On the outskirts of Durban, Suzanne Fessey fights back during a vicious carjacking. She kills one thief but the other, wounded, escapes with her baby strapped into the back seat.
Called in to pursue the missing vehicle are helicopter tracker pilot Nia Carras from the air, and Mike Dunn, a nearby wildlife researcher, from the ground.
But South Africa’s police have even bigger problems: a suicide bomber has killed the visiting American Ambassador, and chaos has descended on Kwa-Zulu Natal.
As the missing baby is tracked through wild game reserves from Zululand to Zimbabwe, Mike and Nia come to realise that the war on terror has well and truly invaded their part of the world.
Ideas for new books can come from anywhere – a newspaper article, a chat around a braai (barbie for the Australians), or something I’ve noticed in my travels.
‘Red Earth’ was a little different. One of my readers, also a friend on Facebook, messaged me one day saying, basically, ‘please write a book about vultures’.
His name was Andre Botha and he is the head of the Birds of Prey division of the respected South African conservation charity the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).
So I was like: ‘vultures? Why?’
Through Andre I learned that vultures are in serious trouble in Africa. In parts of the continent, most notably KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) they are sold as ‘muti’, or traditional medicine.
The headquaters of the Natal Mounted Rifles, a South African army reserve unit based in Durban. Some of the action in Red Earth takes place in this interesting historic old building; I took part in some action inside this building while writing the book, specifically in the unit’s Sergeants’ Mess, the ‘Boot and Spur’ pub.
The story pedalled by unscrupulous healers is that the vulture’s eyesight is so good (which is true) that it can see into next week – it can see winning lottery numbers, your next promotion at work or the answers to your child’s next school examination! People buy dried vultures heads and sleep with them under their pillows, for luck, or grind them into powder and put them in their kids’ drinks. Serious.
Vultures are also deliberately killed by rhino and elephant poachers, who lace the carcasses of their animal victims with poison. They do this because vultures are an ally of anti-poaching rangers – often it’s circling vultures that alert the authorities to a poaching incident.
Vultures are in so much trouble that there are fewer vultures in southern Africa than there are rhinos and vultures are disappearing at a far greater rate than rhinos or elephants.
Vultures are birds, birds fly, and something else I had wanted to write about (again) was helicopters. Specifically, I wanted to write about helicopters used by car tracking companies in South Africa to locate stolen vehicles.
Helicopters have featured in several of my books, so much so that I was once asked by an eagle-eyed magazine reporter if I have a helicopter fetish. Yes, I do. I love them. I decided to make my leading lady in ‘Red Earth’ a chopper pilot for a car tracking company.
Researching ‘Red Earth’ was interesting and fun. Andre taught me a lot about vultures and I visited a real life tracking company and spoke to their helicopter aircrew.
At the same time as all that there were some stories in the South African newspapers about locals leaving the country to fight for ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria – this forms a sub-plot to the book.
The fact that the vulture trade is quite big in KZN was also oddly handy. For some time I had wanted to set a book in this beautiful part of South Africa (and for some time a number of readers there had been seriously hassling me to do so), so it all came together nicely.
So that’s where I get the idea(s) to write a book!