Lake Kariba is an artificial inland sea that covers 282km2 of the Zambezi Valley. It is the continent’s third largest dam after Aswan in Egypt and Cahora Bassa on the same river in neighbouring Mozambique.
The dam was built to to produce hydroelectricity for use by both Zimbabwe and bordering Zambia and it’s something of a feat of both engineering and human endeavour that it was built at all.
The area is a commercial fishing centre with the crane-like capenta rigs illuminating the night-time waters of the lake. At the same time, the dam attracts vast quantities of game, both big and small. Huge Nile crocodiles inhabit the lake as do many hippos and it is not uncommon to stumble into a herd of elephants on the lakeshore or while walking through the bush.
Lake Kariba is now a very popular resort lake with an airport, harbour, lakeside hotels and lodges, huge houseboats, marinas, water-sports and fishing.
Summer is very hot and humid. October is known locally as “suicide month” and there are no quick, cooling dips into the water from the shore. Crocs, hippos and bilharzia infest the shoreline and mosquitoes are rife.
The winter months of June to August, however, are balmy and pleasant. Probably the nicest way to see the lake is on a houseboat but make sure it has a swimming cage as you will need those cooling dips.
A major achievement at the time of the dam’s construction was Operation Noah. Rupert Fothergill, after whom Fothergill Island in Matusadona National Park is named, led one of the biggest wildlife rescue missions since Noah and his Ark.
His team tracked, captured and relocated up to five thousand animals including lions and rhinos to save them from the rising waters. Kariba is a singular example of the co-habitation of man and animal.
The resident Batonka (Tonga) people who had lived in this neck of the woods for centuries were to be displaced by the dam in the 1950s. They appealed to the Zambezi River God, the fish-headed, serpent-tailed Nyaminyami, whose image, like the Zimbabwe bird, is another popular motif in local curios.
Christmas Eve 1955 saw the beginning of a chain of climactic events that would see the drowning of the original town, the swamping of the dam’s foundations and breaching of the main coffer dam, the collapse of the suspension bridge across the Zambezi and the death of 86 of the 10,000-strong Italian construction company.
The culmination came in March when a flood, the size of which is only seen once in a thousand years, swept 18 workers into the wet concrete of the unfinished wall. Not all of the bodies were recovered.
Against these odds, the dam was completed in December 1958 and officially opened by the Queen Mother, a year-and-a-half later.
Problems continued to arise including the spread of Kariba weed across the lake and prolonged years of drought which saw hydroelectric capacity diminish to insufficient levels. There has been talk of a second dam to supplement the dry years. Nyaminyami’s previous displeasure seems to have been forgotten but the Batonka believe that his anger is not yet spent.