Muti or malice? On the 'Blood Trail' with Tony Park, as trackers hunt elusive poachers

02 August 2021 - 09:59 By Michael Sears
'Blood Trail' is Tony Park’s terrific new thriller.
'Blood Trail' is Tony Park’s terrific new thriller.
Image: Supplied

Published in the Big Thrill (01/08/2021)

Blood Trail is Tony Park’s terrific new thriller set at a private game reserve and a nearby rural village, Killarney, bordering the Kruger National Park. Mia, an expert tracker, and her partner, Bongani, are trying to keep Lion Plains private game reserve safe from poachers, but despite their dedication, they’re failing. Rhinos are being poached, and the poachers vanish, apparently into thin air. Is black magic - muti - delivered by local sangomas (witch doctors) involved? Girls from Killarney village disappear. Then a boy who keeps reptiles and sells them to sangomas is murdered. Sannie van Rensburg from the South African police is doing her best with limited resources, but making little progress. And that’s just the start.

Although an Australian, Park is the author of 19 best-selling thrillers set in Africa. A “once-in-a-lifetime” safari holiday to Southern Africa in 1995 turned out to be anything but for Park, who found in Africa the inspiration he needed to follow his dream—quitting his job in public relations and becoming a full-time writer. Park and his wife, Nicola, split their time between Sydney and a game reserve in SA. It’s been a battle to pull that off in the last year because of Covid-19, but they hope to be back soon.

Park’s books look at the often bloody fight to save endangered wildlife and also draw on his 34 years of experience in the Australian Army Reserve, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald calls him one of that country’s “best and most consistent thriller writers”, and The Times of London has described him as Wilbur Smith’s spiritual heir.

In this interview for The Big Thrill, Park talks more about the elements that came together to become Blood Trail.

Mia is a great character. Essentially brought up by the local people in the bushveld, her passion is wildlife and tracking. She has made herself the best woman tracker, maybe the best tracker, in the whole area. Yet she lacks self-confidence in her work and her relationships. How did you develop her?

Mia’s not based on a real character, but I do know some female safari guides, and I drew heavily on stories they told me about what they like and dislike about their jobs. I think all of us, at times in our lives, suffer from self-doubt and a lack of confidence. I know that as a writer I feel so lucky and blessed to be doing the one job in life that I always wanted to, but I’m often racked by self-doubt. I have to tell myself to trust the process (or, more often, those around me tell me that), and I worked some of this into Mia’s story.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Blood Trail is the detail about tracking and the poaching trade. I know you have a place in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve area. Is much of this based on your own experience there and with the local people?

Absolutely. One of the things I love about the African bush, especially living there, is that the learning never stops. I love going out on a game drive with a new safari guide and learning more about the environment — not just rhinos, lions, and elephants, but how trackers learn and employ their skills. A good tracker reads the signs and tracks he or she is following, rather than just looking at them. My wife, Nicola, and I are also part owners of a safari lodge in Zimbabwe, Nantwich Lodge, and I love spending time with the guides there, watching them work and learning from them.

On the poaching side, a war is being fought to protect endangered species, especially rhinos, and as I’ve explored in other books, the tactics on both sides keep evolving. It’s hard to keep up with, but it’s a fascinating and important struggle to study.

A key premise of the book is that rhino poachers are eluding expert trackers in a private game reserve in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve bordering the Kruger National Park. Their tracks suddenly disappear at spots usually marked with special symbols from sangomas. This affects the black trackers dramatically, and even Mia starts to fear something supernatural. Indeed, even the reader starts to believe that something paranormal must be happening. Was exploring these belief systems a major motivation for the story?

Definitely. I was fascinated when a friend, an academic, explained to me that not only do poachers consult their local traditional healers for potions and spells to make them bulletproof, to disappear, but also the national parks’ anti-poaching rangers have the same beliefs and will also carry their own magic. As a Westerner, it’s tempting to dismiss this as superstition, but as an ex-military person, I know that the following of rituals, use of good luck charms, and religion, become incredibly important to people in war, which is what’s known as a high-risk (you might die) and high-reward (you win or you lose) situation. People involved in poaching or counter-poaching are in a high-risk, high-reward situation as well, and their beliefs become a matter of life and death for some.

There’s a lot of in-depth background information about sangomas and their work embedded in the story. How did you research that?

Two academics studying the use of traditional medicines and beliefs in this field gave freely of their time, answered dozens of questions from me, and checked the manuscript. I also conducted a number of interviews with an African friend of mine in SA who spoke openly about his dealings with a traditional healer and the medicines and talismans he’d used. When he was younger, he was working as an armed security guard in Johannesburg. Sadly, in parts of that city, there is very real risk to law enforcement and security personnel from armed criminals. He freely admitted that he needed all the protection he could get in his job. To round things out, I was incredibly lucky to learn that one of my editors at my publisher, Pan Macmillan South Africa, was also a practising sangoma! Her feedback on the manuscript was invaluable.

Click here to continue reading the interview.