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Deborah Calmeyer, 49: Sharing the Transformative Power of Africa Through Female-Led Safaris

Growing up in Zimbabwe and sharing a house with a rescued lioness gave Deborah Calmeyer a deep appreciation for the transformative beauty of Africa, something she shares with others through her safari company ROAR AFRICA. She discusses running a female-led business in a male-dominated industry, her mission to protect biodiversity, and the time she found herself stuck between a pack of wild dogs and their prey.

How does one find that often elusive sense of one’s passion and purpose? One way is to do what you are good at, serving people with your particular skills and knowledge, and let that become the passion. We are all unique, and we all have incredible talents, it is only our imagination that stands in the way of us actualizing them. For Deborah, her unique childhood growing up as an African led her to create a business that became her passion and her way of life. 

Granted, growing up with a rescued lioness as your guardian is unique with a capital U. For Deborah, she took that as inspiration to face the challenges as a woman in the extremely male and often misogynistic safari industry, all while elevating and spotlighting other women across business, conservation, and culture in a different African country each year.

Editor’s note: I am a huge fan of Africa, a truly transformative place. It is a place that connects directly to a part of the human brain in a way that I have never experienced before or after. Walking in the bush turned on senses in a way that I can only describe as primordial. The knowledge of no longer being at the top of the food chain, of walking in a place that was the origin of man, is profound beyond description. Without doubt the most impactful place I have ever been. It was a special once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will always treasure.

How old are you?
49.

Where are you from and where are you based?
I am from Zimbabwe and live between Cape Town and New York City. 

What got you interested in safaris?
I fell deeply in love with wildlife and Africa’s wild spaces during my childhood spent on a farm in Zimbabwe. The privilege of witnessing the beauty of human-animal interactions convinced me that being in the wild is a prescription for the soul. After living in Africa into my early adulthood, I took a big step and moved to New York. I found that people had so many questions about Africa and a curiosity about the safari experience. Inadvertently, I began planning trips as a side job. When I started out, I didn’t know anything about the travel industry, and the first two years were a challenge. Eventually, I realized that the market was packed with supposed experts selling Africa. Yet these same people knew so little about the diverse experiences, geography, people, and properties I knew so intimately as an African myself. Naturally, the depth of passion, emotion, and knowledge you bring to selling your home versus another destination differs radically. And thus, ROAR AFRICA was born.

Credit: Matetsi River Lodge

“I fell deeply in love with wildlife and Africa’s wild spaces during my childhood spent on a farm in Zimbabwe”

Have you had any potentially life-threatening moments while on a safari?
A few years ago, I found myself facing a frenzied pack of sixteen wild dogs chasing an impala bolting directly toward me.  Given that I was about to be a sitting duck between the dogs and their prey, I was convinced they would kill me. Luckily, they careened right past me, killing the impala feet from where I was.

What was your childhood like in Zimbabwe?
I was born in Zimbabwe, and that’s where my soul feels most at home, even now. I look back at my childhood through two distinct lenses: trauma from the (then Rhodesia) War of Liberation which began when I was five, and the love I felt for our adventurous family life on our farm. When the war ended, my dad traded all the security and alarms and fences for a rescued lioness, Carmel. She slept at the end of my father’s bed, drove in the car with us to school, and frolicked around the garden hunting birds and ducks. Our daily life with Carmel, as eccentric as it sounds, is perhaps where my love for the wild began. Humans and animals are not so dissimilar — I’ve devoted my life to protecting and promoting these wild creatures ever since. 

Credit: ROAR AFRICA. Wildebeest Migration

New York and Cape Town

You live between New York and Cape Town. What is it like splitting your time between the two?
It’s wonderful. When I want to vibrate at a very high frequency, meet marvelous minds, and blast through a packed to-do list, I come to New York. When I crave peace, serenity, and incredible natural beauty I beeline to Cape Town.

What do you get from each?
I’m so fortunate to have homes in two incredible cities. When I arrive in Cape Town, I try to bookmark three days to myself to decompress. I try not to talk too fast or move too quickly. New York’s pace is unique — you compete for space every second. The city buzzes with energy. As a woman building a business, it’s been empowering and exciting to spend so much time in America, sharing my deep passion and love for Africa. And yet, in Cape Town, I throw open the doors and gaze at the Atlantic Ocean. I can breathe sitting between the ocean and Table Mountain. I adore being outdoors, and there’s an atmosphere in Cape Town that I’ve never experienced anywhere in the world. Cape Town’s natural beauty and thriving cultural scene hold you in a way you won’t find elsewhere. To me, it is the best city in the world! 

