It’s Africa’s largest inland body of water — and the world’s largest man-made reservoir. Lake Kariba is immense, scenically outstanding and incredibly rich in wildlife, and what better way to explore it than on a houseboat, waking to a different vista each morning, feeling the shift of the elements around you, drifting off to the rock of the boat and a hyena’s distant whoop? Words and photographs by Mana Meadows
Like any sea, this lake has its moods. And its blues. And its blues and moods stay with you forever. Say “Kariba blue” to anyone who’s ever spent a day on this magnificent water-body and you will probably get a wistful smile and a nostalgic glint in the eye as they conjure up images associated with their own brand of Kariba blue, born of many a happy houseboating trip.
Are they thinking of plain old sky blue? That pure and pretty hue, when the sky is vast and cloudless, the breeze light and refreshing as you stretch out on your top-deck sunbed. Or is it deep azure — synonymous with late winter and a high, unforgiving sun that bakes the terracotta earth, and sees you constantly seeking respite in the boat’s dip pool? Perhaps they are remembering steel blue: of soft silver-blue balmy afternoons when Kariba vibrates with serenity, and the horizon slinks off for a quiet snooze. Or the midnight blue of choppy Kariba waters, with biting white-capped waves, or rolling deep-water swells.
Right now, my personal favourite — storm-cloud blue — is making an appearance: a herd of buffalo are coming down to drink, red dust swirls around their dark, earthy forms, and deep sapphire storm clouds full of the promise of early rains are mushrooming behind them. It’s sundowner time out on this 5400sq-km lake. We’re only a short drive away from our home on the water. Our small tender boat rocks gently, and all is silent save the soft slap of water on the hull and the reassuring clink of ice in our gin and tonics (it’s day three in 35°C-plus weather and the ice is still going!). Only a stone’s throw away, a family herd of elephant feed on the shoreline’s rich torpedo grass, semi-silhouetted by a streaky, golden sky. Daylight fades and the water birds head for home. White-faced whistling ducks cut the sky above us, and a massive flock of cattle egrets lope pale and ghost-like against the deep plum of the brooding Matusadona mountains.
Sundowners on this beautiful lake anchor the entire houseboating experience. Nature puts on a spectacular show and you are in among the leading actors, not watching from the side. As the sun dips behind the mountains the colours change and the sky merges with the lake in an oil painting of balmy steel blues and greys; the nostrils of surfacing hippo are the only clue to the horizon. The skeletons of long-dead mopane trees stand tall as eerie bastions of the bays. Tree meets water and in the hazy, still horizon-less world, wood and water become one.
The drowned forests are not the only guardians of the lake: Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River God, dwells here, too. Half-fish and half-snake, the fearsome spirit is still angry at the flooding of his home for the creation of Kariba Dam, and local Batonga legend predicts that one day he will destroy the dam wall and seek his revenge. He’s come close before. By the time of its completion in December 1958, 80 lives had been lost during the building of the wall. Between 1950 and 1958, four disasters interrupted progress, mostly from devastating floods sparked by freak weather phenomena never before seen in the area. For now, though, Nyaminyami is relaxed. The lake is in a tranquil steel-blue mood.
Aside from soaking up the sunsets, any self-respecting houseboating trip involves healthy doses of indulgence, with long, quiet hours to do nothing but sunbathe or read, birdwatch or sleep, and later, get active with fishing or wildlife viewing in the cooler hours. Add to that a steaming cup of coffee, rusk in hand, sipped to the dawn bird chorus. And mid-morning beers are generally not frowned upon.
The boats come with small but excellent crews with a reputation for their hard work and cheerfulness. They take care of everything from piloting, catering, tender boat game drives — and even impart generous fishing advice. Know that you will certainly be a little plumper by the end of your trip — Kariba houseboat chefs are legendary and can produce genuine masterpieces from the simplest of pantries. It doesn’t get much better than freshly caught beer-battered bream, the recipe distilled to perfection from decades of practice. Or put in a special request for crumbed kapenta — a locally introduced small freshwater sardine.
