Tony Park heads to Namibia in An Empty Coast

After more than 20 years in Africa Tony Park is still surprised by the country he has adopted as his home.

“It’s such a country of contrasts,” the former Sydney journalist says.

He starts talking about the Himba, an indigenous people living in northern Namibia, where his latest novel An Empty Coast is set.

“I remember going to this town called Opuwo and the Himba are there, with their skin covered in butterfat and ochre, dressed in jackal skins, their hair in plaits, but there they are in the supermarket, pushing their trolley, talking on their mobile phones.

“It never ceases to amaze me, that all these parts of Africa, they’re not living side by side, it’s all just thrown in together.”

Park was always keen to go back to Namibia. The Delta, written in 2011, was partly set there and introduced readers to former soldier and mercenary Sonja Kurtz.

Both return in An Empty Coast. This time Sonja’s daughter, Emma, has discovered a body on the edge of Namibia’s Etosha National Park which may be the key in a find people would kill for. Safari guide, and former CIA agent, Hudson Brand, who appeared in 2014’s The Hunter, is also involved and the three must join forces to solve a decades-old mystery.

One highlight of the book is the presence of such a strong female lead. Sonja Kurtz is a complicated character, a woman with a past, one hopeful for a future. A bit like Africa itself.

Park says there was such a good reader response to her in The Delta, he knew he wanted to bring her back. The country of her birth seemed the perfect place to do that.

“The interesting thing about Namibia, in contrast to a lot of African countries, is that it’s actually pretty quiet there,” Park says.

“It’s peaceful and stable and doing relatively well, a mostly maturing democracy. There’s a stable government and a good supply of natural resources and a small population.

“While it’s something we take for granted, a lot of African countries don’t have these things. I just got a good positive vibe from the people, of all backgrounds and races.

“So when I was writing a book set there I had to think about what was happening, and in Namibia’s case, look at the identity of the country and look at how political debate is still shaped by history, by the colonisation by the Germans, the War of Independence in the 1990s, and how these things were still influencing what was going on there.

“Most people are happy to class the whole continent of Africa as one big basket case but Namibia proves that it’s not.”

It’s not that the country doesn’t have its problems though, Park is quick to point out.

Poaching is a problem, as it is through most of the continent.

“Rhinos are dwindling at an alarming rate,” he says. “Rhino horn is worth more than gold, more than diamonds, more than cocaine … I’m involved in a lot of charities where our aim is to reduce demand … the book opens in Vietnam – and to its credit the Vietnamese government is lifting its game over the issue – where a lot of the rhino horn ends up.”

The destruction of wildlife habitat is also a problem but it’s something the country is working on, setting up conservancies, with farmers and tourism operators working side by side.

“Before I came to Africa I hadn’t given the environment any thought,” Park says.

“But now I live in a solar-powered house and my footprint is almost non-existent.

“I’m happy to say Africa turned me into a greenie.”

And it also gave him plenty of inspiration for his writing.

“Next I’m off to Zululand, in South Africa, it’s completely different to Namibia, lush and green, with a fascinating British history.”

A country of contrasts.

An Empty Coast, by Tony Park. Macmillan, $29.99.

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