The lions almost looked out of place, on the sand, and their kind had almost vanished from this desert
Author Tony Park tells us about his love of Africa
“It was 20 years ago this year, back in 1995, that my wife, Nicola, decided we would take a three week trip to Africa. I was so enmeshed in my day job that I clearly remember being in a cab on the way to Sydney airport and saying to Nicola, “tell me again where we’re going?”
“South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana,” she reiterated, for the slow learner.
She had booked us a rental car and the idea – as crazy as it sounded to me at the time – was that we would drive ourselves around on safari, encountering Africa’s big game from the security and comfort of a Toyota Corolla sedan.
Perhaps it was because I was so underprepared for this trip that what happened next bowled me over so cleanly.
Within a matter of hours of landing at Johannesburg Airport I found myself driving through the gates of the Kruger National Park.
Immediately we started having the most incredible experiences. We had elephants trumpeting at us from the roadside, rhinos wandering so close they almost scratched the paintwork and a leopard that sauntered sleekly, almost menacingly, beside my wife’s window.
It was fun, exciting, a little bit nerve wracking at times. In short, Africa snuck up on us like a drug of addiction, getting its hooks under our skin and around our hearts.
By the end of that trip we were already planning our return trip. We’ve since visited Africa from our native Australia every year for the past 20 years.
The addiction grew. The more I saw of Africa’s wildlife, scenery and people, the more I wanted. My growing fascination coincided with an early onset mid-life crisis, the desire to write a novel.
I’d faced a couple of stumbling blocks in my lifelong desire to be an author; I found that while holding down full time jobs I didn’t have the time to write a book. Nor, too, did I have a place to write or a place that would inspire me.
I found both of these missing ingredients on my third trip to Africa. I had left my job to try and write – that gave me the time – and Nicola was taking a five-month break in between changing careers.
We hit the road again, back where it all started in the Kruger National Park, but this time we had bought a vehicle of our own, an old Land Rover. We set off on a five-month trip around southern Africa and I sat down each day and wrote a novel set on a fictitious tour that followed our real life trail.
Against the odds I found a publisher for that manuscript and it was released in 2004 as ‘Far Horizon’, a novel set in South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
Since then I’ve written a novel a year, all thrillers with a dollop of romance. My 12th, An Empty Coast, is set in Namibia. It’s a quietly successful, staggeringly beautiful country in the south west corner of Africa.
One of my most exciting days in the wilds of Africa happened during the research for An Empty Coast. My wife and I were staying at a camp on the edge of the Skeleton Coast National Park.
The coast, from which my book takes its name, is a barren, seemingly inhospitable place of contrasts where the freezing waters of the Atlantic smash into the burning Namib Desert.
My tale of adventure principally concerns several people who are all searching for an aircraft that went missing during Namibia’s war of liberation in the 1980s. On board is a cargo so valuable people will kill for it.
A sub plot of the book concerns the plight of Namibia’s desert adapted lions. Against the odds, lions roamed the seemingly empty coast for centuries, feeding on seals, beached whales and perhaps the odd shipwreck survivor.
Sadly, these big cats ran into trouble. As more and more of Namibia was developed for farming the lions strayed ever further inland, preying on domestic livestock. This brought the wrath of farmers, who, along with hunters, shot the desert lions almost to extinction.
On a cold misty morning I went in search of these lions and it was by no means certain we would find them.
Lion researcher Dr Flip Stander discovered, back in 1997, that there were 20 desert lions left alive. This in itself was something of a miracle and the cats were thought to be almost extinct. Dr Stander has spent the last 18 years researching, monitoring and tracking the lions and educating local farmers and communities about ways to avoid conflict with them.
Dr Stander also knows the value of lions – tourists will pay good money to see them – and our guides were busy chatting to him on the radio as our Land Cruiser rocked and rolled through the sandy bed of the Hoanib River on a dawn drive to the Skeleton Coast.
We passed a desert elephant – rare enough in his own right – as well as gemsbok (oryx) and a curious giraffe who looked incongruously out of place in a desert. The landscape was surreal, a mix of Mars-like red rock and shifting dunes.
Our guide pointed out tracks, the distinctive pug marks of lion fresh and crisp on the rippled side of a dune.
Soon we came to Dr Stander’s research vehicle and he vectored us in. There they were, five desert lions, looking like they were heading for a picnic at the seashore – our guide reckoned they were heading for the seal colony at Möwe Bay on the Atlantic.
The lions almost looked out of place, on the sand, and their kind had almost vanished from this desert. Today, as a result of the Desert Lion Project, there are now 200 lions, a tenfold increase from 1997.
In this small, beautiful country there’s a quiet success story unfolding and this is what keeps me coming back, what feeds my addiction.
Tony Park is the author of 12 thriller novels set in Africa. His latest, an Empty Coast, is set in Namibia. For more information visit www.tonypark.net