by Laura Paterson on April 20, 2018
9 min read

No matter how often I take this same winding road down the Makuti Escarpment, I crane my head over every hill and around every bend, trying to get the first fleeting glimpse of the Lake’s waters peeking through the mountain valleys. Any child that grew up going on holiday here can identify with the neck strain that comes from this repetitive action, and at 28, it seems that I’ve still not outgrown the habit.

I’ve missed my moment—distracted by the chatter of my excited family—despite the fact that this is probably our 300th trip here. We soon come around a bend that exposes the gargantuan lake in all its splendour; a seemingly endless sea of molten silver-blue water – impossible to distinguish from where it meets the similarly spectacular Zimbabwean sky. Only the green slopes of the Matusadona Mountains seem to separate the two in some spots.

Elephants in the matusadona national park

Get up close to the many elephant herds that call the Matusadona National Park home.
Photo Credit: Bumi Hills Safari Lodge

Around 340 km from the capital city of Harare, Lake Kariba is a treasured holiday spot for many Zimbabwean families. The drive takes five or so hours, but can take longer due to numerous stops to find high-value “anaconda earthworms”—essential for bream fishing—from the various roadside vendors and the inevitable cold beer at the ‘Keg and Baobab’. You may also be delayed by a literal zebra crossing; once we had to wait a mere two hours while an elephant took a snooze in the middle of the road.

That’s the glory of this drive though, there are surprises around every corner.

It’s always been a mystery to me that so few tourists consider Lake Kariba one of the must-see places when travelling to Zimbabwe, instead focusing solely on Victoria Falls. Undoubtedly, the country’s bad political repute has contributed to this fact, but even so, it never was as popular as I believe it truly deserves to be, but perhaps that’s part of its charm.

As the country enters a stage of what seems to be the beginning vestiges of political normality, and the additional upgrade to Kariba’s airport, I am hopeful that it will be firmly on the maps of the many visitors that Zimbabwe is expecting in the next year.

Stunning views across Lake Kariba from the Deck of Bumi Hills Safari Lodge

Magnificent views across Lake Kariba from Bumi Hills Safari Lodge
Photo Credit Bumi Hills Safari Lodge

Lake Kariba: A Brief History

At the end of 1958, the mighty Zambezi River was finally tamed and an immense dam wall was constructed across the Kariba Gorge for hydroelectric generation; soon the waters of Lake Kariba started to rise. At around 270 km long and 40 km at its widest, Lake Kariba is of superlative proportions, and at the time, was the world’s largest manmade lake.

What followed was one of the world’s most courageous conservation efforts ever undertaken: Operation Noah. A small group of passionate individuals, lead by Rupert Fothergill, took on the momentous task of rescuing the thousands of animals trapped on small islands that were slowly disappearing in the rising waters.

Using rudimentary methods: nets, drums, crates, boats, and their hands, they managed to save over 6 000 animals, many of which were incredibly dangerous snakes, furious lions, and cantankerous black rhino. If it wasn’t for them, there would be very little of the spectacular wildlife that make their home along the Lake’s shores.

Lake kariba bull elephant

An elephant bull on the Lake’s southern shores

It wasn’t just the wildlife that was displaced by Kariba’s construction, but the entire local Batonga tribe too. They were forcibly uprooted from their ancestral lands and settled in far inferior stretches of the land. During construction, the Batonga believed that the NyamiNyami River god was separated from his wife by the dam wall and fervently hoped that he would not let the build go ahead.

Their predictions nearly held true when the construction of the wall was destroyed two years in a row by unprecedented floods. This wasn’t enough to stop the project from being finished, however, and it was soon completed unhindered. Today, souvenirs of the NyamiNyami River god are found along roads, and at curio shops throughout the area.

A petrified forest found on the shorelines of Lake Kariba

Sunsets like nowhere else on earth
Photo Credit: African Bush Camps

Lake Kariba Like a Local

I am a firm believer that to experience any destination in the best way, one should look to the locals for the best ideas. In this case, these are the activities my family gets up to year in and year out, (the ones that are safe enough to encourage others to do anyway) and I guarantee they will make any holiday to Lake Kariba one that you’ll remember for the rest of your life:

Go Fishing For The Notorious TigerFish

These ‘big cats’ of the water are known for giving the best fight of any freshwater fish. Hire a boat with a local guide and head out to the Tilapia fish farms in the middle of the Lake. Don’t worry, you won’t be fishing in the cages themselves; rather you will be looking to land the monsters that circle the mesh feeding off the smaller fish that may just escape. Trust me, if you hook one of these bad boys – you’ll have the fight of your life.

