Lake Kariba is full and its spilling floodgates are a magnificent tourism site as the dam celebrates its 50th year.
On 16th May 1960, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the British Queen Mother switched on the first electricity generators at Kariba Power Station and officially opened Africa's biggest (at the time) hydro power generation project. The huge concrete arch, double curvature dam wall, 128m high and spanning 617m across the narrow Kariba Gorge between Zambia and Zimbabwe, had finally closed off the waters of the Zambezi River the year before, creating a lake 280 kms long and covering some 5200 sq km of the Zambezi valley.
It had not been an easy undertaking. Described as the one of the engineering wonders of the world, the dam took five years to complete and its construction was fraught with challenges. A number of workers lost their lives and are buried within its vast walls. Two consecutive years of unprecedented floods during the dam's construction succeeded in breaching the coffer dam and setting back progress for many months. Hundreds of Tonga villagers who lived along the Zambezi River upstream from the dam were relocated away from their ancestral homes and fishing livelihoods and resettled on high ground to the south and west of the new lake, where they were left to scratch out a living in hostile, unfertile territory. Thousands of animals were drowned, unable to escape the rising lake waters.
Fifty years later - two hydro power stations (one on each side of the dam) continue to be a major source of electricity for the Southern African region. Kariba and its neighbouring Zambian town, Siavonga, have become centres for a tourism industry based on the attractions of this vast, man-made lake. Wildlife that survived the flood 50 years ago has bred and now thrives in its waters and along its shores in places like the Matusadona National Park, (which is an Intensive Protection Zone for the endangered black rhinoceros). Visitors come for excellent fishing, for boating and sailing, for a relaxed, sun-filled holiday on a houseboat, for comfortable lakeside hotels, lodges and safari camps, for game-viewing and birding, and for a variety of watersports.
As the area celebrates 50 years of lakeside history, the dam is once again under seige from the floodwaters of the Zambezi River. There have been heavy rains in the catchment area upstream during the past two years and this season the lake has been filling at a phenomenal rate. When it reached 75% capacity in March 2010, with inflows still expected until June, the Zambezi River Authority (an inter-governmental body responsible for the dam's management) opened three of Kariba's six floodgates with warnings to villagers and communities downstream to prepare for the ensuing floods. The three gates have remained half open throughout April and the lake is still rising with about one metre to go before it is at maximum capacity. The rate of rise has slowed, but will continue throughout May and into June as seasonal rainfall inflows subside. The Zambezi River downstream of Kariba is now a rushing torrent, with sandy islands underwater and low-lying villages and tourism camps threatened with flooding.
Some would say that the Zambezi River spirit, Nyaminyami - depicted in local craftwork as a fanged serpent, is once again making a show of strength. During the 1950s floods which nearly destroyed the Kariba dam wall in the making, local Tonga communities believed that they were the work of Nyaminyami, angry at the construction of the wall which had separated him from his wife downstream.
Whatever the speculation, Lake Kariba is looking stunning at the moment. Visitors to the town should take time to visit the dam wall which is spectacular with its flood spray rising high into the air between the hills of the dramatic gorge. Great views and photographic opportunities are to be had from the Observation Point on the hill above the dam, where you can buy Kariba crafts and souvenirs as well. But even more spectacular is a trip onto the wall itself. If you leave your ID documents at the Immigration post, in exchange for a temporary permit, (this only takes a few minutes) you can walk or take a drive down to the wall where you can experience the full force of Nyaminyami 's power as you walk along the impressive concrete curve. It's like a mini, man-made Victoria Falls and well worth the visit!
KARIBA DAM 50TH ANNIVERSARY HISTORICAL DVD: There is a special DVD, containing fascinating historical footage and documentaries about the building of the Kariba Dam (see picture). You can obtain a copy from Bill Sykes, History Society of Zimbabwe: E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org