History & Legends of Kariba
Lake Kariba was created after the completion of the Kariba Dam in 1959. The dam caused the Zambezi River to flood into the Kariba Gorge – a controversial decision that displaced the Batonga tribes living in the valley. The native wildlife was also adversely affected by the sudden loss of habitat, although the damage was somewhat mitigated by Operation Noah. This initiative saved the lives of over 6,000 animals from endangered rhinos, by using boats to rescue them when they became stranded on islands created by the rising floodwaters.
The lake’s name comes from the Batonga word Kariva, meaning trap. It is thought that it refers to a rock that once protruded from the Zambezi at the entrance to the gorge, which was believed by the Batonga to be the home of the river god Nyaminyami. After the flooding of the valley, the rock was submerged under 100 feet/ 30 meters of water. When extreme floods damaged the dam twice during the construction process, the displaced tribes believed that it was Nyaminyami taking revenge for the destruction of his home.
The Lake’s Geography
The lake’s source, the Zambezi River, is the fourth largest river in Africa. Lake Kariba itself plunges to 320 feet/ 97 meters at its deepest point and in total covers over 2,100 square miles/ 5,500 square kilometers. It is estimated that the mass of its water when full exceeds 200 billion tons. Kariba Dam is located at the northeastern end of the lake, and serves as a major source of electric power, both for Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 1967, huge shoals of kapenta (a small, sardine-like fish) were airlifted to Kariba from Lake Tanganyika.
There are several islands in the lake, the best-known of which include Fothergill, Spurwing, Chete, Chikanka and Antelope islands. On the Zimbabwean side of the lake, there are several protected wildlife areas. The ones that most frequently feature on Lake Kariba itineraries are Matusadona National Park, Charara Safari Area and Chete Safari Area.
Before the gorge was flooded, the land that would become the lake bed was razed, releasing important nutrients into the earth – and later, the lake. This foresight is responsible in large part for the impressive biodiversity of the lake today. Along with the kapenta, several other fish species have been introduced to Lake Kariba: but the most famous of its piscine residents is the mighty tiger fish. An indigenous species, the razor-toothed tigerfish is revered around the world for its strength and ferocity. These traits make it one of the most sought-after game fish species on the continent.
Top Activities on Lake Kariba
Of course, many of Kariba’s top attractions revolve around its wildlife. In particular, tiger fishing is a major draw, and many lodges and houseboats offer dedicated tiger fishing trips and/ or guides. The most established of these will have rods and tackle for rent, but it’s always best to bring your own if you have it. In October, the lake hosts the Kariba Invitation Tiger Fish Tournament. Zimbabwe’s record tiger fish was caught at Kariba in 2001, weighing in at a whopping 35.4 pounds/ 16.1 kilograms. Tilapia and bream species complete Kariba’s fishing attractions.
Getting There & How to Explore
There are several towns from which to start your Kariba adventure. On the Zimbabwean side, the largest tourism center is Kariba Town, located at the northern end of the lake. At the southern end, Binga and Milibizi also offer several charter and accommodation options. On the Zambian side, the main gateways to Kariba are Siavonga in the north, and Sinazongwe further south. If you’re arriving by air, your best bet is to fly into Harare in Zimbabwe, and then transfer to Kariba Town – either by road (five hours), or by air (one hour). Note that flights to Kariba Town are charters.
Lake Kariba Weather
Lake Kariba is generally hot all year round. The hottest weather is during the southern hemisphere summer (October to April), with peak humidity occurring with the start of the rainy season in October. The rains usually last until April. However, it should be noted that they often take the form of short, intense afternoon thunderstorms interspersed with periods of sunshine. During August and September, high winds often make the lake choppy. Those susceptible to seasickness should, therefore, try to avoid these two months.