Kariba: a first time experience

by Guus Thomas-Verweij • 12 November 2011

It is 6am and I am about to leave Charles Prince, a quaint little airport to the west of Harare, on the final leg of my itinerary to Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe.  The sun is rising behind me into a cloudless sky.

Tourism is the focus of my visit to Kariba.  I have come to advise on the upgrading of the Cutty Sark Hotel  (see picture below)- one of the town's longest-standing hotels and an icon of Kariba's hospitality industry.

The small plane departs on time and my two fellow passengers are from Zimbabwe and the USA. We lift up over Harare which, from the air, looks like any first world capital city: long, wide streets, high rise buildings, train tracks and huge power-station cooling towers.  Slowly drifting west we climb to 8000 feet, flying over Zimbabwe's distinctly changing agricultural landscape that was once called  "The bread basket of Africa".

The 90-minute flight allows me time to reflect on my first 24 hours in Zimbabwe.  Walking alone through Harare's business district yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to feel as at ease and safe as in many other cities I have travelled to, both in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

I am happy I made the decision to fly, rather than drive the 450km to Kariba.  On later trips, however, I found the road in good condition, but full of huge, fast-moving trucks and buses, with clearly little regard for road safety.

We glide over a range of mountains and suddenly it's there- Lake Kariba - one of the largest man-made fresh water lakes in the world!  Nothing prepares me for this - the sky, horizon and land below seem to merge into one mass of "blueness".  Being Dutch, I'm used to land reclaimed from water, not the other way around!!

This was once a huge valley teeming with wildlife, with the mighty Zambezi River flowing in the bottom of it - downstream from the famous Victoria Falls (which by the way, Zambia shares with Zimbabwe!)   In the 1950s, the river was stopped in its tracks at Kariba with the building of a hydroelectric dam, and this vast lake slowly formed behind the dam, rising to settle at some 876 ft above sea level.

Flying over it gives me the chance to take in the sheer size of this extraordinary creation.  The lake's shores now teem with animals (all of the Big Five, including the black rhinoceros) as well spectacular birds, fish, reptiles, trees and plant life.  Its recent UNESCO designation as part of the Middle Zambezi Biosphere Reserve, is no surprise and will hopefully provide much needed assistance to this area which contains wildlife treasures like the Matusadona National Park (on the southern shore of the Lake) and Mana Pools World Heritage Site, as well as private reserves and a tourism industry facing many challenges.  

The flight over the Kariba Dam takes your breath away - partly because of the hair-raisingly steep angle of the aircraft - but mostly because of the awesome views of the huge curve of concrete holding back such a massive body of water. 

When we see it from the air, there are three seemingly delicate bridal veils of water falling from the wall and gently settling in the restful Zambezi River below the Dam.  A later visit to the view point on the ground soon puts paid to that romantic notion!  The utter power of so much water forced through the small floodgates in the Dam and thundering down in a tumultuous cascade onto the unsuspecting riverbed is awe inspiring and should not be missed.

I am half expecting Kariba Airport to be a dirt strip populated with baboons and antelope vying with each other to force the pilot to abort our landing and give us a closer look at the surrounding bush and baobab trees.  There are plenty of such strips around the Lake, but to my surprise, Kariba Airport has a modern looking tower and separate arrival and departure gates, making it an excellent and safe place to touch down. 

Still in awe of the views and new experiences, I feel my lungs fill with warm air the moment the aircon in the little plane is switched off. Two steps down the ladder and I set foot on Kariba soil to experience the heat, smells, sounds and dust that is Africa.  "Is that an elephant"?  Of course it is!  And before I reach my hotel on the shores of the Lake, I have asked the driver to stop four times to photograph, zebra, elephant, baboon and antelope. 

Later that evening, on my way to Warthogs Bush Camp for some beers, my heart stops when I realise that a rock on the side of the road is moving and is in fact a huge hippo wondering why I am in such a hurry.

Before I can safely return to the hotel, I am yet again made aware of the unique charm of this little lakeside town where I am a mere intruder in the backyard of these wild animals.  In the headlights of my car I spot two white, slightly curved, UFO-like things suspended above the road. Then a huge elephant bull appears, stops me in my tracks and slowly meanders towards my now stationary car.  Nowhere to go but back, I yank the car into reverse and crash into the nearest verge. "Engine off and lights out!", they had advised me at the camp.  I pray for all I am worth and the elephant passes by as though he owns the place - without even a thank you!

Lying on my bed, I think back to 48 hours ago when my trip started and how quickly I had become immersed in the real Africa I had always imagined!  If today is anything to go by, there are a lot of wonders in store for me...  

As it turns out, I am not to be disappointed.... sunsets to die for, fabulous fishing trips to do battle with the famous Tigerfish, houseboat holidays to suit every taste, a range of watersports to satisfy any adrenaline junkie, and wildlife and birding experiences par excellence!

Come and visit Kariba and experience it for yourself!  Better still stay at the newly upgraded Cutty Sark Hotel - it has one of the best lakeside views in town!

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