Kariba is the name given to the huge lake which spread 5 200 sq km over the Zambezi River valley after construction of the first major hydro-electric dam was completed in 1959, across Africa's fourth largest river.
The little town which developed haphazardly on the hills surrounding the gorge while the dam was being constructed, has the same name. It is thought to derive from the word Kariwa, used by local Tonga people to describe a distinctive, overhanging rock at the entrance to the narrow gorge across which the dam was built.
Lake Kariba has since become an attractive and popular holiday destination. Its vast expanse of water forms a boundary between Zimbabwe and Zambia; its extensive and attractive shorelines are home to large populations of wildlife and its islands are dotted in a picture-postcard deep blue sea against a backdrop of high escarpment mountain ranges on each side. Big sky sunsets over the lake are legendary, with the calm water turning to golden shot silk in the dusk and the bare branches of its famous drowned trees silhouetted in the foreground.
Kariba is a laid-back holiday playground with a wide choice of activities ideal for families, a hot, tropical climate, fantastic fishing, lots of boating choices houseboats, motorboating, sailing, and watersports and wildlife and safari opportunities second to none.
Its centre of focus is a small and spread-out resort town built among the hills near the dam wall at Kariba gorge. 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 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.
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. 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, a hotel, 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.
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!
Wildlife & fishing
The staggering thing about Kariba is that it is a town 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 kilometers 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.
Most people visiting Kariba set off on boats across the lake for several days stopping off at islands or in the tranquil bays and creeks of the various wildlife areas on the lake's southern shore (including the Matusadona National Park). Here the abundance of wildlife includes all the Big Five mammals (Matusadona is a black rhino sanctuary) and a staggering variety of other animal life and waterbirds.
Fishing is excellent sport in 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.
If you are inexperienced in the wild, it is advisable to ensure that you are accompanied by a qualified and experienced professional guide or National Park's ranger who can ensure your safety and enhance your enjoyment of this magnificent wildlife area. Be especially careful when fishing or walking near the shoreline, and never swim in the lake. Kariba has a very large population of crocodiles.
Local art, culture and legend
The sad reality of Kariba is that the lake displaced a large number of the Zambezi valley's original inhabitants, the Tonga people, 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.
The Tonga were convinced that Nyaminyami, their river god of the Zambezi, angry at the building of the dam, would one day wreak havoc and destroy the wall. 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, in the end his wrath was overcome and the wall has held back the waters every since. The legend of Nyaminyami has inspired art, sculpture and craft work in the Kariba area and provided a livelihood for local people who sell intricately carved wooden walking sticks depicting the snake-like river god. At the western end of the lake around the Binga area, traditional Tonga skills of wood carving and basket-weaving have been developed into thriving industries the products are exported worldwide.
Kariba Dam Wall is stable, says Zambezi River Authority - March 2014
Animal rescue crisis as Lake Kariba rises - June 2010
Kariba at 50 - a spectacular site! - May 2010
Kariba floodgates open - March 2010
Scheduled flights into Kariba at last! - Oct 2009
Kariba dam wall is safe and well maintained - Aug 2009
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