Roar & Restore: Women’s Empowerment Trip


If it is true that one of the many benefits of travel is to help us to understand our place in the world better, it should come as no surprise to learn that in the post-#MeToo era, solo female travel is on a speedy upward trajectory.

By:Kerryn Fischer. Photos: Aline Coquelle

ROAR AFRICA, a New York- and Cape Town-based specialist travel company, is leading the way in crafting just these kinds of journeys and shattering long-held gender barriers in the process.

With more means and flexibility at their disposal than past generations, global statistics show that women are leading the way when it comes to solo travel and women-only holidays.

“Women are embracing solo travel not because they are necessarily single, but because they are wise to the fact that taking themselves out of their comfort zone can be transformative and lead to life-changing learnings,” says Deborah Calmeyer, founder and CEO of ROAR AFRICA.

Empowering In A Male-Dominated Industry 

This US and South African-based specialist company is leading the way in crafting experiential journeys and empowerment for women in the male-dominated safari industry.

And Deborah would know, for late last year she was named one of the 30 most powerful women in travel by the US magazine Condé Nast Traveler, while this month her company, ROAR AFRICA, was voted the second-best safari outfitter in the world (for the second year in a row) by the readers of US-based Travel + Leisure magazine.

“Our ability as women to bond through conversation, and our willingness, in general, to be more cohesive as a group, is a big part of this trend’s success.

“I think intrinsically, we know that travel makes us better people – and invariably better partners, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends as a result,” says Deborah.


The Retreat

With a firm focus on self-actualisation, Deborah’s learning journeys are designed to debunk the long-held view that global adventure travel (and conservation in Africa, for that matter) is a male-only domain.

“In fact, since time immemorial we have assumed that men were at the forefront of global exploratory travel, but dig deep enough, and you will discover a host of female explorers who were getting on with it quietly for centuries,” she adds.


The ROAR & RESTORE Retreat

With this in mind, Deborah devised an inaugural seven-day Women’s Empowerment ROAR & RESTORE Retreat, at which she asked five globally influential women in the fields of women’s empowerment, philanthropy, conservation, business and science to share the vision, passion and successes of their personal stories.

The retreat hosted by Deborah and media powerhouse Pat Mitchell, a lifelong advocate for women’s rights, was the first of its kind.

Created for a group of 12 international “interested and interesting” women who are all influential leaders in their respective fields, the retreat kicked off in June 2019 in Graaff-Reinet at the historic five-star Drostdy Hotel.


A Starting Point

The Drostdy Hotel, a luxury destination in itself, was chosen as a starting point because it is part of a game-changing women’s empowerment initiative with the South African College for Tourism (SACT), a non-profit organisation also based in Graaff-Reinet.

Founded by Dr Anton Rupert in 2001 and today with the genius of Gaynor Rupert, the aim is to train young women from underprivileged backgrounds in a year-long tourism course.


Exercising Gender Equality 

While on this particular women’s empowerment trip, Deborah wanted to create an experiential journey that shows how women are not just overcoming Western norms, but traditional African norms too.

“There is no reason why women in the safari industry should be in housekeeping and reservations alone,” adds Deborah.

“In my experience, women are an indispensable asset on the frontlines of hospitality, and we at ROAR AFRICA support those people and places committed to transformation by exercising gender equality, and putting women in these kinds of leadership roles.”


The Transformative Kalahari 

There are few places as transformative as the Kalahari Desert, an area known as South Africa’s last great wilderness. And precious few safari operators that cut to the core of conservation with such an inspired vision as Tswalu.

It is here that the next stage of the retreat took place when both guests and speakers visited Tswalu and its newly refurbished Motse Lodge.

Set within 114 hectares of private nature reserve, the reserve and lodge are owned by the Oppenheimer family, who have spent more than two decades restoring this once ravaged land.

Here, the guests were treated to helicopter flips over a generous landscape of mountains, dunes and grassland, and game drives against a dramatic backdrop with incredible wildlife sightings.

Here, amidst the incredible expanse of sand, sky and savannah, we were treated to talks twice daily by inspirational women:

  • Dr Lucy King, a zoologist based in Kenya’s Tsavo region, who is the head of the human-elephant coexistence programme for the research charity Save the Elephants, and a research associate to the University of Oxford;
  • conservationist Cathy Dreyer, a pioneer in the establishment of new black rhino populations across Africa, and the winner of the 2016 Tusk Award for the Best Emerging Conservationist in Africa;
  • Meagan Fallone, the founder and director of Barefoot College International, a social enterprise that trains and empowers women globally, that has brought light to one-million people across 96 countries in the developing world;
  • Christine Schuler Deschryver, whose life’s work helping rape survivors at City of Joy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the subject of a must-see Netflix documentary entitled City of Joy; and
  • Lindsey Taylor-Wood, the founder of The Helm, a US-based venture-capitalist fund and lifestyle platform committed to investing in female entrepreneurs.

“The community of women we created on this trip and the chain of events that have been set in motion beyond it, have exceeded my wildest expectations,” says Deborah, in reference to the lifelong friendships that were formed, and the renewed commitment that speakers gained by being given a platform.

Not to mention the meaningful collaborations, the generous donations including an enormous grant from a US foundation, and the opportunity that Dr Lucy King has been afforded to talk at TEDWomen later in the year.

“It is these kinds of outcomes that we have come to expect from our trips,” says Deborah. “It gives voice to a mantra we live by at ROAR AFRICA, that if ‘African women rise, wildlife will thrive’.”

It was everything it promised to be, a life-changing journey that showed how women can truly embrace the value of their contribution through tourism when they begin to shatter the plethora of geographical, gender and social barriers that remain – what better way to do that than by travelling with and meeting those women who live that reality every day.

Words by: Kerryn Fischer

Photos: Aline Coquelle


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