Cruising Lake Kariba out of Victoria Falls

Wild Zambezi • 9 October 2016

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It has long been a frustration for those of us promoting The Zambezi’s wonderful wild areas, that access between Victoria Falls and the wilderness of Lake Kariba is not easy.  This has meant that many visitors have simply missed out on Zimbabwe’s magnificent “inland sea”.

Well... at last there is a solution!
Zambezi Cruise Safaris have just launched luxury cruises on Lake Kariba based out of the little tourist town of Binga, which lies at the western (Victoria Falls) end of the lake.  Visitors can choose from two options:-

BINGA CRUISE:  A 2 night Cruise up the Sengwe River, departing and returning to Binga, with return road transfers between Victoria Falls and Binga included.

FULL LAKE CRUISE:   A 2 night Cruise the length of Lake Kariba between Binga and Kariba Town (via Matusadona National Park) (or vice versa, starting in Kariba and disembarking in Binga).   Road transfers from Selous/Harare to Kariba, and from Binga to Victoria Falls (or vice versa) are included.   This trip offers add-on options of transferring on to Mana Pools or to Pamuzinda Safari Lodge, Selous, near Harare)

Wild Zambezi was fortunate to be invited to sample this wonderful new product in September 2016. 

We chose the Binga Cruise to the Sengwe River and back.  We’d like to share our experience with readers!

Our air-conditioned road transfer minibus arrived promptly at 7.30a.m. to collect us from Bayete Guest Lodge in Victoria Falls where we had spent a very comfortable night.  The transfer to Binga is long, taking several hours, but there are some sites of interest along the way.  These include
the coal-mining town of Hwange (source of much of Zimbabwe’s electricity), the spectacular gorges of the Gwaai River, and the traditional rural villages, homesteads and craftwork of the Tonga people, who originally lived along the Zambezi River, but were forced to move to higher ground and adapt to harsh new living conditions, when Lake Kariba filled after the building of the dam in the late 1950s.  (This poignant episode in colonial history and its consequences on the people of this area, told by a knowledgeable guide, is a story worth listening to). 

On arrival at Binga, our party was met by the crew of the Umbohza  - flagship of the Zambezi Cruise Safaris  fleet, and, along with our luggage, we were transferred swiftly in a couple of small “tender-boats” across a Binga bay to the waiting  mother ship.  After a welcome drink and safety briefing, we were shown to our allotted cabins while the cruise boat started its engines and set off into the vast open waters of Lake Kariba.  

A quick freshen-up in the very comfortable, air-conditioned, en-suite cabins was very welcome.  My cabin was a family room with twin beds and two extra bunks in an alcove to the side, with a private bathroom comprising hot shower, basin and toilet. An ice-cold gin and tonic and sumptuous brunch was then served in the upstairs bar/lounge/dining area as the boat got underway. 

We relaxed into the afternoon, either in the air-conditioned comfort of our luxurious cabins, on loungers at the pool deck in the bows of the boat, on spacious beds outside the lounge-dining area, or in the cool breeze of the upper deck in front of the captain’s wheelhouse, with a magnificent view over the lake.     Mid-afternoon, the boat edged its way gently into the steep-sided, impressive, rocky gorge of the Sengwe River (pictured).    Before the damming of Lake Kariba, this would have been a steep dry river-bed heading down towards a confluence with the Zambezi.  Now, with the waters of the 56-year-old lake flooding it, a perfect, fiord-like cruising experience awaits you!  

This is wild country.   Massive granite and sandstone boulders, impossibly balanced on top of each other tumble down the slopes on either side of the gorge.   In amongst the rocks live small antelope called “klipspringers”  (literally meaning rock jumpers) perfectly adapted to bounding at speed over the hard surfaces of such an environment.  We saw hundreds of little rabbit-sized rock-hyraxes (locally known as “dassies”, the closest known relative to the elephant (believe it or not!), who make their home in the crevices all along the gorge.  

The ghostly white roots of giant creeping fig trees cling to the rock faces.  Dry, leafless and bare at this time of the year (September), the dense woodland on either side of the gorge must be exquisitely beautiful and green during the rainy season (December – April).    We discovered that the birdlife is prolific here – even in “the dry”.  It must be awesome in “the wet” when the summer migrants are in residence.

The Umbohza eased into a rocky mooring spot in the neck of gorge  and the crew quickly prepared one of the vessel’s two “tenderboats”  for us to take a leisurely game-viewing/sundowner cruise up the river , with a well-stocked coolerbox and a delicious spread of snacks.   Some of the party took to the other boat for a spot of fishing (you can either tackle the famous fighting tigerfish, or catch the delicious local bream (tilapia) in these waters).

A good pair of binoculars and a camera are essential for such excursions away from the mothership.

As we motored slowly upstream, sipping our drinks, taking in the scenery and keeping our eyes out for interesting things, we came across several pods of hippos, crocodiles basking on the bank, bushbuck, the aforementioned dassies and klipspringers and a host of water and woodland birds.

(We repeated the same upstream outing in the morning light the next day, with equally rewarding results, including a mother hippo with her tiny just-newborn calf, baboons, white-face ducks, saddle-bill  and yellow-billed storks, several raptors and numerous fisheagles (one with a newly-caught fish)!

Dinner that evening back on board the Umbohza  was served in the dining room.  This was a lively and convivial affair, with an absolutely delicious 3-course meal produced by Head Chef Jan Swart and her kitchen staff.  It was not long before guests retired to their cabins after a long and eventful day.

The next day, after an early morning tenderboat excursion up into the upper reaches of the Sengwe River estuary (as previously mentioned), we set sail in Umbohza out of the gorge and into the open water heading back towards Binga.  We moored among some islands in a spot carefully chosen for its sandy beach – ideal for the planned evening barbeque – and explored the area in the tenderboats,  watching the waterbirds, crocs and hippos as we weaved our way amongst the stark, bare trunks and branches of Lake Kariba’s famous “drowned forests”.  

We drank our sundowners in the beautiful warm glow of one of Kariba’s classic red sunsets, with an uninterrupted view right across the lake towards the Zambian shoreline in the far distance some 30 kilometres away.    Meanwhile, the staff had been working hard to prepare a huge fire on the sandy beach, and on our return to the mothership,  a barbeque feast awaited us!

It was sad to have to return to Binga the next morning for our transfer back to Victoria Falls.  However, before we did so, we took a quick look around Masumu Lodge, an attractive stone-under-thatch hilltop property from which Zambezi Cruise Safaris will be basing its operations in the area.

This is a stunningly located property (currently marketed by Africa Spectacular).  It has a central living area and a pool with magnificent views across the Binga islands and out towards the open Lake.  Several beautifully-appointed private suites and family chalets have similar views, and there is a spacious green and grassy campsite with its own ablutions for self-drivers.   Visitors wanting to embark on a Zambezi Cruise Safaris itinerary, who wish to make their own way to Binga (instead of taking advantage of the minibus transfer from Victoria Falls) will find this an ideal stop-over.   Similarly, future guests of Zambezi Cruise Safaris may well be offered an overnight stay option at this lodge at the beginning or end of their cruise.  They would be well-advised to take advantage of this little gem.

For visitors to Victoria Falls who would like to have a little taste of what Lake Kariba has to offer, as an add-on to their trip, or for those wanting to cross the Lake in order to access the wilderness camps of Mana Pools etc. and to enjoy a luxury cruise on the way, this is a highly recommended new option!

Contact Zambezi Cruise Safaris for more details and rates.


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