I first met Australian author Tony Park and his wife Nicola about eight years ago at Pretoriuskop camp site in Kruger National Park. I was on my own for the week, researching an article. It was overcast and raining – a constant drizzle, the worst possible conditions for photography, so I wasn’t in the best of moods.
Tony had seen me earlier in the day, so that evening he came over to my campsite and said cheerfully “Hey mate, come over for a beer later.” With that typically Australian invitation, and a few cold Windhoek lagers, I began a long association and eventually friendship with Tony and his wife.
I had no idea that Tony was already one of the biggest selling novelists in Australia. His fiction books about African wilderness, wildlife and their associated characters have now sold hundreds of thousands of copies across the world.
He and Nicola travel extensively throughout the year in their Land Rover through the parks and reserves of Africa, researching and writing his novels. His personal knowledge and experience in many different parks make him an informed, independent expert on African conservation and travel.
I caught up with Tony last year when I was in Sydney for the World Parks Congress. He was giving a talk to a small group of fans. Tony is not only a consummate storyteller with the written word – he can hold a crowd enthralled with his humour and tales of adventure.
Scott Ramsay: Tony, which are your three favourite parks or wilderness regions in Africa?
Tony Park: The Kruger National Park. This was the first wildlife area I ever visited, back in 1995, and for that reason it will always have a special place in my heart. Yes, Kruger is very busy, but there are a very good reasons millions of people visit South Africa’s national park every year – they are the best run, best value for money, and have the best conservation record in Africa.
Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Hwange, like Kruger, is one of Africa’s grand old dames. Although she’s fallen on hard times these last through years due to the terrible state of affairs in Zimbabwe, Hwange can still deliver the goods when it comes to wonderful wildlife experiences.
Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe. Without a doubt the most beautiful and wildest place I visit. Every time I return to the Lower Zambezi River I’m amazed all over again by how stunning it is.
If, for some hypothetical reason, you had to leave Africa, and never return, which three specific camps or spots in Africa would you choose to spend your last three weeks on the continent?
Pretoriuskop Camp in Kruger. Not known as the friendly camp for nothing, Pretoriuskop, the first camp I ever stayed in, became pivotal to my writing career. My wife, Nicola, and I travelled on a very tight budget for many years and we would spend up to six weeks at a time living in our tent in Pretoriuskop. We came to know several of the staff and we’re still greeted with a warm welcome there. I’d see out my days among friends, and far more animals than most people expect to find in this south-eastern corner of Kruger.
Deteema Dam, Hwange National Park. Like most of the other picnic sites and hides in Hwange, you can book the hide at the Deteema Dam wall for camping. Only one group is allowed to stay at a time. Elephant herds plod a path just a couple of metres from the hide to get to the source of the dam’s water and I’ve had some incredible sightings here.
Thirdly, my home. We own a house in a wildlife estate on the edge of the Kruger Park (I’ll keep the precise spot to myself). I’ve grown to consider it more my home than the apartment we own in Sydney. I’d hate to ever have to leave Africa, but if I did, I would want to spend it among the bushbuck, zebra, kudu, giraffe, birds (and the occasional leopard) I’ve called my neighbours for the past three years.
Your two or three most memorable wildlife sightings – or wilderness experiences – so far?
Nicola and I have taken part in the Hwange National Park annual game count, organised by Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe, for the past 16 years.
One of the most memorable things I ever witnessed, on a count, was a leopard stalking an impala down to a spring in Reedbuck Vlei.
The amazing thing about this stalk was that the leopard was walking next to a big male Roan antelope, in his shadow, using the Roan as cover. The Roan kept glancing at the leopard, and vice versa, but otherwise paid no mind to him at all. The leopard eventually sprinted for the impala, but missed him.
On an early trip to Kruger Nicola and I came across a female cheetah which had caught a baby impala and let it live in order to teach her three cubs how to hunt. We watched the mum and three young ones toying with the impala – catching and losing it in turns. It was heart wrenching, fascinating, exciting and tragic all at the same time.
In Hwange, Nicola and I were chased in our Land Rover for five kilometres at speeds of up to 40kph by a galloping black rhino. We were terrified at the time, but later learned she (her name was Chewore) had been orphaned as a baby, hand reared by rangers, and associated every green Land Rover she ever saw with the food truck!
You’ve met some fascinating people in African conservation and tourism. Which two or three people have inspired you most? And why?
Mr CK (he only ever referred to himself as Charlie Kilo) Moyo, Ranger, Robins Camp, Hwange National Park. Always smiling, always friendly, always with a cigarette rolled out of newspaper in his mouth and his ancient but lovingly cared for AK 47 in his hands, CK was on patrol, hunting poachers until his death at 60 something. No one in the park knew his exact age, and if they did they kept it a secret when the government tried to compulsorily retire all staff over the age of 55.
Roger, the manager of Tsendze Rustic Camp in the Kruger Park. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so happy in his job as Roger. He must see thousands of people every year but he seems to remember most by name and is quick to offer help to set up camp and unload, or to point out the resident owls. If every person employed in a national park had the same love of their work and the environment in which they lived Africa’s parks would be even better than they are.
