Pooped on by birds, peed on by monkeys: at work with author Tony Park

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At work on his laptop at a game reserve near the Zimbabwe capital,Harare. The author has found the perfect way to combine work and play – his adventures
inspire his books.
At work on his laptop at a game reserve near the Zimbabwe capital,Harare. The author has found the perfect way to combine work and play – his adventures inspire his books.

Most writers prefer to work somewhere quiet – preferably a study where they can be alone with their thoughts and won’t be disturbed. But when Tony Park writes his bestselling novels he likes to be in nature – perhaps camping in the middle of nowhere or sitting in a car in Tanzania, watching thousands of wildebeest thunder past.

There are some pitfalls to this approach . . . such as snakes, flies and a perpetually dusty laptop. But the Australian wouldn't have it any other way.

Tony visited Africa for the first time in 1995 and fell in love with the continent. He now spends six months of the year here – living mainly at his house on the edge of the Kruger National Park near Hazyview in Mpumalanga.

“I still keep having to pinch myself to check that this is real,” he says. “Because it really doesn’t feel like a job – it feels as if I’m retired and I’m getting paid to domy hobby.”As his 18th novel, Last Survivor, hits the shelves, we revisit a fun interview we did with the 56-year-old author in Cape Town last year.

Why do you write about South Africa? Surely as an Australian it would be easier to write about your home country?

Yes and no. There’s that old adage about writing about what you know, but I think you have to write about what you’re passionate about. In Australia I live in the city ina two-bedroom flat on a six-lane highway and here I live in a house in the bush with no fences where wild animals can come right up to my front door. I’m more passionate about my house than my flat.

You’re often compared to Wilbur Smith. How do you feel about this?

There are two key differences between me and Wilbur: there are about 35 books and $35 million (R595 million). But seriously, I think the only similarity is that both of us have written books about Africa.

You like to combine work and play and are quite happy to work while on your travels through Africa. What are the challenges of this approach?

Monkeys have peed on me from trees, birds have pooped on me, flies are constantly buzzing around and my laptop gets really dusty. I had a computer dying on me in Musina and I was terrified because I hadn’t backed up.

You live the life of many people’s dreams. Describe a typical day in Africa.

I’ll get up and we might go for a game drive. During this time I’ll be clearing my mind and starting to think about what I’m going to write. Then I’ll come home and write as quickly as I can. 

Tony Park on a game drive near his home on the edg
Tony Park on a game drive near his home on the edge of the Kruger National Park. He spends half the year living in Africa.

You release a book a year so obviously you’re not much of a procrastinator.

I have to be focused. What I find works for me is to get into a routine. Everyday life and travels do sometimes interrupt, but if I can my gold standard is to work six days a week and write 1 800 words a day – this can take anything from 90 minutes to eight hours. If I stick to this plan I can get a book done in six months or less.

What first brought you to South Africa in 1995?

My wife, Nicola. She said, we’re going to Africa for a holiday. She’d booked this really old [Toyota] Corolla with no air-con and I arrived in South Africa to discover that I was going to drive us around all the great game parks of southern Africa. And we had a fantastic time. For an aspiring writer it was pure gold – every single person we met in every campsite had a story to tell that would’ve put Crocodile Dundee to shame. People’s real-life experiences in this part of the world are amazing.

What do you love about Africa?

The way people here deal with adversity. You “make a plan”, that wonderful South African expression. There’s this incredible resilience and a love of life I haven’t encountered anywhere else. People know how to enjoy themselves.

Tony and his wife, Nicola, on safari in Zimbabwe.
Tony and his wife, Nicola, on safari in Zimbabwe.

Tell us about your South African home.

It’s in a private wildlife estate that adjoins the Kruger so we have animals wandering around us – zebra, wildebeest and giraffe. We have resident leopard and hyenas, we occasionally have elephant visiting.

Have you had any hair-raising incidents with wild animals during your travels?

We had lions around our tent in Mana Pools in Zimbabwe which was pretty scary because the zipper of our tent was broken and held together with sticky tape. I remember sitting there in my underwear with a torch in one hand and a pocket knife in the other and my wife clinging to me, waiting to die.

What scares you?

I’m absolutely terrified of snakes. I don’t know why.

How does your wife feel about having you dedicate your books to her? It must score you lots of brownie points.

I’ve dedicated all my books to her. This just means now I can’t really dedicate a book to anyone else because if I do I’d be in trouble! But seriously, she’s been an incredible support to me. I couldn’t have done it without her. 


Last Survivor 
By Tony Park
Pan Macmillan
Joanne Flack is on the run, suspected of stealing an extremely rare cycad that could be worth millions.  The CIA suspects there’s a link between Joanne and the smuggling of the cycad to an Isis terrorist group in Mali. A group of these terrorists might well be hiding out somewhere in South Africa and the CIA tasks the no-nonsense Sonja Kurtz (who has appeared in previous Park books) to hunt down Joanne and find this link.  

Playing a central role in this all is the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society, a bunch of over 60’s who share a passion for cycads and guns.

Last Survivor is set in different locations in Africa – Mali, Zimbabwe and the Lowveld of South Africa. It’s clear that Park did meticulous research for this novel and it contains a wealth of information on wildlife, cycads and weaponry. In fact, the detail feels a bit overwhelming at times. Yet the ending, where the geriatric band of gun-toting plant lovers sets off to do battle with evil forces, is quite thrilling.  All in all, a good read about greed, guns, plants and sex! - André J Brink

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