“I find the beauty of the outer landscape triggers a restorative inner centering of the hearts and minds of my guests”

What advice would you give someone wanting to visit Africa for the first time?
Be prepared for a whirlwind of emotion. I find the beauty of the outer landscape triggers a restorative inner centering of the hearts and minds of my guests. The forced surrender that comes with this kind of trip allows a rewilding to happen. There’s no doubt about it — time spent in nature is powerfully transformative. 

What is your favorite animal? Why?
Elephants — these gentle giants are so integral to our delicate ecosystem. We all have something to learn from their grace, elegance, and fierce loyalty. 

Credit: ROAR AFRICA

What does the future of travel look like in your eyes?
Travel needs to be easier. We travel not to move but to be moved! Right now, it is such a demanding grind to go anywhere. Airlines, airports, and other travel service providers must rethink and elevate the current experience from the airport doorway to the final destination. People need reliability and consistency — no one wants to deal with so many unknowns while embarking on a big trip. At ROAR AFRICA, we handle every detail from start to finish making it utterly seamless. Given the current chaotic situation, I believe travelers will seek out specialists who relate to their values and who have the intel to design mind-elevating, heart-opening experiences that are seamlessly executed.  If something goes wrong, as it often does, travelers need a calm, competent specialist who can handle it. That’s what we do best.

“As the female founder of a predominantly female-led company, supporting and empowering women within the safari industry is a core pillar of ROAR AFRICA’s mission”

A big portion of your work is focused on empowering African women. Can you tell us more about that?
As the female founder of a predominantly female-led company, supporting and empowering women within the safari industry is a core pillar of ROAR AFRICA’s mission. This desire to usurp misogynistic stereotypes prompted our inaugural Women’s Empowerment Retreat in 2019. Now an annual trip in high demand, we spotlight game-changing African women across business, conservation, and culture in a different country each year. So far, we’ve covered Rwanda, Kenya, and South Africa, with Zimbabwe up next. I have long predicted that African women can only embrace the value of their contributions to local tourism when they work to shatter the geographical, gender and social barriers that have been in place for centuries. The vision behind this first-of-its-kind journey was to create a learning experience that would push gender equity onto the front lines and pioneer a change throughout the safari industry. I am delighted to say it’s working. I’ve witnessed so much meaningful change with female pilots, guides, and anti-poaching rangers, general managers all finally taking center stage. But, as always, there is still much work to be done— hence our vision statement is “when African women rise, wildlife will thrive.” 

Credit: @roarafrica and @visitrwanda_now

“My mission is to spread awareness about the dire need to protect the biodiversity and nature we have left”

What is your 5-year plan?
To encourage as many people as possible to visit Africa and experience the precious wildlife and wild spaces we have left. Introducing our guests to the wonderful open-hearted people and inimitable lodges we partner with brings me immeasurable pleasure. Ultimately, people don’t care about what they don’t know. My mission is to spread awareness about the dire need to protect the biodiversity and nature we have left. We are nothing without it; our greatest mistake is thinking someone else will save it. 

Credit: Matetsi River Lodge

What music are you listening to?
Abba! Their gentle and pure music reminds me of a time when the world’s psyche was much better and happier. Music is so critical to our state of mind and memories. 

When you are not out in the wild with the animals, do you have any streaming TV guilty pleasures?
Any movie I can watch in French that’s fun and lighthearted. 

What are your three life non-negotiables?
I don’t leave home unless I am going to be somewhere better and more uplifting; otherwise, why go?

Fountains, not drains. The people I let into my life need to have great energy and not drain mine.

Yoga & sound meditation — both mediums have elevated my life and mind beyond measure.

Main image photo credit: ROAR AFRICA

Connect with Deborah and ROAR AFRICA:
Website
Instagram
Facebook

2 COMMENTS

  1. I am a wildlife artist and my mission is also to awaken people to the need and the importance of protecting the wildlife.

    I am also a traveller, sometimes volunteering in Sanctuary.

    I really love your blug and wish I could go on a safari but I read on Instagram that it was a “luxuary safari “ so probably to expensive.

    Thank you for all those informations and the work you do to protect the wildlife and their habitats.

  2. I envy Deborah! I lived for a year in Stellenbosch with frequent escapes to Cape Town. It was one of the best times! However, personal safety was much to be desired, and that was the reason why I ultimately left SA.

    I’d like to go on a ROAR Africa safari.

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David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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