Trips depart from various towns on the lake, more popularly Kariba, Binga or Mlibizi in Zimbabwe, or the quieter Siavonga on the Zambian side. Trips average four to six nights, mooring overnight at different scenic spots along the way. The further you go from Kariba town, the quieter and wilder it gets. The most popular destination is Zimbabwe’s Eastern Basin, also home to the remote and rugged Matusadona National Park, only accessible by air charter, boat or 4WD. The park boasts rich wildlife varieties, including the possibility of lion, cheetah, leopard and, if Nyaminyami is really smiling on you, maybe even the highly endangered black rhino.
Aside from canoeing or sailing the lake, this water-bound holiday provides the most deep-rooted and personal way of getting to know it. Plus, it’s comfortable. Many boats are virtually floating safari lodges, offering solaces such as air-con, lavish en suites, spacious cabins and Jacuzzi-cum-dip pools — while others trade on the charm of top-deck beds under the stars and swimming cages to beat the heat (crocodiles are a very real threat so beware).
Regardless of which outfit you go with, the houseboat recipe is simple, standard and repetitive: get active early in the morning and late in the afternoon when temperatures are cooler and fish and wildlife are also on the move. Relax during the heat of the day when all life shrinks from the glaring heat. Tender boats allow you to nip around the lake on game viewing or fishing outings, exploring the placid backwaters and meandering tributaries and allowing you to get close to the animals. Towards mid-morning, when your stomach starts to grumble and the sun on the water starts to get fierce, return for brunch and shade. And while you nap it off, your skipper will unmoor and move you on to your next picturesque spot to anchor.
Lake Kariba was built to provide hydroelectric power for Zimbabwe and Zambia. The creation of the lake was synonymous with the world-famous wildlife-rescue project known as Operation Noah, which rescued animals from the rising waters when the Zambezi Valley was flooded upon completion of the dam wall. More than 6000 creatures were rescued by a tiny but dedicated band of men led by game ranger and reluctant hero Rupert Fothergill. The figures may not be startling today, but for its time, with no immobilising drugs (every creature was caught by hand, rope, nets and sack — even porcupines!), the efforts were painstaking and unprecedented.
Lake Kariba has always been an angler’s paradise. It is especially renowned for its tigerfish — the king of the lake with its sledgehammer strike and fierce disdain for danger. The annual Kariba Invitation Tiger Fish Tournament (KITFT) attracts a worldwide angling audience, and the anticipated adrenaline rush from these fighters keeps anglers returning year after year.
When the tiger aren’t biting, slow down in a small bay, tie up to a tree, slip a worm on your hook, put your feet up and open a cold one (best enjoyed with a stick of biltong). Fish for the many species of bream, vundu catfish, Cornish jack, barbel catfish, nkupe and many more. Bream fishing is decent all year round. Note, tigerfish are more active between September and April, particularly October and early November.
• Getting there Kariba town offers the widest choice of houseboats and destinations. Fly there from Harare or Victoria Falls or drive from Harare, which takes about four to five hours.
• Where to stay There are scores of houseboats available to rent on Lake Kariba, ranging from humble six-berthers to high-end multi-deck vessels. Prices range from US$300 to US$1500 or more to hire a boat for the day. Most companies quote a ‘dry boat’ (houseboat or tender boat charter and crew included but not fuel, outboard oil, catering, drinks or other extras). Dunhu Ramambo’s Zambezi Safari Cruises offers a wide choice of pontoons. On land, try Musango Safari Camp or Rhino Safari Camp, in Matusadona National Park, or Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, all of which offer great views over the lake and full safari activites.
• When to go School and public holiday weekends can be busy so book early or avoid them. The lake is pleasant most of the year, though temperatures are milder from February to September. October to November is very hot but good for predator sightings near Matusadona. Mid-November to April is the rainy season, so expect beautiful sunsets, lush vegetation and afternoon showers.
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic to ensure you have had all the necessary vaccinations. Antimalarials are necessary.
• Further reading Bradt Guide to Zimbabwe (3rd Edition) by Paul Murray.