It's wonderful to hear an Australian talk about falling in love with and becoming “totally addicted” to Africa. And even more so when that person is bestselling author Tony Park, who has just published his seventh novel set in Southern Africa.
Tony was born in 1964, grew up in Sydney and then worked as a newspaper reporter in Australia and England, followed by work as a government press secretary and a public relations consultant. He also served for six months as a major in the Australian Army Reserve in Afghanistan as a public affairs officer for the Australian ground forces.
But in 1995, Tony was lured by his wife Nicola to Southern Africa. They had been already backpacking in Asia and Europe and were going to do Southern Africa in three weeks. Tony admits that he had no idea of the specifics: “I'd paid zero attention to the planning.” He asked how they were going to get around and in response to Nicola saying that they were hiring a Corolla Tony asked if it was safe to be driving around Southern Africa. “Every preconception I had was wrong,” he says.
Of course, they had the most incredible time in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana and were hooked on Africa by the end of the first week. “It was not like any other holiday.”
They've been to Africa every year since (apart from during the year in which Tony went to Afghanistan, but he made up for it by going twice the following year) and have spent six months of each of the last eight years travelling around Southern Africa, often simply living in a tent and out of the back of their Land Rover, which they keep garaged in Johannesburg.
“We are totally and utterly addicted,” says Tony. “Africa consumes our money and time, and has changed our lives. But it's all for the good.”
It's the continent where Tony started to write his books. His first Far Horizon was about people he had met while travelling. And travelling in Africa he certainly has done. His favourite game reserve is the Kruger National Park where he spends two or three months at a time, but he has other choice spots throughout Southern Africa.
Writing about Africa is not only about the beauty. It can be difficult at times, according to Tony. “You can't write a book set in modern day Africa without raising issues such as crime and Aids.” His books also raise issues such as poaching, piracy, civil war and environmental issues, which Tony believes are things that have impact. But he doesn't use the issues in order to preach to his readers. “I'm very conscious of not using my books as a soap box, but poaching is something that is in the news every day in Africa. The issue of the damming of the Okavango River was a real issue, and it's something that I can see being raised again. There is potential for more conflict over water and competing land uses. So I use these types of issues as a point of reference. I have to be careful though – on the issue of elephant culling, for example, I did a lot of reading and still ended up firmly on the fence.”
Tony says that there are many similarities between Australia and South Africa, but while Australia is a safe, nice, law-abiding and great place, Africa is more free, edgier and a bit wilder. “In Africa the good things are 100% more vivid, but so are the bad things, and this seems to make people have a lust for life and work and live hard.”
However, he is wary of making comparisons as he's met many South Africans who've had a bad time in Africa, and he's well aware of the bad things. “But I'm also aware of the positives. I have a lot of South African and Zimbabwean friends who have moved to Australia and they aaah over the continent and wish they could go back. There is still a connection.”
It's obvious to expats why people born in Southern Africa relate to Tony's books, and such individuals do form a significant portion of his market, but Tony says that many Australians are also fascinated with Africa. “I have met people who have never been to Africa, but it has been their lifelong ambition. But at every book talk I also meet someone who has been on six or seven trips to Africa. It is not unusual – and I certainly don't find many people who've been to Rome 10 times, but I have come across people who've been to Southern Africa 10 times.”
It's not easy writing about “someone else's country”, and Tony says that, as a result, he is really pleased to hear from readers who were born in Southern Africa. “When I write my books I check everything and try to verify all the facts. I have South African and Zimbabwean friends and I check stuff with them. I really try to be accurate. But I do think that it's good to have an outside take on a country.”
Now that he is publishing novels and non-fiction, Tony is able to write full-time. “I have found that if I do a non-fiction book and a novel every year that I can live as a writer. So now I don't feel like I work. I really don't see it as work,” he says. “In fact, I say that if writing a novel is like being semi-retired, writing non-fiction must be the best day job in the world.”
So what does the future hold? Well, Tony's just finished another novel – it's about rhino poaching, is set mostly in Zimbabwe and is due for release this time next year. “It covers farm invasions, and provides a historical perspective on the current problems,” he says. He also has a deal for books number nine and 10, has just started on a biography, and is really looking forward to heading to Africa soon for his six month stint.
For many people it seems that Tony has the ideal lifestyle, and he certainly regards himself as fortunate to be able to split his time between two continents. “I don't pine for Africa when I'm in Australia, and when I'm in Africa I'm not homesick for Australia. But when I leave Africa I am ready to leave the wildness, the dreadful traffic accidents, the corruption. Ready to come back to the 50km zones.”
But, in conclusion, he says that he has found the people of Southern Africa to be so incredibly friendly, and feels that he's been welcomed with open arms. “I'm a better person to tourists and strangers in Australia because of the experiences that I've had in Southern Africa,” he says.