The town of Kariba, built at the site of the hydro-electric dam across the Zambezi River, is a focus for tourism, and provides a starting point for access to the vast inland sea of Lake Kariba.
The little town which developed haphazardly on the hills near the site of the massive hydro-electric dam constructed across the Zambezi River in the 1950s, became known as “Kariba”.
The name 'Kariba' is thought to be a corruption of a local word 'Kariva' which means "little trap". It is believed when those who wished to construct the dam wall wanted to explain the nature of the project to the locals, they emphasised that they wanted to build a little water trap-Kariva. However, the complex pronunciation of the 'v' in Kariva saw the Western constructors produce a sound much like a 'b' hence the creation of the word Kariba.
Kariba is now a small and spread-out resort town which is the starting point for tourism activities centered on the lake of the same name.
Access is by air into the town's minor airport (from where transfers can be arranged) or by road via a scenic route through the Zambezi escarpment hills about 4-5 hours' drive from Harare. The distance by road from Lusaka (via either Chirundu or Siavonga) is less, but involves border formalities which can cause delays. It can, however, allow visitors the chance to cross the Zambezi River over the Chirundu Bridge or the awesomely impressive Kariba dam wall.
Where to stay in Kariba town
There are a number of small hotels, lodges, holiday cottages, self-catering facilities and campsites dotted among the hills, bays and shorelines of Kariba town from where views of the lake are stunning. Many people visit Kariba briefly as a stopping off point prior to setting out from one of its four main harbours on boats across the lake either to stay in the safari and fishing camps on the southern shore mainland, in the Matusadona National Park or on the islands, or to spend a few tranquil days fishing, game-viewing, birding, sunbathing or simply relaxing on board a houseboat.
Kariba has lots of these “floating hotels” of various sizes, shapes and degrees of comfort. They can be hired either on a full-board or self-catering basis and are usually equipped with an efficient and hard-working crew who will do everything to provide you with a holiday of a lifetime. The most popular destination for houseboat holidays out of Kariba is the Matusadona National Park, about 30kms across the lake, where there are islands, tranquil bays and creeks teeming with wildlife against the magnificent backdrop of the Zambezi escarpment mountains. If you are lucky, you can see a variety of large African mammal species, including elephant, buffalo, lion and cheetah and a staggering variety of waterbirds.
What to see & do
Points of interest include the dam wall itself (there is an observation point on the hill above it); The Heights, on a hill 600 m above the lake, with another look-out point, a collection of small shops and craft stalls, the Kariba Club (bar/restaurant/swimming pool) and the extraordinarily beautiful little Chapel of Santa Barbara, built in memory of workers who died during construction of the dam. Getting around without a car can be tricky because the town is so spread-out. But minibus tours can be arranged from Kariba's main hotels. Game-viewing tours in the nearby Kaburi Wilderness Area can be arranged via the hotels or through a travel agent, as can boat trips, sunset cruises and canoeing.
There are food supermarkets with a reasonable range of basic goods in Nhamhunga and Mahombekombe, the two small commercial centres at opposite ends of Kariba town. Petrol and diesel are available from fuel stations on the main road through the town or from the various boat harbours widely spread out along the extensive shoreline at the base of the hills. These also supply ice and drinks. It is wise to check availability beforehand, as the laid-back nature of the place can make the provision of visitor facilities a little haphazard!
The staggering thing about Kariba town is that it is a settlement in the middle of a wildlife corridor. Be prepared to give way to animals, including elephants, lumbering along the roads in the inhabited sections of the town at any time during the day or at night. Near the airport, several kilometres short of the town, the shorelines and river valleys of the Kuburi Wilderness are worth a visit. Check in at the National Parks office at Nyanyana beforehand.
Fishing is excellent sport in Lake Kariba's waters. The magnificent tigerfish, endemic to the Zambezi River, is a thrilling catch for avid anglers, and the focus of an International Tigerfishing Tournament held in Kariba in October each year. Various other species including several types of bream make good eating. Bait is available from the boat harbours and some fishing tackle can be provided, but it is advisable to bring your own if possible. National Park entry and fishing permits are essential and can usually be obtained from your boat harbour at Kariba. Be especially careful when fishing or walking near the shoreline, and never swim in the lake. It has a very large population of crocodiles.
Culture, Legend and Crafts
If you are interested in buying local crafts, you can find attractive African prints, crocheted garments, items of local jewellery, and wood and stone carvings at the Dam Wall Observation Point, at the “look-out” point on top of the hill known as The Heights and at various points along the road into the town.
A famous feature of Kariba craftwork is the intricately-carved wooden walking stick originally designed by an enterprising Kariba artist/entrepreneur in the 1970s. The sticks, which can be found on sale at all the craft stalls are an interesting artistic blend of the ancient legend of Nyaminyami – River God (or Spirit) of the Zambezi and the modern story of the Zambezi’s Tonga people who were displaced by the building of the dam.
The sad reality is that when Kariba Dam was built, the huge body of water that flooded the land upstream of it displaced thousands of the Zambezi valley's original inhabitants, the Tonga, who were evacuated from their ancestral, riverside fishing grounds to a harsh new life in arid farmlands inland to the south of the new lake.
In Tonga tradition, Nyaminyami (a mythical creature with the head of a serpent and the tail of a fish) was a benevolent Spirit, providing for his people in times of drought or flood by offering his flesh for them to eat. However, the building of the Kariba dam angered him and separated from his wife who became trapped downstream during its construction. He vowed to wreak havoc and destroy the wall one day. He had several attempts - two major floods during construction in the 1950s succeeded in breaching the coffer dam and setting back progress for many months. However, the Tonga believe that in the end his wrath was overcome and the wall has held back the waters every since.
The legend of Nyaminyami inspires art, sculpture and craft work in the Kariba area and provides a livelihood for local people selling to the tourism industry. A simple, but beautiful stone Nyaminyami sculpture, strategically positioned at the Kariba Dam Observation Platform has now become a well-known feature in all photographs of the dam taken from this point.
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Kariba Town: hotels, lodges & self-catering options - August 2015
Tourism assistance at Kariba borderpost - March 2015
Fly Air Zimbabwe to Kariba via Vic Falls or Harare - we did! - Aug 2014
Air Zimbabwe flights re-link Kariba with Vic Falls-Harare - July 2014
Kariba Dam Wall is stable, says Zambezi River Authority - March 2014
Tigerfishing on Lake Kariba - Sept 2013
Five reasons why to stay that extra night at Lake Kariba - May 2013
The bell of Santa Barbara - a modern legend in the making! - Oct 2012
Kariba at 50 - a spectacular site! - May 2010
Kariba dam wall is safe and well maintained - Aug 2009