MY NAME is Tony and I am addicted. I need my fix. I need my Africa. Every day." So confesses Tony Park in his blog for Africa Geographic magazine. And the "Africa" he refers to is not slang terminology for a local hallucinogenic — aka Durban poison — but the continent to which he and his wife Nicola have returned every year for the past 18 years, after a once-in-a-lifetime trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana in 1995 sparked a love affair that’s been burning brightly ever since.
In fact, they were bitten so badly by the bug, they have for the past few years split their time between Africa and their native Australia, spending six months in Southern Africa and six months at home in Sydney.
Their base in South Africa was a tent pitched near the Kruger National Park, but last year the pair invested in a more permanent structure — a holiday home in the lowveld.
Park’s wanderlust could be attributed, perhaps, to his variegated family tree. He was born in New Zealand to a Welsh father and an Australian mother, but was brought up in Australia from the age of three. And, for good measure, his wife is British.
So who does he support in rugby?
He laughs. "That’s just why I don’t support anyone in rugby. Especially not in SA, where a large proportion of the adult male population carries guns!"
Park originally pursued a career in journalism and public relations, but admits that the only thing he ever wanted to do was write a novel. He tried to write while working full time, but found he wasn’t disciplined enough and there wasn’t enough time in the day to do both.
"The two stumbling blocks to writing a book are time and place — just having enough hours to do the work. You need a quiet place where you can work but also a place where you can think, and a place to inspire you. I couldn’t get all those elements so, when I approached my midlife crisis at 38, I quit."
He took a six-month sabbatical to focus on the book — "and I couldn’t think up a story to save my life".
By then the couple had been coming to Africa for three years and when Nicola decided it was her turn to give up the day job, they bought a Land Rover and decided to "give it a really good crack, driving around Southern Africa for four or five months".
One day, Park opened up his laptop in Kruger and the stories started to flow. Nine novels — all set in Africa — and four nonfiction books later, the change in scenery seems to have more than paid off.
"The novels are my passion. There are so many stories — if I can do a novel a year until I die I reckon I would not scratch the surface of what I wanted to write about. The novels are my dream, or like being in retirement and being paid to do your hobby, while the nonfiction is a very good day job."
That job is the envy of most. While the rest of us are stuck in the commuter grind of getting to the office, a typical Park day begins at dawn with a game drive — "that’s when I pick up things I might use in the book but also it’s good thinking time and daydreaming time" — followed by breakfast and then the art of crafting 2,000 words.
"I never stop at the end of a chapter, so if I do get to the end of a chapter I’ll write an extra couple of paragraphs. It’s rather dispiriting to be confronted by a blank page the next day. The 2,000 words can take from two to seven hours depending on how creative I’m feeling. The incentive then is to have a beer and go for a swim. Then have sundowners somewhere."
His latest novel, Dark Heart (Quercus), is set in South Africa and Rwanda and, like previous offerings, has some serious issues at the core of the story, in this case Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. United Nations military doctor Richard, war crimes prosecutor Carmel and photojournalist Liesl are an unlikely trio with a complex shared past. They met while working in Rwanda during the genocide but are now back together, united by a photograph and attempts on their lives. After receiving a summons from the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, someone has tried to kill both Carmel and Richard. Embarking on a mission to find the answers, they are drawn into the violent and harrowing world of animal smuggling. But, it turns out, it’s not just animals that are being smuggled, but human organs from living donors.
Soon, their lives are all on the line and it becomes a fight for survival.
Park is aware that he is writing with an outsider’s perspective and this fuels his thorough research. "I do rely on my Southern African friends to help because I’m acutely aware that the more time I spend in SA and neighbouring countries I realise how little I know. I’m also reminded that I’m not only writing about other people’s countries but other people’s lives — and people’s lives on this continent are often tragic or associated with trauma and that’s the nature of the stuff that I’ve written about."
He says the best research is to talk to people. "As a journalist, when you speak to people who have suffered some trauma, you get two responses — the door slammed in your face or the person wanting to bring you into the family and share and unburden their grief."
He says that for Dark Heart, people were incredibly willing to share their stories, including survivors of the genocide, military personnel and journalists who had been there. "The anecdotes that ended up in the book are from personal recollections and they’re generally more confronting and horrifying than anything you can read written in the past tense."
He says the "passionate" South African reading public is supportive of his work.
"People write to me saying they cried when they read my books because it reminded them of their childhood, good and bad. To provoke that kind of reaction really sits you back on your bum. The sales and the awareness have been growing and that’s the biggest thrill."
One of the hardest things about writing fiction, says Park, is thinking up names. "When you think up names they’re generally pretty corny."
A highlight of his writing career is the opportunity to speak at various charity benefits in Australia — including for wildlife (rhino and wild dog) and human rights charities, as well as for a group of people who are collecting money for a hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He decided to use these gigs as a way of raising awareness of, and funds for, these groups by offering guests the chance to have a character named after them.
"People will pay significant sums of money to have their name or a loved one’s name used in a book — and they’re always good names. John Smith doesn’t pay to have his name published, but Tate and Braedan Quilter-Phipps do, as does Sydney Chipchase (all featured in African Dawn). You can’t think up names like that."
The good thing, he adds, is people go out and buy 20 copies of the book to give to family and friends — which no doubt helps to bankroll the beers at sunset.