner with ROAR AFRICA to design a private jet safari for The Greatest Safari on Earth. Without giving your secrets away, what is behind the creation of something that has quite a hefty price tag ($125,000), but in the end, has all the trappings of an ultra-luxurious safari. How do you go about choosing which suppliers to collaborate with?
Emirates is a known and trusted brand, and the conversion of an A319 aircraft ensured a private jet experience – only ten suites that are double the size of a first-class cabin, a lounge, a dining area, and two beautiful bathrooms. In terms of accommodation, we partner with the very best lodges in each location for the top hospitality experiences. There simply is no better than Matetsi in Victoria Falls, Xigera in Botswana, Angama Mara in Kenya, and Singita in Rwanda.
You believe that being in the wild is a prescription for one’s soul.
Yes, I do. I certainly do not know of any other place that speaks to one the way being in the wild does. Beauty takes us to a higher place, we become our best selves. This is what the world needs – now more than ever.
Adding to that, people travel not just to move around, but to be moved.
Stillness is a resource and when we can’t be still, we’re running from something, mostly from ourselves. If you can create an environment when someone’s traveling so that they can slow down, absorb, enjoy, and feel, they might find themselves.
Why should people travel to Africa when given the opportunity to do so?
Because it will move them in a way they have never been moved. It will change things on a psychological and physiological basis. They will see the world differently.
You always look super stylish when going on safari. How can people dress safari chic without wearing top-to-bottom khaki?
So easily. Wear the clothes that you’re comfortable in. Mix it up with scarves, sunglasses, and a hat. Paint yourself the way you want to.
If you can go to Africa, go! You only have one wild and precious life.