Zimbabwe native Deborah Calmeyer can trace her African roots back 11 generations. Now living in New York, she has gained attention with Roar Africa, her company that offers bespoke elite traveler experiences. Be it meeting members of the Mandela family or umpiring a real cricket game, there is little Calmeyer hasn’t been able to pull off when it comes to unique experiences. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan met her over drinks at the MO Bar in Manhattan where she made suggestions for first timers and even the most veteran Africa travelers.
ET: Tell us a bit about your background.
Deborah Calmeyer: I grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, during the Rhodesian bush war. My childhood was spent on adventures in the African bush. Show jumping; water skiing from the age of eight on Lake Kariba, a lake full of crocodiles that I would not put my toe in today; tiger fishing in the Zambezi River; swimming while elephants were drinking from our pool. I had a lioness that thought she was a Labrador as a pet – mine was not a conventional childhood. I moved on to South Africa to finish school and began my career in sales & marketing in Johannesburg with an American company. This led me to New York City 14 years ago. I started Roar Africa in 2005.
ET: What led you to found Roar Africa?
Deborah Calmeyer: When you come from Africa you never stop wanting to share it, and I wanted other people to share in some of the life-changing experiences I had while I was growing up. I have found that there is an increasing thirst from travelers who have done and seen it all. A yearning to experience a destination, not because of a private plunge pool or 1000-thread-count linen, but because of something that money can’t buy – “meaning.”
ET: What makes Roar Africa different?
Deborah Calmeyer: The Huguenot Museum in Franschhoek illustrates our family lineage from the arrival in 1685 of Daniel Hugo, my great great great x 11 (I am 11th generation South African) grandfather. With this deep-seated history, Roar Africa offers an indelible cultural immersion like no one else through:
Access – to people and places. Because we are part of it we make our guests part of it.
Experience – a founder who has experience, sensitivity and an intimate understanding of the culture and expectations of the elite traveler today, and how to match this with the best Africa can offer.
Continuity – Roar Africa is the only US-based specialist with its own ground operation in southern Africa, enabling clients to remain with one company throughout their trip, rather than being handed over to a stranger. (For example with other foreign-based operators you are handed over to a ground handler on arrival.) It would be like consulting with your surgeon for months on end about your surgery and then when it comes down to it, someone else performs it.
Flexibility – because we run our own operation, Roar Africa can be as flexible as our guests require, right down to the very last moment. Should you feel like a long lunch, or feel like a massage rather than a hike, or the weather or your mood happens to change along the way, Roar Africa can immediately accommodate. I have had clients say to me “I did not know travel like this was possible.”
ET: Can you give us some examples of the type of unique experiences and adventures you’ve arranged?
Deborah Calmeyer: No two trips are ever the same. Each trip is handcrafted around each guest. I meet with our clients in person no matter where they are, and structure everything around their personal travel DNA. Some of the special things we have arranged for clients are:
• Umpiring a national cricket match
• Dining at the president’s residence
• Meeting Nelson Mandela’s family
• Spending time with a captain of industry or the minister of education
• Visiting the home of a famous artist
• Driving through the winelands in a vintage car
• Staying with the family that pioneered the safari business
You dream it, and we will deliver it.
ET: What would you recommend for a first-time Africa traveler?
Deborah Calmeyer: I’d recommend beginning in Cape Town. It’s a gentle entry into Africa with all the first-world elements one didn’t quite expect. From there on to the winelands. This is an absolute must! So often people seem to think that if they have been to Napa or other wine regions they don’t need to visit the Cape Winelands. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is Napa on steroids and not to be missed. Massive purple mountains, Cape Dutch architecture, the gourmet capital of Africa and some of the plushest accommodations in the world. Even if you aren’t into wine, it would be a crime to miss this scenery, as it is quite simply some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the world. Roar Africa has its very own specialist grower and producer in the region who will tour you through the region recounting the history of the Cape through the life of a grape. He will take you in behind the scenes to local farmers and producers, as well as to the big commercial operations. Having adjusted and familiarized oneself with Africa, I’d save the highlight, which is usually the safari, for the last part of the trip. Depending on time, ideally one should experience a few camps, each as decadent as the next, to enjoy the diversity. Or one could simply spend four to five days at one safari lodge soaking in this life-changing experience. The choices may appear abundant but local experience and a refined eye will ensure you have the ultimate safari experience the way we Africans know it and love it.
ET: Are there any particular times that it is best to come and not come?
Deborah Calmeyer: My favorite months are April/May and September/October, as the temperature is mild and the days idyllic. Winter in the Cape is July/August and not the best time to travel there. It is possible to encounter howling wind and rain due to the Mediterranean climate. Botswana and Namibia are best done May through September as outside of these months the temperature can be brutal. With no air-conditioning because of the remote locations, it’s just not comfortable.
ET: What are the biggest surprises first timers have when they visit?
Deborah Calmeyer: Southern and East Africa deliver in spades. The sheer beauty of the destinations consistently exceeds expectations. Add to that warm, welcoming hospitality, no language barriers, world-class food, hotel rooms with views like nowhere else in the world and a sprinkling of Roar Africa’s “surprise and delight” features, and you are bound to be very surprised.
ET: Are there two or three recommendations for the veteran Africa traveler that even they haven’t done yet?
Deborah Calmeyer: Recently accessible – Low Land Gorillas in the Congo (different and new in comparison to the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda) and Vamizi Island in Mozambique, which is a remote, unspoiled paradise one didn’t think still existed today.
ET: Anything else you would like to talk about?
Deborah Calmeyer: The essence of these trips is born out of my personal skill and style. The ability and intuition to match clients to travel experiences is enhanced by my insider knowledge and contacts. There are trips and then there are adventures of the spirit that can change the way one views the world; I have dedicated myself to providing the latter for Roar Africa’s clientele.