Michele Hofmeyr, manager of the Skukuza plant nursery, Kruger National Park. So much of our attention is focused (and rightly so) on the plight of endangered species such as rhino, elephant, wild dog etc that we can lose sight of the fact that much more of our environment is in trouble. As well as running a truly beautiful garden of Eden in Kruger, Michele fights a one-woman battle to conserve endangered plants and works with local communities to ensure that flora as well as fauna is not pillaged to extinction for use in traditional medicines.
What does African wilderness and wildlife mean to you, personally? Why do you love it so much? What do you miss most about it?
I came to Africa for the first time as a tourist in 1995 at the age of 31 and I was totally unprepared for everything that assailed my senses on that trip. I’d never given wildlife or the environment or conservation a second thought before then.
Africa has taught me the value of nature and the need to protect it. I have loved the process of learning that man and wildlife can live in harmony if there is respect and common sense – we needn’t be mutually exclusive.
I miss going to sleep to the roar of a lion, or waking to the cluck of a purple crested touraco. I miss going for a drive and, literally, not knowing what’s going to be around the next corner. The rest of the world is so predictable.
The population levels of many of Africa’s large animals in the wild have plummeted in the last 50 years. Going forward, what must be done to ensure that Africa’s wild animals survive and thrive in the next century?
From what I’ve learned, human behaviour and habitat destruction are the two biggest threats to endangered wildlife. People might think I’m crazy, but both are possible to change.
People in Vietnam and other countries that use rhino horn, lion bones, vulture’s heads and other animal parts in traditional medicine have to stop. We have to look at educational, communications-based campaigns to influence and change behaviour.
When I say that, sceptical people say I’m naive and foolish, to which I say that it wasn’t that long ago that people in Europe, America and Australia were making piano keys and billiard balls out of ivory, cosmetics out of whales, and shooting rhinos as trophies.
Behaviour can be changed, given consistency of message and consistency of effort. Co-ordination and a single, unified voice are what is missing at the moment.
I applaud initiatives such as those of the Peace Parks Foundation that are focused on opening up migration routes and more land for animals (and people) to traverse on. I think it’s important to point out that in the time I’ve been travelling to Africa, just coming up to 20 years, the South African government has proclaimed and been restocking several new national parks with game. That is a little recognised but absolutely crucial step in the process of reversing habitat destruction and giving more land back over to wildlife.
What do you think of the proposed trade in rhino horn. Yes? No? Or Maybe?
I’ve heard the argument for, but I can’t support trade in a medicine that doesn’t work. The demand for horn can be successfully targeted through campaigns aimed at changing behaviour. It’s limited to pockets of the wealthy elite in Vietnam and some other markets. Seriously, if rhino horn really was valued in Chinese medicine in mainland China (as opposed to being a must-have commodity for a few rich idiots) would there be any rhinos left at all? This is a finite market with complex artificial forces driving demand. We can target these people and their suppliers and we must.
I think talk of legalising the trade also sends all the wrong messages to the user countries, who we are also asking to step up their policing of the illegal trade. It also undermines and overlooks the value of the work rangers, police and military people are doing on the ground.
This is a war, not a get rich quick scheme for governments and a few individuals. Let’s fight the bloody thing, on the battlefield, and in the minds of the people who are driving the bloodshed.
Hunting. Does it fit into your conservation matrix. If no, why? If yes, then with what conditions?
I’ve served in the Australian Army off and on for 33 years; I’ve been to war and I’ve carried a gun and learned to shoot, but I’ve never killed anything or anyone (bigger than a mosquito). Ok, there was a scorpion once, and I’m sorry about that.
But seriously, while I would never hunt, some of the most ardent conservationists I know are also hunters. I am a hypocrite because I love Kudu fillet, but would never shoot one of those beautiful creatures, so I get and have no problem with hunting for the pot.
If well managed, truly sustainable hunting can genuinely support local communities, provide a buffer zone around national parks, and help prevent or combat poaching then I don’t have a problem with it.
The question is, can all of these criteria be met and enforced?
Which are your three favourite books (fiction or non-fiction) about African wilderness and wildlife?
I am currently reading a delightful book called Never a Dull Moment, by a friend of mine, Paddy Hagelthorn, who manages a lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. It is shaping up to be one of my favourite wildlife books because it’s a unique (from what I’ve seen) combination of a beautiful coffee table book (he takes superb photos) mixed with lots of good text about conservation and Paddy’s anecdotes as a guide.
Fiction-wise I’m a huge fan of John Gordon-Davis who sadly passed away recently. His best book was Hold My Hand I’m Dying, which mixes wildlife, history, and politics during the Rhodesian bush war.
Another excellent novel of his was Taller Than Trees, a short but very moving book about a game ranger who has to track down and shoot a problem elephant.
Finally, your favourite wild spot to watch the sun rise or set in Africa, and your favourite person to share it with?
You can catch a great sunrise or sunset anywhere in Africa, but the sunsets from a houseboat on Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe, are the most spectacular I’ve seen – the best in the world, in fact. There’s nothing like sitting with my wife, Nicola, and maybe a few friends, sipping on a chilled Zambezi Lager on the lake.