Kariba Dam Wall & Observation Point

Kariba Town

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When the vast Kariba Hydro-electric Dam was built across the narrow Kariba Gorge in the late 1950s, it was the largest man-made dam structure in the world.  It is built as a double curvature concrete arch and is still one of the world's largest, standing 128 m (420 ft) tall and 579 m (1,900 ft) wide. 

While its size has now been surpassed by other dam construction since, it's vast lake (280kms long and about 40kms wide) is still the largest human-made reservoir in the world.   

The wall was designed by Coyne et Bellier and constructed between 1955 and 1959 by Impressit of Italy.  86 men lost their lives during construction.  The delightful little Italian-built Church of Santa Barbara, situated on top of Kariba Heights Hill, is dedicated to the memory of these men.

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.

The Kariba Dam is owned and operated by the Zambezi River Authority, which is jointly and equally owned by Zimbabwe and Zambia

Electricity is produced through hydro-electric turbines on both sides of the wall (in the north and south banks of the Zambezi River), and supplies both countries.

A main road linking Zimbabwe with Zambia crosses over the top of the wall and there are Customs and Immigration borderposts on both sides.

Visitor access onto the Kariba Dam wall (without crossing the border) is possible, but you have to gain permission from passport control first at the Zimbabwe borderpost.  This is a simple process and requires leaving a passport or ID document with them while you are visiting the wall, and collecting it on your return. The experience is well worth the effort and time involved.  The site is particularly spectacular if the Kariba Dam floodgates are open and a huge column of water thunders into the Kariba Gorge below. 

If you are short of time, an easier, and quicker option, is to view the dam wall from the Observation Point situated on a hill overlooking it.   Access to the Observation Point is up a short road off to the right at the fuel station on the main road above Kariba (Mahombakombe) before the Zimbabwe borderpost. From the platform at the Observation Point there is wonderful view over the Dam Wall, with a small parking place for cars, some craft sellers selling their wares, and a small interpretative centre manned by the Kariba Publicity Association/Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, which gives some interesting information about the dam itself, and the story of the Tonga people who were displaced when the vast Lake Kariba flooded a vast area of Zambezi Valley behind it. They were re-settled in lands away from the water, but had to leave behind their homes, livelihoods and ancestral burial grounds.   

Anyone interested in the history and drama involved in the building of Kariba Dam and the filling of its lake (which at the time was the largest man-made body of water in the world) should watch a fascinating DVD of historical film footage produced to mark the occasion of dam’s Jubilee Year in 2010. Bill Sykes, a committee member of the History Society of Zimbabwe put together this collection of three historical documentary films entitled "The Captive River", "Operation Noah" and "The Kariba Story". The first two were easily obtained through the archives. But the third is unique in that it was taken throughout the period of the building of the wall by Ian Shand, a prominent Zimbabwean civil engineer with the Department of Water Development who purchased a 16mm camera, and recorded most, if not all, of the events throughout the construction period.   Copies of the DVD can be obtained from Bill Sykes:  rwjsykes@gmail.com


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