If big game fishing isn’t really your thing, then fish amongst the grass and petrified forests for the Lake’s numerous species of bream. It’s a much more sedentary experience and affords a lot more time for drinking G&Ts, so this is naturally where we end up most days.

Lake Kariba's shore is covered by drowned trees

The petrified forests are the perfect spot for bream fishing or spinning for tigerfish
Photo Credit: Bumi Hills Safari Lodge

Hire a Houseboat

One of the best ways to experience Lake Kariba is undoubtedly by hiring one of the famous houseboats. Whether you’re on a relaxing family holiday (or not so relaxing in my case – considering the amount of gin consumed between us), on a fishing holiday with the boys, your yearly ladies trip, or even your honeymoon – you really can’t go wrong with a houseboat. You’ll have your own onboard chef, captain, and crew to cater to your every need, as well as boats provided for fishing, sundowners and game cruises. Add to this unspoilt African wilderness, the most soul-stirring sunsets you’re ever likely to see, as well as spectacular wildlife sightings, and you’re set for a holiday of a lifetime.

Looking at elephants from the boat

Game viewing by boat
Photo Credit: Bumi Hills Safari Lodge

Game Viewing in The Matusadona National Park

Found on Lake Kariba’s southern shores, the Matusadona National Park is one place you don’t want to miss. The Sanyati Gorge on one side and the Ume River on the other, create the park’s borders, and within these two divides, you will find one of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the country. Most of the game rescued during Operation Noah was released within the park’s boundaries. The Matusadona is home to the Big 5, and is particularly famous for huge herds of buffalo that roam the plains, lions that are experts at killing crocodiles, massive numbers of elephants, and low tourist numbers. It is truly one of Zimbabwe’s most magnificent national parks.

Lions drinking from a puddle

A young lion and lioness quench their thirst in a puddle in the Matusadona National Park

Kariba Heights

The only way to truly appreciate the immense expanse that Kariba’s water’s span, is to see them from above. Kariba Heights is a largely residential area, where there is still a healthy population of leopards present, and affords the best viewpoint across the Lake. Take a drive through the spiralling roads to the very top of the mountain and you’ll be afforded views all the way from the Charara Safari area to the Matusadona Mountains, across the Ume River and right over Siavonga, which makes up a large stretch of land on the Zambian side of the Lake. This is just a fraction of the entire area that the Kariba covers, but will still leave you in awe of its immensity.

View over Lake Kariba from Bumi Hills

Relax and unwind looking over the Lake’s incredible expanse
Photo Credit: Bumi Hills Safari Lodge

Sundowners

You’ll often hear Zimbabweans talk about “those Kariba sunsets”, and if you could imagine seeing a raging wildfire in the sky, you might get an idea of the otherworldly scenes unique to Lake Kariba. Take a boat out into the middle of the Lake, (don’t forget a generously packed cooler box) or drive out onto the numerous floodplains, relax, and watch as the African sun throws resplendent golds, reds, oranges, and pinks onto the still waters until it resembles a lake of rippling lava. Petrified forests provide a prehistoric silhouette to what is undoubtedly one of the best sunsets you’re ever going to witness. I advise doing this every evening; there’s no way you’ll ever tire of a Kariba sunset.

Sunset drinks at Lake Kariba

Sundowners on the shore of Lake Kariba
Photo Credit: Bumi Hills Safari Lodge

It’s one of these sunsets, and the haunting cry of a fish eagle, that provides the backdrop on New Year’s Eve while I ponder on my dreams and hopes for Zimbabwe, as it sees the first light of a new political dawn. It is my hope that as Zimbabwe’s ship starts to steady, that people from all over the world will have the privilege to experience just some of the unbelievable natural wonders that I am honoured to have grown up alongside.

Hiraeth is the word I use to describe my feelings whenever I long for those colourful twilights: “a homesickness, longing, nostalgia, and yearning, for a home that you cannot return to, no longer exists, or maybe never was.” It will never be the Zimbabwe of old, but, what is more exciting than being part of a generation that gets to build a new, positive future for a country with unlimited potential?

Not much in my eyes.

Come and see it for yourself! Zimbabwe, and Lake Kariba, are waiting to be explored.